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Barn find. Garage find. Found it where I left it, right on the driveway.

Not far from me there sits an early 70’s Ford Cortina. I’m not sure exactly what year, as it’s hard to tell when the bottom six inches have dissolved into the garden and the front end is deeply entwined with the hedge. I’m not even sure what colour it is, unless damp moss was a factory shade. Granted, it’s not a barn find story to set the internet alight and I bet you know of similar local landmarks, but what has stopped Cortina-man from calling the scrap merchants and cashing in the oxidised remains? Once something gets to that stage it’s gone. The Cortina is stuffed and not particularly exotic, but at a separate house and co-incidentally with another Cortina, there’s an Opel GT of all things, seemingly in similar peril but maybe with 10 fewer years of decline. For the moment, and with enough work, it appears saveable. But for how much longer?

Over a million cars are scrapped in the UK each year and the average age at disposal is 14 years. Whenever I’ve got to the point with a car that it’s clearly not going much further, I’ve generally stripped anything useful and called my favoured yard to come and collect it. Occasionally I’ve just had shells literally dragged onto the truck, which makes a mess of the driveway when they’re sat on the deck without wheels and the Hiab is out of action! But I’m a believer in salvaging whatever is useful, which could also be categorised as hoarding useless tat for cars I am highly unlikely to buy again. Maybe in my mind somebody in 30 years will put out a worldwide appeal for a terminally rusty anti-roll bar for an AE86 Corolla and I will be vindicated.

It’s the other side of the coin I fail to understand, whereby something that was once cared for is parked up and simply left to return to the earth whilst the chrome tarnishes, the steel turns to dust and the vinyl becomes an ecosystem. Eventually nothing is salvageable and the remains can be posted to the recyclers in a small envelope. Sometimes that doesn’t matter as the chassis plate can fit in a small envelope and riveted to a newly “obtained” shell… Of course, with the recklessly misguided announcement from the UK government that the 40 year exemption from the MOT test looks set to come into force, maybe terminal rot and life threatening defects aren’t so much of any issue after all, and you can just pump up the desiccated tyres and set off for the motorway slip road.

The reasons for such automotive neglect range from idleness and ineptitude to misplaced emotional attachment. If somebody close to me died and left their treasured car behind, I would prefer for it to live on with a new owner and maybe stand as a tribute to their care and attention. Leaving it to rot just seems to underline the finality that greeted the unfortunate owner, a visual reminder of the loss of the person and the unstoppable decline of all things flesh. No, we must not allow anyone else to ever enjoy Father’s fifty year old Volvo, we must ensure it is crushed into a small cube as a mark of respect to all the time and money he spent on it and the hours making it so perfect in every way. This madness happens more often than you may believe. In this context, the more common option of letting it degrade seems more acceptable as at least maybe it stands a chance of resurrection. What people increasingly choose to fail to understand though is that a barn find is only such when there is a barn or at least a garage involved. Otherwise it’s a driveway find, a field find, or a muddy bog find. I guess that’s marketing basics for you.

Pre-internet these stories were less circulated. Post-internet and Streetview they have a new oxygen, with a thousand file photos to be copied and pasted to whichever forums are used to embellish the myths. There is the famous barn in Portugal with the welded up doors, that new owners of the farm ground open to reveal a treasure trove of 200 stashed classics that nobody knew about. There is the sealed up narrow gauge railway tunnel in Bavaria that was discovered by chance by a dog walker and found to contain a complete Maserati 250F in boxes. There was the Mercedes Gullwing discovered in a Lyon wine cellar, having been spirited away from Germany in the early 60s and presumed lost, but in fact having been concealed behind the Merlot whilst the insurance money was claimed, and then forgotten about. There was the Ferrari 250 GTO that sat in a front garden in Ohio for 14 years being used as a makeshift playground slide by the local children, and down in Orlando the case when the hurricane blew a barn down revealing 17 hidden Ferraris including an ultra-rare V12 engined P4 endurance racing car. The owner of the latter 17 was subsequently investigated for a series of tax misunderstandings. All highly unlikely stories, except the last two are actually true! I made two of them up just now, but give it a few years and they may become internet fact.

People love a story and classic car enthusiasts love originality. The best barn finds combine both and explain why an unrestored and neglected e-Type now sells for more than a shiny and intact restored one, if it’s the right car at the right sale. I doubt that’s what motivated the owner of the Cortina in the hedge, more likely just giving up on a worn out old car with maybe a relatively minor breakdown being the final straw, but with always the thought in the back of the head thinking, oh maybe I’ll get round to fixing it at some point. Not worth getting rid of now, it’s only going up in value. That’s not just a 12 inch hole in the floor, that’s patina, originality.

Meanwhile, I can’t help with any full cars yet but if anyone needs a sunvisor from a Skoda 120 or a rear view mirror from a 205 GTI, I’m your man. Won’t be cheap though, there’s a classic car boom on after all. Any old rubbish is worth a fortune now. Don’t you read the internet?

2 Responses

  1. Anders Bilidt

    A really interesting second article from you Dave – Thx!
    What defines the moment a clapped out, rusty old car suddenly turns into a barnfind?
    Are barnfinds hyped, or are they truly better than the perfectly restored classics which they sometimes out-perform at auctions?
    And if we’re to take matters to the extreme, is it perhaps financially sensible, to deliberately let your classic deteriorate in some dust and hay infested environment, only to ensure you get maximum profit out of it?
    Thought-provoking to say the least…

  2. Claus Ebberfeld

    Anders, now THAT is an interesting concept: Barn finds bred to be just that – starting out from normal clapped out classics, just matured in a barn to reach their full potential! I think you’re onto something there. I have barns, you know…

    But seriously, I do understand the romantics of a genuine barn find with a fine story coming along with it. And yes, Dave Leadbetter is right – it MUST involve a barn and it better has to be a fine one too. However I think some buyers DO actually buy a barn find specifically and with a premium to get a car nobody has gotten to before – the “unmolested original” often advertised. The problem I sometimes see is that even if the car was laid up in the early Eighties or something, it might already have been gotten to and is therefore not unmolested anyway. Which can be difficult to determine through the damp moss.Even us cynics must not forget, however, that there are indeed some finds out there from time to time. I personally read all about the Baillion-collection with great interest and horror over the storage of some actually rather spectacular cars and now very rusty. There were not found in his driveway, though – but some of them indeed in the garden.


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