Barn Finds: Why You Should Be Scared by the Phrase "Needs Total Restoration"

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 26, 2018

If you’ve attended an old car show or auction recently, you may have noticed a curious anomaly. In among the shiny, restored cars are one or two complete wrecks that weren’t even washed before they hit the show stage.

Are those Fiat Abarth "double bubbles" or just the ghost  of them? (Jim Motavalli photo)

That dirt? It’s “patina.” It shows where the car has been—slumbering in a garage or barn for 30 or 40 years. The word “find” implies that these vehicles were lost, but in many cases their owners knew exactly where they were—they just didn’t think anyone would ever want their dead automobile. Imagine how lucky they feel now!

The best recent barn find was made by Tom Cotter, who more than anyone gave birth to the new “barn find” movement with his landmark book Cobra in the Barn. The dream find—in the same North Carolina garage—was a 1966 Ferrari 275 GTB/2 with aluminum body and a 1967 427 Cobra (with 428 V-8).

The as-found 427 Cobra (with 428). Considering there was an alloy-bodied Ferrari next to it in a North Carolina garage, this was the barn find of the century. (Gooding & Co. photo)

The owner says his long-time mechanic died and that’s why he lost interest in the pair of fabulous cars, which had been in the garage for decades. He accidentally did the best possible thing for maximizing his profit. If he’d sold the pair back in the 1970s maybe he’d have made $30,000. Instead, the cars went to Gooding & Company where the Ferrari made $2.53 million (including auction premium) and the Cobra just over $1 million.

This 1940 Packard Super 8 160 woodie fairly glowed. You wouldn't have to open your wallet to restore this one. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Those are real barn finds, but any rusty old car is called a barn find now. People are forgetting that long-term storage turns even very nice cars into inert sculpture, requiring the dreaded “total restoration.” And the cost of that means the buyer will almost always be upside down.

Cotter actually agrees with me about this. “I’m thinking of coming out with a barn-find conversion kit, so you can turn your valueless concours car into a hot barn find,” he told me.

A very tidy 1966 Plymouth Valiant convertible, with the Volvo 1800ES just beyond. Somebody got a good Valiant buy at $8,960. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I was reminded of this at the Greenwich Concours’ Bonhams auction tent June 2. In additional to the usual high-end fare—1959 AC Aceca ($145,600), 1965 Aston Martin DB5 convertible ($1.45 million), 1973 Volvo 1800ES with automatic ($24,640), 1965 Sunbeam Tiger MK 1 with Carroll Shelby’s signature on the glovebox lid ($87,360)—there were barn finds.

The AC Aceca went for $145,600. It was lovely. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I was first stopped dead by a trio of Fiat Abarths, two “double bubbles” from 1957 (they think) and a 1959 Fiat Abarth 750 Record Monza. Trust me when I say these cars were in truly horrible shape, rusty to the max, with only the suggestion of interiors or drivetrains. The Monza was slightly better, but still needed everything.

The late Carroll Shelby's signature on the glovebox of a pristine Sunbeam Tiger. It went for $87,360, and the signature probably helped. (Jim Motavalli photo)

So how did they do? The double bubbles made $22,400 each, and the Monza $33,600. Wow. I have some rust I want to sell now.

Kicking the tires on the MGA. It looked fairly decent, but not if you looked carefully. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Cotter was amazed the Fiats made that much--he thought maybe $22,400 was for both of them. "Maybe they’d make sense if you were really handy and had a big parts bin,” he said, “but at $100 an hour for restoration work you could really buy a much nicer car that had already been done. I don’t understand the passion people have for cars that are totally cancerous. The bones are bad. But some people buy those cars. I may have started a movement, but I still scratch my head.”

Look at the rust on that MGA rocker panel! The car was a 100-footer. (Jim Motavalli)

Next to the Fiats was a pretty bad 1961 MGA 1600 Roadster. It had major rocker panel rust, perished paint that differed from panel to panel, a yellowed rear window and cheap plaid seat covers. The blurb said it was “fresh from long-term storage” and “a great summer project.” The estimate? $15,000 to $20,000. It made $7,280.

Those plaid seats undoubtedly hide many horrors. The sign reminds buyers that the MGA is being sold "as is." (Jim Motavalli photo)

We used to have a name for junkers like this: parts cars. We paid $100 for them. A very nice MGA in the sale sold for $35,840, and you couldn’t possibly restore the barn-find example for that.

The Jag was barn-find dirty, but underneath the grime it was fairly tidy. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Also in the tent was a 1952 Jaguar XK120 fixed-head coupe, which was fairly sound under a thick layer of grime. Somebody paid $43,680 for it. This is from the catalog:

Little is known about this Jaguar's history, but it had been in the garage of the keeper for at least three decades. Repainted white and reupholstered with black leather at some point several decades ago, it last appeared to have seen the light of day in 1992 with the most recent registration expiring in October of that year. Kept in dry storage for the last quarter of a century, it has been unused and not seen the light of day until it was removed from the garage it had called home for so long.

A complete and well-preserved example, underneath its sheen of dust and cobwebs no doubt lies a cat ready to pounce. 

Actually, it won’t be “ready to pounce” until somebody opens his wallet to its fullest extent. And I thought that summer was for driving convertibles, not rebuilding them in the garage. The Jaguar, decent as it was, still needed six months to a year of professional attention.

This is when I ran into one of the two Keno twins, who you probably know from Antiques Roadshow. I’m not sure if it was Leslie or Leigh, and was too embarrassed to ask. You’d think because I’m a twin myself I’d have gotten over that.

Getting into the period spirit at the Greenwich Concours. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Kenos are huge car fans, though their usual fare is antique highboys. If the Jaguar was Keno's, he’d probably wash it, but he wouldn’t sacrifice the patina. “You wouldn’t sandblast a Brancusi sculpture, and you wouldn’t want to repaint this Jaguar,” Mr. Keno said. He added that the collector car market seems to be “leveling off,” though he added that the $70 million recently realized for a Ferrari GTO points in the other direction.  “Soon GTOs will go for $100 million,” he said.

Cotter thought the Jag might actually be a good buy, because underneath the filth it was quite a nice car, with no visible rust. The big expenses would be mechanical and interior.

This Packard needed everything, at $100 an hour for the labor. Buying a restored one might be a better idea. (Jim Motavalli photo)

There were other barn finds in the Bonhams auction, including a 1929 Packard Custom Eight 640 Touring that boasted of “single family ownership since new.” So what? The family was hardly a good steward of this Packard, which was in lousy condition. Somebody paid $25,760 for it.

Wait, you argue, some of these cars are one-of-a-kind, you can’t judge them by regular standards. Sorry, but Jaguar XK120s and MGAs are not in that category—there’s plenty of them around, and most have been nicely restored.

I explained to a woman walking by with her wide-eyed young son that the dirty Jag in front of her was actually worth more because it hadn’t been washed since being pulled out of the barn. “Really?” she said, skeptical.

My point is that you shouldn’t “rescue” cars, much as the idea may appeal to you. Let your head rule, and make sure you know what you’re getting into with a barn find. I know a poor guy who spent three times what his car was worth on a multi-year restoration. Let that be a cautionary tale.

The worst “barn finds”? The cars that aren’t actually in a barn, but have been left out in the elements, sometimes for many decades. In that condition, only Duesenbergs and Delahayes are worth restoring. But hoarders will accumulate fields of such cars, and still convince themselves they’re sitting on a gold mine. Don’t encourage them!


Tom Cotter, by the way, co-curated the showpiece at Greenwich--the rounding up of all 25 Cunningham C-3s. It's never been done before, and probably never will again. The car was produced by wealthy sportsman Briggs Cunningham, who had a local connection--he lived in nearby Westport. His daughter, Lucie, later married Connecticut Congressman Stewart McKinney (R-4).

All 25 Cunningham C-3 road cars were together for the first time. (Jim Motavalli photo)

In addition to the C-3 road cars, the display also included cars that Cunningham used to contest LeMans. In all, Cotter told me, the two-day event included 33 of 35 Cunninghams made (one perished in a race). Impressive!

One of two Cunningham Le Mans racers. The other one was there, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)


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