You get what you need. 

One of the hardest things any gearhead will do is commit to a vehicle. There’s only so much time and money. When the time comes we can get new wheels—including our first wheels—we agonize over the decision. 

Gearhead 102 is all about keeping a cool head and making the best possible decision for your situation, whether you’re considering a new machine or mod or even repairs. Today we’re building on what we covered in Gearhead 101—knowing what you really want and need.

New project opportunities are everywhere, but time and money to scoop one up for yourself don’t come along every day, making these intense, high stakes situations for gearheads like us. Peer pressure and fear of missing out (FOMO) come into play. 

You find a good deal—but maybe there’s an even BETTER deal right around the corner. But maybe there isn’t! And by the time you realize that, this one could be gone! You need to buy this one NOW! But what if there’s something better? No. You need to WAIT! GAAAAAH!

You know you need to choose wisely. You know there will be others. You know you need to relax and keep a level head. But you’ve also got a wad of cash burning a hole in your pocket and the sooner you make a decision, the sooner you can relax and get back to playing with cars. 

These are the times when it’s critical we keep it real, choose joy, and find the sweet spot.

KNOW WHAT YOU REALLY WANT AND NEED

Gearhead 101: Don’t run into things blind, thinking you’ll figure it out as you go. That goes for individual repairs AND project strategy. It’s too easy to fall down rabbit holes. Don’t just define what the machine looks like when it’s done—think about what your LIFE looks like too. THAT’S how you’ll know you’re really done.

Can we take a minute to think about GPS? We all know how “sat nav” helps us get where we’re going. But we don’t always think about how GPS works. A quick reminder, GPS stands for Global Positioning System—and the reason it’s so good at telling you where to go is because it knows exactly where you are right now. 

When it comes to getting started, whether it’s your first project vehicle or your 101st, it’s important you know exactly where you are before you make your move. That’s what Gearhead 102 is all about. Gearheads like us know a lot about cars. Even if you’ve never turned a wrench, you know all about the machine or mod you’re considering—after all, that’s a big part of why you’re shopping for it! 

That’s a blessing and a curse, though. It’s a blessing because you know more than the average bear and because being able to see the potential in otherwise neglected sheet metal gives you a bit of an advantage. It’s a curse because your lizard brain is lazy, subject to bias, and will use what you know against you to just get the decision over with.

When it comes to selecting the next project vehicle or the next mod, you will see more performance, fun, and happiness if you are honest about where you are right now; financially, mentally, and professionally. Keep it real, choose joy, and find the sweet spot. 

KEEP IT REAL.

Gearhead 101: Always be brutally honest with yourself about where you are right now. You need a sense of direction & the lay of the land. Pick your own North Star and don’t worry so much about the map. If you know where you are and where you want to go, you can pick the best line to get you there.

Dodge Challenger Hellcat Redeye, US$90k as configured

There’s a lot to unpack here, so we’re gonna spend most of our time in Gearhead 102 talking about keeping it real. At the heart of the matter is picking your own North Star. When you know exactly where you are right now AND exactly where you want to be next, you can take your pick of ways to get where you wanna go. 

Hellcattery

The trick is being specific without being unrealistic. Specificity is the easy part. If your North Star is an 800hp car, you can order a Dodge Challenger Hellcat Redeye and be done with it. Realistically, though, do you want to spend $90,000 on a new Dodge? Can you spend $90,000 on a new Dodge?

Not to suggest there’s anything wrong with Dodge cars, let alone the monster that is the Hellcat, but you can see where reality comes into play. And if the phrase “built—not bought” pops into your mind here, you can see where things start getting truly complicated. 

Being gearheads, our machines are extensions of who we are. They reflect our styles and values, from the impeccable, slammed Euro, to the ratty drift missile, to the unassuming sleeper, and beyond. Some people prefer new car smell to toasted oil. We’re all a little different, but we all love playing cars.

You could do better yourself.

You could probably build an 800hp monster for $9,000. It might even be faster than a Hellcat—and drop it like a bad habit in the first corner—that’s a core part of what it means to be a gearhead! But would it be as pretty? As reliable? Would it ever be worth more than you put into it? 

More to the point, how well would an 800-horsepower machine fit into the rest of your life? A new Hellcat, fresh off the assembly line with a warranty could likely be reigned in, peddled a bit, and forced into daily driver duties against its will—and no doubt you could daily the 800hp beast you whipped up in the shed with elbow grease and swear words, too. Without a doubt, literally hundreds, if not thousands, of gearheads have done this. You’re no different.

Blind Spot

How the car fits into the rest of your life is the hard part you should really be thinking about the most—because that’s the classic gearhead blind spot. 

We see ourselves enjoying the perfect motoring experience behind the wheel of an amazing machine—wind in our hair, ripping through corners, the engine, tires, and exhaust howling away. We don’t really imagine ourselves stuck in traffic on a hot summer day without AC or driving a lowered race car to work in the snow, let alone all those nights and weekends spent fixing it.

It’s not so much a question of CAN you fix it as it is how much time do you WANT to spend fixing it.

Keeping it real. 

Spilner delivers a 10-second car. Rest in peace, dude.

If all you care about is an 800hp car, you’ve got a lot of options—probably more than you’d like. You could buy the Hellcat and be done with it. Or you, if you owe someone a 10-second car, you could drag the beat-ass shell back to the Fort and throw $15,000 in overnight parts from Japan at it. 

Time is money, but money buys you time. Confirmation Bias, Dunning-Kruger, and Loss Aversion are always working overtime to get you cutting corners and taking the easy way out. Faced with a big, complex decision like this, your brain basically tells you you’re a genius, you’re making the right choice, and there’s nothing you can’t handle. 

The question is: do you WANT to handle it?

Dunning-Kruger

Dunning and Kruger were two psychologists who researched the differences in how smart and, uh, not-so-smart people thought about how smart they were. You’ve probably heard about this. And most likely in a negative way. Hey, the truth hurts sometimes.

Simply put, truly smart people know they don’t know everything and tend to be more humble. They’ll qualify their claims to show where there’s room for doubt. Not-so-smart people, on the other hand, tend to think they’re smarter than they are and generally make more absolute claims. Ignorance is bliss, right?

The point is Dunning-Kruger affects all of us and the effect varies with the subject and situation. Human brains want the easy path of least resistance. We are programmed to want to be right. Our brains need to know they are right. And they’ll say anything to convince us.

Confirmation Bias

You might be thinking, “Okay. So we need to think about things a bit more deeply. We need more information.” Well, that’s only partly right. Thinking about things more deeply is a good idea, but considering more information isn’t the silver bullet our brains suggest it is, either. 

Our brains want to be right all the time. Thinking is hard work and takes us away from more important things like procreation and avoiding predators (speaking from an evolutionary perspective). So what does our brain do? It uses confirmation bias to twist every bit of new information it can into evidence supporting the decisions we’ve already made. 

Someone did an interesting experiment on confirmation bias back in the day. They found that giving people more data didn’t correlate to better or even different decisions. People simply used the additional data to further reinforce the decisions they made up front. 

Hopes & Dreams

Here’s how it plays out. You don’t have $90k to spend on a new Hellcat Redeye, but figure you can scoop up a used Challenger, supercharge it yourself, and get most of the way to your 800hp daily driver goal. You’ve got $50k to play with, all-in—car, maintenance, mods, tax, title, and tags. You’re cruising the listings when you come across a wrecked Hellcat for $35k. 

The owner was T-boned right in the passenger door and insurance totaled it over $40 grand in repair costs. The engine, transmission, and rear end are intact, as is pretty much the entire interior. (The OGs in the audience already know where this is going. Haha.) 

You start thinking, “If I could find a decent rolling shell for $10-15k, I could buy this Hellcat, swap the good parts to the shell, and then button up the little stuff while I’m daily driving it!” 

This is crazy talk and you know it, but your brain plays along, carefully confirming your bias so you can get back to not working on this big decision. “I could probably talk him down a couple grand to cover the cost of getting the car home”, you think. “Swapping fenders and seats and stuff is easy. I bet I could even fix some of the damaged bits myself.”

Next thing you know, you’re changing your Instagram handle to “@halfpricehellcat”. 

Origin Story?

Rocinante on the street the night Fezzik came home. | img: Brian Driggs

Making things a bit more down-to-earth, price-wise, let’s slash the budget above by 90%, down to $5,000. $5k might get you a halfway decent Mitsubishi Montero with good bones and minimal issues if you were so inclined. I was. But $2,500 can get you a running, driving Montero in need of a bit of TLC. 

Confirmation bias tells you the $5,000 truck is pretty much turnkey reliable—but stock—whereas if you put $2,500 in upgrades into the $2,500 truck, you’ll actually get something BETTER than the $5,000 truck. I know this, because this is exactly what I did when I bought Fezzik, my 1998 Montero, site unseen off Los Angeles Craigslist. 

Four years and 70,000 miles later…

The fancy lift springs I bought are still in the box in the garage, and I’ve replaced the alternator, brakes, radiator, tires, and engine. I love my truck, but damn. It’s been a character-building experience.

I had three different people test drive it and tell me everything that appeared to be wrong with it. (All pretty minor, to be fair.) Didn’t matter. It was almost as nice as the ones I was seeing at the top of my $5,000 budget and I wanted to throw upgrades at it the minute I got it home. 

Here’s the Gearhead 102 lesson learned: Left to our own devices, additional research data only reinforces the decisions we’ve already made, not to make better decisions. 

Loss Aversion

Why did I buy the $2,500 Montero? Why haven’t I paid more than $2,500 for a daily driver in the last 20 years? Well, as we’ve covered, Dunning-Kruger had me thinking I was smarter than I really was; blind to the realities of opportunity cost and time-is-money-is-time. At the same time, confirmation bias downplayed every possible risk; blinding me with overly-optimistic upsides. But there was one more element in play, perhaps the nastiest of them all—loss aversion.

This one’s relatively easy to explain. Humans fear loss twice as much as we desire gains. Our fear of missing out (FOMO) is what makes us so susceptible to peer pressure. When we see a smokin’ hot deal, we KNOW somebody’s gonna jump on it. We know we have to act fast. The clock’s ticking!

Ham-fisted Shitgibbons

2016 Dodge Challenger Hellcat #87. 6-speed. 6,000 miles. | img: Cleveland Power & Performance

Wrecked Hellcats are in high demand. People who want 800-horsepower daily drivers—but don’t want to pay $90,000 for them—are fortunate so many who DO pay $90,000 for them are ham-fisted shitgibbons who roll them within 10-15,000 miles. There’s even a company with an entire business model around parting out Hellcats—Cleveland Power & Performance.

I can still remember the sense of panic at finding the cheapest running, driving, complete Montero in LA was almost as nice as the ones priced twice or even three times as much. Much as I was planning on buying the nicest one I could get, once I saw that price, Mod Mind took over and I had to have it. 

I called the seller to let him know my uncle was coming over to look at it and likely make a deposit. He told me there were two other people on their way to look at it. I was on my way out of town to go camping with V. Turned out the other two people who showed up were the other two people I’d asked to go look at it for me, earlier in the week who couldn’t. 

A couple weeks later, a friend drove to LA to pick up an even cheaper, running, driving, complete Montero, loaded mine up on a trailer behind his van, and brought Fezzik home to Phoenix. Previous Owner Drama began immediately, with an incorrectly signed title and missing CEL and SRS lights in the dash. 

Such is life. And, speaking of life, let’s wrap up Gearhead 102 while you still have some life left in you! 

CHOOSE JOY.

Gearhead 101: You want to build something you can use and enjoy often. Watch out for FOMO. Hardcore track machines are a different kind of hard in daily driver life. More fun more often > max power. You’ll do more, learn more, and level up more often.

This is what it’s all about, my gearhead friend—being happy. You can do anything you set your mind to doing. Jackstand ballin’, pulling all-nighters, busted knuckles, defective parts, broken tools, and missing 10mm sockets—it’s all Type 2 Fun. Until it’s more than you signed up for.

This is why it’s so important to keep it real; why I’ve spent five pages detailing the sneaky tricks our brains use to phone it in and get back to cruise control. The better you understand what makes you tick, the more accurate your personal gearhead GPS, the easier your decisions become. 

You’ll be more likely to find the project that actually makes your life BETTER. Your machine will teach you the value of hard work. It will build your confidence through constant improvement by your own hands. And it will be a hell of a lot of fun to play with. Pretty sweet, eh?

FIND THE SWEET SPOT.

Gearhead 101: Consider the intersection of platform, pursuit, time & money. Find the sweet spot where the time and money you’ve got gives you maximum smiles per gallon every time you take the wheel. For example, build the race car you can afford to race. Often.

HAHAL8R. | img: Vnicentas Liskauskas, Unsplash

The sweet spot is different for everyone. It’s the right machine in the right place that does the right thing the right way at the right time for YOU. If you’re honest with yourself about what you really want out of your project, you’ll know how it has to be to fit your whole life. 

There’s always a compromise. No machine will be the most powerful AND the most fuel efficient. Just like you won’t find a car that sets track records with the quietest, most comfortable interior, ya know? But you CAN find something that gets you closer to the intersection of what you want your machine to do and what you NEED it to do.

You can make a reliable, track-friendly daily driver with air conditioning. You can keep an exo-caged rock crawler on portal axles and aired-down 40-inch tires in your garage. And if it’s not going to leave you stranded when you need it, or ruin your marriage, or put you in the poor house, maybe you can put a supercharged, 6.2L Hemi under the hood. You know, outta one o’ them wrecked Hellcats.

In the words of the classic Rolling Stones song implied in the title, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes—if you keep it real—you just might find, you get what you need.

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