Bugs for retirement

Volkswagen Beetles

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KAI RYSSDAL: We tell you practically every week on this program about all the ways to prepare for life after full-time employment. 401Ks, money markets, mutual funds, IRAs, all the rest. Putting cash under the mattress even. Alright that's something I don't recommend -- it is hard to sleep on a lumpy mattress after all -- but you get the point: Not all roads to retirement have start out the same. Case in point, an auto mechanic in Michigan. His retirement plan includes a generous amount of starter fluid. From Interlochen Public Radio, Tom Kramer has more.

TOM KRAMER: In the fall of 1965, Ebert March started working on Volkswagens at a dealership in Traverse City, Michigan.

He stayed at that job for more than 20 years before deciding to open his own shop specializing in older, air-cooled VW Bugs.

It wasn't long before he started collecting these old cars as a means to keep his business afloat.

EBERT MARCH: "I had customers coming in and they needed this and they needed that. And nobody had 'em. And so I says, 'boy,' I says, 'If I'm gonna work on these guy's cars, I'm gonna have to have some parts.'"

The 62-year-old March is selling his shop at the end of the year and he's taking his 65 VW Bugs with him.

He's looking at his collection of Bugs as a means of not just keeping him out of trouble and out of his wife's hair, but also as a way to help fund his retirement.

He doesn't have a 401K.

And in much the same way many of us have our money invested here and there, March keeps his Bugs in several garages and barns across northern Michigan.

Where, exactly? Well, that'd be like giving someone your account number.

This oversized garage is just 100 feet or so from a state highway, but thanks to some very tall pine trees, you'd never know it was here.

What is here is a collection that any Volkswagen enthusiast would drool over: 30 classic VW's, most of them Bugs, in various conditions from almost mint to little more than a frame and wheels.

Engines are scattered around the property, like mushrooms hiding in the tall weeds.

March's figures about a third of them will eventually be returned to show-room condition and sold. The rest will be used for parts.

MARCH: "It's been something I've, basically, dreamt about for quite a few years. Ever since I started collecting them for just pieces for other people, to keep my business going, I decided I'll keep the pieces that I want to put the cars together that I want to put together and then the rest of 'em, if somebody needs a part they're here."

Not a bad plan, considering the popularity of collecting cars these days.

McKeel Hagerty knows something about that. He's CEO of Hagerty Collector Network, a company that provides a host of specialized services for collectors of classic cars and boats.

MCKEEL HAGERTY: "Unlike a stock certificate which may or may not go up in value, collector cars have been pretty steadily rising in value. You can enjoy it for several years. And you can probably sell it and make a small profit and you've had great time along the way."

Assuming March is able to restore a third of his collection, its value could top $200,000.

Pretty good when you consider most of the cars were bought for less than $1,000. Some were even given to him.

That puts March in pretty good shape.

According to Kiplinger's, the average household has just $40,000 in retirement accounts and slightly more than half don't have any retirement savings at all.

March's wife was supportive when he made the decision to start his own shop back in the 1980s. Although Ebert says she isn't shy about sharing her opinion about his retirement plans.

MARCH: "Yeah she's got an idea. She thinks I'm crazy."

But not everyone agrees.

PAUL SUTHERLAND: "It's not a crazy notion. I mean, you know, naturally life is about living and enjoying."

That's Paul Sutherland. He's a certified financial planner and President of the FIM Group, that's a financial services business based in Traverse City.

SUTHERLAND: "I think it's more nontraditional, but, naturally the rational of this is, this is obviously a guy that actually understands what he's doing. And so what he's saying is 'I'm going to work into retirement, I'm going to continue to take care of my cars, I will sell them in retirement and call it retirement,' but there's a huge amount of sweat equity in creating this art, in fact. So I think it's way cool."

Rest assured, Ebert March hasn't put all of his money into his VW Bugs, but it's been quite a bit of it.

But the way he sees it, it's been an investment not just in his financial future, but in his emotional future as well.

MARCH: "You either put your money into something like this or you put your money into play-toys. So if I'm happy with what I'm doing, what else is there in life?"

Near Traverse City, Michigan, I'm Tom Kramer for Marketplace Money.

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