May 23, 2024

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, which is celebrating the retirement of Torsten Müller-Otvos as its Chief executive officer after nearly 14 years in that position, reflects on Claude Johnson – who was the only person to hold the top post for a longer period in the history of the marque.

  • Rolls-Royce Motor Cars reflect upon the influence of Claude Goodman Johnson, the first chief executive of the company (October 24, 1864 -April 11, 1926)
  • The hyphen in Rolls-Royce was a gifted publicist, marketer, and publicist.
  • He managed the company between 1906 and his death in 20 years.
  • Torsten Müller-Otvos, who will retire in November 2023, is the most experienced CEO in the modern age, second only to Johnson.
  • Continued the long line of influential Rolls-Royce executives who have shaped the automotive and luxury industries as well as the company during their tenure.

Claude Johnson, though less well-known to the public than the founders of Rolls-Royce, is the most influential and important figure in Rolls-Royce’s history. Torsten Müller-Otvos, our Chief Executive Officer for almost 14 years, is retiring. This seemed like the perfect time to shed light on the person who held the position of CEO the longest in Rolls-Royce’s history. Johnson, a larger-than-life figure, was a force that was to be reckoned with. It was his enthusiasm, energy, vision, and dedication that helped make Rolls-Royce an international household name. He is still called ‘the hyphen’ in Rolls-Royce today – an apt tribute to this truly remarkable man.”

Andrew Ball, Head of Corporate Relations and Heritage at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

A Big Personality

Henry Royce was first introduced to Charles Stewart Rolls by Henry Royce on May 4, 1904. Claude Johnson was the first person he spoke to upon his return to London about this historic meeting.

Johnson, who was 13 years older than Rolls, was a large-framed man with broad shoulders and an extrovert personality. He was a gifted marketer and organizer. His career began with scientific and trade shows, and he spent six years as the first secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain & Ireland (RAC), which later became the Royal Automobile Club.

He joined C S Rolls & Co in 1903, a car dealership that Rolls established the year before, on January 1. Johnson was instrumental in helping Rolls and Royce develop their new business after their meeting in 1904. He brought financial support and commercial expertise to the fledgling company.

Making His Mark

Johnson was appointed the first Commercial Director of Rolls-Royce Limited in 1906 and took on the responsibility of sales and marketing. Johnson was an incredibly talented showman who was also a natural at generating publicity for himself and the company. He took on this task with great enthusiasm and success. Johnson was the one who convinced Royce to focus on a single model – the 40/50 H.P. – which became famous under the name he coined – the Silver Ghost. Johnson also convinced Royce to accept the idea of supplying every Rolls Royce car with a mascot despite his numerous objections. The Spirit of Ecstasy is still one of the most recognizable brand logos in the world.

A FRIEND INDEED

In 1911, Royce’s body collapsed due to years of stress and overwork. Johnson, as part of his recovery, took Royce on a long road trip from Europe to Egypt. Royce was captivated by the small hamlet of Le Canadel near Nice when he stopped in the South of France during the return trip. Johnson, who knew Royce well, bought a plot of land and commissioned a house for Royce and a smaller villa to accommodate visiting drafters. Royce spent the winters (very sensibly!) at Le Canadel and, from 1917, his summers at Elmstead, West Wittering in West Sussex.

‘THE HYPHEN OF ROLLS ROYCE’

Johnson was the CEO of Rolls-Royce from 1926 until his death at age 61. He was the company’s longest-serving CEO, with 20 years of service. His impact on the marque is wide-ranging, profound, and irreversible. He was so important to its growth and development that he’s still known as “the hyphen” in Rolls-Royce.

WORTHY SUCCESSORS

Rolls-Royce’s senior executive’s title has changed over the years. Johnson was the Commercial Managing director; those who followed him were called Chairman and then Chief Executive Officer (CEO), a title still used today. Two of Claude Johnson’s successors from the years before the Goodwood era stand out because they made a lasting contribution to the company’s identity and success.

Driven to Success

Ernest Hives was Charles Rolls’s chauffeur and then worked in the workshop of C S Rolls & Co before joining Rolls-Royce in 1908 as an experimental tester. He was a part of the 1907 15,000-mile endurance test and the 1911 London to Edinburgh race with cars in only top gear. In the same year, he achieved the 100mph mark in a Silver Ghost chassis 1701. He led the Rolls-Royce Works team on the 1913 Alpine Trial with Silver Ghosts, cementing Rolls-Royce as the ‘best car in the World.’

Hives, armed with his extensive engineering knowledge, set up an experimental department that helped Rolls-Royce develop its aero engines and automotive products. He was appointed Board Director and General Work Manager in 1937. His most important act was the division of the company’s aero engine and car (chassis operations) into two separate entities. This is still the case today. Hives was responsible for the production of 160,000 Merlin aero engines during the Second World War. He was also an early and staunch advocate of jet-engine technology.

Hives was appointed Managing Director in 1946 and Chairman of the Board in 1950. Charles Rolls was his chauffeur when he was 17 years old. Now, he is the head of Charles Rolls’ eponymous firm. He retired in 1955.

A COMPLETE CHANGE

Dr Frederick Llewellyn Smith, also known as Doc, was given the difficult task in 1945 of converting Rolls-Royce’s Crewe factory from its role during World War II, making Merlin aero engines into a civilian car manufacturing facility. He was the Main Board Director and the Managing Director of the Motor Car Division. In addition to his organizational skills, Doc had a knack for predicting future trends.

In 1950, during a trip to the USA, he was convinced that the British coachwork that was still fitted to many Rolls-Royces was outdated and that an urgent need for a “new look” was evident. The marque, under his direction, produced the Silver Dawn and the highly successful Silver Cloud. These were the first cars to be built (chassis and bodies) in a Rolls-Royce plant. Silver Shadow, with its semi-monocoque chassis design, was the first model to realize his bold vision. Silver Shadow was the most popular Rolls-Royce in the pre-Goodwood period. The Silver Shadow’s advanced engineering was way ahead of its time. Doc was popular with the staff and succeeded Ernest Hives in 1967 as Chairman.

INVITE YOURSELF TO THE MODERN ERA

Torsten Müller-Otvos took over the Rolls-Royce Motor Cars baton in 2010. He has been the Chief Executive of the company for nearly 14 years, the second-longest tenure since Johnson. Torsten Muller-Otvos has also overseen the complete transformation of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars and its products, just like his predecessors from the 20th century. Under his leadership, the Black Badge, Dawn, Wraith, and Cullinan families were all introduced. Bespoke was also expanded, and coachbuilding became a permanent capability. Torsten led the company to the future that Rolls predicted in 1900, with the launch of the first electric Rolls-Royce Spectre in 2022.

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