The 1904 Equivalent of a Private Jet
The Midland Hotel, Manchester, was the site of a significant meeting in automotive history on May 4, 1904, when the Hon. Charles Rolls arrived by train with his business associate Henry Edmunds, to meet Frederick Henry Royce.
Both parties knew each other by repute and their partnership was to be one of lasting significance in the automotive world. Their backgrounds could not have been more different -- Rolls was an aristocrat, a Cambridge graduate who briefly held the world land speed record, wheras Royce was a railway engineer whose fascination with electricity had led him to the auto industry, while inventing the bayonet bulb fitting along the way.
Royce had owned a French-built de Dion and later a Decauville before he decided he could do better and built his own 10-hp, 2-cylinder car, which he launched on April 1, 1904. Henry Edmunds drove this car on the Automobile Club's Sideslip Trials later that month carrying two reporters and, based on its performance, encouraged his friend Charles Rolls to meet with Royce.
The Midland Hotel meeting led Rolls to agree to take Royce's entire production. The cars were to be marketed as Rolls-Royces from late 1904, and the two agreed to develop a line of 2-, 3-, 4-, and 6-cylinder cars. The plan was to build 19 Type A 10-hp cars, though only 17 were constructed. These had a 2-cylinder engine, three-bearing crank, and twin cams operating overhead inlet valves and side exhaust. The 1.8-liter engine drove through a cone clutch to a 3-speed gearbox and shaft drive.
The first Type A was number 20150 (still a Royce). The car presented here is 20154, the fourth Rolls-Royce and the oldest one known. It was developed as a show car with a Barker Park Phaeton body with occasional rear seats. It was selected for the Paris Salon de l'Automobile, which ran from December 9 to 25, 1904, and was driven to Paris by C. Vivian Moore. It then returned for the Olympia Motor Show in Februrary 1905. 20154's provenance is remarkably complete, passing through the hands of several Scottish doctors before returning to Harrogate, Yorkshire, in 1913. Insurance agent Percy Binns was given it as a 21st birthday present in 1920, fitted with a later-style streamlined body. He drove it until 1930.
In 1950, 20154 was discovered by enthusiast Oliver Langton in a farm building near Leeds. It was found to be remarkably complete and correct, with the exception of a later 20hp steering column and box -- the original radiator was even hidden behind the streamlined cowl. Percy Binns agreed to sell it and Langton rebodied 20154 with a period two-seater Edwardian body in time for the 1954 London-to-Brighton run, with the license plate U44.
20154 made numerous London-Brighton runs until 1978, when it was acquired by the present owner. It is presented in dark blue livery with red leather upholstery, P&H side oil lights and acetylene headlights. 20154 has been carefully maintained, including an extensive rebuild in 1989–90, including aluminum pistons and new rings.
20154 comes with a wealth of photographs and documents and remains the only existing pre-1905 Rolls-Royce eligible for the London to Brighton run. Only three other 10hp models are known to survive -- 20159, 20162, and 20165, all of them 1905 models.
The SCM Analysis
This car sold for $7,254,290 at the Bonhams Olympia sale on December 3, 2007, more than doubling the existing auction records for both a veteran car and a Rolls-Royce.
A quick fact: Despite eleven registered bidders and interest from many more on both sides of the Atlantic, from the moment bidding opened at $2 million, the increments rose so quickly that only three bidders, all of them European (I hope the British buyer won't mind me including him in that definition), made the running before the hammer fell.
Insured for $6 million, destined to sell well
It's perhaps telling that although Bonhams's pre-sale estimate was "in excess of a million pounds," when the car was shipped to Quail Lodge last August for display, it was insured for $6 million. This car created a buzz from the moment it was consigned and was destined to sell well.
Why? And what, if anything, does this result mean to the wider car collecting fraternity? If, like me, you belong to the (slightly) younger age group in the old car world, it's easy to dismiss veterans as the cars people collected once upon a time but which no longer bear much relation to anything we're used to seeing on the road or even at most historic motoring events. They don't have the mass "sex appeal" of a bright red 1960s Ferrari or even the more elite "wow" factor of a 1930s Duesenberg.
But put yourself in the shoes -- if you can -- of a turn-of-the-century gentleman whose forebears had, for centuries, relied on horsepower of the four-legged variety, or perhaps more recently the revolutionary railroad network. Both are perfectly adequate, but suddenly a new-fangled invention appears, which provides the lucky few fortunate enough to afford such indulgence (and it really was an indulgence in those pioneering days) with the means to travel almost anywhere, at your own convenience and in relative privacy -- the horseless carriage. Such luxury was, in its own way, the late 19th century equivalent of today's private jet ownership, a powerful symbol of its owner's status and forward thinking.
Around the western world, aspiring entrepreneurs and engineers jumped on the motor car bandwagon in the hope of building their own automobile and cashing in on this latest fashion. None knew if it would last, and for most it didn't.
None can rival the marque's prestige
From hundreds of manufacturers that sprouted from humble origins, just a handful survive, and of these, none can rival the prestige of that great British marque Rolls-Royce. No matter that today, like so many other British names, it's in foreign hands (BMW owners can bask in the reflected glory); to many, Rolls-Royce still builds "The Best Motor Car in the World," and this diminutive little runabout, with its quaint styling and an engine barely powerful enough to run the a/c in a modern Phantom, is the oldest known exponent of a century-old legacy familiar to virtually everyone.
And that's the key. Yes, it's the only Rolls-Royce eligible for the celebrated London to Brighton Run, and interest in veterans hasn't been this strong in over a generation (Bonhams sold over 30 last year, compared to 10–15 a year previously), but their market is still ruled by old school car collectors, tweed-clad gentlemen more interested in the pleasure of motoring rather than the monetary variety; it took a single meeting and a handshake to consign this car.
The elusive Russian oligarchs and Chinese nouveaux riches that sellers are all waiting for probably aren't itching to spend a day trundling from our capital to a faded seaside resort exposed to the best the British climate can offer...at the breakneck speed of 40 mph (45 with a tailwind). But as the new custodian of this car, the buyer gets to own a piece of history.
Forget the cobbled-together body, or that during the war the car was left with others in a field as a landing deterrent to Hitler's Luftwaffe (then again, that's a rather good story too), or that Percy Binns's handwritten sales receipt dated 1950 refers to it as "all the mortal remains of my Rolls car." What puts it in a league of its own is that, unless one of the three earlier Rolls-Royces built suddenly comes back from the dead (which, for $7 million, it may be tempted to do), this is arguably the most historic example of the marque in existence.
Years Produced: 1904–05
Number Produced: 17
Original List Price: £1,000 approx ($5,000), the same as a small house
SCM Valuation: $7,254,290 on this date
Tune-up Cost: Instruct your man…
Distributor Caps: Good luck…
Chassis # Location: Plate on dash
Engine # Location: Not visible
Club Info: Rolls-Royce Owners Club, 191 Hempt Rd. Mechanicsburg, PA 17050
Alternatives: 1903 Cadillac Model A (oldest survivor), 1903 Ford Model A (oldest survivor), 1904 Mercedes-Benz 40-45 Sport
Investment Grade: A