Left in the Dust
Auto critic Robert Ross sifts through the barn-find phenomenon at auction—and in his own garage.
They excite the imagination unlike any other kind of automobile. Like a treasure hunter unearthing a pirate’s hoard or an Egyptologist cracking a pharaoh’s tomb, the most inveterate car collector dreams of someday discovering one. That dream is not of cars fresh from restoration or those lovingly maintained by lifetime owners—but of automotive relics hidden from view for decades and often forgotten by the owners themselves. Whether tracking a paper trail of provenance or just following a hunch, the goal of these automotive Howard Carters is to be the first to throw open the door of a dilapidated garage and lay claim to the prize within. That prize, known by every dealer, restorer, curator, and collector as the barn find, is the most elusive of discoveries, and like bottles from a great vintage yet to be drunk, the number remaining undiscovered diminishes with every passing year.
Derelict old cars did not always foment such excitement, and historically, most have been relegated to the junkyard for scrap or the farmer’s field to slowly decay. Those not so ill-treated were squirreled away by owners who were often eccentrics at best and hoarders at worst, and labeled accordingly, depending on their financial wherewithal.
A variety of factors have conflated to make the barn find the holy grail of today’s automobile collector community. Following the 2008 financial downturn, hard assets such as collector cars have demonstrated a particularly robust uptick in values, with market experts cautiously optimistic that the trend will be sustained for cars at the top end of the market. At the same time, an appreciation for unrestored examples—primarily in the postwar sports car segment, where collector activity is most frenetic—has never been more widespread. Observing the truth that “a car is only original once,” leaving a good original car untouched is today widely regarded as the most prudent decision (as it can always be restored), when historically, the same car might have received a complete, partial, or at least sympathetic restoration.
Finally, a ubiquitous mind-set—and a logic wholly indefensible to this writer—has many members of the collector community, its restorers, historians, and even factory certification programs agreeing that cars can be created from, as it were, whole cloth. The vehicle identification number (VIN) plate and other salient digits have become the determining details used to establish an automobile’s authenticity. If an original VIN plate or a new plate stamped with that number can be riveted to a fragment of an original chassis, an entire car can be re-created from spare parts and raw materials to replicate a lost original. In some instances, a freshly cast engine block—if performed under the aegis of a factory program like Ferrari Classiche and stamped with the original number of the long-gone engine—might be considered more “authentic” than an engine made the same day as the original, bearing a sequential number and replaced in period condition, at a time when “parts were parts” and serial numbers were irrelevant. And it is here that a derelict original—the barn find—can rise like a freshly feathered phoenix.
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