Excerpt from The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Perfectionists

How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

by Simon Winchester

The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester X
The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 432 pages

    May 2019, 416 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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Print Excerpt

Yet, for both men and both endeavors, extreme mechanical precision was the key—precision, wielded either with the methodical tenderness of an engineer who believed himself an artist, or with the ruthless determination of an engineer who believed himself a revolutionary. A comparison of the two companies will illustrate the manner in which precision, by now, in the early years of the twentieth century, a fully established and essential component of civilized existence, was applied in two very different manners, and with two very different eventual consequences.

It is unlikely now that I will ever have the wherewithal to own a Rolls-Royce, confirming a condition that has been true for all my days so far. Still, I have long admired the machine. Back at university, I was part of a small group that owned a 1933 model, the classic 20/25, that had been hastily and unattractively converted into a hearse. It drove easily and generally ran well, though its fuel consumption was unpredictable, unstated, and, for university students, profoundly unaffordable. We seldom took it out for more than a casual spin. A friend had a harpsichord, which he mounted in the rear, and he would play it as we drove, entertaining passersby. On the one occasion when the car, on a trip into the Cotswolds, actually did break down (or when it "failed to proceed," as Rolls-Royce then preferred one to say), the engineers who arrived to make repairs brought a set of black felt coverings to try to mask the car's identity and save the company embarrassment. This was a largely pointless exercise, and fooled nobody: people would see the felt pads on the "RR" hubcaps and would spy the black tea cosy–like arrangement that more or less covered the Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament and the Grecian-style radiator on top of which she stood, and would recognize instantly what marque of car was in trouble.

My fondness for the motorcar took fuller flight some years later, in early 1984, when I was given an assignment for a London newspaper to write a number of essays about mainland Europe—about which, an editor cynically remarked, the average Briton knew little, and wished to know less. The essays were each to be reports of my chosen journeys among a variety of cities and made in a variety of ways. So I took a boat from Stockholm to Helsinki; I walked from Cadiz to Gibraltar; I took a train from Victoria Station in London to the Hotel Victoria in Brig, on the Swiss-Italian frontier; and I was to drive a car—this was intended to be the assignment's cover story—from the westernmost point of Europe to its most easterly, from the headlands of Atlantic Galicia to the then-Soviet city of Astrakhan, where the Volga meets the Caspian Sea.

I left this epic car journey until last, once I was done with the sailing and walking and train riding. Initially, I had been planning to take the old family Volvo on what would be a many-thousand- mile odyssey—except that, toward the end of what must have been a rather too fortifying lunch in central London, I had wondered out loud to Patrick, the photographer who was making the expedition with me, why not take a Rolls-Royce? It might make quite a stir in the Soviet Union, after all.

It was all too easy. A swift call to the company's PR department, and all was fixed in no more than half an hour: a Silver Spirit in Ocean Blue would be coming off the production line the following morning—a canceled order—and if I could trouble myself to take a train up to the factory in Crewe, the car could be mine for the next two months. "Bring it back in one piece is all we ask," said the PR man the next morning as he gave me the keys. We shook hands, and Patrick the photographer and I drove off.

The adventures that befell us on what turned out to be the most epic of journeys do not belong in these pages. The precision of the car's inner workings and the fastidiousness of those who had prepared it for the voyage were such that the eventual ten thousand miles of driving were accomplished impeccably, in perfect and quiet comfort, at high speed where necessary—on occasion, in Bavaria, at as much as 140 miles per hour, no small speed for a three-ton car—and without even the most trivial of mechanical incidents. The only visit to a mechanic came when I met the dealer in Vienna (in those days, Rolls-Royce's most easterly outpost) to have the engine's timing slightly altered to take account of the low-quality fuel we would likely encounter beyond the Iron Curtain. "Though, quite candidly," said the dealer, patting the warm cylinder head, "this engine could run happily on peanut butter, it's so accommodating."

From the book:The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester. Copyright © 2018 by Simon Winchester. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

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