The proud British brand – now owned by German car giant BMW – is set to make a “historic announcement” in the coming days.
Super-luxury brand Rolls-Royce has unearthed part of its electric history as it moves towards an electric future.
While Rolls-Royce has touted plans for an electric car for the better part of a decade – unveiling a number of concept cars – the company’s historians have revealed how close Rolls-Royce came to becoming an electric-car maker during its founding years in the early 1900s.
At the turn of the century the world’s first motor cars were at a cross-roads choosing between steam, electricity, and petrol power.
In an interview published in The Motor-Car Journal in the UK in April 1900, the man who would eventually co-found Rolls-Royce, Charles Rolls, said: “The electric car is perfectly noiseless and clean. There is no smell or vibration, and they should become very useful when fixed charging stations can be arranged. But for now, I do not anticipate that they will be very serviceable – at least for many years to come.”
After dabbling with electric cars for a few years and struggling with the challenges of battery range and recharging points – factors that would resurface a century later in the modern electric-car era – Charles Rolls abandoned his plans in 1904 after meeting Henry Royce and seeing his new petrol-powered motor car.
The pair formed a partnership – Rolls-Royce – that specialised in vehicles for the super rich.
While Rolls-Royce is yet to abandon the massive V12 engines that power its cars today, the company plans to expand its line-up with a dedicated electric vehicle, co-developed with owner BMW and likely powered by the German marque’s tech.
Rolls-Royce unveiled an electric car concept in 2011 – dubbed the Phantom Experimental Electric and codenamed 102EX (pictured above).
Rolls-Royce says the Phantom EE was never intended for production, “serving instead as a working test-bed for clients, VIPs, the media and enthusiasts to experience electric propulsion and share their experiences, thoughts and considerations directly with Rolls-Royce designers and engineers.”
The Phantom’s 6.75-litre V12 petrol engine and gearbox were replaced with a lithium-ion battery pack and two electric motors mounted on the rear sub-frame, connected to a single-speed transmission with integrated differential.
The system reportedly had a maximum output of 290kW/800Nm, compared to 338kW/720Nm for the V12 Phantom of the time.
However the concept car’s limited driving range, long charging cycles, and three-year battery life “remained significant hurdles” and further development of that model was abandoned.
In 2016, Rolls-Royce unveiled a futuristic concept called the 103EX (pictured above), complete with an aerodynamic body and skinny low-friction tyres.
At 5.9 metres in length (as long as a limousine) and 1.6 metres high, the autonomous concept was designed to provide owners with a “grand entrance”.
However this car was regarded as a flight of fancy. The first real Rolls-Royce electric car is expected to be a more conventional design compared to the daring concept.
To date, Rolls-Royce has given little away – beyond confirming it would sell an electric limousine some time between 2020 and 2030. However, it recently confirmed it was preparing for a “historic announcement.”
In a statement presumably designed to give the company plenty of wriggle room should its first electric car be hit with delays, the company said the vehicle will “be launched only when the time is right, and every element meets Rolls-Royce’s technical, aesthetic and performance standards.”
Joshua Dowling has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years, spending most of that time working for The Sydney Morning Herald (as motoring editor and one of the early members of the Drive team) and News Corp Australia. He joined CarAdvice / Drive in late 2018, and has been a World Car of the Year judge for 10 years.