From the Charred Wreck of a Lamborghini, a D.I.Y. Supercar


PORTLAND, Ore. — Under the rear hood of Chris Steinbacher’s Lamborghini Huracán sits a Chevy engine. Sure, it’s a twin turbo, and, yes, it pumps a menacing 900 horsepower to the wheels, but the pedigree is Detroit, not Italy. And the rest of the car was basically put together in Portland.

Lamborghini purists may want to cover their eyes now.

The left-for-dead Lambo is one of Mr. Steinbacher’s salvaged supercars. He bought it — what was left of it, anyway, after a fire burned it nearly in two — for $40,000, and it was delivered via forklift. (A new Huracán can approach $300,000, and Mr. Steinbacher’s now-tricked-out 2016 model hovers in that same stratosphere.) Parts for this resurrection cost about $50,000, a discounted total that he kept down with the help of sponsors on his YouTube channel, B Is for Build, which has close to 1.5 million subscribers.

Flooded Ferraris and mangled McLarens are easily found on auction sites like Copart and Impact Auto Auctions. Most people playing in this realm work strictly with cash, Mr. Steinbacher said, although financing can sometimes be arranged. What happens after your wreck rolls off the delivery trailer is far more complicated, but with more money and dedication, a dream car may be within reach.

A few years ago, Mr. Steinbacher was a senior software engineer with a desire to build unique sports cars. “I started around early 2015 knowing absolutely nothing about cars,” he said of his YouTube channel, where he learned as he went. “In January of 2017, the company I was making software for went out of business, and I continued doing YouTube full time.”

When he learned he could buy salvaged supercars at a small fraction of the used market price, Mr. Steinbacher was “kind of hooked,” he said. He started to buy totaled cars and fixed them up in his backyard.

Fixing cracked-up cars isn’t easy “unless you’re one hell of a gambler,” Mr. Steinbacher said. “The hunting part isn’t hard — anyone can Google around and find salvaged-car auction sites and find supercars on there.” Most times the car will require a shipment, however, and you might not see it in person, let alone get a test drive.

“You’ve got six to 10 pictures to try and assess the extent of the damage and how much it’s going to cost to fix,” he said.

This is a skill that can take years and many mistakes to master. “Eventually I turned a camera on to track my progress,” he said, “and started posting it on YouTube.”

For a number of prominent rebuilders, YouTube is an essential source of know-how, and the ad revenue certainly doesn’t hurt.

“I love working with my hands,” said Rich Benoit of Boston, whose channel is Rich Rebuilds. A computer science major in college, Mr. Benoit “kept working my way up to Teslas, Audis and now the BMW i8,” he said.

“Supercar is a funny word,” Mr. Benoit added. “I’ve built many high-end cars, like Teslas, Audi RS7s, but the i8 is my first ‘supercar’ per se.” All have been built in his family’s garage. His personal favorite retrofit? Swapping a V-8 engine into a Tesla.

There’s no formal definition for what gives a sports car superpowers, but, generally speaking, this class includes an automaker’s best specimens, in terms of design, power and abilities — and the all-important price tag.

Bought after an accident, the salvage-titled carcass of the 2014 BMW i8 cost Mr. Benoit $28,000. After $10,000 of parts and countless hours of labor, his project is complete.

And the cost of the i8’s labor? That’s “leisure time and considered fun,” he said. Charging for his time is like “charging money to spend time with your kids.”

Trading desks for dashboards, Mr. Steinbacher might not have known much about cars when he started, but he’s a quick study. He lost count after more than 50 rebuilds, he said, and has kept around 25 of them.

His YouTube channel has helped fund his “car building addiction,” he said. He wouldn’t mind another day job, he added, “but simply more hours on the cars mean they get done quicker and I’m able to build more and crazier stuff.”

Fixing up these cars can make dreams come true at a discount. If you have the skill or connections to get it done, they can cost far less than showroom-floor counterparts.

In Clackamas, Ore., Tommy Saenz has worked on roughly 200 supercars during his nearly 20 years running Tommy’s Window Tinting.

His clients have brought him Ferrari 488 Spiders and Mercedes-Benz SLS AMGs, and a crown jewel, a $2.8 million 1958 Corvette that will debut at this year’s Specialty Equipment Market Association show, known widely as SEMA.

“You would probably end up getting your dream car for half the cost,” Mr. Saenz said. “But you would have to also come to the conclusion that you are getting a car that’s either salvaged or has been parted together.”

For hobbyists like Mr. Benoit and Mr. Steinbacher, part of the allure is the thrill of the hunt. The mythical “barn find,” of discovering a dusty classic that just needs a deep cleaning? That would be far too easy.

A key theme emerges when talking with the rebuilders: A supercar that has been in an accident will only invite more trouble if it’s not fixed properly. This hobby is as cash-intensive as it is labor-intensive.

“There are a lot of corners you can cut,” Mr. Saenz said. “You don’t necessarily have to replace it with a factory part.”

Once they’re road-ready, insuring a rebuilt supercar can be an interesting endeavor. “Liability insurance isn’t very hard,” Mr. Steinbacher said. “Most large automotive insurance companies won’t bat an eye at insuring a salvaged supercar.”

Full coverage, however, can be a different story. Some insurance companies want to inspect the car to assess a value — owners need to agree — in case it gets totaled.

Insurance is a gamble the builders take. Mr. Benoit, for instance, has never had a problem arranging full replacement value coverage.

Mr. Saenz offers this advice to buyers: Research the seller and what you want to buy. “Hopefully they have a lot of money” for the project ahead, he said.

All the effort in the garage can pay off.

Mr. Steinbacher’s Huracán took three men working for five months before they revealed their Burntacan. The total outlay? Under $100,000. “It was a creative way to make double the stock horsepower for much less than half the cost of replacing the engine,” he said.

Along with the LS Chevy V-8 engine and transmission swap, twin turbos and a custom carbon-fiber body rounded out his one-of-a-kind Lambo.

To Mr. Steinbacher’s knowledge, no one had fashioned a manual-transmission Huracán before. Much less one that once looked as if it had hung over a campfire like a singed marshmallow.

His next vision is to take a donated 2016 Huracán chassis and build it into a full-blown Mint 400 off-road racecar, “turning it into a purpose-built endurance desert racer,” he said.


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