One of the world’s premiere automobile brands, Rolls Royce conjures the image of wealth, class and elegance. Founded in 1906 by Henry Royce and Charles Stewart Rolls, the firm soon became entwined with the 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, Conservative MP and motoring enthusiast, and the Hampshire village of Beaulieu, the location of his ancestral home, Beaulieu Abbey. By the early 1900s, the Rolls Royce quickly outpaced its competitors as the motorcar for the wealthy and sophisticated–no doubt because of its costliness (the average price of a car in chassis form was around £650 and the Silver Ghost cost ₤1,154!)–and the series of motor trials which convinced those who took up the automobile for sporting purposes that the Rolls Royce was reliable, looked good and drove fast.
The motorcar was here to stay despite protestations from the rural districts, coachmen and other citizens alarmed by the emergence of the horse-powered vehicle over the horse, but many automobile manufacturers and enthusiasts found it prudent to capture the support of lawmakers, preferably the highest in the land–Parliament. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was a powerful ally. Friend of the King, and founder and editor of The Car Illustrated magazine, his support, among others, of the 1903 Motor Car Bill raised the speed limit to 20 mph and implemented the registration of all motorcars and motorists. Lord Montagu raised the profile of motoring by introducing King Edward to the sport, appearing at many of the first motor rallies and raised the profile of the Rolls Royce when the mascot he commissioned was presented by its sculptor to the company–the Spirit of Ecstasy.
The early motor car featured a radiator cap on its hood/bonnet, but by 1910, the hood ornament/car mascot became fashionable. Responding to customers who felt a firm as prestigious as Rolls Royce should feature its own luxurious mascot, and concerned their customers were affixing inappropriate ornaments to their cars in its absence, Claude Johnson, the managing director of Rolls-Royce, was asked to commission something suitably dignified and graceful. He turned to sculptor Charles Sykes, asking him to produce a mascot which embodied “the spirit of the Rolls-Royce, namely, speed with silence, absence of vibration, the mysterious harnessing of great energy and a beautiful living organism of superb grace…” Years previously, Sykes had been asked to create a mascot for Lord Montagu’s Silver Ghost, and he submitted a modified version of it to Rolls-Royce in February of 1911.
What was listed initially listed as an optional extra, only to become a standard fitting in the early 1920’s, was no ordinary car mascot; the silver sculpture of a flying lady had a past. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu had commissioned this mascot as an emblem not of wealth and luxury, but of love. The subject, Eleanor Velasco Thornton, was a young woman hired as his secretary in 1902, and the two fell quickly in love. But the baron was married and Miss Thornton was barred from being his partner not only because of his matrimonial bonds but also by her much lower social status. The two nonetheless were inseparable for the next decade, Eleanor bearing his child and continuing her work with him on The Car Illustrated. To commemorate their secret love, Eleanor modeled for Montagu’s personal hood ornament, and Sykes crafted a figurine of her in fluttering robes, pressing a finger against her lips – to symbolize the secrets of their love. The figurine was christened The Whisper.
Tragedy struck in 1915 when their voyage aboard the SS Persia, on which they were traveling through the Mediterranean on the way to India, was torpedoed by a German U-boat. There was no time to get to a lifeboat and as they made for the decks on the listing ship, “Montagu had Eleanor in his arms, the next they were hit by a wall of water and she was gone.” He survived and made his way home to read his own obituary in the Times. The baron passed away fourteen years later and with him, the secret story behind Rolls-Royce’s iconic emblem.
Happily, the tale of the star-crossed lovers lives on today, as it has been announced that Batman Begins actor Christian Bale has been tapped to star in The Silver Ghost, which will tell the story of the thirteen year affair between John Montagu, who later became Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, and Eleanor Thornton, his secretary.
Agony and the Ecstasy: The great Rolls-Royce love story
Wings of Desire: the secret love affair that inspired Rolls-Royce’s flying lady