Henry Royce – Rolls-Royce

Picture of By Rob Harvey
By Rob Harvey

Marketing Manager - Bridge Classic Cars

“Henry Royce’s life followed a truly extraordinary arc. From impoverished origins and with minimal formal education, he became a giant of 20th Century engineering and innovation, responsible for designs and technology that helped shape the world we live in now. But this classic rags-to-riches tale belies the complexity of the man, and understates the many challenges he faced during his remarkable life. After 120 years, his influence on the marque he co-founded remains powerful and pervasive; he literally made us who we are today.”
Andrew Ball, Head of Corporate Communications and Heritage, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

Frederick Henry Royce was born on 27 March 1863 in Alwalton, near Peterborough. He was the youngest of five children in a family with extreme financial problems. After Henry’s father was declared bankrupt, he was put in prison (as was the law at the time!) Growing up in this situation had a deep affect on Royce’s character and health for the rest of his life.

Starting Work

When he was just 10 years old, Henry began working as a newspaper seller in London before later moving into a role as a telegram delivery boy. In 1877, with financial support from his aunt, he became an apprentice at the Great Northern Railway (GNR) workshops in Peterborough. It was here that his natural aptitude for design and working with his hands became clear. A set of three miniature wheelbarrows he made out of brass were early signs of the high standards he would set for himself and others throughout his career.

Just two years after starting his apprenticeship, his aunt ran into money troubles too. This left Henry unable to pay his annual apprenticeship fee. After returning to London, he began working for the Electric Lighting & Power Generating Company (EL&PG). Back then, electricity was still so new that it had no professional institutions, and therefore no formal examinations or entry qualifications. For someone like Henry Royce, who had only the most basic schooling, this was extremely fortunate.

Moving Up (And Down Again)

His fascination for the subject, intense work ethic, and commitment to improving himself (he attended evening classes in English and Maths after work) meant that in 1882, the EL&PG, by now renamed the Maxim-Weston Electric Company, sent him to manage the installation of street and theatre lighting in Liverpool. When the company abruptly collapsed, Royce, still only 19, again found himself unemployed.

In late 1884, Henry founded F H Royce & Co in Manchester. Initially producing small items such as battery-powered doorbells, the company progressed to making overhead cranes, railway shunting capstans and other heavy industrial equipment.

By 1901, the years of hard work and a less-than-ideal home life were taking a severe toll on Royce’s health, which had probably been permanently weakened by the struggles of his childhood. Things got even worse the following year when the company found its finances stretched. This was mainly due to the influx of cheaper imported electrical machinery that undercut its prices. As he was such a perfectionist, Royce was not prepared to compromise the quality of his products, but this extra stress meant that, in 1902, his health took a big dive!

The Break That Changed Automotive History

Royce’s doctors prescribed complete rest and persuaded him to take a 10-week holiday with his wife’s family in South Africa. On the long journey, he read a newly published book, ‘The Automobile – Its Construction and Management’. What he learned would change his life – and ultimately, the automotive world.

On his return to England, Royce purchased his first car, a French-built 10 H.P. Decauville. It is said that this first car was so poorly made and unreliable that Royce decided he could do better. In fact, his holiday reading had already made up his mind that he was going to produce his own car. He chose the Decauville because it was one of the finest cars available to him, in order to dismantle it and then, in his most famous phrase, ‘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. With these foundational machines, he demonstrated the analytical approach, attention to detail and pursuit of excellence in design and manufacture that would go on to define his life.


His friend and business associate, Henry Edmunds, borrowed one of these original Royce 10H.P. cars to compete in the 1,000-mile Slide Slip Trials organised by the Automobile Club of Great Britain & Ireland (later the Royal Automobile Club, or RAC) in April 1904. Edmunds was enormously impressed and realised this was precisely the high-quality, British-made model that a friend and fellow Club member was looking for to stock in his new London car dealership. That friend was, of course, The Hon Charles Stewart Rolls.

As the technical mastermind behind the new partnership, Royce’s output was astounding. From the company’s foundation in 1904 until his death in 1933, he personally created the initial concept for every mechanical item in every Rolls-Royce car. An instinctive, intuitive engineer, he had an unmatchable ability to assess components purely by eye. He firmly believed that if something looked right, it probably was – and he was almost always proved correct.

As demand grew, and the cars themselves became increasingly complex, he established a design team, led by his motto, ‘Rub out, alter, improve, refine’. Everything the team produced would then either be rejected and sent back for more work or finally signed off, by Royce alone. In contrast to modern motor manufacturing, where models are introduced, updated and replaced at defined intervals, Royce made continuous improvements to his products, without any announcement or notice. Some of these improvements were tiny, but the impact of these changes was that almost no two Rolls-Royce motor cars were exactly alike in every detail.

It is worth noting that Henry Royce never actually designed a complete car. Up to 1949, Rolls-Royce produced only a ‘rolling chassis’, equipped with an engine and drivetrain, upon which a specialist coachbuilder built the bodywork to the customer’s specification. The rolling chassis did, however, include the bulkhead and the radiator, which determined, at least in part, the finished car’s overall proportions.

Henry Royce was meticulous in his work and had an inquisitive mind that made him strive for perfection. His work and his ethos have outlived him and, to this day, his legacy lives on in every Rolls-Royce made.

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