The “Life” in Classic Cars, with Richard Lee of RL Neo Classics

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By Juliet Lee / 6th November 2016

There is nothing quite like a classic car. Owning a classic car is akin to owning a piece of history: one that comes to life each time you fire up the engine, a heritage laced with a legacy that connects you with its owners before you, who have sat behind the very same wheels.

In addition to its emotive nature, classic cars are hot properties. They outperformed global stocks and have become the top “passion investment,” with investors and enthusiasts seeing returns of up to 487% on classic motors, such as Ferraris and Jaguars, over the past decade (Knight Frank Wealth Report 2014).

For many years, classic motor lovers have flocked to classic car auctions in the United States and Europe to get their hands on the prized, vintage beauties. While there is much enthusiasm in Asia, there previously lacked a substantial platform for classic car market transactions. Seeing opportunity, this was where Dr. Richard Lee Man Fai swooped in.

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Dr. Richard Lee Man Fai, Chairman of RL Neo Classics

Combining his passion for classic motors with over 20 years of experience in the automotive industry since 1992, Dr. Richard Lee Man Fai is driving home the classic car market in Asia by founding RL Neo Classics, a company that specializes in classic car auction and sales in Hong Kong and Asia.

Having started out as the former Executive Director of Auto Italia Holdings Limited, and the Executive Chairman and CEO of Wo Kee Hong Holdings Ltd, Lee is widely acknowledged to be the man behind the initiation of the super car culture in Hong Kong and China. Aptly, this earned Dr. Richard Lee the moniker of Hong Kong’s “Father of Ferrari”.

Currently, Lee serves as the Chairman and CEO of the Wo Kee Hong Group of companies.

Among his many achievements, Dr. Lee was also bestowed the title of “Commander of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity” by Hon. Romano Prodi, the Prime Minister of Italy, in honorable recognition of Lee’s contribution in advancing Italian business and culture in Hong Kong and China.

RL Neo Classics Auction event at The Repulse Bay (11 June 2016).

RL Neo Classics Auction event at The Repulse Bay (11 June 2016).

In June 2016, Lee broke new ground when he organised the first ever major classic car auction in Hong Kong, gathering the attention and interest of car lovers worldwide.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Lee to discuss all things classic cars: from a commercial interest of classic cars as an investment, to the classic car lifestyle and, above all, the magical appeal and nostalgia that surrounds classic motors.

Q: How would you define a classic car?

RL: Any car over 30 years old are considered as classics. Actual vintage cars are beyond 50 years old. Now we have new classics or instant classics: they are new cars that have just come out or have been around for less than 30 years, which people think are fabulous as collectibles. Classic cars is a general and all-encompassing term, but when you go into it there are a few types of classic cars.

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1997 Ferrari F355 Challenge Race Car by Pininfarina

Q: What makes classic cars so special compared to contemporary models?

RL: Classic cars mostly have not been in production for a while so they are quite rare, and they have special history. They also define certain iconic moments in styling, in performance and in impacting the lifestyle of the people of that particular time. They define certain moments in modern history: post-war cars, fuel economic cars, gas guzzlers like big American Muscle cars, racing cars, cars that you can drive on the road regularly and take to the track to race in the weekends. Such cars represents the lifestyle of different eras. That’s why classic cars are so interesting – interesting not only for one group of people, but interesting for many groups of people who have different experiences in life.

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1996 Aston Martin DB7

Cars, like other collectibles, have history. But classic cars need to be in running condition, so there is ‘life’ in classic cars that makes it different from other collectibles and classic items. This is the attraction of classic cars: once you fire the engine it comes to life. You hear the sound of the engine musical symphonies being played by machines. Then, the driver interacts with the car so it becomes a relationship: a car-driver relationship. And that is very unique. That is why the collectors of classic cars are passionate drivers. You actually get together with the car to become one: car and driver, driver and car. Really engage with the car and live part of its life.

It brings back a lot of emotions – and it is still emotional – to drive such cars. And classic cars, older cars are more engaging to drive. They are not very high tech but very high emotion with a very high degree of participation and involvement. Very modern cars may be more detached. A good driver of modern cars may not be a good driver of classic cars.

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RL Neo Classics auction event at The Repulse Bay (11 June 2016).

Q: It was exciting that RL Neo Classics held Hong Kong’s first major classic car auction in June 2016. How did the auction go?

RL: It went very well and actually exceeded our expectation: a lot of turnout, the media covered it very well and it got a lot of attention because it is the first ever major classic car auction in Asia, and it happened in Hong Kong. People actually came not only from the Hong Kong society but also from all around Asia – from Singapore, from Malaysia, from mainland China, from Australia – this is very exciting.

Hong Kong can be a hub, a future hub, of classic cars. Over 40% of the cars were sold. The interest did not just stop after the auction. Interest continued after the auction even up to today, months after the auction [regarding post-auction negotiation and sales]. We are generating a movement.

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RL Neo Classics auction event at The Repulse Bay (11 June 2016).

Q: What made you decide to make Hong Kong the classic car hub in Asia?

RL: Asians – especially the Japanese, the Hong Kong people, the Australians – they have been collectors of classic cars for years, for decades. But there was not a very substantial platform for auction activities. There are classic car events, for sure. There are auctions, for sure. There are rallies, for sure. But a platform to buy and sell classic cars, like an auction, like a full service platform was almost non-existent in Hong Kong and in Asia.

Hong Kong being Hong Kong – a free port, relaxed custom and a simple low tax structure – makes it an ideal place for classic car transactions. You can store the car here in Hong Kong without paying the duty. You can also drive the car if you join the classic car club, you can drive the car for a number a days in Hong Kong over the year with a special permit. You can drive the cars in Hong Kong without paying the duty of import and registration. You don’t drive classic cars everyday, you drive classic cars to events, you drive classic cars when you feel like it and when you are with a bunch of classic car lovers – that is when you enjoy it. This being said, Hong Kong is the perfect place for classic car collectors.

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1981 Ferrari 308 GTB by Pinifarina

Q: Would you say that there is a difference between the Western and the Asian classic car market?

RL: The history of motor cars originated from the West. That is why the attachment to the lifestyle of motoring dates back more than a hundred years; whereas in Asia we do not have that long a history. The appreciation of classic cars started only in the last 30 years in Asia. In the West, they appreciate very old cars (even steam engine cars) because people have seen those cars live on the roads – on the streets of London, Paris, Roma, New York or Detroit – but here [in Hong Kong] we don’t have that sort of history.

When Asia became more affluent, people bought economic and small cars to start, then they upgrade themselves. They started buying cars in more numbers from the 60s, 70s, 80s and the 90s. So, generations of car buyers have been very active in Asia. And once they reach a certain age – like 50 or 60 – then they become reminiscent of the good old days. “Ahh,” they’d say, “it’s nice to have super-fast cars coming out in 2016” but when they look back they think, “in 1965, that was my dream car”. If the car becomes available, they are interested to own one of those cars – their boyhood icon.

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1996 Lamborghini Diablo VT Roadster

You can have classic cars that cost HK$20,000 or HK$30,000 you get a HK$300 million classic cars. So everybody can enjoy classic cars. Whether you have a lot of money or have a limited budget, you still can enjoy classic cars. The more that you see people collecting, driving their classic cars, the more events you see in Hong Kong and in Asia the more prominent, the stronger the desire to own and to participate in this lifestyle. So this is what I think I’m doing.

Q: Modern classics vs old school classics. Which do people like more?

RL: Depends on the age of the person. An older person would most likely go for older classics. A younger person in 20s or 30s they may like to see cars made 10 or 20 years ago or cars just being made, still in production, and make them as their dream cars. So it really depends on the person.

Like the mainland Chinese who have come into contact with this kind of motoring lifestyle only recently, the last 20 years, they tend to go for newer classics. But in Hong Kong we have been driving cars for decades and collecting cars for the last 20, 30 years, and so we go for the original classics. So it depends on the person but modern classic is not as time-proven as the old classics. Time proven means that year after year they have an increase in value. Modern classics maybe within the last decade they have increased in value: is that a sustainable situation? I say, yes. But would that generate a high return? We have yet to see. Positive return? Definitely.

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1965 Mercedes Benz 230SL W113 “Pagoda”

Q: What in particular makes classic cars such a good investment?

RL: From an investment angle, classic car values have been going up consistently and offers the highest return over the past four decades. A lot of classic cars have become out of reach for some people. 15 years ago, you can you can buy a Ferrari, a certain model for US$150,000, and now that car is worth at least 1.5million – I’m talking about a 10 times increase in value – at least for a certain model I know. Of course there are many good examples of that.

We have to look at different groups of investments – high value cars like Ferraris and Aston Martins, the Jaguars, Porsche, vintage sports or classic racing cars. There are also many iconic cars that are not too expensive, and I would like to see more transactions in Asia for such types of cars – cars that were common sight on the streets of KL or in downtown Tokyo like a Toyota Celica – can be interesting collectibles that don’t cost a lot but represent a certain time in Asia’s economic development history.

From a hobby angle, from an investment angle, classic cars are good bets.

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Guy Loveridge, acclaimed automotive Consultant & Auctioneer. RL Neo Classics auction event at The Repulse Bay (11 June 2016).

Q: What makes a classic car an iconic, high-value collectible?

They’ve got to be rare, very exclusive. It has to have a good history – of the owners, of its racing, how many classic car events it has participated, how many classic car awards it has won. Good maintenance – we say mint condition. Everything kept very well and as original as possible.

Restoration can keep up or even increases the value of the car if it is truthful to the original design and specification.There are factories and brands that do certifications for classic cars to certify whether this is a genuine classic – more and more car brands are doing it.

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RL Neo Classics auction event at the Repulse Bay (June 2016).

Q: Any advice for first time buyers or those interested in classic car collecting?

RL: It is not a push-button thing. For classic cars, you need to learn and put in a lot of effort – you have to prepare to spend on the car, there might be a lot of frustration but that is part of the fun. It is a special feeling to drive a classic car, to drive it well. It becomes more valuable after you take possession of the car – that is something that would please you and bring joy to you. But it is not something automatic – you have to learn, you have to have hard work maintaining the car, understanding the car, learn about its history; and the reward will come later. It is not an instant reward or instant gratification you don’t get that in classic car. That is why people in classic cars get respect from other folks in life. It is like climbing a tall mountain – it takes a lot of hard work, preparation, disappointments even – it may take months or years before you derive the joy out of a certain dedicated sport or collection – classic car being one. You have spend a lot of effort to earn your grace.

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1994 Chevrolet Corvette C4 Right Hand Drive Coverted by Pinifarina

Q: What can you do with your classic car after you buy it?

RL: Exhibitions, drives, even classic car rallies. There are a lot of rallies happening in Asia – in mainland China, like a recent one driving from Hong Kong to Beijing. A rally is where you drive on regular roads from one point to another – you have to be there by a certain time, you don’t use GPS but a road book the classic way. This is more lifestyle than competition. But there are still competition rallies like the D’Tour Auto and Mille Miglia.

Q: Is there a community or club that you can join?

RL: Yes there are more than one classic car club in Hong Kong. I believe there will be more to come. More people are drawn to the classic car culture. Part of the fun is that you meet a lot of interesting and very passionate people – people who know a lot about cars and who know how to enjoy the car – and these people are usually fun people. There are a lot of ex-racecar drivers. They are not in the competition any more but they like to drive the cars that they have been racing in.

Q: What are your personal favorite models?

RL: I have a few favorites, but I like the Ferrari 275 GTB because it represents the best in its time in the early 60s. It won a lot of races, this particular model, the derived racing breed. It is beautiful and fun to drive. And so it represents a very important era in Ferrari.

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1966 Ferrari 275 GTB

Q: In your own words, what is the true “essence” of owning a classic car?

RL: It is about the love of motorsports. In the end, the essence is that you love the cars, you appreciate the role of cars in the lifestyle of human society, what was for the time being became immortal with a passion. I would say that it is beyond investment, it is about the passion and love of motor cars. In a limited life of a person, you cannot love all the cars that come this way or that way in the future. There has got to be a point where you crystallise certain cars: “this is me, this is what I really like”. So, in that sense, it is the romance of motoring. That is symbolic of a person and it says something about your personality and your character.

A lot of owners like to identify themselves and their character with their car. Because cars are usually stylish, and people want to be stylish by owning a stylish car. And most of them are. Classic car owners have a certain sense of being sophisticated, cultural and knowledgeable.

RL Neo Classics auction event at the Repulse Bay (11 June 2016).

RL Neo Classics auction event at The Repulse Bay (11 June 2016)

Fueled by passion, Lee is generating momentum for the classic car movement in Asia and he spoke of his hope and vision to establish RL Neo Classics as the foremost premier institute for classic cars in Asia.

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“What I am good at is that I like to create a lifestyle. I set out momentum for new trends, new things. I have done that for karaoke, I have done that for supercars and now I want to do it for classic cars – to bring classic cars into the mainstream, into the lifestyle of the Asian people.”

 

Mark your calendars for the 12th and 13th November 2016, for RL Neo Classics will hold its second auction event, “MOVIE CAR TRIBUTE,” at The Arcade, Cyberport. An event that is not to be missed.

For more information, visit: http://www.rlneoclassics.com

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RL Neo Classics auction event (11 June 2016).