You might think there’s something ironic about Rolls-Royce talking up a new ‘post-opulence’ era. I mean, it’s a Rolls-Royce – surely the only thing in the world more opulent is a 150-metre superyacht with a helicopter on the landing pad. There are probably actual palaces in the world that are less palatial than the top-of-the-range Rolls-Royce Phantom.
But if you think like that, you’re misunderstanding the Rolls-Royce mindset; or rather, the Rolls-Royce customer. And reading the customer – understanding what’s going on in the fickle, ever-shifting world of stratospheric super-luxury – is something Rolls-Royce has become very good at in recent years. In 2021, the BMW-owned company reported its best ever sales results, delivering 5,586 cars around the world. Part of that success is undoubtedly a buoyant billionaires’ market, but it’s also due to a fine-tuned sense of customer sentiment – and an appreciation that taste isn’t static.
‘Covid has had quite an effect,’ says Richard Carter, director of global communications at Rolls-Royce. ‘People have reassessed their approach to their wealth and they are interested in less bling – they want things that are much more meaningful. But we first saw evidence of this well before Covid. Because the car with which we came to market talking about “post-opulence” was the new Ghost – which we launched two years ago. [He means the 2020 Ghost, which followed the first generation launched in 2009]. We were designing that car three years before that, and we already had a sense that many of our customers were moving away from overt displays of luxury. We designed Ghost to be much more restrained in its design.’
The new Ghost has been a big hit, but there’s another factor in this success story – it’s called Black Badge.
‘My chief executive and I were out in LA back in 2014,’ recalls Carter. ‘One evening we were outside our hotel, waiting for our car, and a Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe swept into the driveway, totally murdered-out – I mean, everything was black. The suspension was lowered, it had big rims, the windows were smoked out, all the chrome was darkened. A guy got out – he was all in black – and I stepped forward and asked him about his car. He was really open: turned out he was a cosmetic surgeon who was this doctor during the week, in his whites, doing reconstructive surgery, but – as he put it – “At the weekend, I just like to let go.” He had this alter ego – and we thought, “There’s something in this.”’
The idea grew of an alter ego to the old school, stuffy Rolls-Royce brand, an idea that emerged in 2016 as the Black Badge Wraith, a blacked-out fastback GT with stiffer suspension and a more powerful engine. This was essentially Rolls-Royce doing a bad-boy muscle car – more edgy and subversive. It was a huge hit, and Black Badge versions of the Ghost and Cullinan SUV followed. Expectations that these models might account for 15 per cent of Rolls-Royce sales proved pessimistic: Black Badge now accounts for 40–50 per cent of the business. Not only that – back in 2010 the average age of a Rolls-Royce customer was around 56; now it’s more like 41. Such a turnaround is a dream come true for any established luxury brand.
‘We had to re-imagine Rolls-Royce as this slightly alternative product,’ Carter explains. ‘“Blingness” was decreasing, whether we wanted it to or not – but we also wanted Rolls-Royce to be more substantive, to take advantage of our craftspeople and their skills and our magnificent materials. We wanted to move away from this notion of Rolls-Royce being about gold switchgear and a diamond encrusted Spirit of Ecstasy and so on. We wanted to get into a more sublime territory.’
Which is why the car you’re looking at is so important. Two years after its launch, the new Ghost now gets the Black Badge treatment, making this the essence of modern Rolls-Royce. It’s huge – over five metres long – but there’s also a sober, pared-back minimalism to the lines. Like so many expensive things, the magic is in the detail: the fine shut lines, the incredible 21in carbon-aluminium wheels, the immaculate hand-polished paint (and you can order a Black Badge in any colour you like these days).
To truly understand a Black Badge Ghost, however, you have to touch it. Take the door handle: most car door handles work the same way, but the tactile sense of deeply ingrained quality pervades every molecule of the Ghost, and that means the humble door handle too. The solidity, the precision of the clunk as the latch opens, and the weight of the door as you pull it open – every nuance tells you this is engineered like no other car.
Inside, you’re in a soundproofed cocoon, with the thickest carpets you will ever find in an automobile. I had to reach down and stroke those too. It’s like petting a freshly shampooed llama. The dashboard is finished in perfect leather and a dark ‘technical fibre’ – aircraft grade aluminium thread, woven into carbon fibre. But again, it’s when you touch the machined-from-solid-metal air vent or twist a rotary heater dial that the heavyweight engineering really hits home.
Driving a Ghost (Black Badge or not) is never about on-the-limit handling. The twin turbo 6.75-litre V12 gets an extra 29bhp in the Black Badge, up to 592bhp, and an extra 37lb ft of torque compared to the standard Ghost, for a gigantic 664lb ft at just 1,700rpm.
Truthfully, on the road none of that really matters – it’s not a sports car. Instead, it’s all about the transitions: from off-throttle to pedal down; from power-on to pressing the mighty brakes; or when you move the steering wheel and that huge, 2.5-tonne weight shifts from straight-ahead into a turn. In all these examples, the smoothness of these transitions – the linearity with which the Ghost moves – is absolutely majestic. It’s fast and surprisingly taut for a car this big and heavy, allowing you to make effortless progress in total tranquillity.
And if you’re wondering why anyone would buy the more expensive £260,000 Black Badge Ghost when you could save yourself £50,000 on the standard car… well, I guess that’s a mindset thing again. Black Badge is like an automotive subculture – you either get it or you don’t.