Born near Peterborough, Royce’s parents ran a flour mill. Sadly their business failed and the family moved to London. When his father died in 1872 Frederick, the youngest of five children, had to go out to work after just one year of formal schooling.
In 1878 Royce commenced an apprenticeship with the Great Northern Railway at their Peterborough works with financial help from an Aunt. However the money ran out after three years. He returned to London and joined the Electric Light and Power Company and moved to their Liverpool office in 1882. In 1884 Royce set up in partnership in Cook Street, Hulme, Manchester making domestic electrical fittings before diversifying into quality dynamos and electric cranes.
However, competition in this field from the USA and Germany led Royce to consider other options. He was already interested in motor cars but found his first cars – a De Dion and a Decauville somewhat agricultural. So he decided to improve them and then to design his own Royce motor car which he completed in 1904 in a corner of his workshop. We have already covered his meeting with Charles Rolls and the formation of Rolls-Royce and the death of Rolls in a flying accident in 1910. However the health of workaholic Royce was also precarious and in 1912 he went to London for major surgery and was not expected to survive. He outwitted the medics but was forced to live in the healthier environs of West Wittering in Sussex and Le Canadel in the south of France.
He continued to work apace despite his doctors’ warnings and company messengers conveyed his latest thoughts or drawings to the new expanded factory in Derby from whatever residence he happened to occupy. Royce expected his staff to visit him to sign off all important new designs and company decisions in person – always a daunting prospect given his unwavering perfectionism. Interestingly, his crane business continued until 1932 when it was bought by Herbert Morris of Loughborough and it is said that the last Royce- designed crane was built as late as 1964.
Rolls-Royce aero engines evolved, it is said, while walking on the beach at West Wittering with his engineers and sketching ideas in the sand. In this he was only responding to what CS Rolls had encouraged him to do in the early years of his partnership. His R engine of 1928 was proved in the Schneider Trophy races run over Southampton Water, breaking several air speed records and watched by a reported half a million spectators lining the beaches. This work with the local firm of Supermarine led in turn to the legendary Rolls-Royce powered Spitfire in World War Two.
Controversially, in 1931, Rolls-Royce Ltd bought out the maker of sporting cars set up by WO Bentley in 1919. Bentley had designed a rotary aero engine which was highly regarded in WW1 and he started his motor car business on payment of a Government award for his contribution to the war effort. However his racing exploits at Le Mans and elsewhere and falling demand for his cars due to the financial crash led to the Receiver being called in to his Cricklewood factory. The first Derby Bentleys were conceived as sporting 20/25 models and the factory engineers were delighted when Royce unexpectedly gave a green light to the idea. More than that he decreed that such a fast car needed an adjustable shock absorber which according to legend he duly designed in bed the night before he died. The first such “Silent Sports Car” appeared in 1933 and a great British marque name was saved.
Author: Brian Palmer