Written by Verity Spencer, Photographed by Aaron McKenzie
May 24, 2023
When Ian Hebner’s wife suggested that they buy a golf cart to zip around their Point Loma, California, neighborhood, Hebner had a better idea.
“I told my wife, ‘Hey, golf carts are cool but they’re pretty common. What if we got an old Volkswagen and made it electric?’” recalls Hebner. “She loved the idea and said she always dreamed of owning a VW Thing. If you’ve ever driven a 1974 Volkswagen you’ll know they’re one of the worst cars you can drive, but VW Things are pretty rare cars and there's maybe 2-3 that have been properly converted into full blown electric vehicles in the world so I thought that it should be a solid long-term investment.”
I couldn’t help but hone in on that last word – “investment.” An investment implies that we’ll get more resources out of something than we put into it. How was Hebner (even as someone who has bought, sold, and restored over 40 cars) so sure that this VW Thing would not just be a money pit, however fun the car might be as he and his wife zoomed around the beaches of San Diego? How would he ever put a price tag on an electric VW Thing in the event that ever wanted, or needed, to sell it?
My brain was already primed for this very topic based on a conversation I’d had with another client not long before Hebner told me about his 12-month electric conversion journey. This client – let’s call him “Mr. Green” – had contacted me for help selling his 1968 Porsche 912 via an online auction. He was very sure he knew what his car was worth.
“I’d like to set the reserve at $225,000,” he demanded.
“How did you come to that figure?” I asked.
“I’m into it for $170,000,” he said, “so I need to get at least $225,000 out of it.”
This 912 was Mr. Green’s first restoration and while he described it as his “dream car” he was nevertheless selling it with less than 100 miles on the odometer since he completed the restoration. Mr. Green had at some point determined that for his time and effort (which included finding the car and commissioning the work on it) he needed to make a $55,000 profit.
I should pause here to note that Mr. Green’s car was no longer a stock, 4-cylinder Porsche 912; it was a “restomod,” a modernized classic. Ditching the 912’s anemic 1.6-liter, 90-horsepower engine, his car was now powered by a 2.7-liter, flat-six pushing close to 210 horsepower. Also included in this build: a rebuilt 915 gearbox; a ZF limited slip differential; a reinforced chassis; coil-over suspension; heated and cooled Recaro seats trimmed in alcantara suede; a bluetooth stereo system (hidden behind an period-looking radio fascia); and air conditioning. This car was, in short, a “one-of-one,” a bespoke build unlike any other car on the road.
From classic Porsches and Broncos to Camaros and Dodge Power Wagons, restomods have been growing in popularity over the past decade or so as enthusiasts have sought to retain period aesthetics while also seeking the ease that comes with a modern drivetrain and amenities like air conditioning. Suffice it to say, the work involved in building a restomod is often more complex than a period-correct restoration. To create a successful restomod, a builder must not only restore old parts, but also engineer them to work with aftermarket components. Anyone can stuff a massive engine into a car, but it takes more time, money, and math to match that powerplant with appropriate brakes, proper suspension geometry, and a correct wiring loom.
As Hebner put it, “I approached my [VW Thing] build as a mechanical experiment and an engineering challenge,” not just as a restoration.
Any restomod builder must also (if return on investment is the aim) make aesthetic choices that will translate to “value add” in the eyes of prospective buyers. Not everyone, I’m afraid, will appreciate your purple-piped, diamond pattern, aggressively bolstered seats even if they are monogrammed with your initials. In other words, in trying to determine a sales price for Mr. Green’s 912, we could not simply compare it to other 912s – whether original or restored – on the market.
And thus the question facing me and Mr. Green: how exactly does one put a price on a restomod? If building a restomod is a complex task, so too is pricing one. With period correct, stock restorations, I have the benefit of side-by-side comparisons as I zero in on a valuation. For a restomod, however, I take on a persona not unlike that of a detective, interrogating the seller with all manner of pointed questions about the car: the vision, the struggles, receipts, awards, grand total, who, what, where, when and most importantly the Why.
Shops like Singer, Icon, Alfaholics, Eagle E-Types, and Emory Motorsports have built reputations for themselves based on the quality, aesthetics, and name value of their brands, and their cars now command watermark sales prices as a result. Their names have become synonymous with consistency, coolness, and quality. Their builds are seen as collectible and as appreciating assets – i.e. as investments (there’s that word again), which is why they command higher prices at auction. I should note here that just because a shop is relatively unknown doesn't mean they don’t do good work, just as many great painters are not showing their work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, it’s simply the case that cars without well-known shop associations have to prove themselves in the eyes of educated buyers.
The Turbo Study by Singer Vehicle Design
While Mr. Green had worked with a reputable shop on his 912 build, the shop did not have the sort of name recognition that would add dollars to the car’s eventual sales price. After listening to his other answers to the above questions (yes, he had lots of receipts; no, the car had no particular provenance), I had to be the bearer of bad news: I simply had no reason to believe that Mr. Green’s 912 would fetch anything near his desired $225,000 sales price. It might not even allow him to break even on the $170,000 in expenses he incurred in building the car. Mr. Green had just learned a painful lesson: the value of something is not what you paid, but rather what someone else is willing to pay. In the end, Mr. Green opted to keep the car for now, understandably not willing to take the risk that the car could sell for significantly less than what he put into it.
All of which brings me back to Hebner and his electrified VW Thing “investment.” I use scare quotes deliberately here, as it was Hebner who once told me that when it comes to putting a price tag on any restoration, the best rule of thumb is to tally up what you spent on the car and then just know that you’ll probably only be able to sell it for half of that. Hebner might have said this in jest, but as any good comedian will tell you, jokes are only funny when they have some basis in reality.
“Even if you did most of the work yourself and accounted for that labor at minimum wage most car restorations would never be highly profitable,” says Hebner. “People usually buy vehicles at a relatively fair market price, then pay way too much for any mechanical or aesthetic improvements. They usually don’t account for all time spent in the project and then they say they turned a profit in the end, usually to their wives who are wondering where the retirement account has gone.”
With all of this in mind, Hebner went into his VW Thing project with few expectations beyond learning about a whole new form of automotive power and what he hoped would be a cool final result. By this measure, he succeeded. The car now gets its power from a NetGain Hyper 9 electric motor powered by five Tesla modules, all of it overseen by an Orion 2 battery management system. Hebner even retained the stock 4-speed manual transmission, making it one of the few stick-shift electric cars on the road.
“Most of the time you can just stop and go in third gear,” he says, “but if you want to light up the tires and feel that electric torque, you can always drop it down and start from first.”
Even Hebner’s wife has declared that they can never sell the Thing. Nevertheless, Hebner’s not ready to sign up for another build of this sort.
“It was at least 100 times more work than I anticipated,” says Hebner, “probably more so because I basically had to figure out everything myself. Obviously repeating any process makes it easier, but one-and-done is usually enough for my imagination to be satisfied. It's a fun vehicle to own and to drive and, for me, that's a type of value that can't be captured when looking at pure profit margin.”
Hebner’s and Mr. Green’s experiences are distillations of the two key questions that should inform every potential restomod project (really, every restoration project period) before it begins: Do you love it? and Can you afford it as an expense? If the answer to those questions is “yes,” then go have fun and build the car of your dreams. Be aware, however, that if you decide to sell the car, any potential buyers will be comparing your car against A) other cars from (perhaps) better-known builders, or B) the cost of commissioning a fresh restomod build of their own…which is probably how we got here in the first place.
Raised in a family of Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg enthusiasts, Verity Spencer has turned her own classic car passion into a career for the past 15 years with experience in restoration, preservation, research, curation, sales, and acquisitions. Her own personal collection includes her first car - a 1975 AMC Gremlin named Sherman - and a 1931 Austin Seven known as Sir Arthur On The Rocks.
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