May 4, 2023

The Birth of Rolls-Royce

The Birth of Rolls-Royce

May 4, 1904. Automotive pioneers Charles Rolls and Henry Royce meet in Manchester, England and decide to go into business, forming Rolls-Royce.


Cold Open

It’s May 4th, 1904 at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, England.

Businessman Charles Rolls paces back and forth in the hotel lobby. He’s dressed in a fine suit, his hair slicked back with pomade. Charles is a wealthy man, courtesy of family money and his own business ventures. He’s a man of action, and he is impatient to get on with his upcoming meeting.

Just as Charles checks his watch again, engineer Henry Royce enters the hotel lobby. A short, stocky man with a thick beard and mustache, Henry is dressed in a plain simple suit. Unlike Charles, Henry comes from a poor background. But he carries himself with the air of a man confident in his abilities.

The two men shake hands, and Charles leads Henry to a table in the corner of the lobby. As they sit down, Henry eyes his counterpart apprehensively. Charles looks young to him, and indeed Charles is young — at just 26, he’s 14 years Henry’s junior. But he has important resources to offer the engineer.

Henry has just built a new car, but he needs someone wealthy and well-connected to help manufacture and sell it. Charles is an affluent automobile salesperson and seems like the perfect person to help Henry. So as the men discuss a possible business partnership, Henry is happy to find they hit it off. By the end of their meeting, Charles is more than ready to join forces. But to really ensure his buy-in, Henry decides to give his product the chance to speak for itself.

Henry gestures for Charles to stand and escorts him outside where the car in question is waiting on the street.

As he starts the vehicle, Charles marvels at its workmanship and the quiet hum of its engine. With a grin, Henry invites Charles to hop into the driver’s seat and experience its brilliant handling and reliability for himself.

Charles obliges, agreeing to drive the car back to his native London to truly put its capabilities to the test. As Henry waves him off and Charles sets off down the road, both men have a smile plastered on their faces, certain that today is the beginning of a very prosperous future.

Charles Rolls and Henry Royce’s initial meeting in Manchester will mark the beginning of the partnership behind one of the most recognized luxury car brands in the world. After a remarkably smooth drive back to London, Charles Rolls will proclaim to have found in Henry Royce the greatest motor engineer in the world. With Charles’s business acumen and Henry’s engineering skills, the two men will prove an indomitable pairing. They will break into the automobile industry with the formation of the company now known as Rolls-Royce mere months after their agreement to go into business together on May 4th, 1904.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 4th, 1904: The Birth of Rolls Royce.

Act One: The Partnership Begins

It’s April 1st, 1904, in Manchester, England, one month before Henry Royce will meet Charles Rolls.

On the floor of his factory, Henry steps into the vehicle he's just finished building. It’s the first and only car that Henry has ever assembled. But he has high hopes that it could be better than anything on the market.

For the last 20 years, Henry has lived for moments like this. He loves nothing better than identifying the best products out there and making them even better. After opening his factory in 1884, Henry went into business perfecting and selling various electrical goods, before stumbling upon his newest passion: cars.

When he bought a French automobile two years ago, Henry was struck by its shortcomings. He wanted to use it to enjoy drives through the countryside, but the car kept breaking down. Despite being one the most popular on the market and one of the most successful in races, the car Henry proved noisy and temperamental. Its frequent breakdowns and annoying vibration of its engine were enough to spur Henry into action.

A lifelong perfectionist with an unbeatable work ethic, Henry was convinced that he could improve upon the car. So, in the corner of his factory, he set about dismantling the automobile, inspecting its parts, and identifying refinements. Then he spent months building a new and improved version. Among other alterations, by using lighter mechanical components, Henry hopes to have completely eliminated the engine’s vibration — a feat that no other engineer has seemed able to accomplish.

Now today, after months of work, Henry's finally ready to put his creation to the test. His factory staff turn and watch with anticipation as their boss gets behind the wheel and the car’s engine roars to life. As Henry accelerates forward, a small smile spreads across his face — the engine’s vibrations are gone. As he drives out the factory’s open garage door and onto the street, his car runs smoother and quieter, than his French model ever did.

When he returns back to the factory floor, Henry’s staff greets him with applause and cheers. Even from outside the vehicle, they can tell that the car and the exceptionally gentle hum of its engine is superior to anything they’ve encountered before.

As they celebrate this achievement, Henry steps out of the car and hit by a sudden lightheadedness quickly finds a seat. He knows this feeling well; it’s a common symptom of his workaholic tendencies that barely leave him enough time to sleep or eat. Even without a special project to work on, Henry often spends the whole day and much of the night working — all in the name of excellence. Henry has dedicated his life to making the best products possible, a pursuit that has taken a toll on his health.

Coming from a poor family, he’s always had to work hard to make ends meet. But Henry has done more than just get by. No matter his job, he’s always gone beyond the call of duty to produce the best results possible, living by the motto, “Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble.”

Between his deeply-ingrained work ethic and his perfectionist nature, Henry’s perpetual exhaustion is no surprise. Two years ago, Henry was so overworked that he collapsed. But Henry refuses to ever compromise the high standards he sets for himself and his products. For him, chronic fatigue or a bout of lightheadedness are necessary sacrifices. Moments like today make all the lost sleep worth it.

His car ran as well as he could’ve hoped for, and he can’t wait to bring it to market. But to do that, Henry knows he needs a partner. While he may have all the engineering skills to assemble a top-of-the-line vehicle, Henry lacks the connections and resources to manufacture and sell it. But, lucky for him, a friend thinks he knows just the man for that job.

So soon, a meeting is arranged between Henry Royce and Charles Rolls. When the two men meet at the Midland Hotel, they are ecstatic to find in each other exactly what they’ve been looking for. An aristocratic car salesman, Charles’s network of wealthy acquaintances make the perfect consumer base for Henry’s vehicle.

Henry’s new car fulfills Charles’s long-held desire for a British car model. For years, the businessman has resented France’s dominance in the automobile industry. But he was never able to find a quality British manufacturer until he met Henry.

So at the Midland Hotel on May 4th, 1904, the two men will agree to go into business together, giving rise to a partnership soon formalized with the creation of C.S. Rolls & Company, which will be later renamed Rolls-Royce. Their pairing will prove fruitful. While Henry will provide the technical expertise, Charles will bring in the customers and bankroll the project. And despite their different backgrounds, the two men will take to each other instantly and hit the ground running, fully prepared to take the auto industry by storm.

Act Two: From the Ground to the Heavens

It’s December 1904 at the Grand Palais in Paris, France where a motor show is underway.

Curious spectators mill around the exhibition hall, examining the latest advances in the automotive industry. As usual, most of the room is filled with French products. But for once, a display of British cars is catching everyone’s attention. Open-topped models with gleaming exteriors and red leathered inside telegraph excellent design and workmanship.

The three cars are the product of seven months of work between Charles Rolls and Henry Royce. Since joining forces in May of this year, the partners have developed several different models, all on display today.

Since joining forces, Charles and Henry have been able to quickly churn out some of the most impressive cars on the market. Their models receive rave reviews at the Paris motor show, with the age’s leading auto magazine hailing the British manufacturers for their impressive design and workmanship which allows their models to stand out even in the midst of France’s best.

But Charles and Henry’s real breakthrough happens two years after their motor show debut, when the men, now going by the company name of Rolls-Royce, unveil their newest offering, the Silver Ghost.

The car is exquisite. Coated in real silver and aluminum, it’s as eye-catching as it is functional. By the day’s standards, it’s unbelievably reliable and refined. It easily passes a 15,000-mile endurance trial. And its running engine is even able to balance a brimmed glass of water without spilling a drop. In 1907, Autocar magazine declares it the best car in the world.

And the Silver Ghost rakes in profits large enough to fully sustain the company and it becomes the only car model sold by Rolls-Royce for over 15 years. But while Henry enjoys the car’s success, Charles grows restless to explore and try new things. Increasingly, his attention is drawn to a new interest: aviation.

After the creation of the Silver Ghost, Charles implores Henry to design an airplane engine. But Henry is reluctant. He’s not sure he can make the best aviation products, and he’s not willing to make anything other than the best. So, while Henry keeps the company focused on the auto industry, Charles pursues his passion for aviation on the side. 

In 1909, he buys the Wright Brothers’ Flyer aircraft. Over the next year, he makes over 200 flights. Charles even becomes the first person to make a nonstop double crossing of the English Channel in 1910. But just one month after that feat, tragedy strikes.

While conducting a flying display in England, the tail of his airplane breaks off, horrifying spectators and sending Charles plummeting to the ground. At 32 years old, he becomes the first Briton to die in a plane crash.

Without his partner at his side, Henry works even harder to ensure the company’s success and uphold their shared vision for Rolls-Royce. But the year after Charles’s death, Henry’s health breaks down and he collapses from exhaustion for the second time.

Shortly after, company officials entice Henry to step away from the stress of the factory floor. And reluctantly, Henry agrees. He keeps his convalescence brief but opts to continue working from home, running the business and designing products out of his residences on the English coast and the south of France.

For the next few years, Henry keeps the company focused on the Silver Ghost, making minor alterations to improve the model even further. But in 1914, the outbreak of World War I changes the trajectory of Rolls-Royce, finally forcing Henry to pivot into aviation.

As fighting breaks out, the War Office persuades Henry to start designing and producing aircraft engines. And by the war’s conclusion, Rolls-Royce ends up supplying engines for 60 percent of Britain’s military aircraft. And even after wartime, the company continues its work in the aviation industry, while also developing new car models for the first time in over a decade.

As the years wear on, Henry will remain at the helm of Rolls-Royce with his perfectionist instincts informing the company’s business philosophies. Even as Rolls Royce establishes itself as a leader in both the automotive and aviation industries, Henry will refuse to let up, expending all of his energy to ensure the company’s lasting success, all the way up to his dying breath.

Act Three: Till Death Do Us Part

It’s the night of April 21st, 1933, at Henry Royce’s home in West Sussex, England.

The 70-year-old engineer lies in bed, eyes barely open, and with a nurse at his side.

The effects of poor nutrition and a lifetime of overwork have caught up to Henry. After years spent toiling at factories and then at his home offices, Henry is now bedridden. But even as his health fails him, he's still working.

Today’s project is an innovative adjustable shock absorber. Too weak to write, Henry instructs his nurse on how to sketch the device and what notes to make. Periodically, he checks her work until, finally satisfied with the result, he tells her to send the diagram to the boys in the factory. Then he closes his eyes and drifts off to sleep.

That shock absorber is Henry’s last innovation. The following day, before his design even reaches the factory, Henry passes away.

His death will be a great loss to both his company and his country. For his impact on the automotive industry and his services to English manufacturing, Henry will be given a memorial window in Westminster Abbey in 1962 — the first and only time an engineer has received this honor.

And within Rolls-Royce, Henry’s influence will be felt for decades to come. In the wake of his death, Rolls-Royce will continue to prioritize and adhere to the values of its founder. Both Henry’s inextinguishable work ethic and uncompromising pursuit of perfection will live on in the company’s ethos. By the time of Henry’s death, the Rolls-Royce brand will be synonymous with luxury, elegance, and quality. But, even in his absence, the company will hold onto this reputation, becoming one of the world’s most iconic luxury car manufacturers in the world by embodying the values and vision set forth more than a century ago when Charles Rolls and Henry Royce first established their partnership on May 4th, 1904.


Next on History Daily. May 5th, 1862. Following the French invasion of Mexico, Mexican soldiers succeed in defending the town of Puebla, sealing a victory that will be commemorated by the national holiday, Cinco de Mayo.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound Design by Katrina Zemrak.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.