Rolls-Royce's Lesser Known Rivals: Luxury Cars of the Bygone Era

Rolls-Royce is one of the most iconic automobile brands in the world, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t had to face some stiff competition over the years.

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Rolls-Royce is one of the most iconic automobile brands in the world, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t had to face some stiff competition over the years.

Through the years, lesser-known cars have succeeded in giving Rolls Royce a run for its money.

  • Napier T21 (1907)
  • Lanchester 40 (1921)
  • Lagonda V12 (1938)
  • Citroen DS19 (1955)
  • Daimler Majestic Major (1959)

The words “Rolls-Royce” have been associated with the ultimate affluence for decades. Still, in an ever-changing automotive world, this iconic car brand finds itself in an era of challenge. As modern technologies evolve, making automobiles more automated than ever, luxury car companies struggle to keep up or be left behind. Even though the Rolls Royce brand has centered on quality craftsmanship with an attention to detail and a burning passion for all things excellent, continuing to reign supreme may be daunting. Yet, this is not the first time Rolls Royce has faced competition. Throughout its history, other car companies have tested the ability of RR to hold onto its customer base, but none have succeeded in dethroning the “king” of luxury. While most of these usurpers have been long forgotten, we thought it might be fun to look at some of these lesser-known Rolls-Royce rivals to remind ourselves that true luxury never goes out of style, no matter how fierce the winds of technology might steer our world.

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What Are Some Classic Rivals Of Rolls-Royce?

While plenty of Rolls-Royce’s competitors have come and gone over the years, we have selected some of the best luxury cars from previous eras.

1907 Napier T21 (1907)

1907 Napier T21
Image credit: 1907 Napier T21

Even though the engineering and manufacturing company, D. Napier & Son, Ltd, was in its third generation of family ownership, the early 1900s brought it to the precipice of financial ruin. The financial hardship forced the founder’s grandson to venture into engineering and manufacture automobiles in a bold move to save the company.

The decision proved to be a good one, as the results were almost immediate. Napier soon became known for innovation and design. During the early 1900s, Napier set many land speed records, establishing a firm hold on the British racing legacy. Napier cars were often painted green in honor of their racing car wins.

The 1907 Napier T21 was powered by a 7.7L six-cylinder engine with 469 cubic inches of displacement. The engine consisted of three blocks of two cylinders, each with a 5-inch bore and 4-inch stroke. The rear-wheel drive vehicle had a three-speed manual transmission, coil ignition, and semi-elliptic front springs with a platform suspension on the rear.

Perhaps the biggest claim to fame that Napier has is when S.F. Edge (Napier’s top salesperson) wanted to demonstrate the car’s reliability). He drove three Napiers non-stop for hours straight, covering 1581 miles at an average speed of 65.95 mph. (The record stood for 18 years).

Soon after the 1907 race, Napier turned its attention to building more profitable aero engines for the British military. Still, during the Edwardian era, Napier cars proved to be one of RR's primary competitors and were considered some of the finest examples of automotive propulsion systems ever made.

Lanchester 40 (1921)

Even though Lanchester had experience building automobiles before World War I, when production resumed after the conflict, the company needed help reestablish sales. When the founder, George Lanchester, decided to start with a clean slate, their efforts resulted in the Lanchester 40, which the press would label the “finest car in the world.”

The Lanchester 40 had a straight six-cylinder engine cast in two blocks of three cylinders each, which produced a robust 38.4 hp. (Lanchester rounded the horsepower to “Forty” because they felt it sounded better than the Lanchester 38.4). The engine was a single overhead cam with a bore of 4 inches and a stroke of 5 inches capable of achieving 85 mph. A vacuum-activated fuel pump forced the petrol from the rear toward the front of the car through a single 4v Smith carburetor.

When the Lanchester Forty Saloon made its debut at the London Motor Show in 1919, every facet of the car had been meticulously prepared, from the innovative engine to the glorious interior, which included silk curtains, well-upholstered seats, walnut door paneling, and a dash with silver fittings. The car was the most expensive of any cars shown, costing nearly $49,500 in 2023 dollars.

The press received the car with high praise, but sales were erratic. In an attempt to produce sales, Lanchester redesigned the car and cut prices, but production continued to lag despite the changes. (His Majesty George VI purchased a Lanchester 40 in 1925, but even this sale could not right the ship).

Duesenberg Model J (1928)

Duesenberg Model J
Duesenberg Model J

When Erratt Lobban Cord rescued the Duesenberg Automotive Group from financial receivership in 1926, he aimed to fashion the finest luxury car ever. The Duesenberg Model J launched in 1928, and initial reports indicated that the company might have pulled off the feat had their timing been better.

Each car was handcrafted with optimal attention to every detail, inside and out. The Model J was powered by a 6.9L straight eight, double overhead cam, displacing 420 cubic inches. The engine produced 265 hp and had a top speed of 118 mph, making it one of the most powerful of its day. Its introduction forced a race toward higher power and propulsion systems, forcing companies like Cadillac’s V12 and Packard’s V16 to innovate to compete.

Initially, the American company had big plans for their new model, expecting to sell around 500 units the first year. Unfortunately, the cars' timing could not have been worse, as financial conditions worsened, spurring the Great Depression. The company ended up producing less than five models in the first year.

After the stock market crash in 1929, Dusenburg offered supercharged Model Js to celebrities, including a couple of modified Js (SSJs) to Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. (Gable’s SSJ sold in 2018 for $22 million (the highest auction price ever paid for an American car at the time).

Lagonda V12 (1938)

Lagonda V12
Lagonda V12

The Lagonda V12 may have only been built for a couple of years, but in its short life, it put Rolls Royce on notice. The V12 model featured a sizeable 4.5L engine designed by W.O. Bentley, whom Lagonda had lured away from Rolls Royce a few years earlier.

The engine used a sixty-degree configuration with two banks of six cylinders. Each bank had a separate camshaft, chain drive, oil filter, fuel pump, and distributor. Each car was hand-built with luxurious interiors and amenities without regard to cost or expense.

Many of these models were shipped overseas and used as limousines for visiting dignitaries at British embassies. The outbreak of a World War and a long wait time for delivery probably cursed the Lagonda from the beginning. In the end, only 189 Lagonda V12s were made; today, they are rare.

Citroen DS19 (1955)

Citroen DS19
Citroen DS19

The reason the Citroen DS19 model makes our list is due to the influence it had on Rolls Royce. The innovative, futuristic design was never something the folks at RR thought about copying, but the mechanics of the sedan Citroen made were incredible. Citroen pioneered ride quality using hydropneumatic suspension, designed to smooth out even the roughest road surfaces. The car also was the first to offer disc brakes.

When the DS19 debuted in 1955, it culminated almost two decades of secret work, and within 15 minutes of the initial showing, almost a thousand orders had been taken. By the end of the day, the number had jumped to 12K, and at the end of the show, ten days later, there were 80k orders for the futuristic space car. The car continued to sell well throughout its twenty-year production run.

The DS19 created such excitement and innovation that Rolls Royce would eventually adopt the technology when they introduced the Silver Shadow in the mid-sixties.

Daimler Majestic Major (1959)

Daimler Majestic Major
Daimler Majestic Major

The Majestic Major was a fast executive sedan that could do 120 mph at the drop of a hat. Early reviewers were amazed at the car’s powerful V8 engine and ability to handle curves at higher speeds. The 4.5L V8 produced enough power to move the car down the road faster than a Jaguar or many other contemporary sports cars.

The MM was a sophisticatedly complex car for its time. The car deployed a BW 250 automatic transmission, four-wheel power disc brakes, and power steering. The suspension was smooth, with an independent front suspension and rear-elliptic leaf springs mounted on a live rear axle.

The Majestic Major had a production run of about eight years, and 1180 units were manufactured during that time. Many cars were produced for funeral homes, which seems ironic since nobody seems to be hurrying to get to a cemetery.