The unveiling, to the public, of the Rolls Royce Cullinan, reminded me that Rolls Royce has been down this road (or is that, ‘off road’) before. The company we know as Rolls-Royce Motor Cars got its start as Royce & Company making electrical apparatus in the 1890s, founded by Sir Henry Royce – a talented engineer with a penchant for quality.

That attention to detail allowed a subsequent evolution of the firm to add the royal coat of arms and the text, “Contractors to HM Government” to their correspondence. Royce was interested in all things mechanical and before long he had purchased an early French automobile, a 10 hp Decauville. He felt he could do better and Royce produced a better ‘Decauville’ under the name ‘Royce’.

Charles Stuart Rolls had begun his racing career in one of the infamous French road races in 1899, driving a Panhard. His father later set him up selling imported cars in London. Sales of the Panhard were not up to expectations in 1904 and Rolls considered adding a British marque to the stable. But the premier British automobiles, the Napier and Lancaster, were already well represented by sales affiliates. It was a meeting in Manchester, England that brought Rolls and Royce together in May of 1904 and soon after the Rolls-Royce brand was born.

The early cars were two, three, four, and six cylinder models – all in-line, being built of modules of two cylinder pairs, with the three cylinder being the odd man out, of course. Royce had told Rolls that he wanted to build an in-line six but up until then only Napier was building them. (The Dutch firm Spyker had built the first in-line six, but its internals were so bizarre as to render it unimportant.)

The large capacity engines of the day meant that anything greater than an in-line four would present problems for crankshafts. The length of the crankshaft meant that they would be overstressed. It would take some engineering skill to get a reliable in-line six to work, but the benefits to passenger comfort of the in-line six were worth the effort. Royce worked on the new six cylinder during 1906 – the two cylinder pairs were abandoned for two three cylinder pairs placed back to back (cylinders’ three and four journals being on the same plane). In addition Royce had doubled the journal size from the previous six and gone to pressure lubrication, when many others were using splash lubrication for the crankshaft.

Two of thirteen Rolls-Royce armoured cars used during the Irish Civil War

These were the 40/50 designated engines employed in a chassis of Royce design and exhibited at the Olympia show in 1906 on the Barker & Co. Ltd. coach builder’s stand in Pullman Limousine form. Barker was the coach builder responsible for cladding the running gear supplied by Rolls-Royce and as a firm Barker had been in business since the early 18th century..

A coach builder would receive a chassis from a manufacturer that would include engine, transmission, suspension, drivetrain, brakes (such as they were in those days), raditor – raditor grille, ‘bonnet’ (hood to us heathen Americans), cowl, dashboard, steering wheel, running boards, and ‘wings’ (fenders to us heathen Americans). The coach builder then could let their and their customers imaginations run wild over how to enclose the passengers. The 13th 40/50 chassis, number 60551, as clothed by Barker, was to become the original ‘Silver Ghost’, a name that would come to be synonymous with the Rolls-Royce brand.

At the outbreak of World War I there was a demand for ground reconnaissance support in conjunction with the aeronautical service branches and a need to extract downed fliers from contested territory. The Royal Naval Air Service in Dunkirk, France outfitted two cars in September 1914, a Mercedes (Benz would not be added to the firm until the 1920s) and a Silver Ghost, with boiler plate armor by a local forge. Later that month the Admiralty would supply armored Silver Ghosts from England. The original versions were soon to be supplanted by a turreted pattern which provided greater protection to the crews.

Versions of the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost armored cars saw action in Europe, Egypt, the middle east including the deserts of Arabia. In fact one Col T E Lawrence was quite fond of the armored Rolls-Royce during his stint in Arabia. He remarked that a “ . . . Rolls in the desert was above rubies”. High praise and the stuff of legends. The Rolls-Royce Cullinan is building on that heritage.