Just hours before Charles Stewart Rolls met Henry Royce he confided to a friend that he had but one ambition: to be the greatest name in motoring.

Mr Rolls was speaking in the dining car of a train from London to Manchester, where he would agree to a business pact with Mr Royce.

Today is the 100th anniversary of that historic meeting between salesman and inventor, which spawned the most prosperous partnership in British motoring history as well as one of the world's finest aero-engine makers.

History may not relate exactly what the pair talked about in the splendour of Manchester's Midland Hotel, but the memorandum of association drawn up two years later sums up their goal: to provide vehicles and engines "for use on land, or water, or in the air".

Today the momentous partnership will be marked by a series of events in the worlds of motoring and aviation.

The celebrations include a fly-past of an historic Avro Lancaster, from the RAF's Battle of Britain memorial flight and powered, naturally, by Rolls-Royce engines.

For evidence of their prowess on the roads, onlookers can choose from any one of the collection of classic Rollers that will purr through the streets of Manchester, including the latest addition to the sprawling Rolls-Royce family, the Centenary Phantom - one of just 35 made to mark the occasion. The festivities are being hosted by the two companies that share ownership of the historic marque, best symbolised by the entwined initials of their founders.

Tony Gott, the chairman and chief executive of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, now owned by Germany's BMW, and Sir John Rose, who heads the British aircraft engine maker Rolls-Royce, will pay tribute to their respective companies' namesakes at the Midland Hotel.

"For 100 years we have powered the world's most advanced machines on land, at sea, and in the air, creating value for our customers over the lifetime of every engine," Sir John said.

"Today, gas turbine technology lies at the heart of the company; our engines are now so powerful that just one 10cm turbine blade is capable of delivering the same power as a Formula 1 racing car."

Mr Gott pledged: "The engineering excellence upon which the company was founded remains at the centre of all of our plans for the future."

For Mr Royce, the son of a miller and a one-time newspaper boy for WH Smith, Mr Rolls' interest was a ticket to financial success. The aristocratic motorist, nicknamed "Dirty Rolls" at Eton because of his love of rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty, agreed to sell as many cars at his London car dealership, CS Rolls and Co, as Royce Ltd could produce.

Although Mr Rolls was not a fan of the twin-cylinder engines that Mr Royce's cars then had, he was won over by the smoothness of what was to become the company's trademark purr. Although Mr Rolls initially agreed to sell the Royce cars alongside the Panhard, Minerva and Orleans models popular at the time, within just 12 months he abandoned those in favour of Rolls-Royce cars.

Mr Rolls' love of cars predated the time when horseless carriages were first allowed on British roads. He bought his first motor car - a Peugeot - aged 17 while holidaying in France in 1894 with his father. It took Mr Royce almost a decade longer to acquire his first set of wheels: a second-hand Decauville he bought in 1903 for commuting to the engineering business he had set up at Hulme, Manchester. It was only his annoyance at the Decauville's mechanical failings that prompted him to design and make his first car - a 10 hp Royce - that hit Manchester's streets just one month before he came to Mr Rolls' attention.

Although the marque may have survived a century, the two men's partnership lasted just six years, cut short by Mr Rolls' death, aged just 33, in a flying accident in Bournemouth in 1910. As with motoring, Mr Rolls was an air travel pioneer, notching up more than 200 flights in his two Wright Flyers, including the first double crossing of the English Channel.

But it took the outbreak of the First World War to get Rolls-Royce seriously interested in flying. At the request of the Government, the company began producing engines that by 1919 would power the inaugural transatlantic flight as well as the first flight from England to Australia.

The company, which acquired its famous stablemate Bentley in 1931, hung on to its independence until 1980, when it sought what it then saw as a safe haven in the form of a merger with the conglomerate Vickers. But less than two decades later, Vickers put the historic group up for sale in a process later slammed as more resembling a "game of poker" than a serious auction.

It ended in victory for BMW, which acquired the famous Rolls-Royce name in 1998 after a battle with its German rival VW, which had bought the Rolls-Royce Motor Cars company from Vickers for £470m only to discover it needed the permission of the aero-engine manufacturer of the same name in order to continue building Rollers. The aero-engine company instead sold the rights to the name from 2003 onwards to BMW for £40m, leaving VW with just the Bentley brand.

From its new Goodwood base, BMW last year launched the first all-new Roller since before the Second World War. Mr Gott hopes the two-tonne Phantom, which takes up almost 20ft of road and costs £250,000, will double Rolls-Royce's worldwide sales to 1,000 a year, reviving the marque that might never have existed had Mr Rolls not been persuaded to get on that train to Manchester.

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