Barn Find Road Trip: 3 Guys, 14 Days and 1000 Lost Collector Cars Discovered
A peek inside the latest work of Tom Cotter, automotive archaeologist.
Barn finds. Those classic cars stashed away and forgotten, abandoned, left to collect dust in dingy sheds and rural garages until being unearthed. Tom Cotter has a nose for finding these, the Cars That Time Forgot: He’s an automotive archaeologist. Cotter’s new book, Barn Find Road Trip, chronicles a two-week car-finding adventure, a banzai run sans predetermined destination, with collector pal Brian Barr and photographer Michael Alan Ross. Here, we join them during Day 5, hot on the trail…
Zach met us at the hotel first thing Tuesday morning. And he brought along an old friend from Long Island whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years, Russell Schmidt. Russell was driving a cool 1934 Ford Vicky street rod. We talked Zach and Russell into joining us for breakfast, and he ran a couple of barn-find options past us.
I love waking up in the morning and being given the choice of several old car collections to inspect! One option was the 429 Torino he had told us about the day before, but he noted that we may want to see a couple of other cars first. One was a 1935 Chevy and the other a 1934 Dodge.
Since the Chevy was just a couple of miles away, we opted for that first. Zach led us to his friend Jim Todd’s shop and barn. Inside the barn was a nice old Chevy sedan that got Michael pretty jazzed. You see, our publisher, Zack Miller (Zack with a “k” as opposed to an “h”), kept pressing Michael to look for great frontcover photography for the book. When Michael saw the rustic barn and the way the early morning light was shining on that Chevy, he started to get out his cameras, lenses, and tripods. For a photographer, this was orgasmic stuff!
Meanwhile, Brian and I inspected the car and interviewed the owner. “I grew up on this farm and today live just over on that hilltop,” he said. “The Chevy has been sitting in this barn since 1993. Before I got it, it had been sitting about a mile and a half down the road in the woods. This car was purchased new in 1935 by my great uncle, Wyatt Irvine. This car is called a Master, and is a two-door with a little trunk.”
Todd’s original plan was to build the Chevy into a street rod, but then his son-inlaw expressed interest in it. So it just sits. The car is rough but restorable. It had been originally painted dark green with black fenders.
“Sometime in the 1950s, my great uncle Wyatt sold the car to a guy named Buddy Moore,” said Todd. “And I bought the car from Buddy. It was sitting behind his house. When Buddy was done with a car, he just shoved it over into the woods. He also had an old Nash Metropolitan back there. I bought the Chevy for $200.”
Meanwhile, Michael was clicking away with his camera, trying to take advantage of the direct early morning sunlight. The car never looked so good.
Todd couldn’t decide whether he would keep the car or sell it, but said he would entertain offers. Upon hearing that, Zach’s ears perked up and he said he might be interested in it himself.
Michael completed his photos—one of which is on the cover of this book—and we packed up to see Zach’s other friend, Greg Cash, who had an interesting 1934 Dodge just a few miles away.
We met Greg at a hodge-podge set of buildings that seemed to have been constructed over a number of years, using a multitude of materials. Greg confirmed that, indeed, the previous owner had been a scavenger who collected odd materials and built this series of structures over time.
And, according to Greg, these rooms we were walking through were at one time so filled with stuff that you couldn’t see the opposite wall, which was just 20-feet away! Greg told us that the county came down on the now deceased owner because of all the junk he had piled up in the yard. His “collection” included two old airplanes, which he simply buried in the yard.
Inside the ramshackle building sat a lonely, lovely, 1934 Dodge four-door sedan with just 22,617 miles on the odometer.
“I ate breakfast with the old fellow every morning,” said Greg as he explained how he came to own the car. “While he was alive, I never knew he owned the car. When he passed away, his only relatives were a niece and a nephew in Washington State and a niece in Florida.
“I helped them with the estate sale, and they asked me if there was anything I’d personally be interested in, and I said the old car. So after I helped them with all the auctions, they brought me the title and gave me the car. Until he passed away, I didn’t even know Neige Deihl had the car.”
The car is huge and is probably the most amazing prewar Dodge I’ve ever seen.
The six-cylinder-powered car had so many options: full wheel covers; artillery wheels; dual generators; an electric pre-selector gearshift (similar to a Cord) with overdrive; four accessory horns; dual side-mount, covered spare tires; accessory trunk on the back; spotlight; turn signals; suitcases; rear heater that circulated hot water from the radiator to the passenger floor; windshield defroster; curb feelers; dual mirrors; accessory bumper guards; rope grab-handles; full sunvisor; and accessory driving lights. It’s as though the purchaser ordered every option the dealer had to offer. Or that the Dodge brothers had owned the car themselves.
“This was obviously a high-end car,” said Greg. “His cousin told me this car was running just a few years ago.”
Full disclosure: I have been a vintage car enthusiast and collector since I was 14 years old, and have always been a Ford man, but this Dodge is one of the most impressive early cars I have ever seen. I have never seen an early car so heavily optioned as this Dodge. It was more Lincoln than Dodge, if that makes any sense.
If it were mine, I would clean it up and enjoy it as is, but Greg would like to restore it back to like-new condition. I know one thing: it will be a very expensive restoration.
Greg said there had also been an Indian motorcycle on the premises that sold during the auction.
“It was all in pieces, and it sold for $4,500,” he said. “The guy who bought it sold it for $16,500 on the Internet.”
Greg said that he had notified the producers of the American Pickers television program about the impending auction, but they opted not to come. “I sent them pictures, but they never got back to me,” said Greg. Greg also found a 1927 Harley Davidson motor in all the clutter that sold for $1,200.
Because Greg doesn’t have room for the huge Dodge in his home garage at this time, the deceased man’s family told him he could keep it in the building for as long as necessary, or until the real estate is sold.
We had one more stop to make with Zach before he had to go to work and we had to head toward West Virginia.
We followed Zach a few miles away to a former gas station not far from I-81. It is now called Weaver’s Garage, and is a truck repair shop. It is run by two brothers, Jim and Steve Weaver. Their late father started the business in 1978.
Sitting on the grass just to the side of the garage was a time-machine 1971 Ford Torino. The car had obviously been sitting in that spot for a long time, because it had sunk into the turf down to its chassis. Next to the Torino was another Ford, a 1966 Galaxie LTD two door, which seems to have been parked there just as long.
This Torino was a muscle car enthusiast’s delight: dark green with laser side stripes; 429-cubic-inch engine; four-speed; bench seat; and hideaway headlights. The car had been parked there for at least 20 years, according to Zach. Actually, it was even longer.
“The car has been parked there since 1981 or 1982,” said Jim Weaver. “That was the last time Dad put an inspection sticker on it. Now it belongs to both of us.”
Their father started to work on the car, but then diabetes started to affect him, so it was parked and it has sat there ever since.
“Dad put on new radial tires and new brakes,” said Jim. “He bought it off the original owner.”
“And he had a new dual exhaust bent for it like the original system,” said Steve Weaver. “It ran pretty strong. The boy that bought it new in 1971 had a friend who bought an identical car except it had a 428-cubic-inch engine in it. One time those two were racing up the interstate, and they were identical in speed until they hit the rest area. That’s when the 429 just took off like the 428 was standing still.”
The brothers said some work would still be required to get the car complete, like the front bumper would have to be reinstalled, the headliner would have to be replaced, and the four-speed shifter needed to be lubed.
I didn’t want to point it out to them, but after sitting outdoors for more than 30 years, the car would need much more work than a bumper installed and a headliner replaced. The car’s subframe had been sitting on the grass for decades, so the car’s very structure might require major surgery.
“My dad never bought us anything ‘Fireball’ like that car, so when he let me drive it, my hair stood straight up on my neck,” said Steve. “Then I knew why he never would buy us anything like that.”
I asked the brothers how many people have stopped by to ask if the Torino is for sale.
“There ain’t a week that goes by that somebody doesn’t stop to ask about it,” said Steve. “It should have been sold a long time ago.”
I spoke to Jim, the older brother, about whether the Torino was for sale.
“I won’t split those two cars apart,” he said. “I’ll only sell the 1966 Galaxie and the Torino together as a package. I’ve owned that ’66 since 1967. It was a good car but not a hot car. It has a 390 in it. I’ll take $20,000 for the pair. If the right person were interested in them, they would be a good buy.”
I promised Jim and Steve I would keep this Ford package deal in mind for any of my Ford muscle-car friends. We said goodbye and thank-you to Zach, and we headed toward West Virginia.
We had spent too many days in the Roanoke/Staunton area and needed to get into another state to stay on schedule.
“We won’t stop again in Virginia, I promise,” I said to Brian and Michael.
Brian looked at the map and said our best route to West Virginia would be to drive north on State Highway 11 for a few miles before cutting west toward West Virginia. But wouldn’t you know, just a few miles up the road from Weaver’s Garage we noticed, in the driveway of a very old house, three Studebakers: two pickups, and a sedan.
We had to stop. We just couldn’t pass a scene like this.
We made a U-turn in the Woody, Michael following behind in the Ford Flex (I bet we made 500 U-turns on this trip, right, Michael?), and we pulled up in front of that house. I went right up and knocked on the door. No answer. So I walked around to the side door and knocked. No answer there either, although I did disturb a bunch of sleeping cats.
I always recommend knocking on the door before exploring old cars on private property, or else you might be picking buckshot from your hind quarters. Still, I’ve found that, if you are polite and are genuinely a car person, you can go onto private property without fear of getting arrested. Or shot. At least it hasn’t happened to me yet. With nobody at home, as long as we kept our hands in our back pockets, we decided we could probably look around.
Wow, the three Studebakers in the driveway were complimented by a nice old Rambler Super 10 sedan in the front yard. The odometer said only 2,700 miles! Could it be? Then we looked behind the fence in the backyard and couldn’t believe what we saw. I counted 15 more Studebaker cars and trucks scattered about.
Darn, I wish somebody were home. But a few minutes later, a young man came walking from the house. I introduced myself, and he did the same. His name was Adam Early, and he told me that his father, Jerry, owned most of the cars, but that some were also owned by his mother, his brother, and himself.
Adam explained that his family’s classic home was built in several phases starting in the 1700s. The first part of the house was a log cabin. “We find pieces of pottery and Civil War coins whenever we dig around here.”
Then our conversation turned to old cars. “My father owned a restoration shop called Early Restorations, and he focused mostly on Studebakers,” said Adam, 32. “Then he started restoring Pierce Arrows. Now he is retired, but we’ve been into Studebakers for a long time.”
Adam explained that most of the cars we were looking at were purchased as parts cars, and that his family stored their nicer cars in a nearby warehouse.
Adam also told me that the Rambler I had been admiring in his front yard does in fact have less than 3,000 miles on the odometer, and had never even had an oil change until they bought it. And the spare tire has never been mounted. It had been discovered in a shed in Staunton, where it had been parked for 30 years. It is now his mother’s car.
As we were talking, a car pulled into the driveway and two folks approached us. Walking toward us were Jerry and Betty Early, Adam’s parents. Adam introduced us to his parents and said that some of their cars were for sale.
“Well, actually, if you ask my dad, none of the cars are for sale, but if you ask my mom, they are all for sale,” he said. “If you ask me, it depends.
“The only car I won’t sell is the Rambler, because the first song I heard when I turned on the radio was, ‘Oh, Elizabeth’ by the Statler Brothers,” said Betty. “That’s my name.”
Adam’s dad pointed to one of the pickup trucks in the driveway and told us it was a 1992 Studebaker. I wondered what he meant.
“That truck was in a movie,” he said. “Hearts in Atlantis, a Castle Rock production that was filmed right here in Staunton. The movie people pulled up and asked if we had any cars they could rent. I worked on that project for two weeks. It’s sitting on a Jeep Wagoneer chassis, four-wheel-drive and everything.”
The family has lived in this house for 40 years, but they have been into Studebakers even longer.
“I drove one back in college,” said Jerry. “A 1956 President.”
This was a happy family, and the perfect way to end our barn-finding in the state of Virginia. We will not stop again until we are out of this state!
It occurred to me that I could probably write a book exclusively about the old cars in the state of Virginia. I mean, we had discovered dozens of cars just within the Roanoke area, and there were plenty of towns and villages between there and the coast.
Virginia had been good to us, and we were now officially saying goodbye to this bountiful state.
OMG, WE NEED TO STOP!
I swear we intended to leave the state, driving west toward West Virginia—purposely not looking left or right—until…
“Stop!” Brian shouted. We had just passed a bunch of old cars, cars in fields, cars in sheds, and cars in barns. Another incredible Virginia discovery.
We made yet another U-turn and doubled back a couple of hundred feet to inspect what we had stumbled across. I’ll bet Junior Johnson never made as many bootleg turns as we did, even in his moonshining days!
This was not a happenchance assembly of vehicles; this was one heck of a collection of 1950s and 1960s cars. A quick survey revealed that the owner had an eclectic taste. I knocked on the door of the farmhouse, but nobody was home. So we figured we could walk around with our hands in our pockets again and look without offending anyone.
We were just beginning to check out this cache when a man came riding up on a four-wheeler. I figured he was the owner. He wasn’t. His name was Mike Zimmerman, and he was a neighbor and friend of the cars’ owner.
“I live across the field, and saw some people walking around Robert’s house,” said Mike. “I didn’t think he was expecting any visitors, so I figured I better check out who it was.”
Mike was a cool guy and proudly told us he owned three 1961 Ford Starliners: one that was owned by his late father, one he bought, and another parts car. He had no problem with us walking around looking at his neighbor’s cars. He told us the cars belonged to his friend, Robert Horton.
Ok, ready? Here is what Mr. Horton had parked on his property (in no particular order): Hudsons, Fraziers, Mercurys (Montclairs and Comets), a Willys, a Crosley, a Ford Fairlane, Studebakers, Nashes (including Metropolitans), Plymouths (Valiants and otherwise), Ramblers, a VW Beetle, Edsels, Chevys, Fords, a Rambler Cross Country wagon complete with a Pininfarina-designed body, and a steam engine. Steam engine?
Yes, a 1914 Kaiser Peerless Steam Engine, complete with huge steel wheels, that Mike showed had current license tags. He said it had been recently driven for a parade. Its owner told me later it is 100 years old, and back in the day it was a power unit.
“It could be used as a tractor, a saw mill, or it could pull a gang of mowers or plows,” he said.
Mike told us that Robert was currently at the Carlisle flea market and would be going directly to Hershey immediately afterward. He did offer to get Robert on the phone, which we greatly appreciated.
Robert proved to be an interesting guy. We spoke for a few moments on the phone, then I interviewed him at Hershey the following week. This is what I learned: “I’ve been collecting cars my whole life,” he said. “I got my first car when I was 12 years old. It was a 1940 Pontiac that was sitting at a woman’s yard up the street. She asked, ‘Would you like to have it?’ It took a while to convince my father, but he finally said yes, so he helped me tow it home behind his tractor.”
Robert makes his living as shop manager at WW Motorcars and Parts, a restoration shop where he has worked for 23 years.
“Even though I work on old cars every day, it’s still just a hobby,” he said. I asked if any of his cars are for sale. “Some are for sale, and some I’ll keep,” he said. “Unless I was offered a ridiculous amount of money—then everything is for sale.”
Brian already had designs on buying a 1963 Mercury Monterey two-door from Robert, which he thought would look just right slammed to the ground, with dual exhaust and some kind of funky wheel/tire package. Now remember, he had fallen in love with A. C. Wilson’s Lincoln Continental just a day or two earlier. I’m beginning to think that falling in love is a daily routine for my navigator.
Well, that discovery provided a terrific climax to the great state of Virginia. As we swiftly drove west toward West Virginia, I told Brian, “I don’t care if we pass a Duesenberg in the bushes, we’re not going to stop.”
And true to our words, we kept on trucking, not past Duesenbergs, but lots of old Ford and Chevy pickup trucks and sedans, and even a street rod shop. There were cars that we would have normally stopped and photographed, but not now. I had budgeted three to four days per state, and we needed to leave Virginia or we’d blow our schedule.
Finally, we crossed the West Virginia state line, and to celebrate, we stopped at a very old and authentic general store for an RC Cola and a Moon Pie.
Almost immediately after crossing into West Virginia, we passed an old Chevy coupe. It turned out to be a 1939 Chevy that had been modified with a Nova subframe and a 305-cubic-inch engine. The car was for sale and included $1,000 worth of new red paint in the can and a new battery. It would be an easy project to complete for someone with minimal mechanical skills and a moderately equipped shop. The owner was not at home, so we spoke to his uncle, who didn’t know all the details.
For the next hour or so, we drove through some of the most beautiful countryside we would see during our two-week journey. We drove through a rural valley between two mountain ranges, the sun was shining, the weather was warm, and the scenery was spectacular. The terrain kept changing but was constantly beautiful.
As we crossed a second set of mountains, we came to a wide spot in the road that held a site that made us weak.
No, we didn’t see a field full of old cars, but a rusty, very old commercial, tin-sided building. On the building was a sign that read Seneca Motor Company. Next to it was an old neon Ford Tractor sign. This was a must-stop situation.
We parked the Woody in front of the building, and as we were snooping around, two gentlemen came driving up. “We’ll have to charge you if you take photos of that building,” one of them said. They looked serious, then they both smiled. They were cousins and explained that their grandfather had opened Seneca Motor Company, the Ford car, truck, and tractor dealership of Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, back in 1915.
One of the men, Joe Harper, smoked a stogie and told us he owned 3,500 acres where he raises sheep and cuts timber. Joe also owns the adjacent general store and restaurant and suggested we try the lamb for dinner if we didn’t have any other plans.
“This road here was dirt and ran through the valley when my grandfather opened his store,” Joe said. “And no people lived on it.”
He said, though, that anyone within miles would come to buy cars from their grandfather. The dealership is long closed, but the grand, old building remains.
We took Joe’s advice and all three of us tried the lamb dinner—delicious—and enjoyed some local West Virginia craft beer and spent time talking to Joe about the history of the area. He said that the mountain opposite his store attracts hikers and climbers from all over the country. He said that many folks are naïve, thinking the climb is a simple one. But he said people have fallen to their death trying to get to that peak.
Fortunately neither Brian, Michael, nor I planned on climbing that peak this evening, so we said goodbye and continued down what was once a dirt road.
The sun was going down and we needed to find a place to rest our heads for the night.
We stayed in a Hampton Inn in Elkins, West Virginia. Nothing unusual, except that the next morning we’d find out that we had luckily chosen just the right Hampton Inn.
Tom Cotter has worked in the automotive industry for more than three decades, as a mechanic, car salesman, marketing expert, racer, collector, restorer, journalist and author. You can purchase Barn Find Road Trip for Kindle or in hardcover form here.