Virtually any automobile enthusiast who’s picked up a magazine or scrolled forums in the last 20-plus years is undoubtedly familiar with The Sultan of Brunei. As the absolute monarch of a small, oil-rich Southeast Asian nation, he rose to fame as one of the world’s richest men, raking in billions of dollars of revenue from a lucrative partnership with Royal Dutch Shell. Such fabulous wealth allowed the Sultan and his family to lead extravagant lives, and petrolheads have long been obsessed with their astonishing car collection, rumored to approach 7,000 vehicles! Yet, beyond the sheer scale of the collection, the near-mythical nature of the cars themselves is what fascinates. The Royal Family had the means to indulge in their wildest motoring fantasies, resulting in four-door Ferraris, Bentley SUVs, Ferrari station wagons, multiple McLaren F1s, a fleet of Jaguar XJ220s, a room full of Ferrari Enzos, dozens of coachbuilt Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, one-off prototypes, and much more. Nearly all were produced in secrecy, then squirreled away on the tiny sovereign nation on the Island of Borneo, some never to be driven or seen again.
The assumption has often been that the entire collection belonged to the Sultan; however, much of the unbridled spending was done by his brother, HRH Prince Jefri Bolkiah. Prince Jefri served as Minister of Finance and head of the state-run Amedeo Development Corporation, which handled the country’s infrastructure and served as the parent for a network of over 250 shell companies, which controlled lavish properties and hotels around the world, including the swanky Beverly Hills Hotel. Such a position gave Prince Jefri the power to write the checks, and oh boy, did he write them! He burned nearly fifteen billion dollars on cars, jets, helicopters, yachts, polo ponies, art, a rug of solid gold thread – most of which was waved under his nose by a pair of enterprising London-based brokers, Rafi and Vatche “Bob” Manoukian.
Prince Jefri later alleged the Manoukians charged anywhere from 100-600 percent markups on everything they handled for him and the Royal Family, and thus made a handy profit for themselves. Cars were always a hot-ticket item, and while Ferraris and Lamborghinis were the obvious choices for the Royals, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the family forged its long – and vitally important – relationship with Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motors. All thanks to the Manoukians… and a 15-year-old kid.
In 1988, Jefri’s eldest son, Prince Hakeem, while staying at the family’s Beverly Hills Hotel, went on a shopping trip with the Manoukians at the local Rolls-Royce dealership, Gregg Motors. Overlooking that he was 15 and lacked a driver’s license, the dealer was more than happy to indulge the Prince and assist with his first car purchase – for two Bentley Turbo Rs. But there was a catch: The young Prince considered the four-door sedan old-fashioned, and wanted a two-door coupe instead. Bentley did not produce such a car at the time, but that was nothing a few hundred thousand additional Pounds couldn’t fix. A deal was made for a white Turbo R, now known to be RBK25450, and a dark blue one. Hakeem reportedly told his bodyguard, “the blue one is for my dad, and I’ll keep the white one.”
That could have easily been the end of the story; however, it turned out to be only the beginning. Thanks to the efforts of historians Phil Neff and Chris Summers, the extraordinary story of this Turbo R, chassis RBK25450, has been uncovered. It’s been discovered that Gregg Motors did not deliver the same cars Prince Hakeem selected that day. Instead, an order came through to the factory in the name of Tom Speigel – a friend of Gregg Motors’ owner – for a standard Turbo R Saloon in USA specification finished in Acrylic white over tan trim. Rolls-Royce production records indicate the car left Crewe, and instead of going to L.A., it and the dark blue one made a side trip to Hooper & Co. Coachbuilders Ltd, in London for conversion to two-door coupes as directed by Prince Hakeem.
At Hooper, Prince Hakeem’s white Turbo R was painstakingly converted to two-door saloon specs, becoming the first of literally hundreds of Bentley “Brunei Specials.” Hooper build sheets in the name of Rafi Manoukian detail the transformation, which included the base 2-door conversion, a limousine-style rear window, ‘NASA’-style (sic) air ducts on the bonnet, sliding glass sunroof, Hooper front spoiler, unique badging, and so much more. That extended to the interior, completely reworked with new Hooper-style front seats and centre console, customer veneered woodwork, and veneered lower map pockets. Connolly supplied the leather for client approval prior to fitting, and Hooper’s craftspeople covered virtually every surface in red hides, leaving no exposed fasteners and color-keying all interior plastics to match. Wilton carpets were also approved by the client, and even the mouton overmats were dyed red to match. Other details included folding picnic tables in the seatbacks (with veneers approved by the client), rear storage cubbies, and a bespoke audio system with dual Alpine CD and stereo/cassette players and fully uprated speakers – a necessary fitment for a young playboy prince.
Upon completion, X25450 was delivered to Beverly Hills and stored at the Manoukian’s residence. Prince Hakeem allegedly used his Bentley just once to drive to the beach at Santa Monica and back, then garaged it at the Bolkiah residence behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. There it remained for years, under the care of the Royal Family’s attendant Steve Hui. In the late 1990s, just as Prince Jefri’s world began to unravel in a swirl of astonishing allegations, Hakeem’s white Turbo R got an updated title, presumably in an attempt to protect the asset. Hearing of the car through local channels, noted marque collector Chuck Swimmer was able to purchase it in 2000, and listed it with the Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club in 2001. In 2004, it was sold to Robert and Arlene Connolly of Pompano Beach, FL, before coming into its most recent owner’s care in 2009.
Following a comprehensive service, the most recent owner has enjoyed the Bentley in club events and shows. It currently shows fewer than 10,000 miles and remains exceptionally original, with no modifications to its original spec and offered in superbly well-preserved condition inside and out. It is ready to enjoy and is sure to invoke a few double-takes at RROC meets and would also be a superb entry into Radwood or similar 80s-90s motoring events.
Beyond its unique story, chassis RBK25450 is tremendously significant. It is believed to be one of only a handful of Hooper Turbo R conversions and is the best-preserved, most original surviving example extant. While countless other vehicles were left to rot in the harsh environment of Brunei when Prince Jefri’s world collapsed, this lone car survived unscathed. But perhaps more notable is the importance of this car to the very survival of Rolls-Royce and Bentley. In the late 1980s, Rolls-Royce struggled under Vickers’ conservative ownership and lacked funding for new model development. This very Turbo R became the catalyst for their long and lucrative relationship with the Brunei Royal Family. The family’s “cost no object” mentality allowed Rolls-Royce to charge them for all aspects of new model development, and many features later appeared in series production Bentley and Rolls-Royce models. The Bolkiah family purchased hundreds of bespoke models – including a fleet of Brunei-exclusive Bentley Dominator SUVs at $3M each plus engineering costs. Their wealth sustained the storied marques into the 1990s, making Volkswagen’s acquisition and subsequent spin-off of Rolls-Royce to BMW possible. It has been well-documented that Rolls-Royce and Bentley of today would not exist as manufacturers were it not for one Prince’s extravagant Beverly Hills shopping trip in 1988.
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