A Rolls-Royce Occasion
The Chairman and Directors of Rolls-Royce Motors Ltd. gave a luncheon at the Midland Hotel, Manchester, on May 22nd to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the meeting there between the Hon. C. S. Rolls and Mr. Henry Royce, from which stemmed the Rolls-Royce motor car. A very big concourse of people sat down to luncheon on this historic day, mostly R-R personnel, mainly from the Crewe offices and factories. The assembly would have been even bigger had a party from London not been stranded when their train was stopped by faulty points – Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, whose father had opened the new R-R factory in Derby in 1908, was amongst those who never made it, ironical in view of the fact that he is the founder of the National Motor Museum. This unforeseen happening to those travelling by British Rail caused someone to remark that had trains been similarly unreliable in 1904 the cause of the motorcar would have advanced more quickly.
Believing that the motoring writers should use cars whenever possible but not having a Rolls-Royce at my disposal, I made the journey from Mid-Wales to Manchester in a Vauxhall Royale, which was in some ways appropriate, because David Plastow, Rolls-Royce Motors’ Group Managing Director, served his apprenticeship with Vauxhall’s. The journey was relatively easy, for Manchester is well served by motorways that are not too far from its centre. Having located the Midland Hotel, I discovered that the old main-line railway station opposite it was converted some dozen years ago into a vast glass-floored public car-park, in which you park your car on the one-time platforms or where the track used to be, an admirable and not over-priced facility.
Crossing the road, there was the hotel entrance which I think Rolls and Royce would have used in 1904, on the occasion of their historic meeting, although nowadays one has to walk round the block to the modernised side of the Hotel. Apart from having followed a vintage Bentley in which Hugh Harben, one-time Chairman of the Bentley DC, had arrived, and seeing here and there a few discreetly-parked Silver Shadows, there was not much evidence that an historic occasion had been remembered in the northern city. Not, that is, until Press photographers gathered at the Hotel entrance to film Sir Barrie Heath, DFC, arriving in the Triplex Glass-owned 1924 boat-decked 40/50 Rolls-Royce tourer, hood erect, whose chauffeur confided to me that is still has a difficult gear-change. Incidentally, at the time when Rolls came to Manchester to meet Royce, the Hotel was known as the Great Central; we were to lunch in the same room, as far as anyone could tell, in which the historic introductions took place. The only adornments were papier-maché busts of Rolls and Royce – it would have been nice if a 1904 Royce car could have been present, of the kind that convinced the Hon. Charles that this was the one he wanted to sell. Incidentally, both he and Henry Edmunds, who had brought about the meeting with Royce, travelled up from London to Manchester the day before the meeting by train, more successfully than British Rail managed for its passengers 75 years later . . .
The hotel bar was crowded before lunch with aged R-R personnel among whom I was introduced to Dick Garner, who was riding mechanic to Kaye Don on the record-breaking boat “Miss England” and who told me he went round Brooklands with Don in the 4.9-litre Bugatti, a thrill still vividly remembered. After lunch, at which the toasts were drunk in Reuilly, 1976, and Chateau Jean-Faure, 1970, Mr I. J Fraser, CBE, MC, Chairman of Rolls-Royce Motors proposed Our Guests and Sir Barrie Heath, DFC, President of the SMM&T, replied. Mr. Fraser first outlined the history of Rolls-Royce, from which emerged some fresh facts. He said, for instance, that no-one present would remember the young Charlie Rolls, but that his mother used to know him and described him as “very good-looking and altogether a smart young blade”. Rolls was keen on Mr. Fraser’s aunt Lily, but nothing came of it. That was when Rolls stayed at their house in Hertfordshire and he once took Mrs. Fraser for a spin – in a De Dion Bouton.
On financial matters, Mr. Fraser reminded us that C. S. Rolls & Co. was advertising a 30 h.p. Barker-bodied six cylinder limousine for £1,000 in 1907 (surely in 1905?) and that if a golden sovereign is now worth £40 the present Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II is a less-expensive car than the 1907 Silver Ghost. The original R-R Company was started with only £60,000, of which £10,000 was stumped-up by Henry Briggs (later of Briggs Motor Bodies) after the closing date. “For some extraordinary reason”, said Mr. Fraser, “they refused to employ any merchant bankers to underwrite the issue” – laughter. The Chairman then spoke honestly of the Company’s uncomfortable and even disastrous years, “resuscitated by technical achievement”. . . . “Alcock and Brown”, he reminded us, “flew the Atlantic in an R-R Eagle-engined Vickers Vimy in 1919, when Lindbergh was still a cadet officer”.
Later achievements, he recalled, included “the Schneider Trophy victories, the record-breaking achievements off Kaye Don in ‘Miss England’,” and a “whole row of land-speed record-breakers” – but Sir Malcolm Campbell (301.129 m.p.h. in 1935 with the R-type engine), and Capt. George Eyston (357.5 m.p.h. in 1938 with two R-type engines) did not receive individual mention. Of the R-type engine Mr. Fraser told an amusing story, after having remarked that no one over 40 needed to be reminded that the Merlin aero-engine (which evolved directly from the R-type Schneider Trophy racing engine) was what enabled the RAF to save Britain in 1940. (I have often made this point in these pages, even to writing a little couplet about the playing fields of Eton and Calshot water, of which I will spare you a repetition here!) Mr. Fraser’s story concerned the fact that the outright Schneider Trophy victory of 1931 was only possible because Lady Houston put of £100,000 – “call it £3-million today” – for the Supermarine seaplanes to be built. What is not in the R-R annals is that a Liverpool Scot called Robert Houston made a fortune out of steam boilers, got a baronetcy, and retired to Jersey as an early tax-exile. He married and his widow, Lady Houston, inherited £15-million tax-free, by today’s values. Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, didn’t at all care for this, and threatened a gun-boat (“he was very fond of gunboats”), but the Jersey Government refused to be intimidated. The outcome was, according to Mr. Fraser, that Lady Houston made winning of the Schneider Trophy for Britain possible, and therefore our victory in the Battle-of-Britain which changed the course of history was due to a tax-dodger’s widow, but, he added, “I have not the slightest doubt that if the money had flowed instead into the British Treasury, neither Jimmy Thomas nor Neville Chamberlain would have spent it on the development of a certain 12-cylinder water-cooled vee-configuration aero-engine that was rather important to our survival”. To which I would add that Lady Houston, a great patriot, never got any return at the time for her investment in the future of British Air Power. I remember how The Aeroplane used to ask repeatedly after the race who owned the racing seaplanes she had so generously paid for. . . .
Mr. Fraser closed his speech by saying that after the failure of the Aero-Engine side of Rolls-Royce in 1971 it was the Receiver, Rupert Nicholson, who saved the car business, by floating it off onto the private sector as an independent entity. “This” said Mr. Fraser, “was one of the most original and courageous decisions taken in British Company history.” He hoped that Mr. Nicholson would feel that his wisdom, foresight and courage had been justified – inasmuch as since then Rolls-Royce Motors Ltd. has increased its turnover from £35,000,000 to £150,000,000 and that last year’s pre-tax profit was more than £14,000,000. The Chairman said that when he was asked to take over in 1977 he knew nothing about cars or about Roll-Royce. “You soon will”, he was told, “because I insist that you always drive in a Rolls-Royce.” This he has now done for eight years and he has been glad to find that, instead of sneers of contempt, wherever he has taken his Rolls-Royce he has “always observed that the casual passer-by’s eye lights up whenever he sees this most typical of premium English products.” (I am sure that this is so and I am gratified that it is, as common sense must make it, but I feel compelled to say that should I ever have to drive past hostile picket-lines, I think I would prefer to be in a plain black Escort or Cortina . . . !) Finally, Mr. Fraser announced that to mark the Anniversary we were celebrating, his Company his producing 75 Rolls-Royces each for the home and export markets, with the red radiator badge not used since the death in 1935 of Sir Henry, special paint and trim, and a commemorative plaque, so that in time these cars will become much sought after by collectors. (I can only add that, apart from the fact that the red edging to the R-R badge was dropped for cosmetic, not for funeral, reasons, one might expect people to buy a new Rolls-Royce for a lifetime, not just for passing on to this highest bidder . . . )
Sir Barrie Heath, DFC, Chairman of GKN, as well as President of the SMM&T, replied in a light-hearted address. He said he had never been able to afford his own Rolls-Royce but knew them from his Company’s cars. His father had distributorships for Model-T Fords and Rolls-Royces in the same county, “and made plenty of money from both”. He had learned to drive on one of the first 20 h.p. Rolls-Royce models, and looking down he couldn’t see the gear lever because it was up his trouser leg; now he cannot see the gear lever for another reason (he has grown stouter). This marks the year as about 1925. His father owned several Rolls-Royces, he told us. They seem to have had exotic upholstery and paint jobs, and were driven to the South of France. Just before and during the war Sir Barrie flew Spitfires, in the Battle-of-Britain, in France, and in the Near East and their Rolls-Royce Merlin engines had never once let him down. He had the greatest respect for all R-R products and his Company had begun to supply Rolls-Royce Ltd. with components a long time ago. (In view of the one-time policy of R-R of making almost all their own parts, it is interesting that Sir Barrie referred especially to Sankey wheels in 1910 and bodies at a later date.) When he was applauded, following his references to RAF service, he smiled impishly and said “Forgive me – I should also say that I had a jolly good time.”
So a memorable occasion ran to its close and as we filed out it was to find that the publishers of two weekly motor journals, which were running special R-R supplements, had put their publication schedule forward by a day and were giving away free copies – which is one way of ensuring that those who are most likely to be interested will read you! There was also a good Press-kit, containing a page from The Daily Telegraph of May 23rd, 1904, which makes no mention of the Roll/Royce get-together, labelled “The Scoop the ‘Telegraph’ Missed.” This layout says that “engine failure gained C. S. Rolls the melancholy distinction of being the first Englishman to be killed (in 1910) in a powered aircraft” – actually, it was not the engine of his Wright biplane which failed but the tail-plane, said by some to have been the only part he didn’t check after his machine had been rigged for the fatal spot-landing competition. There is also the statement that “ . . . every Rolls-Royce car incorporates one part designed by Henry Royce himself. It is there, not for sentimental reasons, but because nobody has been able to design anything better.” Your guess is as good as mine! Perhaps parts of the facia switch-gear? Another souvenir given away was a copy of the 1905 C. S. Rolls & Co. catalogue-brochure – larger in size, however, than an original in my possession. – W. B