A Princely Collection of Rotting Cars

Imagine seeing hundreds of high-end Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McLarens—many with hardly any miles on the odometer—rotting away in tropical heat and humidity.

While much has been written of the Sultan of Brunei’s car collection—and there are no lack of spy photos of the collection on the Internet—the estimated 2,500 cars are actually not the Sultan’s. They were the property of Prince Jefri, the Sultan’s third brother. As the Minister of Finance for Brunei (until 1997) Prince Jefri controlled the revenue from oil and gas through the BIA or Brunei Investment Authority and a network of companies under the name Amadeo.

The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis depressed oil prices and triggered a financial crisis in Brunei. The Sultan had Arthur Andersen audit the BIA books, which showed that between 1983 and mid-1998 some $40 billion in “special transfers” were made by the BIA, and that Prince Jefri had personally squandered $14.8 billion. In July 1998, Prince Jefri’s Amadeo investment group collapsed under $10 billion in debt. In 2000, Prince Jefri settled with the government of Brunei and began to return assets-including more than 500 properties in Brunei and abroad, more than 2,000 cars, 100 paintings, five yachts, and nine world-class aircraft. According to court documents, the Prince spent $78 million at Pininfarina SpA for coachbuilt RHD Ferraris, $475 million at Rolls-Royce and $900 million at British jeweler Asprey.

Will fly to buy
In early 2002, I was offered a package of 13 very special Ferraris and McLaren F1s from the collection by a Brunei importer. After the usual negotiations, I agreed to buy two McLarens, a Ferrari F40 LM and a 288 GTO Evoluzione for clients, with an option to buy another 16 McLarens and Ferraris.

In May 2002, I flew to Brunei and stayed at the Empire Hotel. Commissioned by Prince Jefri and built at a cost of $1.1 billion, the Empire Hotel is beyond opulent. The Empire was built to hold over 1,000 guests, but I never saw more than a dozen people anywhere in the hotel at any time. I also visited the Jerudong Park, the largest and most expensive amusement park in Southeast Asia, which was also commissioned by Prince Jefri for a modest $1 billion. Like the Empire hotel, it was empty. A strict Muslim country, Brunei has no alcohol, virtually no nightlife and hence no tourists.

A maximum-security prison for Cars
I was picked up by an ex-New Zealand Special Forces (SAS) officer working as a bodyguard for the Brunei Royal Family. The car collection was a few kilometers down the coast and housed in a large compound surrounded by a high wall topped with razor wire and with a “bomb-proof” front gate. Once inside, we had to turn in our cameras and passports and stay with our guide, as armed Gurkhas with very serious German Shepherds patrolled the compound.

We first went through eight two-story buildings—each about 250 feet long by 60 feet wide—with each level holding about 120 cars. Each level had a semblance of a theme, with the first building filled with Porsches from 959s up to cars from the late 1990s. Another floor held mainly black-on-black 1996-97 Mercedes-Benz 500 sedans. Another building held coachbuilt Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Aston Martins. Another building held mainly 1990s model Ferraris, including a few dozen 456s and 550s. Several 550s were fitted with experimental XTRAC automatic gearboxes. About a half a dozen were coated in radar-absorbent, matte-black coatings and fitted with infrared cameras for night driving, which is high-tech stuff for the late 1990s.

Ferraris and McLaren F1s cooking into Goo
Another lower floor held rows of RHD Testarossas, 512 TRs and F512 Ms. Another building contained mainly coachbuilt Ferraris with four 456 four-doors, four 456 Venice Cabriolets, more 456 Venice station wagons, five FXs, a pair of Mythos and an incredibly ugly one-off called an F90. The token Enzo-era Ferrari was a RHD 275 GTS, s/n 7795.

Between the eight large buildings was a glass-walled showroom with three McLaren F1s, a 288 GTO Evo, an F50 and an F40 LM. The F40 LM was black with a black leather interior, red piping, air conditioning, and power windows.

As in the other buildings, the air conditioning was off, so the showroom had become a very efficient greenhouse, and the cars were cooking away.

Underneath this building was a windowless theatre filled with rows of RHD F40s, 288 GTOs and other exotics.

A reef’s worth of derelict Mercedes
At the back of the compound were two long, two-story buildings about fifty feet apart. A corrugated tin roof between them offered some protection from the blistering sun—but not from the rain. Under the shade were another 300 or so 1995-97 500 SELs and SLs, all black/black, many with the windows down, all rotting into oblivion. Many were AMG specials with wood or carbon fiber trimmed interiors, big motors, etc. We soon called this group as “the reef” as turning them into an artificial ocean reef was probably their best use. As an example, a 1997ish Rolls-Royce convertible was near the Mercedes-Benz fleet, but it was under a real roof and better protected. The roof notwithstanding, the Rolls had gotten so hot with the windows up that the steering wheel’s foam padding had melted into a puddle on the driver’s seat and the leather wrap hung from the barren steel rim. The entire interior had “gone off” with mold in the heat and humidity and the interior was a fuzzy gray!

A single-story building held 60 or so truly unique cars, most in a very bright yellow—including a row of four-wheel-drive Bentley Station wagons and a dozen late-model Lamborghinis. A few non-yellow cars, such as a black 456 Venice wagon with mirrored side windows were also in this building. A side room was filled with high-end motorcycles, while another room was filled with hundreds of empty Rolex, Cartier and Patek Philippe watch presentation boxes.

Behind one of the buildings was a row of “lesser” cars, including the collection’s token Corvette—all destroyed by the sun and rain. The mechanics had left in 1998, and nothing was in drivable condition. What had once been the planet’s largest collection of coachbuilt and high-end exotics was now a vast automotive tomb, patrolled only by a few Gurkhas with dogs.

Poster children for a study in deferred maintenance
When I totaled things up, there were less than 100 Ferraris, and only a few hundred cars in total were commercially viable. All had minimal mileage—but all were also poster children for deferred maintenance.

The lesser cars were beyond saving. None had been started in five years. Our offer was cheerfully accepted by the importer who offered the cars, but none of them came with any service records. Even worse, none had titles and getting a bill of sale or export documents was almost impossible, as the mid-level bureaucrats were paralyzed by indecision or the fear of making a political mistake and issuing export paperwork. While my trip to Brunei was an amazing cultural and automotive experience, we were never able to get a car out of the collection. Eight more years in a steamy tropical 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 the cost to turn it into a tourist attraction would be staggering. Over the last eight years less than a dozen significant cars have left, most as gifts to well-connected expats. Another few hundred pedestrian Mercedes-Benzes have been given to Brunei locals, but the bulk of the collection is still there and will die there, rotting into oblivion.