Claude Johnson, the unsung saviour of Rolls-Royce

Apart from Henry Royce, the most influential person to shape the future of Rolls-Royce was Claude Goodman Johnson. In view of Royce’s bad health and the early death of Rolls it is doubtful if the company could have survived without Johnson’s steadying hand. The thought of building cars, however, did not feature at all in his early days.

His father had worked for many years at the South Kensington Museum in the Science and Art Department and became quite an artistic connoisseur. It was assumed that Claude would have a similar career and after an education in a private school he went to the Royal College of Art. It soon became clear though that he was just not cut out to become an artist. His first job was as a clerk at the Imperial Institute; this was a museum devoted to the activities and achievements of the British Empire.

He became quite proficient in organising special exhibitions; and in 1896 no less a person than the Prince of Wales, who had decided that the motorcar had come to stay, decided that he was the ideal person to organise an exhibition devoted to them. This was an enormous honour and Johnson was feted by many of the leading lights of the car owning fraternity (who were almost all wealthy and influential people) and in particular a gentleman called Frederick Simms who founded the RAC, then known as the Automobile Club of Great Britain. He offered Johnson a job as the club’s secretary with a reasonable salary plus a decent commission for every member that he signed up.

This was not as easy as it sounds. A prospective member didn’t just have to pay a not inconsiderable annual fee but he (they were invariably male) had to belong to ‘the right sort of people’. In order to afford a car in those days a motorist had to be very wealthy so not surprisingly the Automobile Club of Great Britain was one of the most class conscious societies in the country.

To pass muster it was highly inadvisable not to be ‘in trade’, to have a dubious background or be of somewhat ungentlemanly appearance. ‘Common’ people like this were invariably blackballed but as in all things snobbish there was more than a hint of hypocrisy; Charles Rolls was a member despite being a little careless in his dress and his habit of bringing his own sandwiches to the club led to him eventually being charged 6d every time he did it.More than one member accused him of not having spent enough time at Eton learning how to behave. Also founder member S F Edge had not only been a boxer but also a racing driver with a spell in the car business. Still he no doubt had other characteristics (such as wealth) to recommend him.

As well as Rolls, Johnson became very friendly with newspaper proprietor Alfred Harmsworth, who eventually became Lord Northcliffe. This friendship would be extremely useful in the future in promoting not only motoring generally, but Rolls-Royce cars specifically. Harmsworth’s newspaper, the Daily Mail, carried articles based on information provided by Johnson; he would never accept payment for this (which may not have gone down too well with the other members of the club. It's vulgar to work for payment don't you know) but when Johnson went into partnership with Charles Rolls to sell cars, and then eventually with Royce and Claremont in Rolls-Royce, the free publicity he got back in return was invaluable.

By the time of the partnership between Rolls and Johnson both men were well-known amongst the carbuying, or potentially carbuying, wealthier echelons of society and they knew the market inside out. Whilst Rolls had a flair for salesmanship and getting things done, Johnson was an excellent administrator and organiser. These capabilities were vital when first of all Royce’s health began to suffer, and then Rolls met his untimely death, and on each occasion the future of the company rested on Johnson’s capable shoulders.