Car people are lying to you about their budgets, and I have the receipts

Kyle Smith

If you want to see a car person squirm, ask them how much they’ve spent on their car. Most of us don’t have the number handy. If we do, we are lying about it. I know this because I am guilty. There has long been a number in my head totaling the money I’ve invested in my ’65 Corvair Corsa over the last six years. After saying that figure out loud to a friend the other day, I decided to check myself.

I was off by about 30 percent.

Could it be because we tell ourselves that $5 here and $100 there doesn’t add up across paychecks? We are likely all guilty of some “creative accounting” when it comes to our project cars, and I hold myself as example number one. We apply this to other people’s cars, too. 

Last weekend, David Freiburger listed his 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1, better known as “Disgustang,” for sale on Facebook, asking $75K. My first reaction was surprise at the fact that he was selling it publicly. The second was confusion—by listing it on Facebook, he was probably losing money. (He could likely get more on Bring a Trailer. Clearly, he wanted it to go to a fan.) Even if he was being helped by sponsorships, Freiburger has a lot of dough tied up in that car. Anyone could find the parts list by reviewing dozens of episodes from the three different video series he leads.

When you want OEM+ looks and effective air-conditioning, you don’t have many choices. Freiburger didn’t even try to hide the cash he put in: The front drive alone for the built Ford small-block under the hood was $3000. Then there was a set of Air Flow Research cylinder heads, and hours of tuning to make the car ready to drive daily—and comfortably, at that.

Despite the handle, Disgustang is a true restomod that puts modern function into a beautiful vintage wrapper. The design brief never included the word budget.

And yet a dozen comments on his post railed that Freiburger was taking advantage of people: “You got those parts for free.” “You got paid to install them.” “I could build the same thing in my garage for $15K.”

Freiburger laughed in the faces of a few commenters, and rightfully so, but I can see both sides. He is not completely off the hook. The brand in which he has so carefully wrapped himself centers on labeling project vehicles as “junk,” and rescuing such “garbage” by doing the right thing the wrong way. If you’ve paid attention, you’ve seen that while his schtick has remained consistent, the ambition of the projects he undertakes and the level of polish on the resulting builds has steadily risen.

Lots of fans didn’t catch the point when the Disgustang’s ratty look became only that. Everything not cosmetic was redone, and a bunch of carefully selected mechanical upgrades were installed. The shift didn’t click for me until I saw the for-sale listing.

We didn’t realize how much Freiburger had invested in that car because we often fail to acknowledge how much time and money we have invested in our own cars. Those who label his Mustang a $15K car are the same people still spouting off about sub-$1000 LS swaps. I mean, technically an LS swap that cheap is possible; but is that level of hackery really what you want to spend your limited amount of time doing? Why not just do it right?

Owning vintage cars is not cheap. If you think it is, you have been at this a long time.

Experience allows for creative accounting. A part or piece “just sitting on the shelf” often didn’t get there for free; yet you’ll pull it from storage and install it on your project with a zero next to it on your mental balance sheet. Look no further than a drawer of specialty tools in the tool chest of your favorite veteran wrencher. The first time they used those tools, the thought of their cost probably hurt. After two decades, suddenly that tool is basically free. It’s been paid off and costs nothing to keep. It has value, but the act of using it rarely triggers a thought of the original receipt.

Creative accounting isn’t limited to dollars and cents; it applies to time as well. A 15 minute job for you or I is a solid hour or possibly an entire evening for someone new to that same project. Experience creates efficiency, which we can leverage into value. Did you buy a project off Facebook Marketplace, something the last person gave up on, because you knew it would only take you an hour to rebuild the fuel system? That’s creative accounting. So many of us value our time at zero—or somehow less than that—but opportunity cost is real.

It’s easy to become jaded and thus unwelcoming when talking to those with less time invested in cars or their maintenance. We convince people that things are easy when in fact they are not, yet act surprised when newcomers are put off by the time, money, and emotional investment required to do things “right.”

The fact of the matter is next to nothing pertaining to our old cars is approachable, easy, or cheap. That’s not a good thing, or a bad thing, but it is a fact. The moment we stop lying to ourselves and accept this, the entirety of our hobby—and all the people on its sidelines—come into focus.

Some of us are good at finding and taking advantage of deals. Others use creative accounting. Regardless, we often end up with way more money tied up in our projects than we realize. I’m not calling for everyone at a cruise night to have a window sticker that says how much money they have tied up in their car—though I have seen it. I’m just asking that when people who are new to the hobby ask how much a build costs, we be honest. Nothing is more frustrating than getting excited about building a cool car for $5000 only to find out there is no way you can afford it.

Normalize being honest, and ditch the flair of “I did X or Y for so cheap!” Such a claim can be impressive, but it is more often disingenuous and makes us all look like liars who squirm when asked about specifics.

I suggest a rock-solid “I love this car enough that I don’t keep track. The car matters more than the money.”

That’s the truth, right?


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    Those that have really followed Freiburger for a long time (pre-Roadkill) know that he can be involved in very high level quality projects. The “F-bomb” Camaro is/was his (likeness used in a Fast & Furious movie) and I believe he has gone on the record of not wanting to do that “high level of perfect” anymore.

    I was early into Roadkill (saw the Buick convertible video when new that is Roadkill before Finnegan was brought in and the name coined) and I was more interested in the first 20 or so episodes then where it went (but I have lost touch the last few years). But, I started to enjoy Roadkill Garage with Dulcich (spelling?) more. I find the quirks of the car and the hack overcoming of issues more entertaining than burnouts, that’s just me though.

    Adjusted for today’s $ to do it, I am sure I would have $45000 into my Mustang (not a Mach 1 or fastback) and it’s not worth close to that. It also doesn’t have the grocery list of great components Freiburger’s car has, so 75k doesn’t seem crazy to me.

    I lean towards Roadkill Garage as well. The little bits of knowledge that trickle out over the course of an episode of RKG are always interesting for nerds like me. What parts don’t fit and why, stuff like that. Roadkill just doesn’t have the same feel of expertise.

    He has quipped here and there what it cost to convert his Super Bee to a Hemi drag car. Over 100k in todays dollars and his wife nearly divorced him over it.

    Roadkill is good, but I really enjoy RKG and Engine Masters. My kid and I watch them via the App and he gets a kick out of the Steves. The RK/RKG Buick Special was for sale on Phoenix metro OfferUp for $15k a while back, but I don’t really want another convertible and knowing it had a street sign floor was a deal breaker.

    The truth is that its always cheaper to buy someone else’s well done project (read as complete and running car) rather than start from scratch yourself- IMHO the reality is that the time, money and energy needed is easily more than the $$ for a well done and working car. Sure there are always things to change or improve and maybe some steps that were skipped – like big brakes or really good shocks- but the reality is that these are easy “fixes” if the overall bones are good. Done more than a few projects over the past 45 plus years and came to the conclusion (or some may say “wised up”) to the fact that time is indeed money and if you save time (including frustration of year long paint jobs and 6-8 months on interior work) you really save money as well. If it is done and ready to go- that’s just more time to enjoy before the next project.

    You are so right SMS. Buy a completed car and about what you want then make the final tweaks you have in mind.
    Almost all builders have to take the first big loss. Don’t let it be you. Just be sure to not buy someone else’s screw ups!!

    RE: Buy a completed car does not apply when the project has a long personal history.
    I have restored a 1955 Chevrolet Belair post that is my first car bought for $175 in 1966. Over the 19 months it took to bring it back to life several items have been left such as the scratched rear window (winters of scraping off snow, first and ice) bearing the stickers of my high school and junior college.

    I can honestly say I have not spent a boatload of money on my cars. Even if it is not 4.0, I do the vast majority of the work myself, and I don’t get wrapped up in the fussy elements or change things just because ‘I was there’. I also stay away from the odd-balls, with the noted exception of my Allante.

    Now the amount of time I have spent is a whole other discussion

    You are right on. I replace stock parts with stock parts (exhaust is the exception) I tallied 15 K in parts and paint and body, my time sheet has 300 hrs. I was once told to not include personal hours is resto. Bologna the interior didn’t get replaced by a ghost

    Kyle, interesting read and so true as if any of us keep accurate books on these old cars we would be afraid to open it. A related issue was brought up by Laure over on the CLC Fourm saying better learn to do the work yourself and keep an inventory of parts because in the next decade there will be know one left in fly over country that will even know how to work on them outside the high end speciality shops in the large metro areas…. And you are right that 1970 Mustang was well bought at $75K IMHO. They are not making any new ones…,

    In Fly-Over country? That seems odd…

    Because there are many more old cars per capita in small middle of the country towns than in big cities. It’s astounding driving around those towns in the summer. Most folks that live there have a different work ethic and attitude, so I HIGHLY doubt the veracity of your statement.

    More to that point, one of the biggest Ford dealers in the Phoenix metro cannot perform any EEC-IV diagnostics because the techs don’t know how. The truck had to be towed to an independent shop in Queen Creek, simple ECM repair and it was good as new.

    “if any of us keep accurate books on these old cars we would be afraid to open it.”

    And what I am saying is that’s fine, but if someone asks what it costs it is a disservice to the hobby to fabricate a number or otherwise portray it as cheaper than it is. People get interested in the hobby because they think they can build something cool for $8k as told by others on the internet or at car shows, but that is highly unlikely and only serves to burn out these newcomers who then leave the hobby after sending that uncompleted project car to scrap. That helps no one.

    There are really two budgets.

    One is for restoration, improvement and modification. This is investment budget.

    Two is where you change the oil or brake fluid etc. this is maintenance or the cost of operation. It is no different than buying gas.

    I just went through the car I bought with plugs, wires, oil, brake fluid, belts and a few other 5hings that are replacement parts. These were 23 years old and they were changed to access the full condition of the car and to prevent possible problem.

    I charge all this to operating cost.

    Now the Z06 fuel rail covers and Aluminum gas pedal were investment spending.

    You’re right, the price of the Disgustang shouldn’t have surprised anyone. A few years ago they built the Crop Duster, literally a Plymouth Duster that they dragged out of a farm and put back together with stuff they had in Steve Dulcich’s personal garage storage. Then ran a story on it, arguing that if you had to buy the components to build that car, you’d be up for $45k.

    Remember too that Freiburger paid someone else to do a major chunk of the work on that particular car. It was originally hacked together to get it out of the junkyard, but once he decided he wanted to make a daily driver out of it, most of that work was done by others. I paid someone else to put a/c in my truck recently, and I know what that costs. I’m about to have to put some engine work into it. If you’re not doing it yourself, costs really escalate. That labor is money that you are not likely to get back on the sale of your vehicle. A #3 condition Mach 1 is worth $50k all by itself, so factor in the custom interior, and other bits of custom work, and, yeah, $75k is not an outlandish price.

    I really do keep all my receipts and I like it. Part of the challenge is cost effective parts that work. It is part of the fun for me

    Nice piece of writing Kyle. Keep it up. I think 75K for that car, with all the professional work that Freiberger had done to the body and interior is very reasonable. Try finding a ’69-70 Mach one in any sort of condition, particularly up here in the Northern states, that use salt in the Winter, it’s nearly impossible.
    I’m a huge fan of the Roadkill Universe and follow along regularly. My favorite show is Roadkill Garage. I have several Chevelles and El Camino’s that I wrench on and I’d be scared to put real numbers to what I’ve spent over time on any one of them. 🙂

    Thanks Thomas! Roadkill Garage is also where I tend to watch. There just seems to be more information shared there compared to the other shows, and I have found that’s what I end up watching for.

    I’m pretty good about saving receipts, but am afraid to add ’em up! My biggest problem is buying things without doing enough research…does it fit, does it work, does it look the way I thought it would when I saw the picture?!? That coupled with my “I’ll save that, I might use it on something else” mindset means I’ve got a garage full of old stuff that’s still good, new stuff that either didn’t fit or looked wrong, or sentimental keepsakes from older rides. I’ve got shift knob from my first race car, crossed flags from front of my first corvette & 3 Packard hood ornaments.
    I just added up a pile of receipts for a ’65 Mustang I finished a couple of years ago. Bought it for $14K. Everything worked but wasn’t pretty. Total receipts (parts only) is $17,300! I’m not a show car kind of guy, but sadly AM a “Since I had it apart I might as well……….!” You’ve gotta do it for the love of the car, “cause for me at least it’s NEVER viewed as an investment!

    Yes. This. Kyle, you hit it on the head. Every time I see a video or post or whatever about someone’s “budget build” I feel it should come with a huge asterisk. For exactly the reasons you mentioned. I stumbled on an article the other day about a “$1500 rat-rod build.” Turns out, the engine, trans, and rear end were already there “just laying around in the garage” and 90% of everything else was obtained through horse-trading. I think the only accounting practices more creative than those employed in Hollywood (or the Cayman Islands) are those employed by the more public-facing car builders.

    I agree, to a point. I live on typical Phoenix suburb lot with a 3 car garage and large shed. I’ve got 3 spare engines, 4 Axle housings, numerous transmissions, a parts car, 3 old cars (2 with Hagerty), an off-road truck, 3/4 diesel, SUV, and a mom-mobile. I have plenty of stuff laying around to build a Rat Rod, where in Dulcich has acres of mopars. A shed with parts, engines, and event a paint booth. The acquisition cost of all this isn’t considered, that’s true, but much like Steve and David, I’ve been collecting since I was a kid.
    My wife says “you need a warehouse”.

    It all adds up so fast and we often just don’t realize it. When Davin called a few weeks ago needing a balancer for a Corvair engine I was happy to hand over my spare–until I went back home and saw a replacement was over $300… In my brain it was maybe $100-150. It’s easy to forget a lot of the parts we keep in storage are rarely declining in value–that why we are keeping them!

    For the first time ever on a car build I kept a log book of parts and costs. Needless to say it was a real eye opener. It was a 55 ford truck “rat rod”/ custom and the total parts came in close to $15,000 . But… as you said I had an engine and cylinder heads (that needed a rebuild) rear end, seats… All those little parts you have to buy really add up fast but swap meet shopping and having a stash of parts you have been saving for years really helps. The truck was appraised at way more than my cost but if you were to add in parts I already had and put a figure on my time invested (3 year build) that $15,000 number could easily double. But we don’t do this to make money, The trophies we have won, the time with my wife designing and building and the time with friends at shows are all PRICELESS.

    Real easy. There is a thing on a computer. Nearly every computer has it. It’s called “Microsoft Excel”, in your excel spreadsheet you track every penny you’ve spent on the car. I include even transport fees in the calc sheets if it has cost me extra. I even track tune up bits etc. Everything goes in the excel sheet. That way I have record and could show what I’ve spent on the car if I sell it. I of course back this up with the actual receipts.

    Just takes commitment.

    I admittedly spend a lot….doesnt make me feel any better admitting it. They are a time suck and a money pit. If you dont enjoy that kind of thing, better to stay away.

    Whatever you do do not use cheap parts you will regret it later. You really do get what you pay for

    I don’t want to admit too much about my mistake. I spent more money on a 1953 pickup truck than I should have. If I had been smarter, I would have gone to the local Chevrolet dealer and bought a new Corvette at sticker price and still had money left over.

    News Flash! Of course we are lying about what the total costs are “invested” in our project cars. The basic truth is…we don’t want to know! BTW, what is a budget?

    Guilty as charged. I do not keep receipts simply because I do not want to know the total. If I sell a vehicle, it goes for what the market will bear, not what it actually cost. With regard to the time spent fixing things, I do not consider the hours as an addition to the total cost, but rather a subtraction from the total. Think about all the time and money not spent on other forms of entertainment: restaurants, vacations, travel, cable TV, etc.
    If I buy a vehicle for $10k and sell it for $15k, even though I may have spent $6k on parts and have 500 hours into it I am as happy as a clam at high tide. Delusional? Yes, but I sleep well.

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