There’s a brake in his ac­tion

David Lee has cash and ca­chet, but he can’t buy the LaFer­rari Aperta

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHARLES FLEM­ING

David Lee wanted the new Fer­rari. He wanted it bad.

The mul­ti­mil­lion­aire watch and jew­elry en­tre­pre­neur had his heart set on the LaFer­rari Aperta, the open-top ver­sion of the fe­ro­cious Ital­ian V-12 su­per car. It would cost $2.2 mil­lion, and only 200 would be built.

Lee reck­oned he had a good shot at get­ting one. Af­ter all, he al­ready owned a garage full of Fer­raris, many bought di­rectly from the fac­tory, part of a $50mil­lion car col­lec­tion he had spent years as­sem­bling.

He had a solid re­la­tion­ship with a pow­er­ful lo­cal Fer­rari dealer. He had vis­ited the Fer­rari fac­tory and at­tended the Fer­rari driv­ing school in Italy. He had pur­chased and re­stored vin­tage Fer­raris and shown them at Peb­ble Beach and other ex­clu­sive con­course events.

He also re­cently

had or­dered four new Fer­raris, hop­ing to im­prove his chances of get­ting on the ex­clu­sive and se­cret list of car col­lec­tors al­lowed to pur­chase one of the limited-run LaFer­rari Aperta con­vert­ibles.

But Fer­rari turned him down.

Un­daunted, the col­lec­tor per­se­vered. His cam­paign draws back the cur­tain on a mys­te­ri­ous world in which mak­ers of ul­tra-elite lux­ury sports cars de­cide who can buy — and just hav­ing the money isn’t enough.

Ar­guably the world’s most rec­og­niz­able ex­otic car­maker, Fer­rari has mas­tered the art of ex­clu­siv­ity.

It doesn’t make an SUV, like Lam­borgh­ini or Bent­ley, or sell an en­try-level sports car, like Aston Martin or Maserati. Though it has li­censed its logo for use on Tshirts, key fobs and other in­ex­pen­sive items, the com­pany has held the line on its elite au­to­mo­biles.

Not all Fer­raris cost a for­tune, but even the reg­u­lar, non-limited mod­els aren’t cheap. The low­est-priced ve­hi­cle in the cur­rent lineup is the Cal­i­for­nia T, at about $210,000.

By oc­ca­sion­ally of­fer­ing a high-priced, limited run of spe­cial sports cars, af­ford­able to the 1% but of­fered only to a se­lect few, the com­pany adds cat­nip to its ca­chet — re­ward­ing its most ar­dent con­sumers while beck­on­ing new buy­ers to more quo­tid­ian cars of­fered at lower prices and in higher vol­ume.

It’s a suc­cess­ful sup­plyand-de­mand for­mula. Last year, the com­pany shipped only 8,014 cars world­wide, but re­ported net rev­enue of $3.4 bil­lion from sales of au­to­mo­biles, au­to­mo­bile com­po­nents and other sources. In other words, Fer­rari can af­ford to be choosy about who gets its best cars.

Even when it sells a limited-run ve­hi­cle to one of the hand-picked few, the com­pany still ex­erts pres­sure: Those lucky 400 al­lowed to buy a new LaFer­rari hard­top — among them chef Gor­don Ram­say, rocker Sammy Hagar and race car driver Felipe Massa — were asked to prom­ise not to sell their cars for at least 18 months, to en­sure that only the most pas­sion­ate col­lec­tors were get­ting them, not peo­ple out to turn a quick profit.

“If you are not a cur­rent or pre­vi­ous Fer­rari owner, you have no chance at all,” said col­lec­tor David Christian, who for decades has raced and owned elite Ital­ian cars. “I don’t care how much money you have.”

Lee doesn’t know ex­actly why he was de­nied a chance to buy an Aperta, and Fer­rari de­clined to com­ment, ex­cept to say Lee was a val­ued client.

But some long­time ob­servers of the elite sports car mi­lieu said Lee’s look-at-me life­style, though it pro­motes the brand, makes the com­pany un­com­fort­able.

“The fac­tory doesn’t like the pub­lic­ity he cre­ates,” said one source who has worked with the com­pany. “They hate all the noise, and he loves all the noise.”

Bruce Meyer, a col­lec­tor and mem­ber of the Petersen Au­to­mo­tive Mu­seum board, said he sym­pa­thizes with the sto­ried Ital­ian com­pany’s ef­fort to con­trol its own des­tiny.

“They’ve tried to keep their cars in the right hands, and they’ve done a good job of main­tain­ing a brand of ex­clu­siv­ity,” said Meyer, who keeps sev­eral highly valu­able Fer­raris in his Bev­erly Hills sta­ble.

Some in the rar­efied world of Fer­rari fanciers said Lee’s re­lent­less cam­paign is work­ing against him.

For starters, there’s his In­sta­gram han­dle — @fer­rari­col­lec­tor_­davi­dlee — from which he posts al­most daily on his cars, watches, wine and travel to more than 715,000 fol­low­ers. In one re­cent post, he re­ferred to fel­low car afi­cionado Jay Leno as “my bro 24/7.” In an­other, Lee is pic­tured in his bright yel­low Fer­rari F12 TdF DSKL in front of an In-NOut. “When I went up to the or­der taker,” he cap­tioned the shot, “I told her that I wanted a straw­berry shake, an­i­mal fries, and a Dou­ble Dou­ble DSKL style.”

He also has made his Fer­raris the cen­ter of a monthly “Cars and Chronos” event at his Wal­nut re­tail store, which rou­tinely draws hun­dreds of ex­otic cars.

Lee has turned away sug­ges­tions that he tone down his so­cial me­dia.

“My love of the brand and the en­joy­ment I get from shar­ing my spe­cial col­lec­tion with the pub­lic is noth­ing but a good thing for the fu­ture of the brand,” he said. “If peo­ple at Fer­rari think that is self-pro­mot­ing, I can’t help that.”

En­er­getic and boy­ishly proud of his col­lec­tion, Lee was bub­bling with ex­cite­ment as he es­corted a vis­i­tor re­cently around the un­der­ground garage that houses his prized au­to­mo­biles.

A USC grad­u­ate and mar­ried father of two, he guile­lessly ticked off what each car was worth — some­thing that few of his fel­low col­lec­tors would do.

At one end of the garage was a rare 1964 250 Lusso Com­pe­tizione, one of only four known to ex­ist, that he val­ued at $5 mil­lion. At an­other was the Fer­rari F1 race car driven by Michael Schu­macher, which Lee said was worth $3 mil­lion. In a sin­gle line were his five Fer­rari su­per cars, in match­ing red, which to­gether he val­ued at more than $15 mil­lion. All of them are worth more than what he paid — typ­i­cal of most Fer­rari in­vest­ments.

It was his late father, Hing Wa Lee, who founded the fam­ily jew­elry busi­ness, start­ing as a hum­ble jade cut­ter in Hong Kong and im­mi­grat­ing to the U.S. in the 1970s.

But it was David Lee who made it an em­pire, cre­at­ing the Hing Wa Lee Jewel­ers watch and jew­elry re­tail su­per­stores, where wealthy Tai­wanese and main­land Chi­nese clients stroll among glit­ter­ing dis­plays for Rolex, Cartier, Pi­aget, Bre­itling and Tag Heuer. Forbes re­cently val­ued the fam­ily’s jew­elry and real es­tate busi­nesses at $300 mil­lion.

Although Lee in­cludes a vin­tage Porsche Speed­ster, twin Rolls-Royce tour­ing cars and a mil­lion-dol­lar Pa­gani Huayra in his cur­rent sta­ble of 30 ex­otic ve­hi­cles, Fer­raris are his fa­vorite, and his cam­paign to be a Fer­rari man started early.

“I de­cided to be the guy who drives a Fer­rari, seven days a week,” Lee, 50, said.

When he was new to the brand, Lee was sur­prised to learn money alone wasn’t enough to buy the Fer­raris he cov­eted.

Told that he needed a closer re­la­tion­ship with the com­pany, he said, he be­came friendly with Bev­erly Hills lux­ury car dealer Gi­a­como Mat­ti­oli, an Ital­ian-born for­mer Fer­rari em­ployee and ex-hus­band of a grand­daugh­ter of com­pany founder Enzo Fer­rari.

Lee be­gan tak­ing in­struc­tion on how to get into the club — an amor­phous, loosely de­fined and ev­er­chang­ing honor roll of the com­pany’s pre­ferred cus­tomers. Un­der di­rec­tion from Mat­ti­oli, who de­clined to com­ment, he be­gan in­vest­ing.

He bought a 1965 275 GTS, and later a 2003 Enzo. He bought a new 458 Spe­ciale and a new 488 Spy­der. Some of the cars didn’t re­ally ap­peal to him.

“To buy a limited-edi­tion car, you have to buy a few other cars that you don’t want,” he said. “I didn’t want to play the game. But there’s no other way to get into the queue.”

He paid $25,000 to join Fer­rari’s driv­ing club and $12,000 for two days in the Fer­rari driv­ing school, he said, and in­vested heav­ily in the com­pany’s pro rac­ing pro­gram.

He took his cars to Peb­ble Beach, to the an­nual Con­corso Italiano and brought a sam­pling of his su­per car set to this month’s San Marino Mo­tor Clas­sic, where he glee­fully posed with Leno.

Lee even wran­gled a limited-run LaFer­rari af­ter the com­pany de­clined to sell him one di­rectly.

Left off the list for the $1.4-mil­lion hard­top, Lee com­mis­sioned a car con­tact to find him a used one — and to find a way around Fer­rari’s 18-month re­sale pro­hi­bi­tion.

One owner was in line for one of the first LaFer­raris in North Amer­ica but was about to go through a di­vorce. Not want­ing the yetto-be-de­liv­ered ve­hi­cle to be part of the set­tle­ment, Lee said, the owner agreed to trans­fer pos­ses­sion to Lee but de­lay the pa­per­work so that, tech­ni­cally, they could both abide by Fer­rari’s rule.

Lee con­fessed that he paid “much, much more” than $1.4 mil­lion, but in­sisted that was less than the car is cur­rently worth.

“The mar­ket value is $4 mil­lion now,” he said. “My in­vest­ment is sound.” (Six months later, he es­ti­mated the car’s value at more than $5 mil­lion.)

But when Fer­rari reps spot­ted him driv­ing it at a Peb­ble Beach event, they made him agree not sell it for at least 18 months.

Lee was un­daunted by the scold­ing. And, maybe, he’s fi­nally start­ing to wear the com­pany down.

He re­ceived the first 488 con­vert­ible de­liv­ered to North Amer­ica and was first in line to place or­ders for limited runs of a spe­cially de­signed line of F12 sports cars, of which only 500 were to be made. He also was able to place an early or­der for the new 812 Su­per­fast, the most pow­er­ful Fer­rari of­fered to the pub­lic.

But when the first LaFer­rari Aper­tas were de­liv­ered this spring, Lee didn’t get one.

Shamed? Si­lenced? Not at all.

“I will keep shar­ing my ex­pe­ri­ences as an owner with the pub­lic and drive them as much as I can,” he said. “I don’t see how that could be worse than col­lec­tors who hide their col­lec­tions in a garage and never drive them. That’s the real shame.”

‘I de­cided to be the guy who drives a Fer­rari, seven days a week.’ — David Lee, jew­elry en­tre­pre­neur and avid Fer­rari col­lec­tor

Wally Skalij Los Angeles Times

DAVID LEE poses with his Fer­rari col­lec­tion. He wanted to buy one of the limited-run LaFer­rari Aper­tas, but the com­pany turned him down.

Wally Skalij Los Angeles Times

DAVID LEE, who cre­ated the Hing Wa Lee Jewel­ers em­pire, sits be­hind the wheel of one of his Fer­raris. Some say Lee’s look-at-me life­style, though it pro­motes the brand, makes the Ital­ian au­tomaker un­com­fort­able.

Fer­rari

THE LaFER­RARI APERTA, the con­vert­ible ver­sion of the fe­ro­cious Ital­ian V-12 su­per car. It would cost $2.2 mil­lion, and only 200 would be built.

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