Hustle Issue #73 ZACHARY CROCKETT Inside an 8k-foot converted airplane hangar in Micco, Florida, the Dr. Frankenstein of automobiles summons his newest creation to life. The space is littered with giant styrofoam blocks, fiberglass molds, sheet metal, and the guts of chopped up chassis; soon, these components will be crafted into one-of-a-kind vehicles with names like Moonraker, Dimensia, and Slash. For 20 years, Mike Vetter has been building some of the world’s most unique cars. His creations, which sell for as much as $225k, have made him a millionaire. And it all began with a crazy thought he had when he couldn’t afford to buy his dream car:What if I just build it myself? The road to replica-car riches The child of an overseas US Department of Defense employee, Vetter spent his youth bouncing around Southern and Western Europe. As a teen in Germany, he developed a deep passion for state-of-the-art vehicles. “I lusted over Lamborghinis,” says Vetter. “My dad would say, ‘That thing costs more than most people’s houses; you’ll have to work very hard to have one of those.’” After finishing high school, Vetter briefly tried his hand at a computer science degree but failed most of his classes. When his sister moved to Florida in the early ‘90s, he decided to tag along and enroll in a community college business program. While in school, he took a trip to one of the largest classic car shows in the US,Daytona Turkey Run, and spotted an item that would change his life: The fiberglass body shell of aLamborghini Countach. kit carindustry, a community of people who build replicas of high-end luxury cars — typically by affixing a reproduced fiberglass body (in lieu of sheet metal) on top of the chassis and mechanics of a lower-end car. “I didn’t know anything about kit cars, or fiberglass, or anything of the sort,” says Vetter. “But something just clicked in my head. I saw this beautiful Lamborghini body, and I just had to have it.” He purchased the body for $2.5k. Then, in the garage of a small house he shared with his sister, he resolved to build his dream “Lamborghini.” Building a Lambo from scratch Though Vetter had no idea how to build a car, he’d always been “technically and mechanically inclined” — the kind of kid to take apart a broken microwave and fix it. He was also resourceful, curious, and determined. His first course of action was to find the right car for the chassis of his Lambo. After browsing through a copy ofKit Car Magazine, he settled on aPontiac Fiero, an affordable mid-engined sports car with good guts. He found one nearby for $1.7k. The next step was to remove the body and “stretch” the chassis (a lengthening process used to make the car look authentic). He had that done at a hot rod shop for $800. Vetter had never used a reciprocal saw or a welder but he bought the tools and learned on his own. At every juncture, he encountered some kind of issue. “Something as little as the door hinges was a huge task,” he says. “I bought hinges from Home Depot, hinges from car magazines. Finally, I was forced to make them myself — 5 times.” With two trunks, two hoods, andwing doors, the Lamborghini Countach was just about the hardest kit car imaginable to build. The body of the car was so riddled with contours that professional painters refused to touch it (Vetter eventually had to learn himself, with the help of a 60-year-old mentor). He worked on his car late into the night while juggling business classes and odd jobs at Burger King, an auto shop, and a local movie theater. A year and a half — and some 2k hours of labor — later, he finally finished. The Rock, had just come out. The movie featured a yellowFerrari 355that caught Vetter’s eye. He found a Ferrari body kit in New Jersey, bought (and tore apart) another Pontiac Fiero, and repeated the process. This time, he completed the car in 4 months — a small fraction of the time it took to build his Lamborghini — and spent just $7k. This time, he found two willing buyers; one bought the Ferrari for $21k; the other ordered a second car for $20k. “I realized then that I could make this into a business,” says Vetter. John Daly. But just when things started heating up, a big problem arose. When Ferrari comes knocking Vetter had always been extremely cautious about how he marketed his cars. “I never called them Ferraris,” he says. “I’d always say ‘Pontiac Fiero European styled to look like a Ferrari.’ I wasn’t trying to [dupe] people. Ferraris were $100k+ cars; I was selling mine for a fraction of that.” Ferrari didn’t see it that way: The luxury car titan sent Vetter acease and desistletter. Lamborghini soon followed suit. $100k+. A very niche business Today, Vetter’scompanyhas sold more than 300 custom-built cars to buyers all over the world. His cars range in price from $125k to upwards of $225k. On a typical $125k build, he’ll spend $47k on parts, a good enough margin to net a comfortable living. When he first began building car bodies, the process would cost him $35k and take 6 months working by hand. Now, utilizing routing machines and 3D-modeling programs, he can produce one for $25k in a few weeks. He says he gets hundreds of requests to build custom cars but turns many of them down: “I could grow bigger, but I try not to. It’s a quality control thing.” “Generally my customer is the gentleman who has already owned several Ferraris and wants something his neighbor can’t go out and buy,” says Vetter. Many of his clients fear being mocked in their exotic name-brand cars. But with the concept cars, there’s no stigma: “Instead of ‘Look at this jerk in his Ferrari,’ it’s ‘Whoa, that thing is crazy!” Top: Vetter’s workshop in Micco, Florida; Bottom: Moonraker (left) and Slash (right) concept cars (courtesy of Mike Vetter) Vetter has also caught the attention of Hollywood studios, which occasionally hire him to build custom cars for blockbuster films. “Warner Brothers wanted 3 purple Lamborghinis they could wreck inSuicide Squad,” he says. “I told them I couldn’t build them because of lawyers, but I was able to talk them into another custom build.” The 47-year-old claims to work 80 hours a week and still loves what he does. Recently, he purchased a second 8,000-foot airplane hangar next to his workshop and converted it into his “dream home.” It has an open floor plan that looks like something out ofThe Jetsons. A maroon Extra Terrestrial Vehicle is stationed in the middle of the living room.