In the Words of Freiburger…
Don’t worry, this isn’t (completely) an editorial about 4x4s. However, I find the study of gearhead sociology fascinating, and my own Jeep was the trigger for my most recent lesson. Here’s the setup.
A couple weeks ago, I un-mothballed my 1981 Jeep Scrambler that hadn’t been on the open road in 15 years. A Scrambler is a CJ8, like a longwheelbase CJ7 with extra rear overhang and most often fitted with a fiberglass half-cab to create a small pickup (Jeep is soon to introduce a modern iteration based upon the new-for-2018 JL-series Wrangler). I built my version way back in the late-1990s, focusing on rockcrawling performance by bobbing 12 inches out of the overhang to improve departure angle, and also shortening the nose with a military M38A1 front clip. My friend, Pat Helgeson, custom-fabricated massive wheeltubs in the rear and integrated small fenders into the hood to add front-tire room. I’m currently running 42-inch-tall tires. The moral of the story is that the Jeep is radically hacked from stock.
But here’s what happened in the last 15 years: Scramblers became collectible. As I rolled mine onto the highway alongside my old friend Rick Péwé, editor of JP magazine, I posted pics on Instagram (@davidfreiburger). Followers recalled the Jeep fondly, but when pics were reposted elsewhere, many comments read, “How could he destroy a classic
Jeep?” and “Doing that to a Scrambler is just ignorant.” Of course, these folks were unaware that I’d modified my CJ8 more than 20 years ago. People were giving them away because the wheelbase was deemed too long for off-roading (today it’s considered ideal).
Here’s where I roll this back to cars, and how they go through so many phases of perception. First, they are just new cars—no big deal to ruin, because they’ll just make more; consider the now-legendary Vanishing Point 1970 Challenger and Bandit Trans Am for examples of how movies treated the cars when they were late-models. The same time in a car’s life is when new cars were radically customized; think of the Hirohata Merc or Barris’s Sonny and Cher Mustangs.
The second phase is when cars become worthless used cars. A great example is 10 years ago when 5.0L Fox-bodies were $1,500 a copy in decent condition, or 40 years ago when the cars that are today’s most collectible muscle cars were just junk gas-guzzlers, or 70 years ago when 1932 Fords traded for $20. That’s the life stage my Scrambler was in when I got it. This is the same period when those custom modifications of a decade prior start to look dated and tacky. Think of how horrible a tail-high, Cragar-shod, tunnelrammed street machine looked in, say, 1990.
The third stage is when those previously worthless cars begin to seem nostalgic and increase in value.
This was seen in the muscle-car boom circa 1983, when auctions and chalkmark-correct restorations were rising. At this time, the muscle cars that were hopped up or customized in the 1960s and 1970s were considered “ruined” (like my Jeep) and those modifications were reversed as the cars were restored.
Stage four is when people claim to have been inspired by the same cars they considered hideous junk in the not-so-distant past. I’m guilty and can recall the Pro Street 1990s when the 1970s-style street machines were passé, and I never wanted to see another Cragar, Auto Drag, or slot mag. Until now, when those are the wheels on most of my cars. And look what’s happening with prices skyrocketing for old dune buggies, stoner vans, and square-body Chevys. You know, the stuff that was near-free a decade ago.
So there’s my perseveration of overthought in the face of auto culture. And so it goes. Wanna be immune? Just build what you like and stop reading the internet.
[ My “ruined” Jeep Scrambler. Some consider it a waste, others see it as trendsetting.