The total number of Rolls-Royce vehicles built over more than 100 years barely equals a month’s worth of production at General Motors today.
But what the company founded by Charles Stewart Rolls and Henry Royce lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in opulence and pedigree. As a direct result, the Rolls-Royce marque enjoys a loyal following among the elite of society.
With sufficient funds, well-heeled customers can order their Rolls-Royce any way they please, including the use of custom coachwork, specially constructed interior appointments and unique paint. Hand over the cheque and your whim is the company’s command.
Over the years, Rolls-Royce motorcars have been used not only as luxury carriages, but also as armored vehicles and ambulances during the First World War. Rolls-Royce-powered aircraft also helped Britain turn back the Luftwaffe, as Nazi Germany attempted to control the skies over England in during the Second World War.
Rolls-Royce automobiles such as The Silver Ghost, Phantom, Silver Dawn and Silver Wraith have helped establish the company’s tradition of excellence. But it is the Silver Cloud series that became the backbone of the company. Over a 10-year period from 1955 to 1965, nearly 7,500 Silver Clouds were produced, the closest thing to mass production of a Rolls-Royce automobile.
The Silver Cloud I, launched in 1955, was a big, 5.4-metres-long and hefty 2,000-kilogram piece of rolling sculpture. Power came from a 4.9-litre six-cylinder engine that was originally designed in the 1930s. To enhance the car’s mystique, Rolls-Royce declined to provide a horsepower rating for its engines (about 175 is a fair estimate), simply describing output as “sufficient.”
The first Silver Clouds (mostly sedans, but also a limited number of specially made coupes and convertibles) came with a four-speed manual transmission or four-speed Hydramatic automatic that Rolls-Royce built under license from General Motors. However, after a year and a half, the far less popular manual gearbox was dropped from the list.
On the inside, each Silver Cloud had the finest Connolly leather hides covering overstuffed chair-like seats, Wilton wool carpeting and burled-walnut interior trim. Included inside the trunk, or “boot,” was a tool kit that allowed the owner, or perhaps the chauffeur, to perform rudimentary maintenance or repairs.
The Silver Cloud’s body, attached separately to a girder-style chassis, was beautifully crafted by the Pressed Steel Company of Oxford, England. The rear roof-support pillar on the sedans was designed extra-wide to allow privacy for those occupying the rear seats. To reduce weight, the car’s doors, trunk and hood were hand-formed of aluminum. The latter was hinged along the middle, allowing access to the engine from either side of the car.
After applying 12 coats of hand-polished paint, the famous Rolls-Royce Flying Lady mascot (the actual name was the Spirit of Ecstasy) was attached to the top of the Silver Cloud’s distinctive silver-coated radiator shell.
Despite the relatively large number of cars produced, each Silver Cloud took three months to complete. Once on the road, though, the fortunate owner was treated to a smooth, quiet ride and the silent purring of the well-dampened powerplant. Stopping power was provided by drum brakes, deliberately selected instead of discs since they tended to not squeal.
The Silver Cloud II replaced the initial version in 1959. The car featured a new 6.2-litre V-8 engine (worth about 200 horsepower) that was similar to a design Cadillac had adopted 10 years earlier. About 300 of the more than 2,700 Silver Cloud IIs made were special longer wheelbase limo models, with custom bodies by coach builders such as H.J. Mulliner and James Young.
The Silver Cloud II gave way to the Silver Cloud III in 1962. Aside from a slightly lower hood and radiator, this model came with quad headlights, which was roundly criticized by Rolls-Royce purists. The aluminum V-8 also received a slight increase in horsepower (estimated at 220) that produced zero to 60 miles per hour in 11 seconds and a maximum speed of close to 120 miles per hour. Not bad for a car weighing well in excess of two metric tonnes.
Ultimately, all good things must come to an end, and so it was with the Silver Cloud when the last of the series IIIs left the Crewe, England, factory in 1965. The car’s distinctive long hood sensuous fenders and gently sloping rear deck were replaced by the much blander-looking Silver Shadow.
Today, the automotive division of Rolls-Royce is owned by BMW. To possess a “base model” Phantom, you’ll have to cough up many times the price of a final-year Silver Cloud.
Then, as now, the price of trumpeting your success and good fortune doesn’t come cheap.
After Rolls-Royce was founded in 1906, the company became involved in both the production of carriage-trade motorcars as well as the design and build of piston-driven, and ultimately jet aircraft engines.
Unfortunately, although the auto side of the business remained profitable, it was the failure of the aircraft division in 1980 that forced Rolls-Royce into bankruptcy. The automotive group, consisting of both Rolls-Royce and Bentley, was eventually purchased by Vickers.
The new owner entered into a joint venture relationship with BMW in 1995, which ultimately led to the Germany-based carmaker purchasing the Rolls Royce name outright. At about the same time, the Bentley brand was acquired by Volkswagen. Both reconstituted Anglo-German automakers began producing all-new (and thoroughly unique) models beginning in 2004.