A visit to Rolls-Royce

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[I found it as hard to resist the invitation to visit the Rolls-Royce Motor Car Division at Crewe when it came as Alice found it impossible not to go to Wonderland. The R.-R. door had been shut on us for so long that we had little knowledge of modern Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars or of the company’s factory methods. The last of their press cars road-tested by “Motor Sport” was a 4.9-litre Bentley S-series, in 1956.

Being cognisant with most of the important car-producing plants of Britain and Europe, I began to wonder if Rolls-Royce were getting out-moded in technical matters; if, in fact, the R.-R. image was fading. Pre-war and war-time Rolls-Royces and Bentleys I knew about; the post-war models remained a mystery, in spite of my desire to become acquainted with them and see how they were put together.

Last month, however, the obscuring clouds dissolved and, after being driven to Crewe very quietly but swiftly by D. E. A. Miller-Williams, Rolls-Royce’s Public Relations Officer, in a Silver Cloud III (the 2-ton car cruised silently up M1 at a steady 100 m.p.h.), much was revealed to me. What follows are my impressions of this visit to the Rolls-Royce factory and the answers which their Chief Engineer gave to questions I put to him.—Ed.]

Quidvis Recte Factum Quarnvis Humile Praeclarurn

The factory at Crewe, where present-day Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars are created, was built in 1938 for the production of Rolls-Royce Merlin aero-engines. It covers about a million sq. feet and the Motor Car Division took it over in 1945.

Rolls-Royce no longer have a full-scale foundry or forge, their forgings being bought out, but test pieces are taken of all the bar stock delivered to them, and in the case of crankshafts, such samples are retained after checks have been made, as a safety measure applicable to each individual component.

Apart from car production, Crewe is concerned with the manufacture of Continental light aero engines, the B-range of Rolls-Royce industrial petrol engines and the K-range of multi-fuel opposed-piston, two-stroke power units. There is a small foundry there, where the immortal “Spirit of Ecstasy” mascots and aero-engine gas-turbine parts are cast.

The standard steel saloon bodies for the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III and Bentley S3 are brought in from Pressed Steel and each body shell is subjected to an elaborate process of checking, and preparation for painting, on a floor-level conveyor known as the White Line. From the good commercial finish of the shell as delivered the bodies are made to conform to the exacting R.-R. standard, by unhurried rubbing down, filing and general smoothing off. Any modifications which special fittings necessitate are incorporated at this stage. Incidentally, the doors, boot-lids and bonnet tops are of light-alloy and these components come unfitted, so that their exact fit is the responsibility of Rolls-Royce.

In the case of the special coachwork models the chassis are sent on transporters to H. J. Mulliner, Park Ward and James Young and final testing is done on the finished product from the R.-R. Lille Hall depot in London.

Two years ago Rolls-Royce installed, in a spacious shop entirely devoted to it, a new paint plant, whereby the most modern spray-painting techniques are allied to the great traditions of hand-finish coach painting. Each body shell progresses twice around this paint shop on a single conveyor. A body may remain here for as long as three weeks, while fifty skilled operatives see that it is properly rust-proofed and painted. The time taken depends on the stipulations of the paint laboratory as to how long a particular paint needs baking. At the time of my visit the line was moving every 50 minutes and stoving occupied a full minute. The bodies pass through bays labelled “Emulsion Wash, “Cold Rinse,” “Bonderising Coat,” “Dry-Off Oven,” etc. After a first coat of acid ex-primer the body is completely immersed in the only water-soluble primer bath in use in this country, is dried at a temperature of 200ºF., receives a coat of brown, then orange filler, is oven baked at 300ºF., all joints are then sealed and the body painted with bitumen underseal, after which a “guide coat ” of black is applied and rubbed down to reveal highspots and blemishes, and finally the body is sprayed in one of the sixteen available standard colours, or any other colour to the customer’s choice. The exact depth of filler applied (7 to 10-thou.) and depth of paint finish is checked by a magnetic process on every 10th or 20th body shell emerging from the paint shop. The final rubbing down process is thorough in the extreme.

Rolls-Royce make their own stainless steel window surrounds, hand-polished, and their own brass screen frames, plated at the factory.

The wood-working shop is almost beyond belief, yet typical of the care and craftsmanship you encounter throughout the works.

In the charge of George Williams, it is here in this spacious, unhurried part of a vast hall, that all the wood fittings of R.-R. and Bentley cars are made, with greater skill and care than you would encounter in many quality furniture factories. Burr walnut, American flat walnut, Honduras mahogany and English ash are formed into the facia panels, glove-locker lids, picnic tables, screen surrounds and window cappings of these fine cars. The timber is stored underground to preserve its moisture content, every piece is tested before use, cement is used for joining the sections as it is preferable to glue and the greatest pains are taken to match veneers at opposite sides of a panel or on matching parts of the car. This is but one item in which a Rolls-Royce or Bentley differs from other cars in which wood forms a dignified interior decor.

Small parts are joined in hand presses, larger parts are cemented in a Schubert press in which temperature-regulation is facilitated by thermo-couple readings. Veneering is applied to the invisible parts as well as forming the highly-polished and attractive outer surface, in order to prevent the wood bowing, three coats of lacquer are applied, the component is then heated to 110-140°F. at standard humidity to drive out damp, after which two more coats of lacquer are applied. No colouring is used and customers have a choice of these natural, highly-polished veneers.

Chassis frames come from Thompson’s as substantial, very rigid box-section, cruciform-braced structures, a partial vacuum having been created within the boxed side-members to cheat corrosion. The alignment of each chassis is checked on jigs and surface tables and its components are built onto it in one vast, airy, lightly-populated shop as it progresses slowly from stage to stage on a single floor-level line, moved by hand as required.

Rolls-Royce still manufacture many of these chassis components. The front and back shock-absorbers, for instance, are built up in the chassis-assembly shop, although the castings for the shock-absorber bodies are bought out. Every one of these shock-absorbers is tested for reaction to bounce and rebound. The back-axles are also of Rolls-Royce manufacture, the drive gears being ground as a pair and the casings bolted together with multiple bolts reminiscent of the Silver Ghost days. Propeller shafts are balanced separately in front and rear assemblies and again as complete assemblies. The 1/2-elliptic rear road springs are matched, each one having on its gaiter a plate giving its free and loaded camber and poundage for this purpose. The gaiters retain grease that is sufficient to lubricate the spring for 100,000 miles or more. The road wheels can be shod with Avon, Dunlop or Firestone tyres, to customers’ choice, if specified at the time of ordering. The famous Rolls-Royce gearbox-driven servo brake is built up by hand like all the other main chassis components and each brake-clutch is tested for pull on a rig comprising a Ritespeed electric motor and a Salter spring balance.

All these components are assembled on the left of the chassis line and brought to it for attachment to the chassis, which is gradually becoming a complete Rolls-Royce.

Two factors must by now have impressed even the most unobservant visitor to Crewe. One is the amount of free space everywhere, available for expansion. The R.-R. factory is not a modern, tight-packed, highly-mechanised plant. The devoted dedication of the operatives, almost entirely male except in the body-trimming shop, as they go about their tasks, quite immune to outside distractions, and the unflurried, skilled approach to their work, is typical of a company which likes to regulate output to a 5-day week with a reasonable amount of overtime, rather than hurry its cars through day and night shifts or fluctuating spells of overtime.

The other impressive item is the faintly medieval aura about some of the test apparatus, rather as if what served the late Sir Henry Royce admirably for many years goes on doing so today, there being no reason to replace it, merely as a whim, with electronic complications—the blacklead pencil drawing shock-absorber curves, the spring-balance measuring the pull of the brake servo, etc.

Car output figures are not quoted daily or even weekly, because Rolls-Royce Ltd. are not building motor-cars with an eye on the clock. Annual production is in terms of 1,500 or 1,600 cars, with 2,400 in the most prolific twelve-month. Delivery delays of at least five to six months currently prevail. . . .

In the engine assembly shop the beautiful 6.2-litre V8 light-alloy power units are produced with monastic calm. Each one is dynamically balanced on an Avery machine, complete with its fluid coupling torus, every moving part having been previously weighed and balanced individually. If an engine is out-of-balance after assembly an ingenious method of correction is employed, wherein an operator drills metal from the edge of the damper flange through jig-bushes in the test-rig, or adds weights to the torus bolts. This, and the testing of the meticulously-made hydraulic tappets for leaks by timing how long they take, when charged with paraffin, to close under the persuasion of a 50 lb. weight, emphasises my previous point—such methods suit Rolls-Royce admirably but would be inadmissible in the frenzy of mass-production.

After a full day’s work only about half-a-dozen of these fine engines will have been built. Each one is run for four or five hours on coal-gas but I was interested to learn that not every engine is checked for power output. One engine from each production batch, however, is run on petrol for 24 hours under varying loads and is then completely stripped down for inspection.

About half-way along the chassis-assembly line the engine is installed. Incidentally, although R.-R. no longer make their own electrical equipment, every Lucas dynamo, starter and distributor is individually tested before being fitted. Fan cowlings, cooling ducts and other small sheet-metal parts are made in R.-R.’s own press shop. The engine exhaust system is mounted on Metalastic bushes and incorporates three stainless steel expansion chambers and as the chassis progresses along the assembly line one notes such items as the dual pipe-lines to the front brakes and the mechanical linkage from the conventional-size brake pedal to the back brakes, the compact dimensions of brake servo and automatic gearbox, etc.

To visit the shop in which the hallowed R.-R. radiator is made is like entering a remote cavern where mystic rites are performed. The shell is hand soldered, with iron and furnace, on the inside and outside joints of the polished stainless steel walls and after hand-buffing not a trace of any joint can be discerned. The sides of the radiator top appear to be straight—but a slight convexity or entasis is introduced deliberately, to deceive the eye. These grand radiators which have graced Rolls-Royce cars for some sixty years cost £100 more than a mere Bentley radiator, which is a plated brass pressing, bought out.

The trim-shop, with its Singer sewing machines, prepares upholstery from top-grade Connolly hides, five or six to a car, the Wilton pile carpets for the floor, and the fine wool-cloth headlinings, in a choice of four colours. The chassis specification of a R.-R. is inflexible but in the body department customers, who may still take delivery of their cars from Crewe if they wish and who are encouraged to watch their cars being made, can have cloth instead of leather upholstery, pleated or non-pleated, leather headlining, even a leather-covered facia, and seats to their personal dimensions.

The bodies are lowered onto the rubber chassis-mounts while jacked to a load equal to the laden condition, to obviate distortion and give equal loading at each mounting point.

Complete cars go first to a roller-rig for test under simulated road conditions, speed being measured on a Schenck recorder. The rollers are adjustable to accommodate both short- and long-wheelbase models. After the equivalent of 40 miles on the rollers at up to 75-80 m.p.h., each car is taken on the road until the testers are entirely satisfied with it. Such testing often extends to more than 100 miles, punctuated by frequent adjustments, and the mileage clocked up remains on the odometer for a customer to observe. Chassis destined for special coachwork go out with box bodies on them to amplify unwanted noises, these being known in the works as the “bread vans.”

I went out with one of the testers. His concern, amongst other things, was not to make the Smiths clock louder, but to criticise a very slight ticking from it! Every car undergoes the water-ingress or “monsoon ” check and the final stage of an inspection which may occupy as much as two weeks is the rubbing down and polishing of the bodywork. I have seen such neon-lit inspections in the many other British and European factories I have visited but never in such careful detail as at Crewe, where defects are actually listed in chalk—”chip,” “holes,” “blister,” etc.—on surfaces that look perfect to unskilled eyes. Such blemishes call for flattening and recellulosing, before further inspection by the R.-R. Quality Engineer. The lining on the body is done by hand, as on model locomotives, and every body gets three grades of wax polishing.

A final check on quality and perfection is provided by the unique printed History Book, which tabulates the career of every R.-R. and Bentley chassis from body shop to grave and carries the first owner’s name from the early stages of construction.

I am aware that this is an inadequate description of the meticulous care and skill that is expended on the construction of every car that leaves the Rolls-Royce factory. Indeed, it merely sets down random impressions gained after a tour lasting some three hours—to do full justice to R.-R. methods and techniques would require a painstaking week or more. I have not, for example, touched on the processes Rolls-Royce use for phosphating ferrous parts or for stove-enamelling engine parts and other metal surfaces.

But I saw enough to convince me that the Rolls-Royce is without question the Best Made Car in the World. And after lunch I was able to put the following questions about its design to Cornish-born Mr. S. H. Grylls, M.A., M.I.MECH.E., Chief Engineer of the Rolls-Royce Motor Car Division, who said that, apart from going through the factory and listening to the replies to these questions, he would far rather I tried a modern Rolls-Royce or Bentley on the road. This I hope to do over an appreciable high-speed mileage as soon as a car is available. — W. B.

Eleven questions

W. B.—”Mr. Grylls, it is without question that the Rolls-Royce is made from the best materials and put together in a highly efficient manner, but it has seemed to us that its design is somewhat out of date. Can you, for instance, say why you still use a rigid back axle on leaf springs instead of coil springs or torsion bars?”

G.—”Various types of i.r.s. have been tried by Rolls-Royce during the last eight or nine years, but so far their disadvantages have outweighed their advantages. For instance, it is far more difficult to prevent noise coming inside the car and it is also more difficult to achieve smooth automatic gear changes. The same arguments apply to an axle mounted on coil springs and located by radius rods. The normal leaf spring suspension may not be perfect, but is a very good absorber of unwanted movements and noise.”

W. B.—”That disposes of suspension, but I notice that you still do not use fuel injection, as Mercedes-Benz do on their larger engines. Have you any comment on this?”

G.—”The shape of crankshaft in a V8 engine which is best for dynamic balance, causes the inlet manifold to be a difficult and tortuous affair. Fuel injection is the obvious way of avoiding this problem although it would not necessarily improve the carburation of an in-line six-cylinder. No fuel injection equipment today is free from noise, nor has one appeared in which the equivalent of the automatic choke has been properly contrived. It is essential when selling cars in America to provide a reliable “breakfast warm-up” during which the car de-ices and heats itself while the owner eats his breakfast.”

W. B.—”Now to the matter of braking. Most manufacturers of fast heavy cars regard disc brakes as a worthwhile, one might almost say an essential, item of specification. Rolls-Royce still make do with drum brakes. Why?”

G.—”We like the good points of disc brakes, particularly the ease with which they can be relined. Disc brakes, however, seem to have a greater tendency to squeak and there are dusty conditions in some export countries in which they can give trouble. Our present system, with trailing shoes at the front and equal-wearing shoes at the back, operated by a servo which makes the driver seven times the man he is, takes a lot of beating, in spite of experimenting with disc brakes for many years.”

W. B.—”May we enlarge for a moment on the subject of brakes? I think I am right in saying that your car is the only one which still retains the gearbox-driven mechanical servo. Do you consider this to be worthwhile when vacuum servos are in general use and have been known since 1921?”

G.—”We prefer our gearbox servo to a vacuum servo. Its action is completely progressive and it is bound to work if the back wheels are rotating.”

W. B.—”I am rather surprised that so many American influences occur in your fine motor-car which was the outcome of a meeting between two famous Englishmen, or should I say Britishers? For example, the independent front suspension surely owes much to General Motors, the automatic transmission and power-steering likewise, the Stromberg carburetter, I believe, was an American carburetter and your V8 engine follows American practice. Was it inexpedient to design these components on your own drawing board?”

G.—”America spends far more on automotive development than is possible in the British Isles and it seems sensible to use their innovations when they are good ones and to improve on them. Admittedly power steering was invented in America, but we believe that we have an improved version in which we are actually brave enough to slide the worm endwise in order to operate the hydraulic valves. The valve position has to be set to one ten-thousandth of an inch, which only Rolls-Royce would contemplate. We did use the Stromberg carburetter on Rolls-Royce engines immediately after the war, because we thought that S.U.s were too sporty for a Rolls-Royce car, although we used them on a Bentley. By attention to detail of the idle and mixture settings, we were able to make them suitable for Rolls-Royce cars and two expanding carburetters work exceedingly well on six-cylinder engines.”

W. B.—”Touching on some Rolls-Royce policies which have justifiably become legends, do you still operate your Chauffeurs’ School, and inspection by your engineers of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars on the owners’ premises?”

G.—”Yes, both are still in operation.”

W. B.—”It is not your practice to disclose the horsepower developed by your car engines. As I believe you declare such figures in respect of industrial and aircraft engines, why do you deem it desirable to keep this a close secret in the motor-car field?”

G.—”We never quote h.p. because we do not know how the figures with which we are compared have been measured. The best output from an engine is obviously achieved by adjusting the mixture and ignition timing and possibly even valve timing, at every speed, but one cannot sell engines like this. Not knowing what other people do, we avoid comparisons.”

W. B.—”At one time Sir Henry Royce made his own components for the 40/50-h.p. Rolls-Royce chassis, particularly the electrical components. May I respectfully enquire at what period and why you abandoned this practice? In view of your foregoing remarks, how much individuality still exists in components supplied by outside makers for use on Rolls-Royce cars?”

G.—”As the accessory and component industry grew in England, more and more could be spent on research and now component manufacturers are the experts in their own job. We therefore use proprietary components, as it is sensible to do so. We do, however, make our own gearbox entirely, our back axles, shock-absorbers, steering gear, brake servo, etc.

W. B.—”Would you agree that the present light-alloy engine of the Rolls-Royce is less quiet than the 6-cylinder and V12 Phantoms?”

G.—”Aluminium engines are inherently noisier than iron ones and our latest engine may be noisier if judged when standing beside the car with the bonnet open. Noise insulation between the engine and the driver is also improving.

W. B.—”In an extremely interesting piece of publicity literature issued by your company last year Mr. Tony Brooks remarked that it was necessary to stop for petrol after approximately 150 miles of fast driving. As the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III is likely to be used for long runs between England and the South of France, Spain, etc., surely a much greater fuel range should have been provided?”

G.—”We supply a 4-gallon auxiliary tank, placed under the boot floor by the spare wheel, and this gives a range of about 310 miles if the car is driven in a normal manner. Consumption can vary on a Silver Cloud from 6.1 to 22 m.p.g., according to how the car is driven. I normally get 16-1.2 m.p.g. on fast runs.”

W. B.—”In view of the increasing use by manufacturers in many countries of chassis bearings that do not require any lubrication or only need greasing at long intervals, I am rather surprised that grease nipples could be seen shamelessly exposed on the splendid Show chassis which you had on your stand at Earls Court in 1963. As grease nipples very often become blocked in any case, what is the purpose behind this system of chassis lubrication?”

G.—”We used to fit a one-shot system of chassis lubrication but it was beset by hidden bugs. Today most of our chassis points do not require any attention for the life of the car, but those which require occasional attention are provided with grease nipples as the only reasonable way out. Remember, however, that although we recommend greasing these every 20,000 miles, experimental chassis have run satisfactorily with no attention of any kind for 50,000 or 60,000 miles.”

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