How do you take an already ultra exclusive segment and make it even more so? Perhaps Rolls-Royce Motorcars has found the path to make their offerings even more desirable. Automan attended the global media launch in Las Vegas
Author: Raj Warrior | Photography: Supplied
As we write this tale, the world’s economy is as troubled as it can be. The depressed petroleum market has seen fortunes change for the negative in traditional hydrocarbon exporting countries, while China, the world’s factory, is shifting to an internal demand driven economy. Of course the traditional economic stalwarts seem to be enjoying a bit of good fortune, so it’s not all bad, especially if you stop thinking from a GCC viewpoint.
However, one certainty this time around is that Roll-Royce finds itself in a period of transition while a couple of its largest markets are facing downward pressure. The most significant part of this transitory phase is the phasing out of the Phantom line, with its share of end-of-line specials as well as the declared year-end phase out of the droptop variants. Till the replacement for the Phantom comes to market (and the Cullinan SUV along with that) the entire offering from Rolls-Royce will have to be built around the F01 platform derivative that has spawned the Ghost, Wraith and Dawn. In a sense, a new flagship needs to be presented and that is where the Black Badge seems to be going.
“Today, I am announcing that Rolls-Royce Motor Cars will create a permanent Bespoke series of motor cars for a group of young, driven, self-made people that will make a bold and edgy lifestyle statement about their lives,” commented Torsten Müller-Ötvös, Chief Executive Officer, Rolls- Royce Motor Cars at the global launch during the Geneva motorshow. “In an unprecedented collaboration with these new customers, Rolls-Royce has confidently created ‘Black Badge’, the ultimate in pure luxury style and engineering substance. Technically and aesthetically ‘Black Badge’ is the alter ego of Rolls-Royce Wraith and Ghost; darker, more assertive, more confident and powerful, and more demanding. With Black Badge we have created the most powerful presence on the luxury landscape. It is a truly transformative moment for our great brand.”
During a series of interactions we had in Las Vegas with Giles Taylor, the brand’s director of design, he took us through many visuals of Ghost and Wraith post customization by buyers, with many photographs showing a tendency to black out the car’s exterior. Admittedly some of these jobs were quite tasteless, so it isn’t hard to understand why the Rolls-Royce team found humour in the effort. But what does the brand do, when a customer can already order a car highly customized? It’s an almost self-defeating position to be in – when a company offers extremely high standards of regular kit, with a rather vast array of standard colour and trim options, with the ability for a customer to then sit down with product and design staff to actually get almost anything they want. How do you take this equation to a new level where you are now offering a new standard with the Black Badge – a new standard that is in effect a pre-decided customization? Let’s hear what Giles says about this, “In creating Black Badge, we were conscious of satisfying the different demands of these new customers. Not only did they demand an alternative image for themselves, they demanded authentic Rolls-Royce engineering substance to underpin it. As a result, the Black Badge Spirit manifests itself through a series of carefully considered design elements, which together express a darker luxury sophistication. New material accents and tonalities are combined to accommodate the tastes of those fast-moving customers who adopt a strident approach to life’s finer challenges.”
The Black Badge modifications will be offered on both the Ghost regular wheelbase and Wraith, although the Wraith version still remains the sportier option even after the Black Badge upgrade. But even before the engines get tweaked, the Black Badge tries to bring a semblance of order in exclusivity. The major external visual differentiation is linked to a dark version of the Spirit of Ecstasy, a deep black enamel finish for the grille (instead of the bright chrome) and a unique set of wheels with the newly developed carbon-fibre and aluminium alloy hybrid structure that is offered on the exclusive wheels. This structure is built up from 22 layers of carbon-fibre composite that are further folded in at the edges and bonded to a forged aluminium hub using titanium bolts. The end result is visually distinct and serves as a draw in to the Black Badge variant considering that a degree of exclusivity is promised.
Similarly, the inside of the cars get an exclusive badging with the brand choosing to use the infinity logo taken from the Lloyds rating provided for boats piloted by then speed record holder Sir Malcolm Campbell. This logo is called Unlimited (with reference to the non-limited nature of the insurance rating) and has previously appeared in a limited run Phantom Drophead Coupé. The logo appears on the dashboard and on the upholstery. But what really draws the eye is the new age material with which the main trims are accented. This is a unique three-dimensional buildup of aluminium alloy fibres of 0.014mm diameter that are woven and bonded with the carbon-fibre and then undergoes six layers of lacquering. If the wire is that thin, it is one-fourth the size of a human hair’s!
Now, we come to the crux of the Black Badge puzzle. Apparently, the brand has no intention to offer the aluminium composite panels or indeed the wheels on customisation of regular Ghosts and Wraiths. But the rest of the styling, including the dark on dark feel of the interiors could be made available. In fact you can also buy the Black Badge in any colour of your choice, except that the regular Wraith’s two-tone exterior wouldn’t be on offer. Giles Taylor also would like us to know that the selection of colours will have to stay in tune with the black Spirit of Ecstasy and grille. But, when we spoke to the product team, they clarified that even those elements could be customised. Confusing, right? Just a little bit.
But the cars get more than visual tweaks. The 6.6-litre biturbo engine also gets tweaked with the Ghost now getting almost Wraith level of output , while the Wraith’s own offering is also shifted up (especially in regard to the torque on offer). The figures are quite telling – on the Ghost Black Badge the power figure is now 603hp and the torque is bumped up by 60Nm to 840Nm. The Wraith gets its own share of tuning, with no change in the power on tap (still at 623hp) but the torque gets boosted by 70Nm to 870Nm. While both the cars still continue with the 8-speed gearbox, now the throttle response has been mapped differently with a tendency to hold gear for longer and allowing the engine to go all the way to 6,000rpm.
There has been no attempt to carve out any weight from the car. While almost every other manufacturer would have tried this method to improve take off, RR is quite content with letting the higher torque and remapped gearshift take care of stuff.
You are also able to put the Wraith in a power mode that intensifies responses, opens up the baffles and tightens the chassis through the adaptive damping.
Our interaction with the cars involved two separate sessions of driving. The first evening we drove the Wraiths on a new Speedway on the outskirts of the city. While not much longer than a large gokart track, the circuit had a couple of tricky corners and two reasonable straights that allowed the test drivers to show us how the Wraith could increasingly become easier to handle on the track. As the chassis tightens up, you can modulate the car better than ever before, avoiding the tail going out, while the straights were just about enough to hit 160 before braking hard.
The next day’s session was much better. We first flew out in helicopters to a craggy outpost overlooking the Colorado River, deep in the Grand Canyon; the flight took us over the Hoover dam and Lake Mead. After a quick picnic lunch, we flew back again, through a refuelling stop over to a Golf course north of the city. This served as a base for the invitees to take out the Wraith Black Badge on a combination of highway and hill roads that skirts Mt Charleston and brings one back to the city. We had been warned that someone on a previous wave had been pulled over for speeding by the police and faced a hefty fine. That certainly didn’t stop us from opening up on the less populated hill roads, where we managed a bit more than expected. But the Wraith was already a quick car to start off with and although the extra torque is noticeable, what we really liked was that faint hint of raspiness out of the tail end. Again, the car isn’t go-kart steady as you take had curves, but that would be very surprising considering the bulk. What it is, is predictable. You don’t get so much of the weight shift that you normally feel; the chassis does tighten up proactively and the gearshifts are very very quick. You do take bends a little faster than you would normally have and all of this happens while the interiors stay so very ‘Magic Carpet’ like.
If we were to hazard an instant, spur of the moment reaction we would say that Rolls-Royce is on to a good thing here. Instead of the usual limited runs, which undoubtedly do a lot for collectors here they sell a product at a premium and can keep that going. If you were in the market for a Wraith, you would have to be very focussed to not upgrade to the Black Badge. Either that or you really love the two-tone colour scheme. Because the Wraith is already seen as an owner driven car unlike the Ghost; which owner wouldn’t want the extra performance?
But a deeper look at the Black Badge does reveal some pitfalls that the company has to steer clear of – how much do you allow the package to dilute? Do you allow regular customisation to include reserved elements at some stage? Do the wheels become available for regular models or indeed as replacements? And how do you prevent outside tuning houses from mimicking some degree of Black Badge customisation? And at what point does the new engine power settings become the new standard for the Ghost and Wraith?