Driving Passion: Interview with Victor Muller
Victor Muller knows cars. As the collectible car hobby rebounds, the chairman of Saab Automobile and CEO of Spyker Cars talks about his collections — on his walls and in his garage.
Interview By Suzanne Gannon
Unlike many successful entrepreneurs who arrive at their collecting hobbies by way of their profession, Victor Muller made his journey in reverse: The key in the ignition of his passion for cars first turned when he was just a teenager. It eventually led him to an industry on which he's made a lasting impression.
A lawyer-turned-shipping magnate, Muller and industrial designer Maarten de Bruijn in 2000 re-launched Spyker Cars, a dormant maker of cars and aircraft founded in 1914. Ultimately Muller became the designer of the company's hand-built sports models — including the C8 Aileron, C8 Laviolette, C8 Spyder, and the upcoming D8 Peking-to-Paris SSUV — and took the company public on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange Euronext. He expanded its distribution to include dealerships in 21 countries, and, in February 2010, bought Saab Automobile from General Motors.
The chief executive officer of Spyker Cars and now chairman of Saab Automobile has raced the Mille Miglia, and collected Aston Martins, Maseratis, Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, and an Isotta-Fraschini. When he is not tweaking a gearshift or choosing the perfect finish for a turned-metal dash, he can be found giving one of his two-seaters a spin on the winding roads of Mallorca, Spain, where he now lives.
WHAT MAKES YOU SO PASSIONATE ABOUT CARS?
The wonderful thing about driving cars of this caliber is that it tickles all of the senses. There's a great sound, a great smell, beautiful design. It's a very tactile experience and the sense of speed is phenomenal.
WHERE DO YOU DO MOST OF YOUR CAR ACQUISITIONS?
I have bought a lot of them at auctions, at Pebble Beach in August, for example. Auction buying is exciting and daring because, regardless of what the auction catalog may say about the car, once you have that baby at home, there's always something that needs attention. You can't buy cars of note anywhere else because auctions are where the most interesting pieces are sold. Sometimes a model with a very low estimate skyrockets in price at the auction and that makes you really want it.
DO YOU SEE A CONNECTION BETWEEN COLLECTIBLE CARS AND ART?
Cars constitute a tremendous example of applied art. They represent the zeitgeist, an icon for the culture of the time.
WHAT WAS THE MOST YOU EVER PAID FOR A CAR?
In 2007, I bought a 1954 Ferrari 250 GT for $3.2 million.
WHAT'S YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY AS A COLLECTOR OF CARS?
I have been keen on cars basically from birth, and I started collecting even before I got my driver's license at the age of 18. Back then, technically, my dad had to collect them for me. My first acquisition was a Lancia 2000 Berlina, a four-door sedan. I borrowed a thousand gilders [the equivalent of 450 Euros] from my grandmother.
IS THERE A PARTICULAR CAR YOU'D LIKE TO ADD TO YOUR COLLECTION?
Right now, I'm on the lookout for a 1993 Saab, which is stupid since we have a museum with about 100 of them. But that's the thing about a collector; you always want to have your own stuff.
HAVE YOU EVER RACED IN ONE OF YOUR CARS?
This year I did Italy's Mille Miglia, the vintage car race from Brescia to Rome and back, in a 1957 Saab 93 because 1957 was the last year of manufacture from which cars could be eligible to enter. I drove with the CEO of Saab and we had a blast.
HAVE YOU MADE ANY MISTAKES? AND IF SO, WHAT HAVE THEY TAUGHT YOU?
There's a long list of errors I've made over the years, but it all breaks down to one thing: If you really want to buy well, find out everything there is to learn about a car. Ask for the file, which contains all the invoices, the provenance. Get it inspected by someone knowledgeable to avoid disappointment. If you're an impulse buyer, you shouldn't be surprised when something goes wrong because it's a gamble.
HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE THE MARKET FOR COLLECTIBLE CARS?
It's very cyclical. I've seen the cycle three times. There was an incredible boom in 1989 when prices went through the roof. I was buying so many cars back then. Then it came to a shrieking standstill in 1990, when prices were 40 percent down or more. I bought a lot of cars when they were at their low, especially the limited ones. The market for the really interesting stuff is very limited, so prices are still climbing, and unique pieces are fetching record prices. It's the generic stuff that gets slightly hit in downturns. Something like the Ferrari 250 GTO now trades somewhere in the $20 million range, an all-time high, because there are only 34 of them in the world. There was a time when a car like that went for $5 or $10 million.
DO YOU ADOPT A COLLECTOR'S PERSONA WHEN YOU'RE ON THE HUNT FOR A CAR?
I am the ultimate impulse buyer, every auctioneer's dream. When a car I like is on the block, it looks so cool, I want to take it home. I can be a real sucker for the excitement of the auction room, a real pushover. It took only 30 minutes for me to buy that Ferrari for $3.2 million. I made a few calls.
DOES A CAR LIKE TESLA GET YOU THINKING ABOUT PRODUCING A SPYKER THAT'S MORE ENERGY EFFICIENT?
Saab would be the manufacturer of something energy-efficient, not Spyker. I don't think an electric sports car will arouse the senses. With something like Tesla, despite having the immediate torque, there's no smell or sound to the acceleration. Maybe the younger generation finds it exciting, but for me, nothing beats starting up a 12-cylinder Ferrari, which is very grumpy in the morning. The electric car is fantastic for normal transportation, and that's why Saab is bringing out its E-power car, the 9-3 Saab EV, which has about 140 miles of useful range. With this car, you don't have to succumb to what I call "range anxiety" where you worry about where to plug in.
WHAT IS THE PSYCHOGRAPHIC OF THE SPYKER BUYER?
We sell only about 50 Spykers in a year, so like a collector of precious cars, the Spyker buyer is very discerning. He or she appreciates handcrafted things like jewelry, which is made to special specifications.
SPEAKING OF THINGS THAT ARE HANDCRAFTED, IS THERE A CONNECTION BETWEEN YOUR CAR COLLECTING AND YOUR ART COLLECTING?
The connection for me is totally modern design with a deep respect for heritage — that is what Saab and Spyker are all about. The contrast between old and new without either of them hurting the other.
HOW DOES THIS MANIFEST ITSELF IN YOUR ART COLLECTION?
Well, I now live in a very classic Mallorcan house, and yet my interiors are pretty modern. But with my classic paintings I am creating a fantastic contrast. I'll never forget going to a meeting one time in Milan with a leading construction company. I entered a 500-year-old building, a palazzo in the center of town, walked through a courtyard and through all these rooms, until I got to the offices of the CEO. The room had the most incredible wallpaper and ceiling decoration and this 500-year-old wooden floor. And in the middle of the room was this glass table and this ultra-modern Italian designer furniture and halogen lighting. The contrast between old and new was incredible. They hadn't put a single hole in the wall to hang a painting.
WHAT ARTISTS OR SCHOOLS OF ART ARE YOU MOST PASSIONATE ABOUT?
I am a fan of The Hague School and of some of the Impressionists. It gives me pride to own some of the Dutch Masters because I am Dutch, and wherever I go, they seem to follow me. One of the best whose work I own is by Paul Gabriel [1828-1903]. I have a beautiful windmill, of course, that he painted; its sister piece hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I also own a fantastic winter landscape by Louis Apol [1850-1936]. As for Impressionists, I own a beautiful painting of a beach setting with people bathing, of course. It's by [Maurice] Brianchon [1899-1979].
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST SIGNIFICANT ACQUISITION OF ART?
I bought my first piece of real art in 1984 in my first year as a lawyer, when I earned absolutely nothing. I came across a beautiful bronze torso of a woman by the Czech sculptor Jana Paroubek [1940-1987], who lived in Holland. It cost me two thousand gilders, which was a month of salary at the time, and I wound up negotiating a payment plan through my boss, where I paid the artist 20 monthly installments of 100 gilders each. It has an unbelievable greenish cast.
HAVE YOU EVER GONE ASTRAY IN COLLECTING ART?
There are no mistakes in art, whereas there are a zillion in cars. In art, I've never gone wrong as long as I've bought something I really like. I've bought about 80 percent of my collection at auction.
WHAT'S THE EMOTIONAL PAYOFF?
Every painting has a story. I was at an art show in Palm Beach a while back and I came across the Brianchon I now own at a dealer's stand. It was before the show had even opened. I asked my dear friend, who was the number one Rembrandt dealer at the time, to negotiate with the seller for me because he knew the guy. There must have been 50 text messages to and fro, and finally I got it. We laughed our tails off. Now that painting reminds me of that dear, dear friend, who later died. We lost him too soon. And so it was so much more than the painting. It wasn't just owning the thing; it was the hunt for it, which is sometimes more interesting than the kill. In this case, both the hunt and the kill provided a thrill. And now I see it every day.
AND IN CARS?
Cars take you places and provide you with unbelievable memories, such as driving with my son to places I will never forget. The effects are huge. You can't drive a painting.
IS COUNTERFEITING A PROBLEM IN CARS THE WAY FORGERIES ARE IN ART?
You'd be surprised. There are copies of Bugattis out there and fake Bentleys and Ferraris. Sometimes there will be two cars with the same chassis number, which means that something went wrong somewhere. You have to be careful. You want to acquire products without stories, or whose story you can verify. Authenticity is everything. You have to make sure that all the numbers match, that the chassis and the gearbox and the engine and the axels all belong together.
DO YOU COLLECT ANYTHING ELSE?
I also collect watches. There's one for every state of mind, every occasion. The watches I have received have been given to me for certain reasons. It's never "just another Patek Philippe." With an engraving on the back, it means a lot to me. Men can't wear jewelry, so what we can do is wear nice shoes, a great suit and a great watch — and we can drive fantastic cars.
Suzanne Gannon has written for Town & Country, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Art & Antiques, and the Financial Times. She has been a guest on NPR's "Talk of the Nation." This story originally appeared in Heritage Magazine (www.IntelligentCollector.com)..
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