The Spectator: Ghost story – the dark side of Rolls-Royce

The Black Badge Ghost is the marque’s alter ego.

Some years ago, I was despatched to Las Vegas to learn how to be a chauffeur. The Wynn Hotel had purchased a fleet of Rolls-Royces, and their Aloysius Parkers were being taught how to drive the Rolls-Royce way – i.e a cut above your Lincoln Town Car etiquette. “The umbrella can be used both defensively and offensively,” I recall Andi McCann saying, as if he’d walked off the set of Kingsman. Andi is the personal driver to Rolls’ CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös and the company’s lead trainer. I learnt many things on his white-glove course, starting with how umbrellas, housed inside each door, can be used to protect from paparazzi and marauders; why the car must always be parked with its rear to the kerb (the other way would be disrespectful to the ornamental winged lady); and why you always place luggage in the boot before opening the suicide doors for the client (peace of mind that their valuables are safe). The ‘principal’ client is sat behind the passenger seat, diagonally across from the driver. Once on board, you make eye-contact with them in the rear-view mirror to check they’re at ease, and then you flip the mirror for their privacy. At this point came an obvious question: What is the protocol if the client is hoovering rails of cocaine off the custom marquetry? “Try not to spill any”, came Andi’s reply.

Which brings us to the Black Badge Ghost, a Rolls-Royce which is more likely to be driven by the owner than the regular (or ‘silver’) Ghost, but where there’s definitely a party going on inside. A Black Badge car sees the grille and Spirit of Ecstasy sprayed black. It has huge, brawny carbon-fibre rims. It eschews mahogany for modern materials and is liable to be painted or upholstered in popping colours that are more Miami (turquoise and orange) than Royal Mews (claret and cream). Even behind the wheel it feels edgier, due to its slightly firmer ride, more urgent throttle and discernible growl. It’s designed for a younger demographic: filthy rich under 40s who identify as disrupters.

A decade ago, if you’d visited the home of a Rolls-Royce owner and asked the way to the loo, they’d have told you “down the hall, past the Monet and left at the Picasso”, recalling the floorplan of Jeffrey Archer’s penthouse. But now, at least as far as the Black Badge gang goes, it’s more likely that the owner’s art collection comes in the form of NFTs. They reject suits for streetwear and use blockchain not banks.

Why are NFTs changing hands for hundreds of thousands – sometimes tens of millions – of pounds? Don’t ask me; at least with the Black Badge Ghost you can see where the money’s gone. This is a glorious thing, inside and out. How much does it cost? Rolls-Royce won’t even tell you – not until it’s been fully spec’d up anyway. There is no starting price. That’s how bespoke it is.

Black Badging extends not only to the four-door Ghost, but the Wraith coupé, Dawn convertible and Cullinan SUV too, and was triggered by a trip Mr Müller-Ötvös took to Los Angeles. He emerged from Beverly Hills’ SLS Hotel one evening to find a chap pulling up in a Phantom Drophead which had been independently pimped and “murdered-out”. Introducing himself, Müller-Ötvös said to the driver “I like it, but why have you done this?” The man – a plastic surgeon – told him he’d wanted a car that gave him an alter-ego.

The meeting inspired a more assertive direction for product styling. TMÖ had to lobby Rolls’ owner BMW, which after considerable resistance finally backed down and allowed the Spirit of Ecstasy to go dark – both literally and metaphorically. Black Badge now represents nearly 30 percent of all Rolls-Royce sales, and takes inspiration from the fact their customers all carry a black Am-Ex Centurion card. Black means luxurious, exclusive, mysterious and minted.

Buyers can define their own custom hue, or select from 44,000 (that’s not a typo) prét-à-porter colours. Most simply opt for the signature black. Just as catholic priests (in Father Ted’s telling, anyway) wear the blackest socks, Rolls boasts the industry’s darkest black. The paint weighs 45kg alone. The whole car, unladen with Kardashians and Krug, is a whisker under 2.5 tonnes.

Like Michael Howard, there’s something of the night about this car. With darkness as the theme and with it due to descend en route, I’m handed the keys to an all black example and tasked with driving from Rolls’ Mayfair showroom to Hove on the East Sussex coast for an on-brand dinner. I think the theory is that Hove is the edgiest place one can reach two hours from W1 without risking those 21in rims getting pinched. The name ‘Hove’ immediately makes me think of Jay-Z – and if you don’t get that rap reference then I’m afraid you don’t qualify to become a Black Badge member.

Having wrestled south through the rush hour traffic, the road clears after Purley and the flying lady tears through the foggy dusk (over 40mph, at last!), the car’s shadow stretched like that of an Ikko Narahara photo as we approach the M23. The Ghost’s twin-turbocharged 6.75-litre V12 is sufficient in anyone’s book, but this one generates an extra 28bhp – a total output of 591 thoroughbreds. When it comes to performance, the engineers had an interesting challenge; to create a driving personality that matches the Black Badge’s visual intent without compromising that famed magic carpet ride. The Ghost’s all-aluminium spaceframe architecture is superb starting point, both stiff in body and flexible in adaptability. This car has four-wheel-steer as well as all-wheel-drive. It also boasts the genius Rolls-patented Planar suspension system which irons out the dips and bumps. These systems, all on the regular Ghost, have been reengineered for Black Badge, including fitting more voluminous air springs to alleviate body roll under more assertive cornering. Between that and the satellite-aided transmission, this limousine takes roundabouts like a Lotus.

These roundabouts pave the way to Etch, a fine dining restaurant by Masterchef: The Professionals winner Steven Edwards, who took the show’s spoils ten years ago at the age of 26. Set on Hove’s Church Road in what was once a bank, there are 12 tables and one choice – the tasting menu. But I and my fellow Rolls-Royce arrivistes (as in, this is how we each arrived) are ensconced in the private dining room downstairs, adjacent to Edwards’ cellar bar ‘Ink’, which was previously a tattoo parlour. The walls are black, with dark and moody artworks of skulls by Magnus Gjoen, a former designer for Vivienne Westwood, and flashes of neon by street artist Ben Slow. The food and cocktail menus both promise to “breathe new life into classics”, which seems to sum up what Black Badge is about. And like the Marmite-infused bread we’re served, maybe a murdered-out Rolls isn’t for everyone (although I hate Marmite, and this brioche was bloody delicious).

After our seven-course indulgence, a chauffeur appears to whisk The Sunday Times’ John Arlidge and me back to London. The rear of a Black Badge Ghost is a most cossetting place to sit and savour the warm buzz from the wine pairing and stare up at the Starlight Headliner – hundreds of skilfully-woven fibre-optic LEDs representing the night’s sky, including shooting stars. Kitsch, maybe, but atmospheric (and a five-figure accessory, FYI). The dash has aluminium fibres rendered in carbon, known as Technical Weave. The sense of noir is heightened by subduing all the brightwork. There are seatback TVs, and crystal flutes included in the fizz fridge behind the arm rest – but no bottle, so we are denied a nightcap on the way home.

The ambiance treads a very fine line between red carpet glitz and luxuriant substance. Rolls’ aesthetes have, I’m told, turned to haute couture for inspiration, in particular the work of Kei Ninomiya, Rick Owens, Yohji Yamamoto and John Varvatos. In terms of peers, Rolls has also compared its work to pioneering sailing yachts Maltese Falcon, Black Pearl and Philippe Starck’s Sailing Yacht A.

When the Black Badge range started to appear six years ago, a lot of traditionalists were up in arms that Rolls-Royce was diverting from polished chrome and lacquered walnut. But the bulk of Rolls’ global audience is nouveau riche and always has been. A lot of the criticism of bold hues, aggressive wheels and sparkly lights has undercurrents of ageism and racism.

From its very earliest days, Rolls-Royce has attracted creative minds, free spirits and iconoclasts – John Lennon, Elvis and Elton among them. It’s worth considering that the company’s founders, Charles Rolls and Henry Royce, were the disrupters of their day. Had they been born a century later, maybe they could pass for Silicon Valley bros. Their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different (engineer Royce came from nothing, while aristo Rolls wore white tie spattered with oil, earning him the nickname ‘Dirty Rolls’), but they were both mightily ambitious and bonded over their love of technology and desire to shake things up. These guys were the Elon Musk and Peter Thiel of yesteryear, and with the Black Badge Ghost their visionary and subversive ways are being celebrated today.

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