Back in the 1990s I traveled to Italy three to six times a year. I’d test new cars, get background material on them, and chase history on older cars by utilizing good ole’ fashioned detective work to uncover the people who made them. In general I’d poke around, ask questions, get answers, and in the process find out about someone or something else that propelled the search even deeper.
Listen closely enough and you could start connecting dots to uncover what is really happening (or happened), and in the second half of the ‘90s that dot connecting in Turin made it very clear a large, active industry that was totally off the automotive press radar was custom building cars for the Brunei Royal family on a scale beyond comprehension. For months I danced around the periphery of that underground industry, with someone saying they had seen something wild in so and so shop, or they knew a friend or associate who was working on something extraordinary at another shop. The person speaking often threw around the best marque names as casually as the dough flying through the air in Turin’s best pizzeria—Ferrari, Bentley, Rolls, Jaguar, Aston Martin and some I am probably no longer remembering.
For this Ferrari fanatic, it was clear which marque I wanted to concentrate on. Headway came when I learned a series of 456 variants were being built under the “Venice” moniker—sedans, cabriolets, station wagons and more, all designed, handbuilt, tested and sorted by Pininfarina and its subcontractors in batches of six. Other cars spoken of were F40s, F50s, supposedly three examples of the Mythos (a seriously cool Pininfarina show car from 1989), and more. I’ll never forget when one of my contacts called and said, “You have to get to Turin soon! I can take you to a shop where they are working on one of the Venice Estates (a four-door 456 station wagon).” Much to my dismay, I arrived one week too late.
As the conversations went into overdrive, a car that kept popping up was something called the “FX.” No one could accurately describe it, but it sounded like the ultimate Ferrari, something super trick with wild technology and looks. Even reports of a 550 Maranello Spider couldn’t undo my determination to find one of these mysterious FXs.
Then, in the blink of an eye, that automotive “shroud of Turin” blew apart in the fall of 1997 not long after the Asian Contagion hit Thailand’s currency. There was a run on the baht, and financial fear soon flooded into other Asian countries. The Turin printing press turned off overnight, revenue streams worth millions stopping mid-project. Many people were so upset that this gravy train had stopped that I heard at least one Turin resident who worked for the Brunei family literally dropped out of sight for two years because the threats to his and his family’s wellbeing were that severe.
Then some articles started appearing in South Pacific automotive magazines, as laid off Brunei employees leaked photos taken in the garages. Those cracks in the wall of secrecy simply redoubled my efforts—there had to be something on the FX out there, somewhere.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered an actual FX in southern California, of all places. Phone calls were made for proper introductions, and several weeks later I was hanging out with Dick Marconi, a super nice self-made gazillionaire at the Marconi Museum in Tustin. Sweetening everything was the fact that he had recently acquired another Brunei treasure, one of the Venice Cabriolets.
Though the FX and Venice Cabriolet were then several years old, those two Ferraris remain the sweetest “scoops” of my career. Neither had been officially photographed before, let alone driven by anyone outside the collection’s caretakers and the Brunei Royal family. That FX drive became the cover story of the next issue of FORZA, so I took the magazine to the Paris Auto Show and then Turin to show my contacts. When they saw it, they knew the veil of secrecy had been broken, and a number brought out their laptop computers and ran through images of cars no one had seen before.
I doubt we’ll ever experience anything like that again, where one of the world’s wealthiest families assembles that size of a collection (it was rumored to be 3,000 cars). Many were custom made, the only constraints of the build being technology and imagination.
While the web has numerous photos, a concise, accurate look at what that incredible period created can be found in David Dowsey’s excellent book “Aston Martin Power, Beauty and Soul.” It shows every Brunei Aston Martin, and you can find it on Amazon here http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_18?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=aston+martin+power+beauty+and+soul&sprefix=aston+martin+power%2Caps%2C640
I’d also highly recommend a visit to the Marconi Museum. The FX and Venice Cabriolet are on display, along with a truly impressive array of machinery. http://www.marconimuseum.org/