SAN DIEGO — Rolls-Royce is one of the most exciting car companies in the world, and its cars are, perhaps, the least exciting part.
It's the Rolls-Royce client that fascinates me. What type of person spends $500,000 on an automobile that gets from Point A to Point B in essentially the same way as a Honda Civic?
It's easy (but incorrect) to dismiss them as simply obnoxious rich people, but there are plenty of obnoxious rich people that don't buy wildly expensive luxury cars. And there are plenty of obnoxious not-rich people, too.
In fact, the Rolls-Royce buyer is a fascinating creature. They are wealthy, naturally. But the reason to buy a Rolls varies hugely. I spoke to one client — Rolls would never deign to call owners of its vehicles "owners" or "customers" — who also owns a yacht and a Gulfstream, and I asked him why he bought his first Rolls-Royce.
"To show myself that I'd made it," he explained. At first, I was surprised. Why would a successful entrepreneur need to prove anything to themselves? But thinking more, I realized that no matter how wealthy and successful someone is, we all need reassurance from time to time.
He'd always dreamed of owning a Rolls-Royce. And, for this client, going out to the garage and looking at his Ghost was a reminder that he was achieving those dreams. But a Rolls-Royce owner doesn't have anything to prove to anyone else. That's what Lamborghinis are for.
In 2016, Rolls-Royce debuted Black Badge. It's a darker, more sinister alter ego for the storied brand, swapping shiny chrome for a darker alternative. When it launched, I wrote that Rolls-Royce was elevating "murdered out" to an art form. It's an oversimplification but gets the point across.
Black Badge is a stunning but subtle change to the standard Rolls formula, as if anything about these cars can be standardized. The polished Spirit of Ecstasy statuette mounted high on the hood, and the Pantheon Grille are treated with a chrome electrolyte to darken the stainless-steel substrate. The result is a mirror-black chrome that somehow absorbs and reflects light simultaneously.
The wheels are made up of 22 layers of carbon fiber folded back upon themselves to make a total of 44 layers of ultra-strong fiber. Usually, carbon fiber makes parts lighter, but Rolls-Royce craftsmen used it to make a rolling piece of engineering art.
The artwork continues elsewhere as well. The Illuminated Fascia sits above the glove box on the passenger side. At rest, it looks like a black piece of lacquered material. But behind it hides 152 LEDs exactly color-matched to the clock and instrument panel lighting. The light is scattered across 90,000 laser-etched dots to illuminate the Lemniscate, the infinity symbol that makes up the Black Badge logo.
The cumulative effect looks simple — it's illuminated from behind, dispersing a bit of light through the cabin. The execution is mind-boggling, and it illustrates the extreme lengths the craftsmen and women will go to make each Rolls-Royce a rolling sculpture.
In the press release for the new Black Badge Ghost, which I drove last week in San Diego, Rolls-Royce says "Black Badge is not just an aesthetic — it is an experience." This sounds absurd, but it makes sense when we think about the client's explanation for why he bought a Rolls-Royce in the first place.
A Rolls PR rep told us about a doctor who bought a Black Badge and said that he played Mr. Nice Guy all week long, wearing a white lab coat and working in sparkling facilities. He wanted to adopt a new, darker, more sinister persona on the weekend, and Black Badge allowed him the space to do that.
This is the automotive equivalent of putting on a black tuxedo. No matter who you are, slipping on a tux changes how you feel about yourself. You become a bit more James Bond or Frank Sinatra just by changing your outfit. And so it is with the Black Badge.
The Black Badge Ghost takes some simple design tweaks and reengineers them into something far greater. With new color palettes, materials, and even engineering improvements to bring more power and a slightly tweaked ride, the choice to commission a Black Badge says much about the client.
Rolls says Black Badge is for "subversive clients" who "built their success by breaking rules, taking risks, and challenging conventions." They "reject suits for streetwear" and "influence the analog world through their digital endeavors."
It sounds absurd, but the company knows its clients, and Black Badge has been a hit. Before it launched, Rolls executives thought it might account for perhaps 15% of commissions. It's nearly double that, drawing a younger, hipper group of buyers.
There isn't much to say about how the Black Badge Ghost drives. It feels identical to a standard Ghost, except for the glimpse of the dark, mysterious Spirit of Ecstasy on the very front of the hood. It's a visual reminder of everything Black Badge represents.
The Black Badge Ghost is ready to conquer the world, just like its owners.