The internal combustion engine (ICE) was not the only, nor the default, means of propulsion for early motor cars at the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, in the early 1900s, engineers and manufacturers initially divided their loyalties precisely between three competing technologies: the ICE, steam power and electricity.
Steam power, though well understood, relatively sophisticated and, at the time, ubiquitous in industry and other forms of transport, quickly proved less practical for use in motor cars. It therefore fell to internal combustion and electricity to vie for supremacy.
Electric power lost the battle for two main reasons: extremely limited range and the absence of a charging infrastructure. A century later, despite significant advances, these remain as barriers to widespread adoption (although increasingly less so), both in terms of technology and consumer perception.
But the characteristics that first drew engineers to electric power – silent operation, instant torque, tremendous power and the absence of exhaust fumes – remain highly alluring, particularly for luxury motor cars. Indeed, some have speculated that, had he been able to solve the range and charging issues, Sir Henry Royce might have chosen electric power alone for his motor cars.
The innate and perfect suitability of electric power underpins the marque’s explicit commitment to deliver an all-electric Rolls-Royce this decade. In doing so, it can draw on a unique history and heritage; a connection with electric power that pre-dates the company itself, and featuring the main protagonists who would, between them, create the world’s most famous automotive brand – beginning with Sir Henry Royce himself.
SIR HENRY ROYCE
Born in 1863, Henry Royce was one of the world’s first electrical engineers. After his apprenticeship with the Great Northern Railway was cut short for family financial reasons, he worked briefly as a toolmaker at Greenwood & Batley in Leeds, where he first developed an interest in electrical power.
In 1881, he joined the Electric Light & Power Generating Company (EL&PG) in Southwark. During this time, he attended evening classes in electrics at the City & Guilds of London Institute, having received only a year of formal schooling as a child. A year later, aged just 19, he moved to the EL&PG’s new subsidiary, the Lancashire Maxim-Weston Electric Co. Ltd, as Chief Electrician, providing street and theatre lighting to the city of Liverpool. But within two years, the company folded, and the famously driven, hardworking Royce struck out on his own.
His new enterprise, F H Royce & Co, initially made small electrical appliances such as doorbells, lamps, fuses and switches. The business thrived, and was soon producing larger, more complex devices including dynamos, electric motors and winches. In 1902, Royce supplied electric motors for Pritchett & Gold, a London-based battery-maker that had diversified into building electric cars.
Though Royce himself never built or owned an electric motor car, he created internal combustion engines that delivered the driving experience we associate with electric propulsion today: effortless torque, silent running and the sensation of one continuous, powerful gear. His technical expertise and pioneering achievements underpin the marque’s historical claim as a world leader in electrification in both luxury and social settings.