For Rolls-Royce, whose advertising once claimed it made 'the best car in the world,' the idea that anyone would want to tamper with the perfection of its product should have been unthinkable.
But that changed in 2014, when CEO Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes watched a man in his 50s pull up outside Hollywood's SLS Beverly Hills hotel in a fully blacked out Wraith coupe. Mueller-Oetvoes was intrigued. What motivated this man to take a car Rolls-Royce considered unimprovable and commission a tuning company to darken the wheels, the chrome, and the windows?
Mueller-Oetvoes investigated. He found out that the man was a surgeon who had his own clinic, but over the weekend he turned into "a more evil alter ego of himself," Mueller-Oetvoes told journalists at the launch of Rolls-Royce's latest special edition, the Ghost Black Badge.
Mueller-Oetvoes and Rolls-Royce investigated further and discovered more customers who thought like the surgeon, so he put the idea of a blacked-out special edition to the board of BMW, which owns Rolls-Royce Motor Cars.
Some board members thought "we were drinking our own Kool Aid," Mueller-Oetvoes said. "The worst was when we wanted to make the Spirit of Ecstasy [hood ornament] black."
The board worried that a range of "murdered-out" Rolls-Royces aiming at younger buyers including rappers and influencers would frighten away traditional owners. "The contrary happened," Mueller-Oetvoes said. "No one had any problems with us going a little bolder. We have not lost a single client."
In fact, after the launch of Black Badge versions of the Wraith in 2016, the Ghost sedan, the Dawn convertible and then the Cullinan SUV in 2019, the special edition accounts for 27 percent of sales and runs as high as 40 percent for the Cullinan.
Black Badge has helped to lower the average age of Rolls-Royce buyers to just 43, the youngest of any BMW Group brand, including Mini, Mueller-Oetvoes said.
Rolls-Royce is now "inviting commissions" for the Black Badge version of the new Ghost, a car that will start at 325,000 pounds ($442,000) compared with the standard Ghost starting price of 265,300 pounds.
The changes are subtle. Black paint does not have to be specified but the "overwhelming majority" choose that color, the brand says. It's not just any black but "the motor car industry's darkest black" paint, all 45 kg of it.
The famous Spirit of Ecstasy hood statue and grille are not painted but darkened during the chrome plating process. The Black Badge logo is the symbol for infinity, called a lemniscate, which can be seen glowing on the Ghost's dashboard along with 850 LED stars.
The 6.75-liter V-12 engine is given a boost of 29 hp to reach 592 hp, but you would be hard pressed to notice.
Rolls-Royce's move from stately, chauffeur-driven limo to a plaything of the young ultra-rich has been one of the more surprising automotive trends in recent years. With Black Badge, Rolls-Royce has -- for now -- stayed one step ahead of the tuners.