He has met Enzo Ferrari, been embraced trackside by 1950s racer Gigi Villoresi, befriended Mille Miglia legend Piero Taruffi. And had Fangio round for lunch. Meet Albert Obrist, a walking talking pillar of Ferrari history.
It began in 1961. His company – an innovator in injection moulding for packaging – was going well. “So as soon as I had the money together I bought a Ferrari,” from Monteverdi, the Basel dealer at the time, who went on to make his own cars. “It was a 250 GTE” which, he is careful to add, “was strictly a road car, not a racing car.” He was 24.
Albert 'Albi' Obrist flanked by, on the right, his magnificently restored Ferrari 330 America, with his SF90 Stradale nosing into view on the left
Once he started buying Ferrari, he found he couldn’t stop. “It’s a virus,”he says, with a soft, generous laugh. At the present end of a six-decade arc covering more than eighty Ferrari acquisitions, is his latest buy, the 812 Competizione, with a 296 GTB on order. In the very early days other high performance makes were sold off to finance his Ferrari ‘project’. “I sacrificed them to build the ‘Collection’ that Mister Ferrari himself forgot to make,” he laughs.
Except that ‘Collection’ is a word he strenuously eschews. For this softly spoken Swiss gentleman, who courteously avoids first names, refers to ‘television’ rather than ‘TV’, and whose English vernacular endearingly extends to calling himself “an old geezer”, the word ‘Collection’ smacks too much of commercialism and investments.
“I called it my ‘project’. I never thought I would get rich,” he says. “It was for the culture. The car is a very important part of modern culture. For me it changed the world, it changed the way people moved, the way people lived. I just love cars.”
The livery of the 330 America is a nostalgic homage to his first ever Ferrari, a 250 GTE purchased 60 years ago
Frequent trips to Modena led to lifelong friendships with drivers and expert craftsmen – “wonderful people” – including the leading car bodybuilders of the era. He met “Mister Ferrari” several times at Maranello. “The first time he kept me waiting half an hour. But he would keep kings waiting an hour, so you could say he treated me better than a king!” he jokes.
The ‘project’ continued for thirty-years and encompassed “the cars of Mister Ferrari from the beginning, from before the War, from the beginning of the Scuderia until the end of Mister Ferrari’s life,” including a 1932 Scuderia Alfa Romeo Ferrari 8C 2300 Monza.
But an ill-fated car ‘partnership’ in 1993 incredibly ended in Obrist “losing” ownership of the entire assembly. Understandably embittered, his purchasing days looked over. Until a chance meeting a decade later “in a bar in Basel” with Niki Hasler of the Basel Ferrari dealership. “He’s one of the best car salesmen in the world, he sells you a car and you don’t even realise it,” enthuses Obrist. “Until you get the bill!” he chuckles, mischievously. “That was a 599. And then a second one. And the virus was back,” he says, stifling a giggle.
The SF90 Stradale is part of a collection that has, over a six decade arc, covered more than eighty Ferrari acquisitions
Last February Ferrari Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer, Enrico Galliera, welcomed him to Fiorano to collect his new 812 Competizione at a surprise unveiling that also included his 599 GTO and F12tdf for a commemorative photoshoot.
The Obrist garage currently hosts a Ferrari 330 America, restored “for nostalgic reasons”, whose colour combination pays homage to his first Ferrari, that 250 GTE. But when pushed to select his all-time favourite, he sighs, “The 315 S, driven to victory by Taruffi in the last competitive Mille Miglia, in ‘57.” Several owners later, that beauty sold for 55 million dollars.
He explains his urge for restoration, which extends to boats and houses: “It’s about creation. I think it’s important that beautiful things are kept alive.” He is a purist. “With cars my opinion is that if a car didn’t have good brakes in, say, ’34, ’35, then, to restore it, it shouldn’t have good brakes now.”
For Albert ‘Albi’ Obrist, it is “originality that counts”. Perfectly fitting, for a Ferrari gentleman who is himself a true original.