"Barn Finds" Are Still Out There, Rusting in Peace

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 18, 2016

Tom Cotter is the king of the Barn Finds. What's a barn find, you ask? It's that super-valuable classic car that someone tucked away decades ago and forgot about, usually in their old barns.

Tom Cotter with the trusty '39 Ford Woody he bought for $300 when he was 15. (Michael Alan Ross)You know the story. You miss your turn on the way home and head down an unfamiliar rural road. You pass a farm and there, just peeking out of the barn, is a familiar fender.

No, it can’t be a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing. In a barn in the woods of Michigan? But of course you stop, sneak through the woods and confirm that, by jingo, it really IS a Gullwing! Rusty, sitting on flat tires, engine out, but a Gullwing nonetheless. Fading numbers confirm it has racing history, too.

With even your toes crossed, you knock on the farmhouse door, and an elderly lady comes to the door. The old car in the barn? “Oh, that’s my husband’s old race car,” she says. “He never would part with it, but now that he’s been gone a year maybe it’s time to let it go. How does $500 sound?”

Then, of course, you wake up, because these things don’t really happen. But Tom Cotter’s Cobra/Hemi/Vette in-the-barn books (a cottage industry by now) are proof that—despite the huge run-up in old car values—the barn finds are still out there.

A row of '59 Chevys melts into the earth, somewhere along Route 66. (Michael Alan Ross)Take this one, from Cotter’s first book in 2005. CSX 2022 was a Cobra delivered new to Hawaii—where it came in second in the production class at the Hawaiian Grand Prix in 1963. It was sold to new owner Bob Brown in 1967, but the poor car suffered a disastrous engine fire later that same year. Brown got new aluminum panels, but couldn’t find anyone to weld them in properly, so the car went into long-term slumber—for almost 40 years.

Now that’s a barn find! The new owner, California-based Mark Gardner, heard about the car, contacted Brown, and slowly wore him down about selling. The purchase price: $50,000, chicken feed for a Cobra.

Tumbleweeds under the bumper? A sign it might be time to sell. (Michael Alan Ross)“I bought my first car, a 1939 Ford Woody, for $300 when I was 15,” Cotter told me. “It came out of a barn in Long Island. I still have it, and it's the car we took on the Barn Finds Road Trip. Some people think finds like that are history, but I say there are still affordable old cars to be found—if you get off the couch.”

"That's a mighty fine rust crop you got there, Clem!" (Michael Alan Ross)Cotter should know. He bought an historic Abarth Double Bubble car just last year—by knocking on the door of a home that had cool old cars in the driveway decades earlier. Now he owns 25 cars, including a Cobra, a pair of Shelby Mustangs, a Cunningham, a MGTD, a Beetle and a Mini Cooper.

Cotter’s new book, Barn Find Road Trip, doesn’t have any Cobras in it, but it does tell a good story. Cotter and two pals hit the highway for two weeks, eat a lot of pub food, and find something like 1,000 potentially collectible cars in barns and backyards. One of the trio was photographer Michael Alan Ross, who did a great job turning these rusty treasures into art.

Mostly, Cotter’s car spotters turn up fields of cars owned by hoarders. These characters collect all kinds of things—the house jammed to the rafters with old books, even obliterating the functionality of the kitchen, is one constant. My bookseller brother recently spent weeks digging out one such house. But they collect cars, too. And since they’re too big for the kitchen, they fill up the back 40 in rows that were orderly at one time.

It's rare to see a car with an engine and a trunk on the same end. (Michael Alan Ross)These fellows tend to dramatically over-value their holdings—which have, after all, spent decades rusting out in the open. Very few of these cars will ever run again, but that doesn’t stop their delusionary thinking.

The typical story is this: The owner buys the cars by the dozens when they’re cheap, then “stores” them in the open when the barn fills up. Since everyone knows that old cars are “worth a fortune,” he thinks that after 30 years he’s sitting on a gold mine. But because most of the “collector” cars are bread-and-butter four-door sedans with seized engines, clouded glass, varmint-infested upholstery and rust, rust, rust; they’re beyond any economic restoration.

But the hoarders don’t see it that way. “The condition of the cars doesn’t come into play,” Cotter said. “The cars are what make these guys interesting, and all the people stopping by and asking about them is what makes life interesting. They can’t sell them.”

My favorite story in Barn Find Road Trip is about a 1971 Ford Torino with a four-speed and a 429 engine. “The car had obviously been sitting in that spot [in Roanoke, Virginia] for a long time,” Cotter writes, “because it had sunk into the turf down to its chassis.” In fact, it hadn’t moved in 35 years, and its undercarriage was undoubtedly a lattice of rust. But the proud owner was still convinced it—along with a fairly run-of-the-mill 1966 Ford Galaxie—was worth $20,000.

This lovely Lincoln once belonged to jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, who'd be horrified to see it now. (Michael Alan Ross)I could buy a perfectly restored ’70 Torino with a 429 for $58,000 in Hemmings. Restoring the basketcase in the weeds could—easily—cost that much and more, on top of the $20k purchase price. I thought the Torino and Galaxie would stay where they are until they disappeared into the earth, but no—probably because of publicity from the book, the cars recently sold for $12,000.

I’ve found a few cars in barns, and still kick myself about not buying them. One was a 1959 Jaguar Mark 9 that stripped a spark plug hole with just 13,000 miles on the clock. The repaired head just needed to be reinstalled. The car—on offer for $1,200, as I recall—was otherwise mint. Those cars are the epitome of elegance, with XK power plants, wood dashboards, leather seats, and fold-down picnic tables. Ah well.

The crazy market today—with the Internet spreading the word—makes it unlikely that any $500 Cobras are going to turn up in your neighbor’s barn. But I did hear about a Gullwing recently…

That '56 Chevy wagon would be great collector's item for someone who is up to date on their tetanus shots. (Michael Alan Ross)Cotter, who has two new books coming out this September on cars on Route 66 and in Cuba, offers some useful tips:
  • Search on the wrong side of town. That’s where the body shops and car repair places are.
  • Tour residential areas on weekends. That’s when the garages are open, so the homeowner can get the tools out.
  • Hunt in the winter. The leaves are gone, so you’ll see cars you’d otherwise miss.
  • Go west. The barn finds in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona may have surface rust, but they’re basically straight.
  • Don’t buy as an investment. “Buy from the heart, not the head,” Cotter told me. “Don’t treat the car like a share of stock; treat it like a friend, and if it doesn’t go up in value you still had a good time with it.”
  • Use Google Earth…or drones. Might as well put the modern tools to work in service to the barn finders’ art.
Need parts for a '37 Willys? Try your eccentric neighbor's backyard. (Michael Alan Ross) Oh and about those 1950s American cars in Cuba. “You can’t export them back to the U.S.—they’re considered ‘national treasures,’” Cotter said. “But you don’t want them anyway—they use shampoo as brake fluid, and toothpaste as rubbing compound. That old Cadillac that’s putting out big smoke? It probably has a diesel tractor motor.”

Here's Cotter on video, giving a brief glimpse of some of those crazy barn finds out there:


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