Journal: The Problem With Barn-Finds

The Problem With Barn-Finds

By Yoav Gilad
December 24, 2014
19 comments

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…

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CJM379
CJM379
1 year ago

Late to the table but I do think a barn find needs to be enjoyed on the Road rather than co-signed again to a life in mothballs -even if on display ! I was privileged to become the owner of a barn find XJS 4.0 manual coupe last summer (2019) which I’ve since recommissioned rather than restore and (when lockdown restrictions have allowed) been able to appreciate its pace and grace on the roads round my native west coast Scotland . Drive ‘em I say – but tastefully !

JamesTorres
JamesTorres
3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

SwissChriss
SwissChriss
3 years ago

For me, cars are made to be driven, I have a Daytona that was a barn find (before my ownership), twenty years without moving. It was beautifully restored by Joe Macaris here in the UK and now has some modern improvements to enhance the driving experience. I have driven it over 4000 miles this summer, all over Europe and it is my favourite car. It would have been so disappointing if this car had been left to slumber, never to be seen or driven and enjoyed.

Horacio Romeo
Horacio Romeo
6 years ago

In my adventures with classis cars i saw many things, but there is one i remember. There was a Lincoln (in that time I owned a ’40 Zephyr Club Coupe) a friend had, that was found in a barn in rural Uruguay.. the story goes there were no tyres available for it, so it stood there by the end of the lifetime of the original ones. The car was completely solid with a slight patina, all original, and in this case i should consider a sin to restore it. Over restoring so dear to americans some years ago, is another kind of sin…I’d like to preserve the car as original or close to original as possible. The and now. An aging leather upholstery has more appeal to me than a reproduction new one.

Michael Anderson
Michael Anderson
7 years ago

I believe that cars are owned for the pleasure of the owner, and as such, there is no wrong answer. I personally like an original classic, a period modified car, or a modern interpretation of a classic.. Make it what you want..

John Forsman
John Forsman
7 years ago

So many over restored cars that one is afraid to drive. Not touching a disaster, or period piece that is not usable is another conundrum. I prefer the British ‘Greasy Rag’ school of thought. Make it work, leave as much patina as possible, replace what is dysfunctional, and enjoy it. Back when a Ferrarri 250 GTO was only a $5,000,000 car I spoke with a man racing one. He laughed and said “I can’t do $5,000,000 damage to it.

CHRIS DAGNOLO
CHRIS DAGNOLO
7 years ago

Andrew Salt, I hate to be an a_s but I also hate to be deceived by one. Is that a real car or a toy car? Come on, come clean. If it’s real than I am being an a_s. If it’s a toy as I suspect than, maybe you are 😉 Please post a couple pics that prove it’s me who’s being ‘one’ 😉
Chris

Boxerman
Boxerman
7 years ago

The british have a term called sympathetic restoration. Ie mechanicaly 100\% without excessengine chrome and nice body but not concors.

Now a barn find car ,may be rusted and tatty, in which case it does need a restoration.

Its a matter of taste and class, most so called collectors are really hoarders, they dont have it. The cars are objects to them expressing wealth, they will over restore or not restore a car at all according to percieved fashion.

Patina which shows time, a bit of engine grease which shows use are what an old car is about, its not new. But at a certain point a car is far gone enought at restoration(not bling overestoration) is called for.

Jarrod Hills
Jarrod Hills
7 years ago

I had a barn find. Past tense as I had to sell it to fund education. Sat in a garage since around 1972 (reg. sticker still on the windscreen) 1958 MGA as a result of a thrown rod. Quite common for three main B series motors. I started the restoration and was going to do an all out, driver level restoration. I took photos of the way it was found, new the history of it, and that was going to be more than enough for me. No need to leave it in that shape anymore.

Problem with barn finds is the new owner. The reason I say that is these cars are going for major money and then will require even more money to restore. Often, putting the expense at more than the market will ever see for that car. So, there being no more passion for that car other than as a statement piece, the car just sits. Major budget barn/ garage finds are often bought by people who are attracted to the car for what it is at that time, not for what it could/ would be if money was invested. Add to that that many collectors see cars as investment pieces, it makes perfect sense for things like the lake grave Bug to just sit languishing in the corner of some dark museum someplace.

The problem is not the car and its condition. It is the buyer. Granted, my MGA example is no where near the monetary value of that Daytona example but the sentiment is the same. I was attracted to the MGA because I liked its story but more importantly, I find that car to be one of the prettiest mass produced cars ever (my particular British car addict sickness). The new owner needs to see the car as a car, and not just an investment that happens to be a car. You cannot look at it as a mathematical equation weighing the point of diminishing returns. You have to see beyond that and when you have already invested a good amount (I would personally say, insane) of money for a car needing a complete redo, I suppose that can be tough.

Andrew Salt
Andrew Salt
7 years ago

I was lucky enough to have access to my late Father-in-Law’s shed a couple of years ago and found a wonderful 1960 MGA 1600. I now have this my my garage and, because I just love the dust, corrosion and patina too much, I cannot bring myself to began its restoration.

Andrew Salt
Andrew Salt
7 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Salt

More photos, I hear you ask?…

Clayton Merchant
Clayton Merchant
7 years ago

This is a good topic for conversation, and one that I feel is the subject of a widening chasm in the collector car community. On the one hand are many people who have come into the car world because it is the current “hot investment” and a good place to park chunks of money and likely see a good return.
To many of these people, these cars are like a work of art or sculpture and the “barn find” is like finding a Rembrandt or Da Vinci tucked away in an old abandoned Italian farmhouse. Heaven knows the prices that are being paid for some of them are certainly in line with those types of investments. They would no more think of driving and enjoying those cars as they were built to be driven and enjoyed than they would to carve their initials in a rare sculpture. They will be tucked away and only seen by a rare few.
To many true gear-heads, such thoughts are obscene and this process is driving some of the absurd prices being paid for them as well as raising the asking prices for similar cars in the market. It is difficult to argue the “investment value” of these cars as long as the market continues to reward the “barn-find.”
Cars, unlike fine art are made for the purpose of being driven, some more than others. To us who I assume represent most Petrolisti, these “barn finds” used to represent good candidates for restoration or for cleaning up, sorting the mechanicals and just driving them.
The history of these barn finds is made interesting by the people who owned them and what they did with them, not for sitting in a hermetically sealed glass case or hospital sterile garage complete with their barn find dust intact. The interesting history of said car ends the moment it is stashed away and the human element is detached from driving and using them in my opinion.
That said, my cars are driven and used regularly, though none of them are so valuable that I would worry about getting a rock chip or door ding. I’m fairly sure that if it came to that, the joys of collector car ownership would cease to be joys and I would have to get onto something else. Yes, I’ve had to replace parts with modern reproductions and yes, I drive on radial tires. The cars look great to my mind and I try to keep them looking as they left the factory because that’s my preference, but I don’t get hung up on originality.

I have a good friend who turns out some beautiful restorations and who has some fairly valuable cars. I admire the fact that he drives them all regularly and has no other daily drivers. We’ve talked about the values rising on some of them and whether it makes sense to continue to drive them and his response is always the same “If I’m not driving them, what’s the point in having them.”
Enough said.

Todd Cox
Todd Cox
7 years ago

I have a 1964 Sunbeam Alpine, MKIII GT, which I think qualifies as a barn find even though it has effectively been in my own family’s proverbial barn for most of my life. As with most barn finds the car has gone from beautiful at purchase to a basket case upon exhumation. This article brings to bear the reality that I’m faced with a similar dilemma on my ‘barn find’. My issue isn’t strictly related to outright restoration, but more the value of originality. The 4cyl engine requires a rebuild, and the body is rough but fixable. The interior is effectively gone save the dash and gauges (of which, the chrome rings are wearing patina, the glass is hazy, and the beautiful burl walnut dash is all but a sad reminder of its once glorious appearance).

It is a rare car; a very rare car. In 1964 they made 5,836 MKIIIs; a relatively small production number by any account and the smallest number of Alpines produced of any year. Of those, even less of the hardtop version (there was a removable hard top but no integrated folding soft top). Of those, fewer still with true wire wheels (splined knockoff), and as I understand even fewer with the big tail lights, and this was the ‘GT’ version which I think had the burl walnut dash, wood wheel, and wood shift knob (and perhaps a few other perks).

I suppose I was brought up to honor the originality of an old car and the craftsmen and designers who breathed life into this creation. However I also love automotive art and creativity; like most young men I dreamed of cobbling together hot-rods and race cars, so the thought of standing on the shoulders of those who came before me and recreating a new form based on something old doesn’t terribly offend me. I’m at once a curator and a realist; I understand the value of originality, and I also respect the ability to put the car on the road and let people experience it. I respect those who can take something old and make it new without compromising the element of what it was; Singer Porsche springs to mind as a leader in this regard.

It’s hard to keep and old and rare British car on the road in America. I’m torn between two paths that I see for the car. On one hand a restoration would be beautiful and would certainly honor the car and its rarity. However, it is about half a heartbeat from being nothing more than scrap metal at the local yard, and I’d like to be able to enjoy the car without worrying about it turning up ‘British’ and stranding me every time I drive it. To that end, a faux Tiger conversion is extremely appealing. The poor state of the car, I believe, allows me some license to rebuild it the way I imagine the original builders would have done if they’d had access to modern materials and the ability to swap power trains willy-nilly that we enjoy today.

Is it more valuable to have a temperamental fully restored garage queen or a (tastefully) bastardized resto-mod that is reliable enough to use as something of a daily driver? I’m leaning toward the latter, since it was at least possible the Sunbeam/Chrysler folks could have made this car as they did with the Tiger. And the ability to share the car’s beauty and elegance with others is important to me as well. At the same time it stings to alter such a car, regardless of how poor its condition. I’m curious what others here have to say on the matter.

Jono51
Jono51
7 years ago
Reply to  Todd Cox

Todd, your issue is one faced by all owners of old British iron. Most of us who still drive these cars depart from originality to some extent and the only question is how far we go. To give the most obvious example, almost everyone who uses an old 1950s Triumph or MG on road fits radial tyres rather than the original cross plies (which can be expensive and difficult to find anyhow). There are good safety reasons to do this, but it makes a noticeable difference in how the car looks and arguably it no longer gives you the same driving experience as an original car – this can be seen as either a good thing or not, depending on your taste for driving sideways! Many of us also make other less noticeable modifications, such as fitting brake boosters, replacing old dynamos with modern alternators and so on: all in the interests of safety and reliability.

An increasing number of owners go further and create cars that are in the spirit of the original, but perform differently and are easier to use in modern conditions. These can be very nice cars, although they are almost always less valuable than the same car restored to, or better still preserved in, 100\% original condition.

In your case, you may not have much choice. It is relatively easy, if not exactly cheap, to take a basket case MGA or Triumph TR2 and put it back to factory condition, in every visible detail. These cars will never again be original (and experts can still tell the difference), but they will look and behave exactly the way they did originally. With a Sunbeam Alpine this will be more difficult to achieve and even if possible more expensive, as there is not the same level of parts availability. As you say, this is a relatively rare car. At the same time, I would not say it was so rare that it should be treated as a museum piece and left untouched. My advice therefore is to go for it and create a car that you will enjoy using. Best of luck!

Todd Cox
Todd Cox
7 years ago
Reply to  Jono51

Thanks, Jono. I think the only way I can really enjoy the car and keep it on the road is to do a resto-mod. I love the idea of putting a Singer quality restoration/modification into this machine. No, it won’t be original but I’ll have something that represents the spirit in which the car was created. It’ll be fun, elegant, and beautiful. I’ve all but decided to stuff another drivetrain into the car. I think I have to commit to viewing it as a junkyard rescue rather than a corruption of an original. I recently came across an Overhaulin’ video where the guys absolutely butchered a Sunbeam Tiger; forever ruining a very restorable car. My car isn’t like that though; my car is a sad shadow of what it once was.

Near as I can tell, the car was a light metallic green from the factory, but when we purchased it the car was wearing a dark metallic magenta which was later painted a baby blue by my uncle (an Earl Schieb paint job if I recall correctly, so you can imagine the ‘quality’). There are some elements of the original that I absolutely want to preserve, and the original paint color may be one as it is unusual. There are some things that weren’t original though. My dad had said the wrong year’s seats were installed, and he wasn’t sure if the hard top that came with the car was correct either. All of this makes me feel a little better about modifying the car. I will miss the growl of that little four-banger though; that car sounded like automotive heaven.

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
7 years ago

I think in general the old car world has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to preserving and managing its heritage. Look at the art world and the management and preservation of antiquities in museums these are highly sophisticated and controlled, the same should be applied to important cars. Static cars should not be rotting or degrading.
We are lucky to live in a time where these barn finds are there, where you can still find a Saoutchik Talbot Lago or Ferrari 250 GT SWB rotting in a shed. In 200 years they will not be there, they should be preserved for future generations as best we can. This might be putting it in a dark room, it might be restoring it to driving condition. Above all any original fitments and patina should be retained, that is the difficult bit. It’s so easy to rip it apart and replace with new and lose all vital history.

Restored cars are always second best but when you drive or race a historic car it is being worn away. Most race cars were designed to last a season at most not be raced for year after year. As time goes on we will see fewer genuine historic machines on track and more exact replicas/restored cars.

[url=”http://www.sportscardigest.com/the-stewardship-of-historically-important-automobiles-book-review/?awt_l=JdQ1R&awt_m=JT1XOCnl0us.C0″]This [/url] is a great read for anyone interested
As they say “At some point you have to decide if survival, albeit a static one, for future generations is more important than the vivid images its operation conjures up for the present ones.”

Bernard Holzberg
Bernard Holzberg
7 years ago

Yoav,

I couldn’t agree with you more! Along those lines, I am also filled with some sadness, when I consider (especially racing) cars that were over-restored ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago, that have since languished in museums, seals rotting, tires cracking, oils etching the bronze synchronizers, and only allowed out on an occasional parade, or on a trailered journey.

Cars, or at least enthusiast cars, are built for a purpose, and that is to be enjoyed through their principal function, and not as a mere visual record of their own, long dead history.

I say we liberate all of the jailed cars!

Best,
Bernard.

Ryan Corneliusen
Ryan Corneliusen
7 years ago

Man, the cars I’ve seen last month…..
I saw a one off 60’s Ferrari 250 GT Speciale (if I recall) all rusted up and such in a local private collection. The guy also had a one-of-two Lambo 3500GTZ Zagato, the only survivor actually, the white one.

JB21
JB21
7 years ago

That was a very nice thought. The strange world of automobile collectors and collections is that you go through all catch-22, in a sense that a classic, priceless car that sits in a museum is an absolutely rubbish idea, that a such car is already half dead. As you said, really, cars need to be driven, heard, smelled, felt, and all that that arouse excitement in the drivers as well as faraway admirers, but cars so precious that, for a fear of pretty much anything comes in contact with them, cannot be driven, that always leave me feeling rather sad.