So, maybe you knew that Rolls-Royce used to absolutely dominate the world speed record books, or that they still make some of the world's best jet engines. But did you know that their iconic Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament exists because of an extramarital affair, or that they build nuclear friggin' reactors? Here are 29 amazing things you probably didn't know from Rolls-Royce's history.
NOTE: In 1973, Rolls-Royce split up, with the Rolls-Royce cars splitting off, and the airplane engine and military contractor remaining on its own. Given the intense history during which they shared a common path, this article includes both. — AM
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1. The iconic hood ornament — the Spirit of Ecstasy — is the result of an illicit affair. It’s modeled after a woman named Eleanor Thornton; she had a decade-long open-secret affair with a man at the forefront of early car culture. Her lover was both wealthy and wanted a nice hood ornament, so he commissioned a sculptor to put Eleanor on the front of the car. In some of the earlier models she has her finger to her lips as a nod to their secret love.
2. The Spirit of Ecstasy is worth $40 million. When BMW bought Rolls-Royce in 2002, Volkswagen owned the rights to the ornament. BMW paid $40 million so that they could make Rolls-Royces with the winged lady on the front.
3. And you can get it in gold or illuminated crystal. Plus, you can lower the Spirit of Ecstasy down into the grill if you’re afraid of thieves.
4. Charles Stewart Rolls, one half of the eponymous carmaker, was the first man to fly across the English Channel and back. He was an avid aviator, and flew his Wright Flyer over the Channel and back in 95 minutes.
5. In 1906, he won the world’s most famous motorcycle race using a car. Today, the Isle of Man TT is a bucket list item for any motorcycle enthusiast, but in 1906, there was a category for cars. Charles Rolls entered two cars, and won.
6. He was also the first Brit to die in a plane crash. The tail of that Wright Flyer fell off and he fell to his death on July 12th, 1910.
7. The first Rolls-Royce model ran a ridiculous 14,371 miles almost non-stop, back in 1907. They drove it back and forth between Glasgow and London 27 times, a number that was pretty much unfathomable back then and established the brand as a player in the motoring world.
8. They were the original rally cars. The 1913 Rolls-Royce Alpenfahrt was a contest that covered 19 different Alpine passes… back when most of them were dirt. It was a serious endeavor.
9. They still recreate that Alpine run. You can use a new Rolls-Royce if you’d like, but you’re encouraged to use your old one.
10. They didn’t build their own bodies until after WWII. Like many early manufacturers, RR would build the best chassis they could, put the best engine they could in the chassis, and let specialized coachbuilders handle the body.
11. That led to some interesting designs. Like this one, for an Indian Maharaja.
12. And they still don’t use machines for most of the interior. Just… look at that detail. No, you may not eat in the car, even though there’s a tray.
17. Sir Henry Royce made the initial engineering sketches of that engine while on a beach. He was walking with his top engineers. What, your boss doesn’t take you for long walks on the beach?
18. And when they figured out how to make it not blow up, it helped beat the Nazis. The Merlin engine was designed to give the same performance, but last longer. It succeeded, and became the heart and soul of the legendary Spitfire fighter plane.
19. Rolls-Royce was suping up Mustangs decades before every American twenty-something. On little more than a hunch, they dropped the Merlin engine into a P-51 Mustang, transforming it from a very good low-altitude plane, to one of the best warplanes ever built.
20. They made armored cars, too. Some of their best chassis were topped with tons of steel, and used in the fight against Germany.
21. Rolls-Royce makes nuclear reactors, because of course they do. Under an agreement dating back to the 1950s, Rolls-Royce makes its own nuclear reactors for British submarines with some U.S. tech help, in exchange for RR helping the U.S. make subs a little quieter.
22. They still make some of the world’s best jet engines. Rolls-Royce jets power everything from Gulfstreams and 777s to British Harriers.
23. And they powered the Concorde past Mach 1. Did you really expect the best passenger jet of all time to have something other than a Rolls-Royce engine?
24. Rolls-Royce used to have an American factory. From 1921 until 1931, they produced Silver Ghosts in Springfield, MA. They were infinitely better than the schlock coming out of Shelbyville at the time.
25. Royce invented the adjustable shock absorber while on his deathbed. He felt the first Rolls-Royce-produced Bentley was too fast, and needed a better way to control the suspension. He drew up some plans, handed them to his nurse, and died the next day. Now, adjustable shocks are on pretty much every serious race car, and loads of street cars.
26. The Phantom IV was built to be used only by heads of state. And as a result, only 18 were ever built.
27. There are over 1,600 hand-placed fiber optic lights inside a Wraith. So that it seems like you’re cruising under the stars.
28. Rolls-Royces are so unbeatable that the Russians never even bothered to copy them. Yuri Gregarin went to space, and the first thing he did when he got back was ride in a Rolls.
29. John Lennon murdered out his Rolls before rap was even invented. He first had his Rolls painted in matte black, then got bored with it, and had it painted something a bit more lively. It worked.
Aaron Miller is the Rides editor for Supercompressor. He once watched a Concorde take off from de Gaulle Airport in Paris. It was loud. That's not really relevant, but you should still follow him on Twitter.