Claim: Rolls-Royce dispatches a special mechanic to aid a stranded motorist, then afterwards disavows the incident, claiming "Our cars never break down."
British pride in native products has not dimmed.
A London plutocrat was driving his fine new Rolls-Royce over the Alps when he heard a disquieting "twang." His front spring had broken.
He called the Rolls plant in London by long distance, and, in what seemed like no time flat, three gentlemen arrived by plane with a new spring — and off went the plutocrat on his interrupted jaunt.
Now comes the really interesting part of the story. After six months the plutocrat had received no bill from the Rolls people. Finally he appeared at the plant in person and asked that the records be checked for "the repair of a broken spring in Switzerland." After a brief delay the manager of the plant appeared in person, gazed at him rather reproachfully, and announced, "There must be some mistake, sir. There is no such thing as a broken spring on a Rolls-Royce."
Origins: Famed for its sumptuous luxury and reputation for craftsmanship, the Rolls-Royce automobile is the ultimate symbol of wealth, style, prestige, and elegance. For this reason it has become the subject of a body of lore celebrating these aspects of the vehicle.
legend listed above has been in circulation since the 1950s. Although some of its smaller details do shift from telling to telling (broken spring or axle, or engine that needs replacing; the number of mechanics sent; whether they arrive by airplane, helicopter, or in another Rolls), the story itself has remained remarkably consistent for half a century. Always the repairman comes to the motorist (there's none of this "have the car towed to the nearest garage" business), and always the conscientious car owner finds out about Rolls-Royce's disavowal of the incident only when a bill for services performed fails to materialize, and he contacts the company to inquire about it.
The thrust of the story is the underlying presumption that Rolls-Royces are so well constructed they practically never break down, prompting the company's later denial of (what would be to them) an embarrassing incident. Rolls-Royce itself claims at least some elements of the legend came true in 1932 to no less a personage than Rudyard Kipling, as detailed in the "Making History" section of its web site:
In 1932, Rudyard Kipling's Rolls-Royce Phantom 'failed to proceed' - Rolls-Royce do not break down! As he was in the South of France, he telephoned the Paris distributor. By noon the next day, Kipling had not seen anyone paying attention to his car, so he asked the hotel manager to remonstrate most strongly with the Parisian service manager. "But Monsieur", replied the hotelier, "the gentlemen from Rolls-Royce came last night and it was only a minor matter." Further questioning revealed that the mechanics had traveled through the night and had completed the repairs before dawn. They left unannounced, as they did not wish to disturb the great writer's sleep.
There are numerous legends about this car. Another that employs the "doesn't break down" theme features the apocryphal oil sheik (urban legend shorthand for "more wealth than sense," as evidenced by the Cruise (un)Control legend):
And finally there is the one about the oil sheik who always thought that the Rolls-Royce was a rather old-fashioned car. He preferred a Mercedes, another legendary car. Still, when he drove around in his Mercedes, he had his chauffeur follow him in the Rolls, just in case the Mercedes broke down.1
Another branch of Rolls legends expounds on the notion that the car is so carefully engineered that it can be serviced only by specially trained mechanics or driven by chauffeurs schooled by Rolls-Royce. Such claims fit the "snob appeal" image associated with the car by positioning these machines as something so precious that they almost dare not be entrusted to the hands of mere mortals:
The Rolls of legend has a sealed bonnet, which must never be opened except at the factory. And if any driver not trained by the works should take the wheel, the guarantee is instantly void.2
Another legend about the car takes this theme even further:
There is the one about the man who had been poor all his life, until he won the lottery. He had always dreamed of owning a Rolls-Royce, and one of the first things he did after getting his lottery money was go out and buy one. Of course, he had never owned a Rolls-Royce before, in fact he had never even ridden in one.
As the advertisements used to say: "At sixty miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock."
The car was delivered to his house one morning by a uniformed driver, who handed him the keys and was then driven away (in another Rolls, of course).
The new car looked so luxurious that it was nearly an hour before the man got up the courage to get in and start it. But when he turned the ignition key nothing happened. He tried again, and again, still the motor refused to turn over.
Finally in anger and disgust he called the Rolls dealership, only to be told by a haughty man with a snooty accent that the car had indeed started, but was running so quietly that he couldn't hear it.1
Notice how the new car owner is described as someone who has only recently come into money (via the scandalously low-class mode of winning the lottery, no less). The lad is portrayed as a parvenu, someone who has no right to a car of this pedigree, even though the money to purchase
one has fallen into his lap. Not to the manor born, he will lack the sensibilities necessary to appreciate such a fine machine, says the legend. Some things cannot be bought.
The twin themes of pervasive quality and snob appeal tie all Rolls-Royce legends to one another, forming a body of lore that works to convince listeners the Rolls is very special indeed, a vehicle intended strictly for the upper crust. Such cachet is its own advertisement; folks would kill to own a car like that even if it were a terrible piece of equipment, just to have that presumption of blue blood rub onto them.
One final bit of Rolls lore attaches to the silver lady hood ornament called "The Spirit of Ecstasy" (or, in the USA, "The Flying Lady") that has adorned Rolls-Royce motor cars since 1911: Some people believe she is made of pure silver. Although that would perhaps be fitting, until recently, it was never the case. Over the years, several different metals have been used, but never silver. In the early days, white metal was used to fashion the shape; now it is formed of highly polished stainless steel.
However, in the 2000s, Rolls Royce has deigned to offer at additional cost the Spirit of Ecstasy in sterling silver or 24-carat gold. Said pricier options retract into the car's radiator grille when required.
Barbara "untarnished image" Mikkelson
Last updated: 15 January 2008
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- Cerf, Bennett. The Life of the Party.
- Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1956 (p. 281).
- Smith, Paul. The Book of Nasty Legends.
- London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983. ISBN 0-00-636856-5 (p. 9).
- Smith, Paul. The Book of Nastier Legends.
- London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. ISBN 0-7102-0573-2 (p. 38).
- Tan, Paul Lee. Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations.
- Rockville, Maryland: Assurance Publishers, 1979. ISBN 0-88469-100-4 (p. 1266).
- Tide. "Pride and Prejudice."
- Reader's Digest. January 1960 (p. 138).
Also told in:
- 1. Cohen, Daniel. The Beheaded Freshman and Other Nasty Rumors.
- New York: Avon Books, 1993. ISBN 0-380-77020-2
- 2. Dale, Rodney. The Tumour in the Whale.
- London: Duckworth, 1978. ISBN 0-7156-1314-6 (pp. 126-127).