We call them barn finds, but classic cars have been unearthed in chateaux, fields, lakes, and even behind the Iron Curtain. Here are some of our favourites
Truly great classic car barn find discoveries are few and far between, but when a good one comes along, it’s difficult not to get excited. It's hard not to feel a little sceptical at the term ‘barn find’ these days – it's become over-used for starters it’s easy to romanticise the notion of unearthing a long-lost classic car, much like Indiana Jones discovering the Arc of the Covenant, and either restoring or preserving it.
We’ve selected 22 of the the greatest barn finds from past century, in no particular order…
Bugatti Type 22 Brescia
On 18 August 1967, diver Ugo Pillon put paid to rumours of a vintage Bugatti in the depths of Lake Maggiore, Switzerland. There it was, 53 metres down, the chain intended to haul it from its temporary hideaway having rotted. In 2009 it was exhumed in aid of a local charity. It’s thought that the car, delivered new to Paris in 1925, was driven to Switzerland by architect Marco Schmuklerski. As he didn’t pay any import duty, the local customs men were soon hot on his trail, and the friends Schmuklerski had left the car with needed rid of the evidence pronto… It remains, conserved in its decayed condition, at the Mullin Automotive Museum.
Ferrari 250 GTO
Innes Ireland was heartbroken. It was 1982 and the Ferrari, with hand-applied red paint, windows missing, and an interior strewn with dead leaves, was astride a trailer in a field in Cleveland, Ohio. He could barely believe this was the car he’d last driven at Sebring in 1963. A year later, its owner Tom O’Connor gave up racing and donated the car to his local high school. They couldn’t afford to maintain it, so it went to one Joe Korton for a paltry $6500; he towed it to the field and left it. In the mid-1980s it transferred into tender hands, for restoration in Switzerland – 3589 GT was found to be in remarkably good mechanical nick. The trailer had probably stopped it from sinking into the long grass.
Bugatti Type 57S Atalante
In April 1955, Dr Harold Carr spent £895 on a car he’d always had a thing for: a Bugatti Type 57S Atalante Coupé, at that time 18 years old and with about 25,000 miles on the clock. He instantly became one of its least illustrious owners, as it had been ordered new by Brooklands kingpin Earl Howe and later owned by chum and fellow aristocrat Viscount Ridley. Dr Carr barely used the car, instead working on ways to improve its spec, and latterly nursing a plan to restore it. That never happened and it remained in his secluded garage, partly dismantled, as he got old, cranky and more hermit-like. Carr died in 2007 and, since he’d had no wife or children, his niece and nephew had their lives changed forever when this totemic Bugatti made £2.9m at the Bonhams Rétromobile auction in 2009.
Auto Union Type D
Paul Karassik and his wife Barbara got the car-hunting bug in the early 1970s, partly fuelled by his memories of Nuvolari’s win in the 1939 Belgrade GP, driving an Auto Union. Karassik, an American of Russian descent, was captivated by the car long displayed to the public in Latvia and sought its sister cars, rumoured to be within the Soviet Union after being sent there in 1945 for technical analysis. The search took ten years, led him to Russia and Ukraine and – after many coincidences – in 1989 to an abandoned brickworks in Kharkov, and the Auto Union Type D’s remains. Each part was invoiced separately through Russian officialdom, and they left the country by van with Karassik at the wheel. Two cars, since bought by Audi Tradition, were re-constructed by Crosthwaite & Gardiner.
Two BMW E30 M3s, a Ford RS200 and a Mercedes-Benz 190E Evo II
RS Owners Club
Chaps of a certain age are going to be interested in 1930s exotica that turns up unexpectedly, but maybe not impressed. The emergence of this quartet of 1980s hot rods, though, had the sons of baby-boomers positively foaming. In 2010, it got out that one lucky collector from Swansea had first dabs on a stash of pumped-up metal and glassfibre when he was offered a 1042-mile Ford RS200, a Mercedes-Benz 190E Evo II, and two as-new, bright red BMW E30 M3s that had covered, between them, only 94 miles. This opportunity of a lifetime was all down to luck – a chance conversation in a Silverstone hospitality marquee. The seller bought the M3s as investments for his two sons, and when they hit 21 the cash option proved more attractive than the cars. Kids today, eh?
The barn find of the century? That doesn't overstate the case by any means. The Baillon collection has an interesting back-story. Roger Baillon – a French entrepreneur with a passion for all things car related – started the collection in the 1950s, and actually exhibited a home-made roadster at the at the Paris motor show during the same time.
His dream was to set up a museum, preserving and celebrating pre-war motoring, however disaster struck when his business fell on hard times – and Bailon was forced to sell over 50 cars. The remaining classics remained in the makeshift sheds outside the family Chateau in western France, until they were recently re-discovered in 2015.
The cars were auctioned by Artcurial in Paris, with the most valuable (and best preserved) being a Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider, which was discovered stashed away in a garage, underneath piles of old car magazines. Found alongside a Maserati A6G Gran Sports, the 250 California Spider was originally sold to film star Gérard Blain, then passed on to fellow actor Alain Delon. The actor was famously photographed at the wheel of the 250 with Jane Fonda and on the Côte d’Azur with Shirley MacLaine.
James Bond Lotus Esprit
We’re all so pop-culturally aware these days that the idea of a James Bond ultra-icon ending up forlorn and forgotten seems impossible. But that is exactly the fate of 007’s Esprit, the car that transformed itself into a submarine and in the process ousted Aston Martin as Bond’s favourite. During filming of the 1977 classic The Spy Who Loved Me, the crew and special effects team called the $100,000 submersible supercar ‘Wet Nellie’. She later toured the USA to promote the Roger Moore movie but then somehow washed up in Holbrook, New York, shoved into a storage container under some old blankets with ten years’ advance rent paid. In the end, though, the unclaimed container was in a fire sale, and someone bought its contents for just $100 in 1989 without knowing what was inside. In 2013, other-worldly futurehead Elon Musk bought it for £616,000.
Mercedes 500K hardtop
This super-glamorous 1935 500K hardtop, once the pride of dashing Mercedes race-winner Caracciola when he was booted and suited rather than sporting white overalls, was known to be restored in 1972. Six years later it was impressing the crowds at Pebble Beach. And then it vanished, but it had actually been concealed in a fortified LA warehouse among dozens of other lightly rusted classics. Its eccentric German owner, Rudi Klein, denied access to anyone, and even after his death in 2001 his sons similarly rebuffed all enquiries – including one from Mercedes-Benz itself, which wanted to restore it for free. It is, in all probability, a £10m-plus car.
Not so much your typical barn find where the car is nudged unwillingly into the limelight as scruffy doors are prised apart, more a tantalising confirmation that an incredible car has been located and the anticipation can now build.
Mercedes 500K roadster
William C Brooks
The harsh reality of the barn-find business is that ignorance frequently hoodwinks owners out of their rightful fortunes. Take this 1936 500K Spezial roadster. Arthur Dawson, a butcher from Walsall, inherited his uncle’s car in 1956 but, presumably busy with his business, simply left it in the leaky building behind the shop, wholly uninterested in it. That was until a persistent antique dealer, John Price, got wind of the car and managed to persuade Mr Dawson to part with it for what must have seemed a significantly life-changing £150,000. You’ve got to sell a lot of lamb chops to acquire such riches. But in less than a year Price had sold the Mercedes at a Christie’s auction for £1.6m. The Daily Telegraph reported Mr Dawson as ‘philosophical’. Yeah, we bet he was.
The ‘Sleeping Beauties’
We should feel sympathy for Swiss wine merchant Michel Dovaz. He spent the 1950s and ’60s picking up unwanted classics around Paris and hoarding them at a run-down farm. From the moment his collection was discovered – and its picturesque dereliction exposed in syndicated photos entitled The Sleeping Beauties – he was under siege, and not surprisingly, with Astons, Cords, Bugattis, Alfas and more rotting away. So he shipped his cars to a château near Bordeaux, displaying a few in their unrestored state. Some he sold, including seven of his nine Bugattis, but he kept his favourite wrecks. Should it not be every collector’s right to keep the barn door bolted if he chooses? But for him, most would have been scrapped anyway.
Jaguar E-type Lightweight
One more incredible car unmasked due to a death. When the relatives of Howard Glidovlenko were sorting through his chaotic effects in 1998, they started to root through piles of empty cardboard boxes in his garage in California. When they found a Jaguar E-type underneath, they knew that here was something worthwhile, but only after posting details of the car online did they understand this was the missing Lightweight, chassis number S850660, that collectors had been hunting for years. At this point, 11 of 12 such cars – all survivors – were accounted for. After its short, impressive and mercifully prang-free competition career, Gidovlenko bought it from Kjell Qvale in 1963, somehow persuading the wily importer to accept monthly instalments of $143 as payment. Despite initial tinkering and modification, it remained unused for 35 years – and as a result the 2663-mile machine became the most original, least spoilt Lightweight of all.
With no heirs and a lifelong reluctance to pay any tax, the late Alexander Kennedy ‘AK’ Miller’s dilapidated farmstead in Vermont, USA, was of interest to America’s IRS. It was 1996 when his wife died, three years since AK had fallen off a ladder to his death, and the tax officials uncovered a goldmine. Literally. In the centre of a woodpile was $1m-worth of gold bullion. The Millers had, it seemed to neighbours, enjoyed motoring frugality by running old Volkswagens. But AK, a skilled engineer but by most accounts a rather horrible human being, was actually a Stutz fanatic. In homemade outbuildings was a vast Stutz collection – 30 of them – like nothing ever discovered before.
Cuban Mercedes Gullwing
Few classic supercar discoveries have mixed such excitement with such despair. Photographer Piotr Degler visited Cuba to see its crumbling classic cars, and heard stories of a Gullwing that locals remembered seeing years ago. After weeks of searching, he suddenly came upon the car’s spavined remains, sitting under a banana tree. It is truly a ruin, without its engine, windows smashed, interior wrecked. It may be beyond hope, and its owner has such wild ideas of its value that it seems unlikely a plausible rescue deal will ever be struck. So it remains, defying the world, a bit like the late Fidel Castro himself.
Ferrari Dino 246 GTS
Kids unearthed this one – quite literally. Children playing in a garden in Los Angeles in 1978 were surprised to find some rugs a few inches below ground level, and under them something big, hard and shiny. Once a few grown-ups with shovels had joined the fray, the astounding fact that it was a bright green Ferrari Dino emerged. The LAPD quickly confirmed that the car had been reported stolen on 7 December 1974, but incredibly no-one living near its burial ground seemed to have noticed the gigantic pit being dug, the Ferrari being pushed in, or the subsequent landscaping.
The car was raised from the dead, sold by sealed bid, and it still exists. It seems likely it was ‘stolen’ in an insurance scam, and the burial was the bright idea of the hired thieves. Someone in Hollywood, please, make the film of this…
Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe
Barn finds are frequently bound up with strange family circumstances, and none more so than the missing sixth Shelby Cobra Daytona coupe CSX2287. This one came to the public eye only after a suicide. In October 2000, Donna O’Hara doused herself in petrol and set herself ablaze, enduring an agonising 15 hours of death throes while refusing to identify herself to policemen and paramedics. Her most valuable asset turned out to be the Daytona, the first built and the one used most often by Carroll Shelby for publicity. It was sold for $4000 when the GT40 superseded the Cobra at Ford, and ended up with music legend Phil Spector. His bodyguard, George Brand, was Donna’s father, and the pair concealed the car for decades so carefully that its location was an almost total secret. Collector Fred Simeone had already arranged to buy CSX2287 before O’Hara’s death, but was forced to prove so in a long court battle. It now resides at the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum.
Land Rover prototype
Anonymity surrounds the emergence of this long-lost, pre-production Land Rover. The bush telegraph alerted experts from the clubs and Jaguar Land Rover to take notice because it’s the seventh of the early running prototypes to be built, supplied to Rover engineer Jack Swaine but lost ever since. It turned up in a suburban back garden, sunk to its axles in mud, and bristles with handmade components as befits its experimental nature. The owner, about to move house, intended to scrap it until a quick-thinking enthusiast intervened with an offer and a towrope. It is now set to be one of the jewels in Jaguar Land Rover’s ongoing reconnection with its heritage, as restoration gets underway.
Lamborghini 400GT Monza
Being summoned to inspect a cobweb-covered Porsche 906 is never routine, even for a Bonhams auction assessor. But for Simon Kidston, in 1996, the racing Porsche became a sideshow. Bricked up since 1970, behind a shop on a Spanish high street, was a one-off Lamborghini that marque specialists were beginning to think they had just imagined. The Monza was a factory work-in-progress (front-engined technology in a Miura-like profile) that had its only public airing at the 1967 Barcelona motor show. There, the 906 owner bought it for commuting to circuits where he’d race his Porsche. Then he abruptly decided to seal it into storage after only 4460 miles. The eccentric keeper died, his family found it, yet even after Kidston’s verdict on its uniqueness, untampered-with condition, and value, it took them another nine years to decide to sell.
This rustbucket 901 was 57th off the production line. It owes its survival to a German reality TV show called Der Trödeltrupp, meaning ‘The Junk Troop’ – a cleanse-your-life-of-clutter series. Bernd Ibold was the hoarder whose daughter contacted the show’s producers to help raise funds to restore his other 18 classics. Once Porsche heard of the super-early 901, and realised it would plug a gap in its collection, the €107,000 it paid fixed the family’s money worries. Porsche is now lavishing another €250,000 on it…
Brough Superior SS-100
Lawrence of Arabia’s Brough is possibly the most famous ’bike in the world – yet once it was yoked to a sidecar and sat unwanted in a Southampton garden. The owner is said to have given it to colleague Les Perrin in exchange for a quid’s-worth of petrol so it could be towed to Portsmouth. GW 2275 was the bike on which TE Lawrence lost his life in 1935. It was barely damaged, and went through a string of owners before Perrin got it. Since 1977, when collector John Weekly paid ‘a lot’ for ‘a nice oily old bike’ with battle scars intact, it’s been cherished and reunited with its original paperwork.
Porsche 911 Carrera RS 2.7
Sold new to the UK in 1973, the very last right-hand-drive RS 2.7 resurfaced a long way from home – 4500 miles away, in fact, in Trinidad. Recognisable as the most desirable of all 911s despite some aesthetic ‘improvements’ made in the 1980s, it nonetheless escaped the attention of most who walked past its resting place. Nosy parkers were prevented from getting a good look at the car by a pile of old furniture constructed by relatives of the last owner, who was murdered in 2002. Following a tip-off from Rikard Asbjornsen, Autofarm’s Josh Sadler managed to strike a deal with the family to buy chassis 1576, which proved to be in decent shape and retaining its original engine. The car has since been sold to a Porsche enthusiast who intends to restore it at some stage – but for now it will simply be recommissioned by Autofarm and enjoyed as-is.
Citroen 2CV prototypes
The dust on this trio of experimental 2CVs, when discovered in 1995, had a thickness of almost theatrical levels. Their hiding place of 56 years, though, had been a near-perfect secret environment: concealed under and behind straw bales in the spacious loft of a proper barn. It was as if a set director constructed it all for maximum sentimentality; the tele-hoist needed to get them down made the discovery all the more spectacular. There was nothing romantic about their original concealment. Bosses at Citroën and its backer Michelin put them there to hide their design secrets from occupying Nazis, choosing the sleepy building at the La Ferté-Vidame test track in Eure-et-Loir. Their return to public attention was in a book by Citroën’s retiring PR chief Jacques Wolsensinger, possibly making these the first barn-find cars turned into a media circus.
Lamborghini Miura P400S
The 42 years for which this metallic brown Miura had been left, flat-tyred, on concrete, in the car park below the Athens Hilton had not been kind to it. Or were the dented bonnet, shattered foglights and loose front grille the result of one final, hellraising drive in the ultimate 1960s supercar before it was abandoned? This Lamborghini was associated with two legendary Greek characters. It was bought new by shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis in 1969, and given to pop singer Stamatis Kokotas, a decidedly hairy individual sometimes called the ‘Greek Elvis’ but notable for one real hit, his 1966 release In The Days Of King Otto. Stamatis was apparently known in his home country as a keen rally driver (the Miura’s dishevelled as-found state suddenly makes sense, then), and its smart interior was festooned with engraved aluminium trinkets likely to have delighted any self-respecting ’70s medallion man. It was offered by Coys in 2012 but, as often happens with cars offering, er, potential, it failed to sell at £300,000.
Words: Giles Chapman