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 7, 2019, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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Print Excerpt

Chapter 5
(TOLERANCE: 0.000 000 000 1)
The Irresistible Lure
of the Highway

So profound was the effect of the Model T Ford on America, so much did it change the nature of the nation ... its art, its music, its social structure ... its health and wealth and arrogant insularity, that Henry Ford who was responsible for it all must be seen as the most effective revolutionary ... —L. J. K. Setright, Drive On! (2003)

I was closing the trunk of a borrowed Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph one midwinter's day in early 1998 when I felt a sudden sharp sensation in my right index finger. I looked down: a drop of blood was bubbling up from a small nick—insignificant in itself, probably not even worth a Band-Aid. Yet, that some part of a brand-new Rolls-Royce motorcar had been sharp enough to inflict a cut—that did seem worthy of note, not least because the Silver Seraph had been deliberately designed to reinforce, maybe even to reestablish, the idea that in 1998, and despite all the competition, Rolls-Royce Motors still made the very best car in the world.

My co-driver and I checked, running our hands gently across the mirror-smooth surfaces of the rear of the car. There was no doubt this was a beautiful machine: deep blue, with thick wool rugs lining the floor of the trunk, special containers for umbrellas, all the chromium parts thick and solid and highly polished, the lights large and sturdily recessed, even the license-plate holder robust and weatherproof, as if built for a warship.

Except, running my hand along the lower limb of the license-plate holder, I found two tiny screws, and one of them, the right-hand one, seemed to be tilted at an angle such that its razor-sharp steel edge protruded by perhaps a fraction of a millimeter above the mirror-flat surface of the chromium. I ran my thumb across it. There was no doubt; this was the culprit: a simple screw that some apprentice had tried to turn into a hole, that had been ever so imprecisely bored at an angle, fractionally out of true.

For a machine so self-consciously promoted as the motoring world's finest example of precision engineering, and at a price of eye-watering unaffordability to most, this seemed scarcely credible, an unforgivable error, a black mark. My unease was confirmed a few weeks later when a motoring reviewer for one of the London newspapers described how he had taken a Seraph out for a test drive and, after parking it, found not only that could he not release the parking brake, but that the brake handle came off in his hand, its connecting cables having snapped off cleanly somewhere in the bowels of the machine. Clearly someone in the factory was not paying proper attention.

It therefore came as little surprise to me, though of great and shocked dismay to most everyone elsewhere in Britain, that within months, and quite coincidentally, the long-revered institution that had been Rolls-Royce Motors became effectively defunct, and was sold off to the German company Volkswagen.

The company that the world still knows by its hyphenated name, Rolls-Royce (though financial crises and corporate shenanigans of one kind or another have caused there to be all too many versions of the title) was famously founded in Manchester in May 1904. One year previously, in June 1903, and with much-less- remembered ceremony in Detroit, Michigan, the Ford Motor Company had been officially incorporated. Both companies were founded by dedicated, obsessive, oily-handed engineers, both men christened Henry, both born in modest circumstances and in the year 1863.

Once their respective ambitions had jelled, these two men turned out to have markedly different goals. Henry Royce was quite simply committed to building for the discerning few the finest motorcars in the world, no matter the difficulty and with no concern for cost. Henry Ford, on the other hand, was determined to make the world of personal motor transport available to the greatest number of people imaginable, at as low a cost as manufacturing would allow. To achieve their separate ambitions, Henry Royce would assemble a team of craftsmen to build his cars by hand, while Henry Ford would create his cars in immense numbers by, in due course, employing machines to help construct them.

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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