The British marque, Rolls Royce, is among the world’s premier automotive manufacturers. They are the epitome of cutting-edge engineering, as much as they are about style and sophistication. The company’s journey commenced in 1884 in England when Henry Royce set up an electrical and mechanical works business. The first car was built in 1904 and in that same year, Royce met Charles Rolls.
Rolls Royce was formally launched as a company in 1906. And this was the start of the fabled Rolls Royce brand. Its first launch was a six-cylinder model called the Silver Ghost and within a year of its launch, it was acclaimed as the ‘best car in the world’.
At the onset of World War 1, Henry Royce began developing aircraft engines. So successful were the Rolls Royce engines that they went on to power over half of all Royal Air Force aircraft. In the decades thereafter, Rolls Royce made several innovations in aircraft engines and even today, Royce’s legacy continues to find both their motorcar and aircraft divisions on firm footing. In fact, they even build engines for sea going vessels.
However, what is most interesting to note is the fascination that Indian Maharajas held for Rolls Royce cars. In the early 20th century, India was actually one of the largest markets for the British marque and the majority of these were not destined for expatriates living in the country. Rather, they were endlessly customised, and were often one-off versions specially ordered by royal courts. Estimates from the era put the count at between 1000 and 2000 Rollers finding their way to Indian royalty.
The very first Roller in the country
The very first Rolls Royce car to be imported into India was a Silver Ghost (also termed the 40/50 hp) and its owner was a merchant trader called Frank Norbury. The coachwork on this vehicle was done by Joseph Cockshoot & Co. Ltd. In the early days, Rolls Royce cars were available with just the engine and chassis and the buyer could then go to a coach builder of his or her choice to have the body built according to how they wanted it. This is akin to how trucks or buses are available from Tata Motors in India. On your travels, I am sure you will have spotted bare bones chassis and engines rolling down highways across the country.
Norbury christened his car the Pearl of India. It was initially showcased at the Bombay Motor Show in 1908. Norbury then had the car participate in the grueling Bombay to Kolhapur rally. Race criteria outlined that no stops could be made along the way, and that the bonnet would be locked to make sure no break downs could be attended to. Needless to say, the car performed flawlessly and it caught the eye of Indian Maharajas.
Now at this juncture, there are slightly conflicting reports. One account suggests that, following the rally, the car was purchased by the Maharaja of Gwalior, and that too, in exchange for rubies. Meanwhile, another seems to suggest it found its way to the Maharaja of Mysore. Going by anecdotal evidence, the Mysore royalty may have been the actual purchasers of the first, albeit ‘second-hand’, Rolls Royce by an Indian Maharaja. There are more such conflicting Rolls Royce and Indian royalty stories.
Gone with the wind
When the car was handed over, it wore an exterior coat finished in a shade of cream. There were apple-green embellishments with gold stripes and many have regarded it as the most beautiful Rolls Royce car ever built. Meanwhile, another account suggests–and one that alludes to the owner being the Maharaja of Gwalior–that the vehicle was redone in a shade of gold and deep pearl. This latter shade was painted using finely ground pearls apparently. In terms of accessories, it had two Finnigan trunks finished in brown leather and a spare wheel case, also in a matching shade. Finnigan were exclusive leather baggage manufacturers — perhaps the Louis Vuittons of that era or even more exclusive. The company is still in operation today. On the rear of this particular car, there was also a seat for the Maharaja’s manservant.
While many of these early Rolls Royces are still well preserved and are now mostly in the ownership of vintage and classic car collectors, some have fallen victim to the ravages of time. A fair number found their way overseas while others have disappeared entirely without a trace. The Pearl of the East is one such vehicle; no one has a clue of where it went and there are even no pictures in the public domain. But what it did establish was a firm relationship between Indian royalty and Rolls Royce motor cars.