Tom Cotter has been finding old vehicles in outbuildings since he was 12 years old. And despite a long career as a motorsports marketing executive, he is best known for this skill. He stars in a YouTube series and podcast about it and has published extensively about the process. “I’m working on my 19th book now, but about 11 or 12 of them are about barn finds,” he told Car and Driver.
A handful of these books compiled stories about individual car and motorcycle marques: The Cobra in the Barn, The Hemi in the Barn, the Corvette in the Barn, The Vincent in the Barn, and The Harley in the Barn. Another series cataloged finds from various road trips: Route 66 Barn Finds, Motor City Barn Finds.
But he claims that his new book, Secrets of the Barn Find Hunter ($30.00, Motorbooks), was “probably the easiest book I could have written because it’s just based on a lifetime of doing this.”
As the title suggests, this book explicates Cotter’s tactics for finding hidden-away old cars. These include always looking left and right to peer behind buildings while you’re driving, querying long-term employees at local gas stations, and not being afraid to stop whenever you see a field of rotted old vehicles, as they could just be the disposable pawns fronting hidden bishops, rooks, and queens.
Most important is having the right vehicle for engaging your quest. Cotter’s stead is a 1939 Ford woodie wagon, which he found in a barn when he was 15 years old. (We forgot to ask if he found his wife, kids, job, house, and publisher in a barn as well.)
“When people see that in the driveway, it doesn’t matter if they’re crabby. They see me as authentic. Or, at least, it continues a relationship that would have ended much quicker if I didn’t have that car,” he said. “The lesson is, if you’re looking for an interesting car, it helps to drive an interesting car.”
The larger question posed by this series is, what is it about barn finds that so compels people, enough to merit a dozen books about them and hundreds of YouTube and podcast episodes? “I think it’s an adult version of treasure hunting,” Cotter says.
There’s also, apparently, some transcendence of fantasy. “It’s honest. It’s real life,” Cotter said. And real people. “It’s also the human-interest factor. The car is a catalyst to bring interesting stories to life,” he adds.
Cotter’s favorite such story in the book concerns a widow in Texas. Her husband’s death had left her destitute, and her son called him looking for help selling her one remaining asset, so the bank wouldn’t foreclose on her house. “And he said the magic word: Porsche,” Cotter said.
The woman’s husband had owned a 1957 Porsche 356 A Speedster when they were courting, but he later stopped driving it when he contracted ALS, the disease that eventually killed him, and it had sat in the garage for 40 years. Cotter flew down and met with the widow. After talking for a long time, she brought him out to the car. “It was covered in tablecloths, but it was in nice shape. Unrestored,” Cotter said.
Because RM Auctions in Hershey specialized in preservation cars, he talked her into bringing the orange bathtub there, and he joined her and the car for the sale. “As the car was bidding up—$50,000, $75,000, $100,000—she was literally holding onto my arm and crying on my shoulder,” he said. It eventually sold for $341,000. “And at the end, she looked up toward the ceiling, or heaven, and said, ‘He’s still looking out for me,’ ” Cotter said. “Everybody heard it. People clapped. And she’s now able to live out her life in her house, without fear of losing it.”
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