Tom Cotter's Top 20 Barn-Finding Tips

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posted by: Ray Guarino
Last Updated: 12 June 2020

From Tom Cotter's The Hemi in the Barn: More Great Stories of Automotive Archaeology: Top 20 Barn-Finding Tips 

#thebarnfindhunter #barnfinds #barnfindingtips #NeverStopDriving #BarnFindHunter #classiccars #classiccar

1. YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN

Chances are that you remember car guys who fiddled with old hot rods, sports or antique cars in the town where you grew up. Even if you moved away two or three decades ago, that doesn't mean that enthusiast doesn't still live there. As you read in Tom's story on his own barn-find cars, He bought an Abarth coupe from the estate of a man who he remembered worked on cool cars in his driveway when he was a kid.

2.  SATURDAYS AND SUNDAYS ARE BEST

The weekends are the best time to discover cars that might be hidden in people’s garages.  That’s the time when people do yard work and house cleaning chores, and often open up their garages to take out rakes, shovels, ladders, etc.  And guess what? Those cars that are usually hidden behind garage doors are often exposed then.  Tom has often thought that X-ray vision would be the most handy talent to have in searching for old cars.  However, searching on weekends is the next best thing.

3. BY CAR, YES, BUT BY FOOT AND PEDAL, TOO

The easiest method to go barn finding is, or course, by car. Or better yet, truck, because owners of old cars might be less intimidated if you come cruising up to their house in a truck as opposed to a new Lexus or Porsche (a nicely worn pickup truck is not intimidating to anyone). However, Tom has found that bicycling, walking, and running are also excellent ways to search for cars, especially in densely populated neighborhoods. That’s because you can travel a lot slower and more carefully inspect the area. Tom once discovered a Jaguar XK120 when he lived in Bethpage, New York. He remembers telling his wife that he was going for a bike ride and wouldn’t return until he found a neat old car older than 1960. He peddled past a house where the garage door was open revealing a pile of bicycles, sleds, and other household goods. But near the bottom of that pile, he saw a taillight that looked like it belonged to Jaguar. He knocked on the door and the man almost fell over when Tom asked if the Jaguar was for sale. “How did you see the car?” the man asked. It was only because Tom was traveling at a very slow speed that he was able to discover the car.

4. LOOK BEHIND YOURSELF

“Look where you’re going!” is what Tom has heard for more than thirty years from his wife when they’re driving. You see, he has a bad habit of looking behind himself slightly when he drives past houses and buildings. Unless you plan to eventually drive back in the opposite direction, you’d better look over your left and right shoulders to see what cars you are missing as you drive down the road.

5. DEAD END AND “NO-OUTLET” ROADS ARE BEST

Nobody wants to drive down a dead-end street because when you get to the end, you’ll have to do a three-point turn to reverse direction and come back out again. So guess what? That means 99 percent of people don’t bother going down there. This means that old cars might be lurking there, still undiscovered. Take the road less traveled and you’ll strike gold every once in awhile.

6. THE BACK ROWS OF AUTO REPAIR SHOPS AND CAR DEALERS

Having worked in auto repair shops, car dealerships, and auto parts stores, Tom knows that often the most desirable cars are hidden on the back rows, away from most prying eyes. That’s where the project cars languish when owners can no longer afford to pay the restoration bills, or where an old parts car from a long-forgotten project still sits. Or where the repair shop owner’s old project car has been pushed because a newer one, or a boat, has taken its place. Check out these spots, and he promises you that your time won’t be wasted.

7. TALK TO HOME DELIVERY PEOPLE/POLICEMEN

In this book, you met Officer Barn Find. In The Cobra in the Barn, you read about a propane deliveryman who discovered a 289 Cobra that I wound up owning. These people—and others whose jobs take them onto private property, legally—are often the best resources for information about cars that sit beyond the view of the street. I’ve asked my UPS man and my landscaper to keep me informed of old cars they might see on their routes. You might try the same thing, with your mailman, meter reader, or house painter.

8. CHECK OUT OLD CLASSIFIED ADS

Tom’s wife thinks he’s crazy. “Why are you keeping all those old copies of Hemmings Motor News?” she often asks. Well, besides being a pack rat, he actually has a method to his madness. He has an idea of one day having the time to go through old issues of Hemmings and looking for cars that he has an interest in. Then, he plans to call the advertiser and ask if the car might still be available. Now, the chance of a car still being available after twenty years is not very likely, but he’s willing to bet that there is an occasional needle-in-a-haystack. Can’t you just hear the phone conversation: “Hello, my name is Tom Cotter and I’m just calling to see if that Cobra you were selling for $5,000 in the 1970s is sold. It didn’t? OK, I’ll be right over!”

9. WRITE LETTERS TO THE OWNERS OF CARS WHO WON’T SELL

As you’ve read in the story about the Plymouth Superbird, sometimes a nice letter to the owner works wonders. Tom Cotter has heard of this happening a number of times. When an owner, especially an elderly owner, is reluctant to sell, a nicely written letter has “lasting power.” After the owner is deceased, or relatives take over the elderly person’s affairs, the situation comes up about what to do with Gramp’s old cars. If a letter is part of that person’s personal effects, you just might be doing that family a huge favor. After all, they won’t need to advertise the car or in many cases, even get it appraised. Occasionally, this method is a real winner, but you have to give it time.

10. GO CAR HUNTING IN THE WINTER

Going car hunting in the summer is nice, but the winter is better. Why? Because the trees lose their leaves. It’s amazing that you can pass the same patch of woods everyday all year long and see nothing but trees. But in the winter, that same patch of woods reveals something metallic that catches your attention. It’s a bumper or a fender. And even though cars abandoned outdoors are often in poor condition, who knows? Going car hunting in the winter is almost as good as having x-ray vision because the usual wall of greenery is gone until spring.

11. REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY: ASK IF THEY’D LIKE TO BUY PARTS

Chances are that a person who has an interesting car visible from the road is used to having people walk up and ask if it’s for sale. And their standard answer will most often be, “NO!” Next time, try reverse psychology; knock on the door and ask if they would like to buy parts for their car. Just say that you have some parts for a car like theirs, and if they need something, you might be able to help them out. More often than not, it will lead to a longer conversation, which might lead to an answer better than no.

12. A “FOR SALE” SIGN OFTEN MEANS IT’S TOO LATE

Tom’s bought hundreds of cars in his lifetime, and only a couple of them had a “for sale” signs posted on them. That’s because if a sign is already taped on the windshield, the owners have probably gone through the thought process and investigated the car’s value. The best method is to knock on the door and ask if that old car behind the barn is for sale. Maybe, just maybe, you will hit them off-guard, and you can make an offer on the car, making it easy on the owner. Good luck.

13. OUT BUILDINGS BEHIND THE HOUSE ARE A GOOD SIGN
When Tom’s out cruising around, he not only looks for old cars, but old buildings. After all, old cars left outdoors are probably in pretty poor condition. If the car is stored indoors, though, it might be in pretty good shape. Look for a building that has not been used for a long time; one that has ground-level garage doors. No guarantee that a classic car is sitting inside—more often than not, it will be an old John Deere tractor—but it’s worth a try.

14. “CAN I USE YOUR BARN FOR PHOTOGRAPHY?”
This works especially well if you have a nice-looking old car at your disposal. If you suspect that a barn or old building might contain an old car, drive your old car up the driveway, knock on the door, and ask if you can use their old barn or building as a backdrop for photos of your own car. Most property owners will be flattered and say OK. This will give you the opportunity to peek inside the windows and view what you couldn’t see from the street.

15. “EXCUSE ME; IS THIS THE HOUSE WITH THE OLD CARS?”
Even though he has never done this himself, Tom has heard that it works pretty well. He was once told that some car enthusiasts went to the door of a mansion on the bluffs near the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island. They knocked on the door and asked if this was the house with the old cars. “We were told by an old man downtown that one of these houses had some old cars in the garage. We’d just like to see them,” they said. That the first house didn’t have any old cars, but that the owner told them that the house next door had some old cars. The car hunters eventually worked their way around the neighborhood, seeing an incredible assortment of cars in one afternoon.

16. CHECK AIRPLANE HANGARS AT SMALL AIRPORTS
Tom’s friend Peter Egan many years ago wrote a column in Road & Track about pilots of small airplanes who are often also car enthusiasts. So Tom decided to check it out, and son-of-a-gun, there are cars under those wings! Drive into a small airport on a nice Saturday or a Sunday, when hobbyists are working on their planes, and most likely, the hangar doors are open. More often than not, parked under the private plane’s wings will be a Bug Eye Sprite, or a Mustang convertible, or some other interesting set of wheels. Often those cars have taken a back seat to the plane and may be for sale.

17. OLD CAR PARTS LYING AROUND A GARAGE ARE A GOOD SIGN
You might not see a car parked inside the barn, but there are other clues that an old car might be parked somewhere on the property. Look for old gas station signs, gas pumps, or body parts that might be hanging on the side of a building or lying around the property. Often these items show that a car enthusiast lives on the premises, and that something interesting might be lurking out of sight. It takes a trained eye, so keep your vision peeled for odds and ends in the backyard; it might lead to a gold mine.

18. PUBLIC PARKING GARAGES
Jay Leno turned Tom on to this trick. If you live near a major city, especially in the older part of that city, take a tour of some of the pubic parking garages. Leno himself discovered a Duesenberg that had been parked in one spot for more than seventy years, never picked up by its owner! And he’s heard of another garage in New York City that may contain a Bugatti that has been parked a similar amount of time. Remember, rich people who live in the city have no place to park their cars except in these garages. When they stop driving, move, or die, those cars are often forgotten and just left. Some of these cars might be available for purchase just by paying the storage fees.

19. ULTRALIGHT
It always bothers Tom when he sees a prime piece of property—one that he believes could contain an old car—but he can’t see beyond the hedge. Shucks, if he could only fly! One day he saw a guy flying low and slow over his house and he got an idea: What if he got an ultralight plane and flew over farms and country houses and could inspect what is sitting in the “lower 40” that is not visible from the street? Tom hasn’t done it yet, but he’ll bet someone reading this post has an ultralight sitting in the garage.

20. TALK THE TALK, WALK THE WALK
Always talk about your hobby to everyone who will listen. If you are known as a car guy/gal, people will give you leads on cars that are in Aunt Millie’s garage, often hoping that you’ll give them advice on how to dispose of it. he knows two semi-car guys in my town—Hugh and Bruce—who knew each other for at least two decades, but neither knew the other guy liked old cars until he told them! This was the case even though they live only two miles from each other, and one has a Jaguar XK120 in his garage and the other has an AC Greyhound in his barn. Don’t make this mistake; let everyone know you pay homage to the car gods.

Tom Cotter's 11 MORE Barn-Finding Tips

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