Few collections of supercars have garnered more interest than the massive cache owned by the Sultan of Brunei and his brother, Prince Jefri. Michael Sheehan, a broker who owns Ferraris Online, has seen its shocking decay.
Brunei is an oil-rich nation of only 388,000 people on the north-western coast of the island of Borneo, slightly bigger that Long Island, but less than half the size of LA County. A tropical rain forest, Brunei exists mainly because of massive oil and gas reserves. An Islamic Sultanate dating back to the 14th century, Brunei is ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, an absolute monarch who has ruled since 1967. Forbes has ranked the Sultan as the world's wealthiest monarch for decades with an estimated fortune in the range of $US22 billion.
While much had been written of the Sultan of Brunei's car collection and there are no lack of spy photos on the internet, (most of which are incorrect), the cache of 2500 cars are not the Sultan's, but belonged to Prince Jefri, the Sultan's third brother, other Princes-brothers and various nephews. No one really knows which cars belonged to whom as there are no real records.
Even billionaires can go broke
As the Minister of Finance for Brunei (until 1997) Prince Jefri controlled the revenue from oil and gas. Thanks to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Prince Jefri's investment firm collapsed under $US10 billion in debt; audits later found Jefri himself had received $US14.8 billion.
Much of the money went into a private life that included five wives, 17 children and a harem of about 40 women kept in a palace next to the car collection. The women in the harem were paid up to $US20,000 a week in addition to opulent shopping excursions, or trips aboard Jefri's 180-foot yacht christened "Tits".
In 2000, Prince Jefri settled lawsuits against him by the government of Brunei and began to return assets to the state including more than 500 properties in Brunei and abroad, more than ,000 cars, 100 paintings, five yachts, and nine world-class aircraft. His records revealed he spent $US78 million at Pininfarina SpA for coach-built Ferraris, and $US475 million at Rolls Royce.
In early 2002 I was offered a package of 13 very special Ferraris and McLaren F1s from the collection by an importer into Brunei. After the usual negotiations I agreed to buy two McLaren's, an F40 LM and a 288 GTO Evoluzione for clients, with an option to buy another sixteen McLaren's and Ferraris, all of which I had pre-sold.
A study in wretched excess
In May 2002 I flew to Brunei and was there for three days staying at the Empire Hotel. Commissioned by Prince Jefri and built at a cost of $US1.1 billion, the Empire Hotel offers a 120-ft high atrium supported by gold-leaf covered marble columns. There are seven four-star restaurants, a golf course, a beach, a massive pool, a cinema, a bowling alley and anything else one could have on an unlimited budget. With 500 opulent rooms and 66 even more opulent suites, I never saw more than a few dozen people in the hotel at once, and then only at breakfast. (Brunei doesn't get many tourists, in no small part because of its Islamic laws banning alcohol.)
My inspection had been pre-approved and I was picked up at the hotel by an ex-New Zealand special forces (SAS) officer working as professional mercenary/bodyguard for the Royal Family's security detail. Nothing of importance is more that a few miles away from anything in Brunei and so the collection was only a few kilometers down the coast from the Empire hotel. The compound was heavily guarded and surrounded by a high wall topped with razor wire wrappings and with a "bomb proof" front gate, much like a maximum security prison. Once inside we were led to the guard-house and had to turn in our cameras and passports.
We first went through eight two-storey buildings each about 76m long by 18m wide with each level holding about 120 cars. Each level of each building had a semblance of a theme, and so the first level of the first building was mostly late-model Porsches from 959s up to the very late 1990s when the money ran out. Another floor contained mainly 1996-1997 Mercedes-Benz 500 sedans, all in black on black while another floor in another building contained mainly coachbuilt Rolls, Bentleys and Astons. Yet another building contained mostly late-model Ferraris including a few dozen 456s and 550s with several 550s fitted with experimental X-Trac automatic gearboxes. About half a dozen were painted in radar absorbing matte-black and fitted with infrared cameras for night driving, high-tech stuff when built in the late 1990s.
Yet another lower floor featured rows of Testa Rossas, 512 TRs and another half-dozen 512Ms Spyders. Yet another floor in another building contained mainly coachbuilt Ferraris with three or four 456 four doors,four 456 Venice Cabriolets, more 456Venice station wagons, five FXs, a pair of Mythos and an incredibly ugly one-off called an F90. For those dreaming of rows of early Ferraris, the solitary Enzo-era Ferrari was a RHD 275 GTS s/n 7795.
Between the eight large buildings was a glass-walled building much like a modern car dealer showroom. It contained three McLaren F1s, a 288 GTO Evo, an F50 and an F40 LM. The F40 LM was painted black with a full black leather interior with red piping. It was fitted with A/C, power windows and like every car in the collection was right-hand drive. The Brunei sun was slowly cooking these cars as the glass showroom acted as a very efficient greenhouse. Like most of the buildings the A/C was turned off so the combination of heat and humidity was doing none of these cars any good. Underneath this building in a windowless blacked-out theatre-type setting was a row of F40s with a trio of 288 GTOs and a smattering of other cars.
300 Mercedes to build a reef
Near the back of the compound were two long, two-storey buildings set about 15m apart. Stretched between the two buildings was a corrugated tin roof on an elaborate trellis which offered some protection from the blistering sun but not from the rain. In the shade of the overhang were another 300 or so cars, mostly 1995-97 500 SELs and SLs, all black/black, many with the windows down, all rotting into oblivion. All were right-hand drive, none had airbags and none had duty paid, so... not viable to sell to England, and because of the no-airbags, difficult to be sold to Australia or New Zealand. Many were AMG specials with very nice wood or carbon-fibre trimmed interiors, big motors, etc. We referred to this group as "the reef", as that was probably their ultimate disposition.
A late-model (1997 "ish") Rolls convertible was stored next to the Mercedes, but under a real roof and better protected. When I opened the door I saw that the car had gotten so hot with the windows up in the Brunei summer that the foam padding in the steering wheel had melted and had formed a puddle of melted foam in the front seat. The leather wrap was still on the barren steel rim of the steering wheel and hung down like a used condom. The entire interior and even the dash had "gone off" in the tropical heat and humidity and so the leather interior was fuzzy grey with mold.
The Sultan's staff keeps a Rolls-Royce in front of his palace with the engine running 24-7 Different sub-buildings housed cars for different members of the Royal family, with one single-storey building holding 60 or so unusually weird cars, almost all in a very bright yellow including a row of yellow four-wheel-drive Bentley station wagons. This building also held a dozen or so late-model Lamborghinis, most in yellow, with a few non-yellow cars such as a black 456 Venice wagon with mirrored side windows. Yet another smaller building had a room full of high-end motorcycles. An adjacent room was filled with hundreds if not thousands of empty Rolex, Cartier and Patek Philippe watch presentation boxes. Outside and behind one of the very long buildings was a row of a dozen or so "lesser" cars including the collection's token Corvette, all absolutely destroyed by the sun and rain. In 1998, when the money stopped the large mechanical staff was let go so the collection was like a vast tomb, patrolled only be a few Gurkhas with dogs.
One of the former Rolls-Bentley service staff commented that in the 1990s Bentley's revenues were kept in the black thanks to "Blackpool," the Sultan of Brunei whose stableof luxurycars used the only highway in the country. The staff keeps a Rolls-Royce out front with the engine running 24-7 ('just in case' he ever needs to break and run for the airport). The Rolls-Bentley staff prayed in case of revolt the natives would torch the garage, otherwise the used Rolls-Bentley market worldwide would have been flooded for years to come.
Of the 2500 cars in the collection less than 100 were Ferraris and only a few hundred cars in total were commercially viable. All had minimal mileage but all were poster children for deferred maintenance. None had been started in five years (and that was back in 2002) and so over 2000 lesser cars were simply beyond saving. Our offers were cheerfully accepted by the importer who had offered the cars but none came with any service records. Even worse, none had titles and getting a bill of sale or an export documents was almost impossible as the mid-level Bruneian bureaucrats were paralyzed by indecision or the fear of making a "political" mistake and issuing export paperwork.
We were not allowed to visit any of the many other palaces belonging to the various Princes/brothers, sons or nephews, but each has its own underground car park and private collection although only the Sultan has more than a few hundred cars. Being the Sultan the money never ran out, so the Sultan does have all the latest and greatest collectables. Alas we were not allowed to see them as there was no chance they would ever be for sale.
The bitter ends
My trip to Brunei was an amazing cultural and automotive experience, but we were never able to buy a car out of the collection and eight more years in a rain forest has certainly not helped any of these cars. The local officials have no to plans to save or to sell the collection and no interest in turning it into a tourist attraction as that could prove to be politically embarrassing. They simple do nothing.
Over the last eight years less than a dozen significant cars have left, most as gifts to well-connected ex-pats. Another few hundred more pedestrian Mercedes have been given to Brunei locals but the bulk of the collection is still there and will die there, rotting into oblivion, a massive example of wretched automotive excess and a total dismissal of beautiful automobiles.
Michael Sheehan is an exotic car broker who runs Ferraris Online A shorter version of this story originally appeared in the March 2011 edition of Sports Car Market, and was republished with the author's permission.