Collectors covet ‘barn finds’

When you’ve had enough of your vehicle, what will you do with it? Trade it in? Private sale? How about driving until it drops and then depositing the carcass, stripped of its usable parts, in a barn, warehouse or somewhere out in the proverbial “back 40”?

Before leasing, or even the notion of borrowing to purchase, vehicles were often bought for cash and quite literally driven into the ground. Later — maybe 50 or 75 years later — they’re unearthed as someone’s “barn find.” You’ve probably heard many stories, or read them in magazines, about rare, historically significant and valuable vehicles being entombed in the strangest ramshackle locations.

As our automotive history grows a few more gray whiskers with every passing year, barn stories take on more significance. In fact, a popular monthly car magazine dispensed with the usual muscle-car cover shot to report on more than a dozen tractor-trailer loads of rare cars and parts discovered as part of an estate. The deceased, as it turned out, had simply tucked everything away for safe keeping.

This is an extreme case, of course, but it just goes to show that barn finds are often right under our noses: maybe it’s a grandparent’s barely driven 1963 Chevrolet Impala stashed away in a garage “on the old farm.” (Raise your hand if something like this sounds familiar.) For most of us, there’s more than a little luck involved. For others, it’s a passion, even an obsession.

A fantastic hardcover book chronicling many such finds, called “The Cobra in the Barn,” written by Tom Cotter who, according to the book’s preface, lives and breathes so-called barn finds and loves the thrill of the chase. Just as mesmerizing as the hunt for four-wheeled treasure is the type of vehicles found in the publication’s 250-plus pages: Ferraris,rare race cars, sports cars and former concept cars. The book shares adventures — in some cases, extreme adventures — that will have readers shaking their heads and driving down their own memory lanes.

Take Wheelbase’s classic-car guru Malcolm Gunn, who has recurring (almost nightly, he says) dreams about a certain black 1955 Chevrolet barn find, a car that was actually discovered through a friend of the family. Recurring dreams? After buying the Chevy for a whopping $150 and driving it back and forth across the country (“Route 66” was obviously one of his favorite TV shows), he sacrificed the ride for $50 to a “person in dire financial need.” Malcolm practically breaks into song when recounting stories of straightening bent engine parts with a hammer on the floor of the family garage. His older brother, who helped with such mechanical hijinks wasn’t really into the ’55, but rather his Fiat. “You understand that I wouldn’t be doing this (straightening the engine parts with a hammer) on my car, right?” Needless to say, Malcolm, a few decades later, is in search of replacement ’55, but this time around $150 likely won’t cut it.

Editor Jeff Melnychuk, who was quite the lawn-cutting entrepreneur as a youngster, pestered one of his customers into parting with a 1970 Plymouth that was stashed in a battered backyard tool shed.

“Except for a small tear in the driver’s seat, the car was perfect … at least $600 perfect.” The selling price was steep for a 15-year-old kid back in 1981 “and took every extra spare buck I could find that wasn’t spent on Def Leopard albums.” Sadly, the former and original owner died of cancer the following year and Jeff vowed to keep the Plymouth as a tribute to a family friend. He painted it yellow, took the two-door on a honeymoon in 1988, drove it to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota several times and toured the Canadian Rockies. The car was parked shortly after the honeymoon and, as of this writing, is undergoing total restoration and modernization. “Funny, the car even outlasted the marriage.”

As of this moment, I have yet to make my own “barn find,” but maybe you have? We’ve opened up a special e-mail address — mybarnfind@wheelbase.ws — for you to share your story for a feature we’re putting together on the subject. I know each and every tale could fill this newspaper page, but to give everyone a fair shake, submissions will need to be kept to 100 words, plus one or two photos (a before and after). Submissions will be posted at the Wheelbase blog, www.wheelbase.ws/media.

In the meantime, keep looking for that unpolished gem to drag home, fix up and make part of your family’s memories.

Among her numerous accomplishments, Courtney Hansen is the author of her own book, the host of Spike TV’s “PowerBlock,” the former host of TLC’s “Overhaulin’ ” and a writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can e-mail her by logging on to www.wheelbase.ws/media and clicking the contact link.

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