The Dark Arts

Sensitive to its changing demographic and everattentive to their needs, the Rolls-Royce Black Badge series is a masterclass in stealth wealth. Ben Oliver takes one for a night drive

By Ben Oliver

February 14 2023

You won’t often see former Tory grandee, Strictly contestant and Celebrity Big Brother inmate Ann Widdecombe referenced in a review of a Rolls-Royce, but stick with me. Readers with long memories will recall how she sank Michael Howard’s ambitions to lead the Conservative Party in 1997 with one of the most efficient and deadly political epithets of recent years, describing him as having “something of the night about him”.

There is something of the night about most of us Boisdale regulars, and some might see this as a quality to seek out. But at the time Widdecombe’s neat phrase crystallised the public’s faint distrust of the oleaginous Howard. The effect on his career was catastrophic, if not completely terminal. He finished last in that year’s leadership election, but returned in 2003 to lead his party into another spectacular electoral car crash in 2005.

“A mightily impressive piece of engineering, not just a luxury good”
“A mightily impressive piece of engineering, not just a luxury good”

Rolls-Royce would also differ with Ann’s view of these nocturnal qualities. Despite its patrician image, Rolls-Royce as reimagined by BMW over the past 20 years has played well with a youthful demographic. Chinese tech-billionaires in their twenties and thirties like to celebrate (and display) their success by treating themselves to what is literally the Rolls-Royce of automobiles. The average age of a Rolls-Royce customer – depressingly for your 47-year-old correspondent – is just 43.

Yet these younger customers once felt that Rolls-Royce did not really ‘get’ them. A few years ago, the marque’s urbane, long-serving German CEO, Torsten Muller-Ötvos, met a young client in Los Angeles who had taken his Rolls to a Fast and Furious-style customiser to have it ‘murdered-out’: dark paint, dark windows, black wheels, and all the traditional chrome brightwork replaced with sombre black detailing.

High comfort seats make for a gliding sensation for driver and passenger alike
High comfort seats make for a gliding sensation for driver and passenger alike

Muller-Ötvos was disappointed. Almost every Rolls-Royce leaves the factory with unique, bespoke features commissioned by the customer; anything they ask for, so long as it doesn’t interfere significantly with the hallmark Spirit of Ecstasy and ‘Pantheon’ grille. Want your Rolls in double bubblegum pink, inside and out? It’s been done.

Rolls-Royce makes whatever its clients want, and the idea that this young customer thought that the factory wouldn’t build the modern car he wanted troubled Muller-Ötvos. So, six years ago he debuted the Black Badge series of cars – each one a subtly murdered-out version of a standard Rolls-Royce model – aimed at a younger, edgier crowd. In the words of the press release, they’re for “supremely confident people who engage with the night, go where it leads, and take all it has to offer as their just reward”.

This Ghost Black Badge is the latest to be launched. The figurine and grille have been given a black-chrome finish and the wheels and cabin are finished in gloss-black carbon fibre, if you wish. There are discreet increases to the power and performance too, with the
monstrous ‘six-and-three-quarter’ twin-turbocharged V12 engine gaining another 29 horsepower for a total of 600. The ‘low’ button on the columnmounted gear stalk once selected first gear for pulling away on steep inclines, but now it discreetly engages the closest thing a Rolls-Royce offers to a ‘sport’ mode, with sharpened gear changes, less lean in hard cornering, and a very slightly ruder exhaust note.

Rear cabin drinks fridge and fluted glasses – the ultimate in sybaritic style
Rear cabin drinks fridge and fluted glasses – the ultimate in sybaritic style

I drove the car so early that its existence hadn’t yet been acknowledged, so the test had to happen, appropriately, at night. I started at Turweston Aerodrome near Silverstone, whose runway allowed the Black Badge to hit nearly 140mph with imperious ease, the gearshifts a little more urgent but never jarring. It brakes back down with equal disdain and utter composure. It’s good to reconnect with a Rolls-Royce as a mightily impressive piece of engineering, and not just a luxury good.

On the public road, the standard Ghost could be accused of letting a little too much of the surface below into the cabin, and not being quite as eerily disconnected as you might hope. The Black Badge is no worse, and if you’re going to drive it a little harder, a little more connection with the road is no bad thing.

Usually, you drive a Rolls-Royce as your chauffeur would, adducing power gently and bleeding the speed back off the same way. The Ghost Black Badge encourages otherwise. You might drive it more ‘on the throttle’, like a sports car, using your right foot to adjust the car’s attitude and angle through a bend, and leaning a little more heavily on those firmer air springs. It feels inappropriate, at first, like goosing a duchess, but you soon discover that this car does brisk as well as it does stately.

If you’re being driven, the Black Badge treatment does little to disrupt the sybarism of the cabin. The thick rugs, almost-oily leather, and fat, solid nuggets of chrome and aluminium from which it is constructed are non-automotive in their quality. It’s better compared to the very best furniture or a sporting gun for its tactile quality and the precision of its actions. There’s wit and playfulness too, in the ‘starlight’ headliner lit by thousands of pinprick LEDs, or in the artwork you can commission and install on the dashboard.

As I was driven back to London, I found a champagne cooler in the rear, with a couple of crystal flutes and a clever means of securing them. Memories from this point on are somewhat fractured, though the free bottle of Nyetimber had no impact on this verdict, I promise. If there’s something of the night about you, this modern take on a British institution is both desirable and deeply compelling as a super-luxury saloon. You just need a day job that stretches to the quarter
of a million quid required