We’ve just pulled into a nondescript strip mall some 25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, looking for Hing Wa Lee Jewelers. Shotgun-toting security guards stationed at the first- and second-floor doors bark instructions at us to wait where we are.
Eventually David Lee emerges with a smile and breaks the tension. He says hello and then leads us below the stucco-covered building into a subterranean parking lot. A white garage door, pristine against the otherwise grimy cement walls, opens via remote control, revealing a car nut’s Narnia: a row of Ferrari supercars on the left, including an F40, an F50, and a 288 GTO; a Pagani Huayra and a Porsche Carrera GT on the right; and two Rolls-Royce Phantom limos shoehorned in the back.
But this is more than just a personal storage facility full of supercars; to Lee, what’s inside is a testament to his life’s achievements.
A while back, a direct message came to our Automobile Instagram account from @ferraricollectordavidlee, who has more than 750,000 followers. It included a link to a post containing a photo gallery of a very clean-looking Ferrari Dino, but there was no text to explain its purpose.
It didn’t take much digging to reveal Lee’s social-media fame is secondary only to his real-life success. The Los Angeles Times once described the businessman’s assets as an “investment empire.” His portfolio began to take shape in the 1990s, when upon graduating from the University of Southern California, Lee revamped the Hong Kong–based gemstone company his father founded in 1965. He continues to run and invest in that business today, as well as various other interests.
“A lot of people don’t look at the Dino respectfully because it was a lower, inexpensive kind of entry-price-point Ferrari.”
But we were far more concerned with the reason for the Instagram message. As it turned out, Lee invited us to see and drive his intriguing Dino, beginning at his watches-and-more jewelry store in Walnut, California.
Hing Wa Lee also serves as a hub for a community of car enthusiasts Lee curated himself. He hosts sizable monthly Cars and Chronos shows in the business’s front yard. He displays a smattering of his own collection and invites others to present their cars as well. Lee sends an open invitation to the public via his Instagram account for one and all to come gawk at the machines.
“I just want to promote car culture,” Lee says. “We’re lucky in Southern California to have good weather, to have kind of a car culture that is really widely accepted. It’s a diverse car culture as well that is a place we are able to express ourselves.”
Lee owns several examples of what many consider Ferrari’s most important cars, which led to several guest appearances on “Jay Leno’s Garage.” His ensuing small degree of celebrity within the car-enthusiast world lured him down a path that would lead the Ferrari collector to become a Ferrari modder and outlaw—ultimately resulting in the Dino in question.
First was a phone call during which Lee and fellow Instagram celeb and Porsche builder Magnus Walker planned to collaborate on a video of the pair driving up Southern California’s famous Angeles Crest Highway. The idea was for Lee and Walker to drive cars from the manufacturers that have been part of their rise to prominence in the car community. Walker chose his signature “outlaw” 1971 Porsche 911 branded with the number 277. The red, white, and blue sports car is well known enough to have a Hot Wheels model cast in its honor. But this presented a problem for Lee, as he didn’t own the right signature vehicle to run with Walker’s hot-rod 911.
“A Daytona Spider probably wouldn’t be so good for that,” Lee says. “Ferrari’s golden years were in the ’60s, and I have a lot of ’60s . Then it goes ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, but that also wouldn’t match. I said, ‘Magnus, I’ll get back to you. Let me think about this.’”
Lee concluded he needed to build something appropriate for the occasion without ruffling the feathers of too many purists. “A lot of people don’t look at the Dino respectfully because it was a lower, inexpensive kind of entry-price-point Ferrari,” he says. “People would kind of be snobbish about it.”
Lee found a story about a modified Dino with a Ferrari 328 engine, updated transmission, and 360 wheels. He tried to buy it from its owner and builder, Kevin O’Rourke, but couldn’t get him to part with his creation. Lee knew he would have to build his own interpretation; he also knew he risked upsetting purists after seeing how people responded negatively to O’Rourke’s car. For some people, the opinions of others are irrelevant, but that philosophy doesn’t work particularly well for social-media influencers looking to connect with fans.
From behind the wheel of his modified 1972 Dino 246 GTS, though—which Lee calls the Monza 3.6 Evo—the investment of more than $1 million and a year-plus of development time seem to have been worth it. The build is cohesive to an impressive degree; the car is supposed to drive like it came from the factory. In reality, Moto Technique in the United Kingdom did the work.
There are modern touches like low-speed power steering, mighty Brembo brakes, a revised suspension, and bigger 17-inch wheels based on an original Dino design.
The “3.6” designation comes from the naturally aspirated V-8’s displacement. The engine started as a 2.9-liter twin-turbo sourced from a Ferrari F40, but Lee’s builder removed the turbos and bored out the block. Other parts were overhauled or swapped, including new pistons and headers and an F40 radiator. The resulting output is 400 horsepower from an engine that revs past 7,000 rpm. Gear changes are courtesy of a five-speed manual Lee says comes from a Ferrari 328.
There are modern touches like low-speed power steering, mighty Brembo brakes, a revised suspension, and bigger 17-inch wheels based on an original Campagnolo design. The whole build is balanced, planted, and easier to drive than expected. All that power in a 2,400-pound car with near 50:50 weight distribution is almost always a winning combination.
The engine turns over immediately upon startup and begins a charismatic idle. The clutch is fairly easy to work, and adjusting the seats proves more difficult than operating the well-sorted gated-shifter gearbox. Power delivery is linear as we carve through the winding bends that slice across the hills near Lee’s store. The engine vies for center stage with its meaty roar, but you can’t help but notice the feel of the strong brakes under your foot, the nice steering—accurate despite some play around center—and the vehicle’s overall ease of use. This Dino drives like a classic, but its updates mean it coexists with modern traffic without too much white-knuckle action. In the process of creating it, Lee says, “I’ve learned to love the Dino. It’s such a great design. So beautiful, so balanced, such a great car.”
Lee is so happy with the outcome that he plans to commission a series of 25 of these artisanal restomod Monza 3.6 Evos during a five-year span, under the company name Monza Automotive Design. Like certain other car-restoration and modification businesses that also play in a similar automotive space and that value individualism, Lee plans to disallow customers from ordering duplicate color schemes. Lee therefore has the only one that will be black with a red interior. Each will be priced at $1 million, and Lee so far doesn’t offer much in the way of details on how the business will be structured. But he tells us—and this is no surprise considering the rise of the boutique automotive restomod business—he already has a number of interested parties. Just don’t expect armed guards to be included in the steep price of admission.