Diamond in the rough

Rolls-Royce’s Black Badge editions have always appealed to an edgier clientele, and the variant’s latest all-terrain incarnation is no exception, as Malcolm Tucker explains

Once upon a time there were three luxury options if you wanted to drive in the rough stuff – the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Range Rover. Their increasing popularity – and that of the smaller and cheaper “soft roaders” – made the luxury-car builders decide to join the fun. Who would have thought that the likes of Jaguar, Porsche and Bentley would be listing four-wheel-drive vehicles that were designed to traverse any terrain that was called for, albeit to varying degrees of success?

In 2012, Rolls-Royce decided that this burgeoning sector of the market should no longer be ignored. After six years of research and development the company announced the launch of its own model: the Rolls-Royce Cullinan – named after the largest clear-cut diamond in the world, which can be found mounted in the sceptre of the British monarch’s Crown Jewels. It was initially regarded as a step too far to call the Cullinan an SUV (or sports utility vehicle) – after all, when could a Rolls-Royce ever be described as utilitarian? So, the sobriquet “All-Terrain High-Bodied Car” became the official descriptive phrase, although the term SUV still makes a regular appearance on the marque’s website.

SUV is a term given to any vehicle with a two-box silhouette that can at least move along muddy gravel or wet grass. Cullinan was to be a three-box design, where engine, occupants and luggage would occupy separate areas. Although the Rolls-Royce appears in side-view to be of conventional SUV two-box design, the internal spaces are actually three in number.

In producing the Cullinan, Rolls-Royce determined to settle for nothing less than the most capable, luxurious, comfortable and sporting car in its class. While the first thoughts in 2012 were that it would do 90 per cent of what the Range Rover could do, but better, the eventual target was to do more than the Range Rover could do, and all of it better. It was a target that was achieved.

“From the very beginning the design team treated this Rolls-Royce as a unique high-bodied car,” says Giles Taylor, past Director of Design at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. “With global customer expectations in mind, our aim was two-fold – realize a presence to match the magnificent capability of Cullinan, while setting sector-defining standards for luxury and elegance. We know that many of our luxury patrons pursue sports or leisure hobbies that require precisely this type of go-anywhere-vehicle. Cullinan’s design gesture had to possess an immediate sense of effortless accomplishment.”

All well and good for traditional Rolls-Royce customers – the landed gentry, the long-established business tycoons and all those who are attracted to the marque’s traditional values. But the company had identified a new client base; one that it had not previously tapped into, and one that would not be attracted to the image of a traditional Rolls-Royce, however up-to-date and technically able it was. To cater for these potential buyers, in 2016 the “Black Badge” versions of the Ghost and Wraith were launched, with the drophead coupe Dawn launched the following year.

The Black Badge variant is for the bad boys and girls, the risk takers who like edginess. It is designed for those who are more at home in urban streets at midnight than on the grouse moor. Rolls-Royce calls the Black Badge the “alter ego” of the marque’s range – its dark, brooding and intense side – and Black Badge Cullinan joined the gang in 2019.

“Black Badge reflects the desires of a distinct group of Rolls-Royce clients,” says Rolls-Royce. “Men and women who take risks, break rules and build success on their own terms. Indeed, before we launched Black Badge in 2016, the idea of creating a product that would satisfy this subversive cohort – that is highly dynamic and wilfully rebellious in aesthetics – caused a great deal of internal debate. However, once the marque’s designers, engineers and craftspeople began pursuing this dramatic alter ego, it became clear that these motor cars could not only exist comfortably beneath this revered and historic brand, but they would define a new space within the super-luxury market. In this spirit, the time has come for Rolls-Royce’s boldest and darkest expression of Black Badge yet. The King of the Night, Black Badge Cullinan.”

Although the coachwork can be painted in any colour imaginable, and there are 44,000 “ready-to-wear” colours on the Cullinan palette, many will opt for Black Badge’s signature black finish. Multiple layers of paint and lacquer are meticulously applied and hand-polished ten times – the most comprehensive surface-finish process ever applied to a solid paint colour. The depth and intensity of Black Badge Cullinan’s coachwork makes the perfect backdrop to a contrasting hand-painted coachline.

The Black Badge Cullinan’s Spirit of Ecstasy mascot is electro-plated in high-gloss black chrome. This finish extends onto its mounting plate, making for the darkest Black Badge in the Rolls-Royce model range. The “Double R” badge on the front, flanks and aft invert to become silver-on-black, while chrome surfaces such as the front grille surround, side frame finishers, boot handle, boot trim, lower air inlet finisher and exhaust pipes are darkened. Although they appear black, the vertical radiator grille bars remain polished, reflecting the blackened surfaces that surround them “to add a frisson of movement that hints at the motor car’s dynamic intent.”

Cullinan’s imposing proportions and confident stance are made even more dramatic by all-new 22-inch forged alloy wheels, which are exclusive to Cullinan. “Their gear-like graphic emphasizes the model’s vast reserves of power while also recalling an infinitely occurring lemniscate,” says Rolls-Royce. A “lemniscate” is a mathematical term for a shaped figure of eight, most commonly used as the symbol for infinity. The Cullinan discreetly features the symbol throughout the car’s interior. Rolls-Royce selected it as a salute to Sir Malcolm Campbell’s record-breaking Rolls-Royce-powered Blue Bird K3 hydroplane, on which it denoted that the boat belonged to a class with unlimited and therefore infinite engine power. Today, it reflects Black Badge’s own unrelenting pursuit of power.

Great efforts are usually made to distance the occupants of a Rolls-Royce from the vehicle’s mechanical function. However, the marque’s Colour and Trim experts gently reflected the engineering substance of Black Badge, “seamlessly blending superlative comfort, bold aesthetics, advanced materials and precise, meticulous craftsmanship”. One such material is Cullinan’s “technical carbon” veneer, a newly created luxury material. Inspired by masterpieces of urban architecture, a naked-weave carbon-fibre finish was developed to create highly accurate repeating geometrical shapes, giving a three-dimensional effect.

Each leaf of technical carbon is finished with six coats of lacquer before being left to cure for 72 hours then hand-polished to Rolls-Royce’s hallmark mirror finish. This process takes 21 days and is only deemed complete once every piece is inspected by a craftsperson to ensure complete reflective uniformity across each of the 23 pieces within the car.

As with its exterior, Black Badge Cullinan’s interior can draw upon a vast colour palette of options. Clients often use interior space as a stage to create dramatic, high-contrast colourways, so for the Cullinan Rolls-Royce’s designers created a bold new shade of leather, Forge Yellow, which seems to have become the car’s signature colour. As for the luxury choices that can be supplied by Rolls-Royce’s Bespoke Division, they are too numerous to mention. If you can think of an item that you feel will enhance your ownership experience – and if it’s legal and decent – Bespoke will supply it for you.

A final touch completes the interior seating, with the Infinity motif embroidered into the fold-down rear armrest. This simple but potent symbol is also incorporated in the illuminated treadplates and engraved on the brushed and darkened steel clock case. Red-tipped clock hands and instrument display needles also serve as a discreet reminder of the motor car’s dynamic prowess.

At the rear of the car, the upper and lower tailgates open to reveal a cargo space that can be isolated from the passenger compartment by a soundproof glass screen. This is how the three separate compartments of the car can be housed within a two-box silhouette form. But when the tailgate is open, two upholstered seats can slide out to give a comfortable place to enjoy your picnic at whatever occasion takes your fancy, be it artistic, sporting or celebratory.

Black Badge is far more than a good looker. In creating this class of motor car, it was of vital importance for Rolls-Royce to have the car drive as well as it looked. Indeed, the exceptionally high expectations of the car’s anticipated buyers defined a rigorous testing protocol that took place during the last three years of development. Key to the visceral thrill of Black Badge Cullinan is the “Architecture of Luxury”, the proprietary name for Rolls-Royce’s all-aluminium spaceframe first seen in the 2003 Phantom. The sub-structure not only delivers extraordinary body stiffness, but its flexibility and scalability enabled Cullinan to be fitted with all-wheel drive and four-wheel steering in its silver-badged guise.

These dynamic features have been comprehensively reinterpreted for Black Badge with no detriment to the quality of the ride. The Architecture of Luxury has been engineered to meet the size and weight requirements of different propulsion systems. When the driver presses the “low” button situated on the gear selection stalk, it unlocks Black Badge Cullinan’s full suite of technologies. It even causes an amplification, a throaty burble, of the motor car’s 6.75-litre twin-turbocharged V12 through an entirely new exhaust system; arriving is as important as travelling.

Black Badge Cullinan boasts 591bhp of engine power. And the feeling that the eight-speed gearbox has just one infinite gear has been enhanced with the addition of a further 50 Newton metres (NM) of torque, bringing the total to 900NM. “Black Badge Cullinan benefits from a bespoke transmission and throttle treatment that creates a sense of urgency without ever undermining its Rolls-Royce peerage,” says the company. “The drivetrain, ZF eight-speed gear box and both front- and rear-steered axles work collaboratively to adjust the levels of engagement depending on throttle and steering inputs. Changes to suspension components and settings add to the suite of dynamic technologies that ensure an appropriate balance between dynamism and refinement. The result is an extremely well-mannered tourer at low speeds and a vivid driver’s device when pressed.”

The ability to stop or reduce the speed that all this power offers is enhanced by the braking bite-point being raised and pedal travel being decreased. Redesigned brake disc ventilation also allows consistency in these changes while braking at elevated temperatures.

So, what is the Black Badge Cullinan like to drive? If reports and rumours are true it is the most able off-road (“all terrain” in Rolls-Royce-speak) luxury vehicle that one can own. On the road it can be as docile as a kitten with a ball of wool or as sporting as a cheetah with a gazelle in its sights; but in both scenarios it loses none of the ride-qualities that mark it out as a true Rolls-Royce.