The Problem With Barn-Finds
Photography by David Marvier and courtesy of RM Auctions
A couple of weeks ago we featured a garage-find Ferrari Daytona that was headed to auction in essentially the same condition that it was parked in, over thirty years ago. And more recently we’ve also reviewed a book that covered fifty (!) different barn-find stories. Everyone knows that barn-finds are the holy grail of the automotive world.
And rightfully so. Depending on your discovery it’s akin to buried treasure. Imagine searching for years to discover a Ferrari GTO thought wrecked and dismantled in a Monza warehouse close to the track. Or perhaps finding an aluminum-bodied Gmünd-Porsche in a barn close to the German border. All the gaskets probably would have rotted along with the tires, and mice would have chewed through the wires and leather, but for a song you could take it home and…
What do you do next? Today’s conventional wisdom says you leave it exactly as you found it, whether it can be driven or not, because of the patina and the story. Oh the story!
Just consider the Lake Maggiore Bugatti: rolled into the lake due to tax issues and left to rot over seventy years. It was exhumed to raise funds for an anti-violence initiative, the result of a local boy being brutally beaten to death. Mr. Peter Mullin bought it for roughly $370,000 in 2010 and today it sits, unrestored, in a dimly lit room of the Mullin Auto Museum, all alone as though still in its watery tomb.
What a shame. When we ran the Ferrari Daytona article a lively discussion ensued about the value of the car and what should be done with it. Now, frankly, I’m not too concerned with the value, as that will be determined soon enough when it crosses the block at RM Auctions’s Amelia Island sale in March. What does concern me is how these cars are used once discovered.
Obviously, the finder or buyer has the right to do with it what he or she decides. But the right thing to do is to restore it so that the Daytona can be driven again. This doesn’t mean perfect paint or a better-than-new concours finish, but these objects have a purpose. And leaving them in decay is the worst kind of fetishism.
There are two appealing arguments against restoring a barn-find: first, the economic one, it’s cheaper to leave it as-is and second, the emotional, the find’s condition inspires “how” and “why” questions that attempt to discover the story. So that every time the story is retold, the excitement of the adventure and history are relived.
But in most barn-find cases, not restoring the find also means you can’t enjoy driving a wonderful piece of history. And don’t we as Petrolisti all enjoy driving? A rusting paper-weight that used to be a car brings me only infinitesimally more marginal exhilaration than seeing the Hope Diamond behind its inches of reinforced plastic and glass. “Yup, it’s cool… It’s a big diamond… What’s next?” But seeing, hearing, and smelling it on the road, thundering by the way it was meant to? That’s the very reason cars captivated me as a child.
Thirty or so years ago, the fashion was to over-restore classics such that an encounter with road dirt would cause apoplexy. Now the figurative rear-end has overcorrected and swung the other way and we’d rather have a car sit and continue to rot just to preserve its story. This is absurd. Take photos, film, perhaps even hire a historian or writer (I’m available for freelance… just kidding!) to document the car’s history, condition, and restoration and then go drive the wheels off. Enjoy the car! Put the wheels back on and drive it some more. Cars’ histories shouldn’t end when they’re re-discovered, that’s precisely when they should be getting fuller.
But first, you have to find one…