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

The essays duly ran in the newspaper, with, as expected, the Rolls-Royce trip chosen as the cover article, mainly because of the emblematic accompanying photograph. This showed me hamming it up outside the city gates in Kiev. In it, I am sitting on the hood of the mighty blue car, which has been freshly polished and is showroom-gleaming and therefore the embodiment of rich, vulgar capitalism. I am pointing at something or somewhere in the middle distance. What made the image coverworthy was that Patrick had set our Rolls-Royce directly in front of a huge agitprop painting of Comrade Lenin, who was standing, chest out and legs apart in manly fashion, pointing his index finger at the same uplifted angle as my arm, and also into the same middle distance, to a mythical destination that was presumably, for the people of Kiev, the brave and glorious future of the USSR. The contrast could not have been better chosen, the irony inescapable. The publication issue sold well in London; it was banned, I think, in Kiev. The brief local success of the piece spawned a decade of unanticipated gratitude and generosity from the public relations staff at Rolls-Royce Motors, worldwide. My very next assignment for the newspaper was to write an essay on the gangs of East Los Angeles, as the 1984 Olympic Games were about to open and the local authorities were said to be fretful. Accordingly, I flew to California with another photographer and, upon checking in to the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, was more than a little surprised to be handed a small brown envelope with a letter inside from Rolls-Royce of Beverly Hills, and a set of keys. "Enjoy your stay," the letter read. "This is on us."

"This" was a brand-new behemoth of a car, a black-and- white Rolls-Royce Camargue, the most expensive production car in the world at the time, and one of the least attractive. It was a two-door monster of a machine designed by an Italian on what was evidently a very bad day. It was slow and cumbersome and heavy and a classic example of automotive mutton dressed as lamb, and as such, it attracted much unwanted attention. I was waiting at a red light one hot afternoon when a pair of young women in a convertible drew up alongside. "That a Rolls-Royce?" the driver asked. "Yes," I replied. She laughed. "Ugliest fucking car I've ever seen."

The story of the Camargue amply illustrates a difference between precision and accuracy. For while the engineers had lovingly made yet another model of a car that enjoyed great precision in every aspect of its manufacture, those who had commissioned and designed and marketed and sold it had no feel for the accuracy of their decisions. As a result, the Camargue was a serious commercial flop, the Edsel of Crewe. The company, just then starting the slow decline that would end with the nick on my finger and the snapping of the brake cable and the transfer to German ownership a decade or so later, sold just a few more than five hundred Camargues over the ten years the model was in production. In 1985, the year after I had my two-week loan of it (an unsold and unsellable model from the Beverly Hills back lot, I came to realize), the company put it out of its misery and shut Camargue production down for good.

Had there been more justice in the world, the company would have been named Royce-Rolls, as Henry Royce was the man who made the cars, while Charles Rolls simply (and flamboyantly) sold them. Yet, with the name known for years as one of the most familiar brands of all time—only Coca-Cola is said to have been better known—the notion of altering it by even the most infinitesimal degree has long been considered a sacrilege. The hyphen, for instance, is sacrosanct. The diminutive use of "Rolls" is said to have been regarded as inexpressibly vulgar. The men on the shop floor, if pressed to speak about their creations in familiar terms, called them "Royces."

It was all to the good that Henry Royce was born near Peterborough,* where, soon after his birth in 1863, the Great Northern Railway happened to have built a locomotive repair and maintenance workshop. For although his childhood was both impoverished (in his youth he was obliged to work variously as a bird scarer, newspaper seller, and telegram delivery boy) and harsh (he was just nine when his father died, and in the poorhouse), he had an aunt who with great prescience believed that to learn the trade of engine building would set the boy on course for life. So she paid for three years of apprenticeship for young Henry in the Great Northern Railway workshop, a place that would soon go on to build and repair some of the finest and swiftest ever of Britain's steam locomotives. And just as she had hoped, her decision to pay her nephew's fees set him on course for making engines himself. Though, to be sure, his would be motorcar engines that would come to enjoy great repute, and they would be of much greater mechanical delicacy than the ironbound, coal-gorging monsters on which he had trained and numbers of which he had helped bring out from the Peterborough railway sheds.

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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