Journal: The Problem With Barn-Finds

The Problem With Barn-Finds

Avatar By Yoav Gilad
December 24, 2014
18 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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JamesTorresSwissChrissHoracio RomeoMichael AndersonJohn Forsman Recent comment authors
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JamesTorres
JamesTorres

Thanks for sharing.

SwissChriss
SwissChriss

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

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… Read more »

Michael Anderson
Michael Anderson

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

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

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

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… Read more »

Derelict
Derelict

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… Read more »

Andrew Salt
Andrew Salt

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

More photos, I hear you ask?…

Clayton Merchant
Clayton Merchant

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… Read more »

Todd Cox
Todd Cox

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… Read more »

Jono51
Jono51

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… Read more »

Todd Cox
Todd Cox

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… Read more »

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson

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… Read more »

Bernard Holzberg
Bernard Holzberg

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… Read more »

Ryan Corneliusen
Ryan Corneliusen

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

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.