21 fascinating things you didn’t know about Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce’s 119-year-old history is filled with ingenuity, innovation and opulence

Henry Royce spent two decades creating all manner of mechanical and electrical inventions before deciding to focus his energy on the automobile in 1904. The English engineer was convinced he could build far finer cars than those being built on the other side of the Channel in France, and was able to persuade his fellow countryman (and aristocrat) Charles Rolls he could do so. Two years later, in 1906, the duo partnered to launch Rolls-Royce and the rest is automotive history.

The British marque’s storied history is as fascinating as it is lengthy, rife with incredible moments of ingenuity, innovation, and pure opulence stretching from its beginnings to the present day. Below are 24 of the most interesting facts from the marque’s 119-year history.

The first Rolls had 10 horsepower

Royce’s first creation, which made its debut in 1904, had a 1.8-liter two-cylinder that delivered 10 horsepower. The aptly named Royce 10 featured a three-bearing crank and twin camshafts that actuated the side exhaust and overhead valves. To get everything hauling, that mill was mated to a three-speed manual transmission.

1904 Rolls-Royce 10HP. Photo by Rolls-Royce

The model for The Spirit of Ecstasy was shrouded in scandal

Rolls-Royce’s now iconic hood ornament, The Spirit of Ecstasy, debuted in 1911. It was commissioned by car collector Baron John Edward Scott-Montagu, who based the figure’s likeness on his secretary-turned-mistress, believed to be Eleanor Thornton. Earlier iterations of the sculpture have her finger pressed against her lips, reportedly a wink at their decade-long affair. Thornton perished at sea in 1915, en route to India, when a German U-boat sunk the ship she was traveling on. The sculptor of the statuette, Charles Sykes, adopted and evolved the design for Rolls-Royce, and it’s been employed ever since.

The Spirit of Ecstasy never had wings

Rolls-Royce’s hood ornament has been around nearly since the beginning and has been reworked around a dozen times, though still might be the most enduringly recognisable part of the brand. At first glance, it almost even looks like it has wings — a figure in flight, perhaps, to symbolise speed. But those aren’t wings, in fact, but flowing robes, according to Rolls-Royce, which redesigned the symbol in 2022 to be more aerodynamic. “Previously,” Rolls-Royce said then, “She has stood with her feet together, legs straight and tilting at the waist. Now, she is a true goddess of speed, braced for the wind, one leg forward, body tucked low, her eyes focused eagerly ahead.”

BMW shelled out tens of millions for the rights to the ornament

When BMW bought Rolls-Royce from Volkswagen back in 2002, the rights to The Spirit of Ecstasy were held by Volkswagen. Subsequently, Volkswagen requested US$40 million to transfer ownership to BMW, which agreed to the terms and paid the sizeable sum.

The illuminated Spirit of Ecstasy. Photo by Rolls-Royce

The EU banned the illuminated Spirit of Ecstasy

The Spirit of Ecstasy may be the most famous hood ornament in automotive history. Because of that, Rolls-Royce hasn’t changed it much since it was first introduced. That is, until 2016, when the marque started offering the option of an illuminated ornament. If that sounds sacrilegious to you, you’re not alone. The lit-up Spirit of Ecstasy has since been banned in the EU. Is it because the government body is made up of automotive purists? It might be, but the official reason is that the illuminated ornament creates too much light pollution.

Over 60 per cent of all Rolls-Royces are still on the road

Rolls-Royce has always focused on crafting durable, enduring vehicles. The commitment to superior build quality has translated into a startling fact: At least 65 per cent of all Rolls-Royce cars ever to emerge from the production line are still operational and on the roads today.

Taking the Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge for a ride through the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by Basem Wasef

Rolls-Royce once made a .50 caliber machine gun

And it was rather revolutionary for its time. During World War II, the head of the Rolls-Royce engineering team, Dr. Spirito Mario Viale, sought to improve the efficacy of the staple machine gun, the Browning M2. The Rolls-Royce .50 cal featured a locked breech, in lieu of the typical gas mechanism, and it fired at double the rate of the M2 and weighed more than 40 per cent less. However, it jammed often and generated too much muzzle flash, so it never supplanted the Browning as the choice gun. One example is still known to exist, housed in the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England.

A Rolls-Royce engine helped begin the 483 km/hr club

Last year, Bugatti set the automotive world aflutter when its Chiron hypercar, piloted by Andy Wallace, hit 490.5 km/hr. However, Rolls-Royce got to that enchanting speed first. Its 2,300 horsepower, 36.7-litre supercharged Rolls-Royce V-12 engines were known for blistering performance and staggering speed back in the 1930s. Indeed, the speed record was set in 1933 by Sir Malcolm Campbell, hitting 438.5 km/hr in the Campbell-Railton Blue Bird, powered by a Rolls-Royce V-12. In 1935, Campbell took the rudimentary land rocket to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and recorded a run of 484.9 km/hr.

The record-breaking Blue Bird at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2013. Photo by Shutterstock

The brand’s plane engines were so powerful the exhaust alone bolstered top speed

Rolls-Royce was equally proficient in manufacturing prolific aviation engines, including the 27-litre Spitfire Merlin V-12, created in 1933. This engine generated such powerful thrust from the exhaust that when engineers simply angled the exhaust outlet backward, the Spitfire gained 16 km/hr.

Rolls-Royce’s electric plane is the world’s fastest EV

Rolls-Royce’s automobile and airplane divisions were spun off from one other in the early 1970s and now have separate owners. The two companies still share the same name, though, along with the same hunger for excellence. Just look at the electric plane the non-carmaking Rolls-Royce announced a couple years back. The battery-powered aircraft recently hit a top speed of 622.8 km/hr in testing, making it not just the fastest electric plane but the fastest electric vehicle, period.

Rolls-Royce the Spirit of Innovation. Photo by John M Dibbs/Rolls-Royce

You could only get a Phantom IV if you were a royal

As Rolls-Royce gained a deserved reputation for elegance throughout the 1930s and 1940s, it became the only choice for the world’s elite. This notion further solidified in 1950 when the British royal family parted ways with Daimler to select Rolls-Royce as its preferred car manufacturer. Then-Princess Elizabeth was the first to receive a Phantom IV, which became a model only designed for the royals and other heads of state. A mere 18 Phantom IV models were produced, making it among the rarest of the Rolls-Royce’s ever.

You can send your chauffeur to a Rolls-Royce driving school

The coveted seats in any Rolls-Royce are in the back and, accordingly, many owners opt for drivers. But for the most comfortable experience, they may want to consider splurging on Rolls-Royce’s White Glove training programme. The curriculum trains drivers on how to open and close doors without leaving fingerprints, how to brake without moving the passengers’ heads, and how to read and drive a road for optimal smoothness.

The Rolls-Royce Phantom IV, created in the 1950s. Photo by Rolls-Royce

Only bulls are used for Rolls-Royce’s leather interiors

Since sumptuous leather abounds in any Roller, ensuring that each inch is blemish-free is a requisite. Rolls-Royce does this by only sourcing from bulls since cows can get unwelcome stretch marks during pregnancy. Furthermore, those bulls only come from Europe where the higher altitudes mean fewer mosquitos and other insects, minimising bite marks.

One man paints all of Rolls-Royce’s pinstripes by hand

One pair of hands has been painting the pinstripes on all Rolls-Royce cars for the past 17 years, and they belong to Mark Court. Court has been doing this intricate work since the company opened its Goodwood plant in 2003. (It’s his only job, and reportedly earns him a six-figure salary.) Given the lack of room for error—the pinstripe paint is a unique variety that affixes instantly to the car’s paint, so mistakes result in the whole car needing repainting—it’s well-deserved.

A Rolls-Royce pinstripe hand painted by Mark Court. Photo by Rolls-Royce

The logo on Rolls-Royce wheels always remains completely upright

It’s the details that separate the Rolls-Royce from everyone else. Just look at the wheels on every single vehicle that’s rolled off the line at Goodwood. You won’t really notice until you see the car in motion, and then it sticks out: The logo on the centre cap doesn’t move. That’s because each official Rolls-Royce rim features a special gyroscopic mechanism that stops the center cap from rotating, thus ensuring the iconic RR monogram remains upright no matter what.

We don’t know how much the most expensive Rolls-Royce costs—but it’s probably the Boat Tail

We may not know the official price tag, or even the identity of its owner, but the most expensive Rolls-Royce of all time is almost certainly the Boat Tail. Inspired in part by the car that used to hold that title, 2017’s Sweptail, the gorgeous Azur Blue cabriolet measures 5.8 metres front to back. The nautical-themed vehicle features a tapered rear that calls to mind some of the stateliest cars of the 1920s, like the Auburn 851 Speedster and Bentley Speed Six Boat-Tail. Just as impressive is the list of one-of-a-kind accessories, which include dashboard clocks made by Bovet (more on those below), a champagne cooler, a unique crockery set by Christofle of Paris and a matching parasol.

Rolls-Royce Boat Tail. Photo by Rolls-Royce

Its Bovet dashboard clocks can be worn as wristwatches

It’s hard to pick which of the Boat Tail’s accessories are most impressive, but if we had to name just one, we’d have to go with the swappable dashboard clocks made by Swiss watchmaker Bovet. The brand crafted distinct timepieces for both the anonymous owner and his better half. Even more ingenious, though, is that they double as wristwatches. Thanks to the unique feature, the owner and his wife will never have to worry about matching their outfits to their one-of-a-kind car.

It takes at least two months to build a Phantom

Introduced in 2003, the Phantom was the first Rolls-Royce offering under BMW, and the numbers behind the production are staggering. More than 200 aluminum pieces and 300 alloy parts must be hand-welded. Upholstery requires 75 square metres of material and about 17 days to complete. More than 44,000 colours are offered, and it takes at least two months to complete one single vehicle.

The Rolls-Royce Phantom Tempus. Photo by Rolls-Royce

The embroidered headliner in the Falcon Wraith has over 250,000 stitches

Rolls-Royce is willing to go to great lengths to give their customers exactly what they want. Take, for example, the headliner in the Falcon Wraith. The stunning ceiling covering is decorated with an embroidered image of a peregrine falcon, a bird that can fly as fast as the car it adorns—321.9 km/hr. The detailed image took over a month to conceive, design and complete, and consists of over 250,000 stitches. That’s far from the only breathtaking headliner you’ll find in a Rolls, though. The official Starlight option, which is available on all of the marque’s vehicles, features 1,340 optical fibres, ensuring you’ll get a clear look at the night sky no matter the time of day it is.

The Rolls-Royce umbrella has been around for decades

In 2003, in debuting its Phantom VII, a Rolls-Royce spokesman told The New York Times, “If you buy the umbrellas for US$320,000, we will throw in a Phantom for free.” The spokesman was speaking, of course, of the full-size umbrellas that are stored in tubes in the rear doors, a feature of Rolls-Royce, and not just any umbrellas, but Teflon-coated and with an escape for water when returned to the doors after use. The price of the umbrellas separately is said to be several hundred dollars apiece, though, officially, the price is only available on request.

The Ghost is packed with 220 pounds of sound-deadening material

The Ghost has long been lauded for its near-silent cabin. Rolls-Royce wanted to take things even further—or quieter—with the second iteration of its exquisite saloon. To do this, engineers came up with a new “Formula of Serenity,”which involved equipping the car with a rigid aluminium space frame that conducts less noise. Then they packed the car’s roof, trunk and floor with 99.8 kilograms of sound-absorbing materials. The result is a ride so quiet and smooth you just might forget you’re in the back seat of a car.

The Wraith Kryptos is filled with secret codes

The limited-edition Wraith Kryptos Collection comes with its very own encrypted cipher. Hidden throughout the luxe coupé are a series of encoded messages—found everywhere from the base of the Spirit of Ecstasy to the rear seat piping—which can be used to solve the final puzzle. The marque took pains to keep the answer a secret, too. At the time of the car’s launch it was locked away in a safe at Rolls-Royce headquarters and known to just two people—the vehicle’s designer and company’s chief executive.

The (one-time) owner of the world’s largest Rolls-Royce collection may surprise you

Clocking in at 93 Rolls-Royces, the largest collection of Rollers in history belonged to Bhagwan Rajneesh. If that name sounds familiar, he was the leader of a “spiritual movement,” eponymously called Rajneesh. He and his followers overran a small Oregon town back in the 1970s, all of which (including the Rolls-Royces) was recently showcased by Netflix’s documentary Wild, Wild Country.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the back of a Rolls-Royce from his car collection. Photo by Don Ryan/AP/Shutterstock

Rolls-Royce has recalls like everyone else

Manufacturing cars is a long, difficult, expensive process even in the best of times, and even for the ultra-luxury automakers who pull out all the stops in making the most rarefied of vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists a handful of Rolls-Royce recalls over the years, many of them for a small number of cars. Like one in 2013, when the Los Angeles Times reported that 27 Phantoms had been recalled because of a fire risk. “The Phantom’s fuel filler necks may be missing the anti-misfueling devices. That’s the part that prevents misfueling and discharges static electricity,” the LA Times said then. “Without the anti-misfueling device, there is an increased risk of fire from static electricity.” Rolls-Royce dealers offered a fix free of charge.

This story was first published on Robb Report USA