Refitting his classic 1967 Feadship superyacht The Highlander with a celebrated history was a testing experience for Victor Muller. The Dutch sports-car magnate tells Stewart Campbell and Sacha Bonsor what he learnt in the process.
Profound epiphanies don’t often happen in garages in southern Holland, but when superyacht owner Victor Muller visited an oily workshop in 1983, the occasion was formative. “Sonny,” said an 80-year-old mechanic with a funny accent, “let me tell you something about the human eye… it only notices imperfection.”
Muller was a 24-year-old lawyer and had taken his car in to get the bumpers chromed. “What do you see?” the man asked. Nothing, thought Muller. “Look closer, look properly,” the man pressed.
And then he saw it, a tiny imperfection in the metalwork. “He was right,” Muller says over tea in London’s Connaught Hotel. “That blemish became all I could see. If you walk into a room and everything is fine but there’s a socket hanging from the wall, the socket’s the only thing you remember. You have to have a design so flowing that your eye doesn’t stop. That’s what I learned from an 80-year-old chromer in Holland.”
That brief moment informed everything the 54-year-old Dutch millionaire went on to accomplish: running the biggest tugboat fleet in the world, starting supercar company Spyker and amassing an enviable collection of classic cars. All of the excruciating adherence to detail, design and quality has been done with a nod to that old man, says Muller, and nowhere is this more apparent than in his latest project: the refitting of classic 1967 Feadship The Highlander.
This 37 metre icon of Dutch boatbuilding has been impressively redesigned by Muller in the US, creating something sublimely seamless. “A good design is only pleasing to the eye when it’s consistent everywhere, with one design language throughout the yacht,” he says. “I have a hard time reconciling how, on some boats, you walk from a Louis XVI room into an art deco space and on to modern realism. With my yacht, I tried to make it as consistent as possible. It’s very smooth, very calm. Nothing is flashy. It takes three things to build a brand, or a boat: consistency, consistency, consistency.”
It’s clear within minutes of meeting Muller that he’s a fanatic; whether it’s cars, boats or helicopters (he has recently learnt to fly one), his interest and enthusiasm for everything he does is extreme. “I could say car before I could say mummy,” he says, proudly. “She’s still a little upset about that!”
At the height of his auto obsession, around 1997, he owned 50 classic cars, but that’s now down to a slightly more manageable 18. Following a series of Lancias in the 1970s, he bought his first true sports car, a Maserati, in 1983, after borrowing money from his grandmother.
This infatuation wasn’t inherited – his dad had “terrible taste” in cars, a point Muller could not let go even after his father’s death: “In my eulogy, I reproached him for driving a Ford Cortina. And a big, ugly Opal Kapitan. Oh, God, and then he started buying American cars. When I was 12, I forced him out of American cars because it was an embarrassment. So he bought a Volvo 244 GLE, still a tank but at least it was a decent car. Then he started buying BMW 7 Series. This is when our relationship improved.”
"It takes three things to build a brand, or a boat: consistency, consistency, consistency."
For Muller, this gradual move up the car-quality league table reached its apotheosis in 1997 when, having left law to successfully revive a number of businesses, he bought classic Dutch car-maker Spyker. In the early 20th century, this manufacturer was a big deal, building state coaches, planes and rally cars that took part in Victorianesque adventures from “Peking to Paris”, but it ceased trading in 1925.
Seventy-five years later the brand was back, with Muller at the helm, displaying the C8 Spyker concept at the Birmingham Motor Show. “I was buying new Astons and Ferraris and they were so poorly built in the 1990s. And I thought, as a classic car collector, that there must be a way to bring back the craftsmanship of the golden age of car manufacturing, from, say, 1925 to 1955. Hand built, nothing but pure materials, no plastics, no cheap shit. I thought that must be possible, so that’s what I did,” he says.
Every single Spyker starts life in Muller’s head; he just draws what he loves. “I’m very visual, I know exactly what the car’s going to look like, and I have a young guy who translates it into 3D drawings. The design of our latest car, the Venator, we did in 22 days from a drawing I did on a napkin in China.”
Muller has no formal training in design, and attributes his love of aesthetics to his upbringing. He grew up in comparative wealth, largely thanks to his father’s successful accounting firm (eventually sold to Ernst & Young) and the money was spent educating him and his sister on beauty. They were regularly taken to Italy, for example, where Victor soaked up la dolce vita: “I’m so old I actually know what that means. This was the time of (legendary Italian film director Federico) Fellini, so yeah, I love that era. I love the cars and boats made then.”
But it was his grandmother who he really has to thank. “She was like a little queen,” he recalls. “She really taught us to appreciate quality.”
It’s more than money he’s got his father to thank for, however. As a child the two of them would go birdwatching on the Dutch coast near a town called IJmuiden; the birds were interesting, he recalls, but the tugboats plying the canal between the coast and Amsterdam were fascinating: “I would see the boats come in and out and I was intrigued.”
They were owned by a company called Wijsmuller, which Muller, at just 32, would later buy and turn into the biggest tugboat operator in the world. “I sold it off to Maersk in 2001. It was my single biggest deal,” he says.
Money from the deal was ploughed into Spyker, which in turn allowed Muller to think about boats: before The Highlander, which he keeps in the US, he bought a Riva Aquariva and a nine-metre sloop that he keeps at his home in Mallorca. He previously owned a wooden Aquarama too, but got sick of having to take her in and out of the water to keep her from falling apart.
It was only when Muller was leafing through a copy of Boat International in 2007 on the island of Capri that he seriously considered buying a superyacht. “I saw an ad for a Feadship and started looking into it. I thought, heritage is very important, I want to buy the one with the best heritage.”
The search stopped when Muller saw The Highlander, then called Avante, nestled behind a house on the Intracoastal Waterway in Boca Raton, Florida.
The 36 metre classic scored on all counts: it was from an era when design briefs might as well have read “Elegant”; it had an enviable past, having been owned by legendary publisher Malcolm Forbes and, perhaps most importantly, it was a Feadship. “Everyone makes beautiful yachts,” explains Muller, “but there’s only one Feadship. If you buy a Feadship, you’re saying ‘I like quality and I don’t care what it costs.’”
In the 40-odd years of the yacht’s life to that point, it had hosted presidents, captains of industry and celebrities and now it was all Muller’s. “And it was still completely intact,” Muller adds. “Forty years of being in the harshest environment on the globe and externally there was nothing wrong with it.” The internals were a different matter, however. “It looked like a cheap whorehouse,” he remembers. “There was a fire on board in 1980 and the interior had been redone for a Californian owner. It was all white leather and brass. And Plexiglas. It was the worst of 1980 – nauseating – so I knew the first thing I had to do was rip the interior out.”
The Highlander spent three years at the superyacht refit yard in Fort Lauderdale, and Muller freely admits that he got it all wrong. “I was a novice and I made every classic mistake: I wasted money on the wrong things, I had to do lots of things twice. With hindsight I should have picked the yacht up and brought it back to Feadship. But I thought at the time that I couldn’t afford it: penny-wise, pound-foolish.”
Despite often contemplating canning the whole project, slowly the yacht came together and today it stands as a testament to Muller’s exacting eye and love of detail. He went big on teak and nickel (“because it’s so much more beautiful than chrome”) and chose white and orange for the main colours; white because it contrasts beautifully with the teak, and orange “for Holland”.
What he’s created is the ultimate family getaway. Sadly his father died before the yacht was finished but his mother, still going strong at 85, loves it. “The reason for buying the yacht was because my family is so important. The yacht offers a unique place to have everyone together in a confined but spacious area. Nobody is sitting too close together, and everyone can do their own thing. But you are together. And that’s invaluable,” Muller says.
Does his family appreciate the blood, sweat and tears he has poured into the detail? The seamlessness? The aesthetic? The design? Muller pauses. “You can learn quality,” he says, slowly. “It’s handed down from generation to generation. My children appreciate it, because I tell them, ‘This is crap, and that is good.’ If you see it enough times you will recognise it yourself, if you’re open to it.”
That 80-year-old chromer would approve.