Classic car enthusiast David Lee, owner of the US$300 million watch and investment empire Hing Wa Lee Jewelers, in California – a business his father launched, exporting carved gemstones, from Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district in the 1960s before it relocated to the US in the 1970s – owns more than US$50 million worth of the world’s rarest vehicles.

Lee’s collection, stored in a garage underneath a nondescript shopping plaza 40 minutes outside central Los Angeles, includes models from Rolls-Royce, Pagani, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. 

Ferrari has seen [the modified Dino]; I’m sure they’ve seen it. But I didn’t ask them for permission ... I wanted to own something that is not what money can buy
David Lee, car owner

However, it is his dozens of iconic Ferraris, including an Enzo, an F50, and F40, as well as multiple F12s, 250s, 275s, and 288s, that have earned Lee the most notoriety.

“When I was 29, I bought a Diablo VT, but it was always in the shop,” Lee says. 

“I didn’t get to enjoy the car, so I bought a Ferrari 355 Spyder. Since then, I have focused on collecting Ferraris. I just had a love for them.”

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An unassuming 51-year-old married father of two, Lee frequents the world’s most prestigious car shows, hosts big-spender dinners for Chopard in Geneva, jets to Asia and the Middle East to visit clients, and drives with friends who own high-performance Koenigsegg sports cars.

He can have whatever car he wants.

Yet that gets pretty boring after a while. “I thought when I get certain cars, I would be the most happy. And I was, for a few years,” Lee says. 

“But I started to get tired of it. With hyper-cars, if you have money and you present yourself well to the ownership, you can buy a car. A lot of people have them.”

All these Saudi guys and guys from Europe and Asia are saying, ‘David, I want one! This is a great idea’
David Lee

He began thinking whether he could do something grander, something that would make history: something that would be only for him.

“I wanted to own something that is not what money can buy,” he says.

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So the Ferrari fanatic with 724,000 Instagram followers committed the cardinal sin for blue-chip collectibles: he modified one.

Traditionally, collectors of high-end cars have gone sometimes, literally, to the ends of the Earth to protect the exact specifications of the original specimen. 

It was an unlimited budget to do whatever needed to be done
David Lee

 

Most car shows and historic rally races are built around the idea that the cars must remain uncompromised by modern alterations or additions, even down to retaining the original bolts. It is how collectors protect the value of their investment, after all: the cars have to be able to be identified as authentic.

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However, a year ago, Lee bought a black 1972 Dino for US$260,000 and then spent more than US$1 million to update it – or “outlaw” it, as the practice is called among connoisseurs – with modern components and bespoke styling cues. 

“It was an unlimited budget to do whatever needed to be done,” he says.

It took Lee more than 3,000 hours over a year to perfect with Moto Technique, a body shop based in Surrey, England. He calls it a Monza 3.6 Evo.

Even parked by a wall of blazing bougainvillea in California, the car looks understated. 

Yet it’s undeniably arresting: the open-top roadster looks slightly more modern than the original, with flared bumpers, new rims, covered headlights, and a see-through engine cover made from carbon fibre.

Lee also replaced the original V6 with a new, 3.6-litre V8 and added a new transmission, brakes, and even a removable holder for his iPhone. 

The seats were redone in blazing oxblood leather; the gear stick got a new, steel knob.

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“I felt like it was OK to put the investment in this, because there are enough people who can accept it,” Lee says. 

“They are not all purists, and that is a change. That is a huge change.”

Ferrari first rolled out the Dino in the late 1960s and early ’70s as an attempt to offer a low-cost sports car. 

However, the original version has long been snubbed by Ferrari adherents for its relatively high production numbers, small engine and anaemic 192 horsepower. 

It was so ostracised that Ferrari originally decided not even to formally badge it, calling it solely “Dino”, without the official Ferrari logo of approval.

That said, Lee is hardly the first to “outlaw” a special car. 

Singer Vehicle Design, in Sun Valley, California, perfected the business side of it years ago when it started restoring Porsche 911s to the tune of US$600,000 or more, taking cues from prolific private individuals who “outlawed” classic cars for years before. 

In fact, it was one such friend’s invitation to join his heavily altered 1971 Porsche 911 on a run up California’s Highway 2 that  prompted Lee into modifying his own.

Lee says: “I realised I didn’t have anything from that era that could keep up.”

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His modified Dino is not super-fast, but it is quicker and drives more precisely than the original. 

It sits so low to the ground that it is easy to simply step over the door to get inside; the steering and braking are eased by semi-automatic power systems. 

The hardtop roof, when taken off, fits snugly behind the two cockpit-style seats.

Ferrari has not seen the vehicle, officially. 

The brand has some history with Lee, who claims he was denied the chance to buy an LaFerrari Aperta because he was not a preferred customer. 

A request for comment from Ferrari returned an emailed statement saying that, while Ferrari officials are not aware of the specifics of Lee’s Dino, “it is worth noting the importance of authenticity in the classic car market. 

“The Ferrari Classiche certification process that ensures this, The Ferrari Certificate of Authenticity, protects the priceless heritage of a historic car, and generally increases sale value, while giving access to the most prestigious official events organised by Ferrari.”

Not that Lee seems to care.

He frames it as if he is righting a long-held wrong. 

“With the Dino, there was always the question of: what if this car was more powerful?” he asks. 

“What if it looked like it did – beautiful – but had more power?”

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The V8 engine in Lee’s Dino produces 400 horsepower, compared with the 192 horsepower that Ferrari boasted in the original version. 

Auctions experts, such as Jonathan Klinger, of classic-car insurance agency Hagerty, in the US, have argued that the Dino has more investment potential than, say, the sexy and popular Ferrari 308.

Lee plans to show the modified car on the lawn at this August’s 10-day “The Quail: A Motorsports Gathering” – where enthusiasts can enjoy rare collections of classic cars and motorcycles on show at Quail Lodge and Golf Club, in Carmel, California – before the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where, incidentally, it would not be welcome.

Of course, that is kind of the point.

“People are trained by the traditions and the car culture of the concourses,” Lee says. 

“The concourses are judging your car to say it is acceptable if it’s done this way – and anything far from that, you’re somehow lesser. 

“You haven’t made the grade; you didn’t get the A on the report card. But you can have the cleanest and best Ferrari, or the latest and greatest supercars, and nobody is going to feel anything special.”

Lee believes that his Dino is so special that others will want one, too. 

“All these Saudi guys and guys from Europe and Asia are saying, ‘David, I want one! This is a great idea’.

“Ferrari has seen it; I’m sure they’ve seen it,” he says. “But I didn’t ask them for permission – I'm not trying to sell a Dino. I’m just selling the upgrade!” 

He plans to make and sell 25 more modified Dinos at the rate of five per year. 

He will start taking orders this summer.

 

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