On 4 May 1904, the Honorable Charles Stewart Rolls travelled from London to the Midland Hotel in Manchester, England.
Following the advice of fellow Automobile Club Member Henry Edmunds, Rolls had arranged to meet an engineer named Henry Royce. He was a man whose British-built motorcars were said to embody qualities of refinement and silence, the very qualities Rolls eagerly sought in the cars sold through his London-based business, CS Rolls and Co.
The meeting took place at a time when public support for the motorcar had yet to be won, and when the first flying machines had taken to the skies, courtesy of the Wright Brothers in December 1903.
It ended with Rolls returning to London in a borrowed Royce car, waking his business partner Claude Johnson at midnight and proclaiming to have “found the greatest motor engineer in the world”.
Few would have guessed this event would begin a partnership that today stands as a symbol for something special in the respective fields of motoring and aviation. For the grilles of the finest motor cars in the world still wear the interlinked double-R badge of Rolls and Royce, as do the engines of thousands of jet aircraft.
The story of the engineering genius behind Rolls-Royce is well documented. Sir Henry Royce was a workaholic and perfectionist. His dedication to everything you do still echoes around the Home of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in Goodwood today.
Yet in some historic records, Rolls’ contribution is less well defined, possibly because he died so young. Sometimes characterized as a playboy or aristocrat, his influence can be overlooked in the shadow of his partner’s imposing reputation.
But while it is true that Rolls hailed from a privileged background – born on August 27, 1877, the son of Lord and Lady Llangattock of Monmouthshire – his story is arguably more colorful than that of his elder partner.
For the achievements of Charles Stewart Rolls in just 32 years tower over most who live three times as long.
Racing driver, accomplished balloonist and the second person in Britain to hold a pilot’s license, Rolls was both brilliant and fearless. He lodged patents for gas engine designs and was rumored to have developed his own aircraft in the sheds at Brooklands, England. Driven by a passion for motoring at the turn of the century, he saw limitless potential in powered flight as its first decade progressed.
As a young man Rolls studied mechanics and electronics and, like Royce, was fascinated by advances in engineering. His penchant for tinkering with imported European cars earned him the nickname Dirty Rolls among his peers.
Even before the famous meeting in 1904, the name Charles Stewart Rolls would have been known to Henry Royce thanks to his reputation as a skilled motor racer. He held the unofficial land speed record in 1903, piloting his 80hp Mors to nearly 83mph along the course in the Duke of Portland’s Clipstone Park.
In his first race in France in 1899 – Paris to Boulogne – Rolls finished fourth in the tourist class, driving an 8hp Panhard and Levassor. In 1903 he competed in the fateful Paris to Madrid town-to-town, an event in which 34 drivers and spectators were killed.
Following the formation of Rolls-Royce, Rolls turned his attention to the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. After frustration in 1905 he returned in 1906, winning in a Rolls-Royce Light Twenty. Upon receiving the news, staff at the Rolls-Royce plant in Derby hoisted Henry Royce aloft in triumph!
Rolls was also a shrewd businessman who recognized the power of marketing and public relations. In his role of Technical Director at Rolls-Royce Ltd, he exploited connections in the world of politics, media and royal circles. Working alongside managing director Claude Johnson, he knew how to work a strong story.
He supported Johnson in realizing the potential of the 1906 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, a car of exquisite beauty, quality and refinement, its parts coated in real silver and aluminum. It completed a 15000-mile endurance trial, emerging virtually unscathed by the experience, an incredible feat for its day.
Rolls famously enjoyed demonstrating the Silver Ghost’s refinement to crowds, carefully balancing a brimmed glass of water on the running engine and watching the stunned reaction as it failed to spill a drop.
Having helped develop cars that ran endlessly without fault, Rolls’ attention turned to the air. He was one of the founding fathers of the Aero Club and made hundreds of recorded ascents in balloons. On his first flight in a powered airship, the Ville de Paris in 1907, he described the experience as, “something worth living for; it was the conquest of the air”.
By this time, Rolls had met the Wright Brothers in New York. He subsequently described himself as a frequent trespasser at the Camp d’Auvours near Le Mans in France where the Americans had taken to demonstrating their famous flying machine.
One morning, Mr Wright quietly offered Charles Rolls the opportunity he had been patiently seeking: “Mr Rolls, I guess I’ll take you up this morning,” he said.
The effect of this first flight in 1908 was profound. Returning to earth, Rolls described his experience: “The power of flight is as a fresh gift from the Creator, the greatest treasure yet given to man.’’
Thereafter, Rolls commissioned the Short Brothers of Battersea to build him first a glider, then a powered aircraft based on the Wright Brothers’ plans and parts.
He taught himself to fly, crashing several times while learning. He flew displays and exhibitions, before gaining a world record that won him a place in aviation history, as well as the adulation of the British public.
Louis Bleriot had become the first to cross the English Channel in a powered aircraft in 1909, but Rolls took this accomplishment a step further. On June 2,1910 in a journey of 90 minutes and covering 50 miles, he flew to France and back non-stop. King George sent a personal message of congratulations and one newspaper hailed Rolls as ‘the greatest hero of the day’.
By then, Rolls had resigned his position as Technical Director of Rolls-Royce and became devoted exclusively to flying, quipping that he preferred it to driving because “there are no policemen in the air.”
Sadly, the story ended in tragedy. At an air show in Bournemouth, while Rolls pushed his Wright Flyer to the limit, disaster struck. In high winds and during a demonstration of landing skills, spectators heard a cracking noise, then watched as tail parts fell from his aircraft.
Plunging 70 feet, the Wright Flyer threw the 32 year-old clear. He died shortly after – the first British aviation casualty.
While Rolls’ life may have ended suddenly and tragically, his legacy lives on. Before meeting Royce he professed a desire to have a motorcar connected with his name in the same way that Steinway was connected to pianos. And thanks to the on-going tradition of building the finest, hand-built models, this aspiration continues to be true.
Rolls was a great pioneer, “the stuff of which the best Englishmen are made,” as one friend put it shortly after his death. Driven by passion, vision and courage, his contribution to the success of the Rolls-Royce brand – on wheels and in the air – cannot and should not be understated.