It doesn't get much more stately, opulent and luxurious than a Rolls-Royce. For decades, the marque has set a standard that other luxury carmakers have aspired to reach. Though the prestigious automaker has hit a few bumps in the road over the years, it has largely been a symbol of automotive excellence for most of its 100-plus years in the business.
A partnership between Charles Stewart Rolls and Frederick Henry Royce, British-based Rolls-Royce Ltd. was officially formed in 1906. The company's six-cylinder Silver Ghost was unveiled that same year. Right from the start, the company's dedication to excellence was clear; the Silver Ghost exhibited amazing attention to detail and remarkable quality, and promptly earned kudos for being "the best car in the world."
During the '20s, the automaker acquired a second factory in Springfield, Massachusetts to help keep up with rising demand; the factory remained open for 10 years. The '20s also saw the launch of the Phantom I, a car that was powered by an all-new, pushrod-operated overhead valve engine with detachable cylinder heads -- cutting-edge technology for its time. Rolls-Royce added another, very similar brand to its family with the acquisition of Bentley in 1931. For decades following the takeover, Rolls and Bentley vehicles were almost identical mechanically.
The 1940s saw the opening of Rolls-Royce's celebrated Crewe factory. The first Rolls to be produced postwar was the Silver Wraith. This vehicle was significant in that it was the last Rolls-Royce product to have its body crafted by an independent coachbuilder. After this point, the company's vehicles were built completely in-house.
Rolls unveiled its Phantom IV in 1950. Powered by a muscular eight-cylinder engine, the majestic cruiser held the distinction of being the most exclusive Rolls ever. Only 18 were made, all of which were delivered to royalty and heads of state. The '50s also saw the debut of the king-sized Silver Cloud I and Silver Cloud II. The 1960s saw the introduction of the Silver Cloud III, Silver Shadow and Phantom VI.
The company hit a rough patch in the early 1970s. Problems with an engine contract led to severe financial difficulties, which in turn caused the manufacturer to file for bankruptcy. The company was eventually nationalized by the British government.
In 1980, Rolls was purchased by Vickers PLC. The Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit was launched in 1981; the car was the first of a new generation of Rolls vehicles. Mechanically, the Silver Spirit was designed to meet strict new international safety and emissions regulations. Aesthetically, the car was styled to appeal to a younger generation of buyers, with a clean new look that was very much in step with the times.
Rolls changed hands yet again in the '90s. Vickers put the marque up for sale, and BMW seemed like a frontrunner to take the reins; however, in a surprise move, Volkswagen outbid BMW. The two German automakers arranged for VW to relinquish control of the Rolls-Royce name on January 1, 2003, with VW keeping Bentley and the Crewe plant. As a result, BMW has built a $100 million facility in Goodwood, England, to accommodate the distinguished British manufacturer.
These days, the Rolls-Royce family of vehicles consists of a trio of majestic Phantoms -- the sedan, coupe and Drophead (British for convertible) coupe -- as well as the smaller, "entry level" Ghost. While other automakers also offer cars at these stratospheric price points, we don't doubt the company's ability to keep rolling for many years to come.