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Written by Andre James / Photos courtesy of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

Sir Henry Royce's uncompromising command, "Strive for perfection in everything you do. Take the best that exists and make it better," is one of the most famous quotations in automotive history. It is also a maxim that rings down the ages and still inspires and informs the company that bears his name. The price for a bespoke Rolls-Royce regularly eclipses the tens of millions. Making an appearance at the 2021 Concourso d'Eleganza at Villa d'Este on the shores of Italy's Lake Como, a Rolls-Royce Boat Tail allegedly hand-built for Beyoncé and Jay-Z is rumored to have cost an eye-popping $28 million. It's a price tag that would likely seem unfathomable to Henry Royce, who experienced hardship, poverty, and disadvantage in his early life.

Sir Henry Royce with an experimental Rolls-Royce car, 6ex

Royce was born in 1863 as the youngest of five children. His family's perilous financial circumstances worsened when his father, a miller, was jailed after being declared bankrupt, the punishment according to the era's laws. Determined to make a better life for himself, by age ten, he was working in London, first as a newspaper seller and then as a telegram deliverer. Then, in 1879, with financial backing from an aunt, Royce landed an apprenticeship at the Great Northern Railway workshops in Peterborough. He quickly demonstrated his aptitude for design and a natural ability to work with tools and varied materials. Undeterred after his Aunt could no longer subsidize his annual apprenticeship fee, Royce returned to London in 1881 to work at the fledgling Electric Lighting & Power Generating Company, forsaking traditional engineering for the emerging field of electricity. Unregulated at the time, the lack of oversight and the need for formal qualifications to work in electricity proved to be a boon for Royce, who by age 19 was named Chief Electrician to a company supplying electric lighting to Liverpool. Unfortunately, hard times came knocking before his twentieth birthday when mismanagement forced the company into receivership and Royce into unemployment.

At the end of March, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars unveiled Black Badge Wraith Black Arrow to mark the end of production of one of the most transformative cars in the marque’s history.

Relying on his savings, hard-earned knowledge, and an unrelenting work ethic, in 1884, Royce founded F H Royce & Co in Manchester, which initially produced small items such as battery-powered doorbells before moving into heavy equipment. Despite this success, a life of unrelenting personal and professional struggles took a toll on his health, and in 1901 his physician persuaded Royce to embark on a 10-week holiday to visit his wife's family in South Africa. On the return trip, he picked up a copy of The Automobile – its construction and management, and his life's trajectory took a monumental shift. Reinvigorated from his respite, in 1904, Royce acquired his first motor car upon his return to England, a 10 H.P. Decauville. The finest car available to him, he immediately dismantled it with the stated intention to "take the best that exists and make it better." He began by building three two-cylinder 10 H.P. cars based on the Decauville layout, followed by the three-cylinder 15 H.P., four-cylinder 20 H.P., and six-cylinder 30 H.P., each of which represented significant advances in automotive design.

In 1906, two years after the initial meeting between Henry Royce and the Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls (who, in contrast to Royce, was a younger, aristocratic, Cambridge-educated aviation pioneer and racing driver), at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, England, Rolls-Royce Managing Director Claude Johnson persuaded Royce to adopt a 'one model' policy. In response, Royce designed the 40/50 H.P. 'Silver Ghost,' demonstrating Royce's almost uncanny instinct for using the right materials for components long before scientific analysis could provide reliable data. He also discovered that fluids' properties alter with speed, so he designed the Silver Ghost's carburetor with three jets that came into play at different throttle openings, thereby eliminating 'flat spots'. At this same time, Rolls-Royce acquired a site on Nightingale Road in Derby to accommodate the burgeoning business, where Royce personally designed and oversaw building a brand-new, purpose-built factory.

Once again, maintaining a crushing workload caused Royce to suffer a health crisis, and in 1911 his doctor prescribed a period of extended rest. Royce opted for an epic multi-continent road trip with Johnson. During a stop in the south of France on the return, Johnson bought a parcel of land in Le Canadel, near Nice, and commissioned a new house for Royce, plus a smaller villa for visiting drafters and assistants. For the rest of his life, Royce sensibly spent his winters at Le Canadel and summers in the south of England. From 1917, Royce's English residence was Elmstead, an 18th-Century house in the village of West Wittering on the Sussex coast, just eight miles from the present-day Home of Rolls-Royce at Goodwood. Elmstead had some adjoining land, where Royce resumed his long-standing interest in fruit farming. Inevitably, he brought his desire for perfection to this activity, too, studying every book he could find to become an expert on all aspects of husbandry, particularly soil chemistry and fertilizers. Even though farmers came from miles around to admire his crops and livestock, Royce never called himself a farmer, preferring the term 'cultivator.' Whether he was designing car components or aircraft engines, Royce's search for perfection never waned, yet even he acknowledged that it was, in fact, unattainable. His mantra for his drawing-office staff was "rub out, alter, improve, refine." During his long and varied career, Royce filed 301 patents – an astonishing feat for a largely self-educated engineer. An instinctive, intuitive engineer, Royce firmly believed that if something looked right, it probably was right. He was awarded an OBE in 1918, and in 1930 he was made a Baronet – thus becoming Sir Henry Royce – for his services to aviation. With characteristic modesty, he wrote to all Rolls-Royce employees, thanking them for their contribution to the honor. As his biographer Sir Max Pemberton noted, Royce was convinced to the end of his days that “only by production is a man making the best use of his time." Royce was still drawing designs within hours of his death, at Elmstead, on a custom work table fitted to his bed. The power of his ethos and legend still informs and inspires the company that bears his name 160 years after his birth. sl


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