We stopped by to see my folks yesterday — Ken needed to borrow my dad’s circular saw — and while the guys went out to the garage to inspect the race car, mom talked animatedly about her latest role in Two Old Goats Racing: restoring the interior of the Catalina. My mom has sewn for much of her life, and is an accomplished quilter. Auto interiors involve stitching and fabric, but the terms, equipment and skills are radically different, and no less daunting.
Of course, it’s possible to just have a professional do it. For my mom and dad, though, 85 percent of the fun of owning a race car comes from designing and building it in their own garage. My dad has restored and built cars all his life, from the school-bus yellow Model A he owned when I was a child to today’s eight-second, alcohol-burning Pro-Mod reproduction of a 1963 Tempest. Along the way he’s learned to do everything from installing custom wiring to welding a roll cage. He does the work himself because he loves it, but also because they’re far from rich.
Indeed, when I was growing up, they tackled projects incrementally because they had very little money to spare. Now that they’re retired, they’re working two projects in parallel: supercharging the Tempest and building a Pontiac Catalina for my mom to race. The principle is the same, though: whenever possible, they learn new skills rather than hiring professionals.
Mom shook her head. “I’ve always respected your dad — how he can build a car from the ground up, buy all these components online and make a working system. He complains all the time about parts come without instructions, or being horribly expensive, or not available at all, and I thought I knew all that. But now I’m making the same choices, and I have a whole new level of respect for what he goes through.”
She’s already bought an impressive industrial sewing machine for making the seats, and is diligently practicing how to fabricate and attach the piping. But that’s a relatively simple challenge compared to restoring the door panels and headliner. “You know, we found a place that could put the fabric on the door panels — I can’t do it, it requires specialized machinery — but you know they want us to provide the metal part of the panels? Well, we only have three of the four. I called and talked to the guy and told him that we could send three, and they think they can get the fourth.”
I laughed, “That guy is scouring junkyards right now!”
“And, you know, it’s hard for me,” she said solemnly. “I don’t like to spend money! I had to call the guy and place the order, and it was more than a thousand dollars! The sewing machine cost more than that, but somehow it didn’t seem that bad.” She sighed. “I think because at least I know how to sew.”
The headliner, too, presents a challenge. They removed the old fabric, took photographs of the metal ribs underneath, and labelled each part carefully. But reassembling it will still be a formidable task.
In some ways, I know how she feels. Our project will be much less expensive (I hope), but we’re constantly choosing among bewildering alternatives, and balancing cost versus time invested. Buy the specialized tool, or get someone else to make those couple of necessary cuts? Rent the tool from Irv’s? Borrow it from my dad? Find a used one on Craigslist? Drive an hour on the freeway to buy that one molding profile, or redesign the entire project around what they happen to be stocking at Lowe’s?
We battle scope creep, too. We like ornate things and want the best, most tasteful-looking stuff. Expensive paint really is better than contractor-grade paint, and solid brass switch plate covers look better than plastic ones. Worse yet, when you’re working on your home, there’s always an upgrade available, as I discovered when I chose knobs for my cabinets.
For now, we tackle these questions as they come up, looking for simple, cheap solutions. Though we did set aside my small bonus as a starting point, mostly we’re paying as we go. When I’m deducting money from this week’s check and using cash, I’m constantly reminded that a $500 set of blinds for the kitchen is a measurable portion of my take-home pay. At times that’s exasperating, but I’m reassured by my parents’ example. I’d rather retire with a wealth of specialized skills and tools than with a perfect kitchen made by strangers and a maxed-out home equity line of credit.