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