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Like automotive buried treasure, the greatest barn finds combine classic cars, rich histories, and compelling stories.

Recovering Long Lost Classics

Car being restored
Car being restored

We start our project cars with the best of intentions. But our carefully laid plans are quickly thwarted by the predicable complications of automotive repair. Some of us persevere while others procrastinate. We never quite get around to that engine rebuild or transmission swap, and that once promising collector’s car languishes in storage, sometimes for years, in some cases decades. That is until the car is rediscovered; a moldering relic returned from the dead.

The above is just one of many barn find scenarios. Whatever the particulars involved, the allure of a long-forgotten legend recovered from decades of accumulated dust and neglect is particularly potent for classic car lovers. Almost equally alluring is the dream of snagging a recently unearthed piece of automotive history on the cheap. And all because the prior owner never quite got around to replacing that distributor.

These are the stories and cars behind some of the greatest barn finds ever.

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing - Hagerty on YouTube.com
Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing - Hagerty on YouTube.com

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “gullwing” is among the most beautiful and innovative cars of all time. Only 1,400 were ever produced over a short, three-year production run, making any example highly desired among collectors. To wit, the case of the Jacksonville “gullwing” stowed away for over 50 years. As the 43rd 300 SL produced, the car carried a number of unique features such as a goose neck shifter, fender “eyebrows”, and bumper embellishments. Originally sold to a Jacksonville lawyer and car collector, the car had been raced by both its first and second owner, the racing mechanic who’d worked on the car. The third owner, a navy pilot whose plans for a repaint went unfinished, leaving the car in storage until it was rediscovered in 2018.

Shelby Daytona #1

Shelby Daytona #1 - simeonemuseum.org
Shelby Daytona #1 - simeonemuseum.org

Just six Shelby Daytonas were every built. While the provenance of five of the cars can be traced from collector to collector, the sixth car, and the very first, was long thought to have been lost to history. That is until one Donna O’Hara discovered that the old race car her father had given her, which sat rotting away in storage, was actually of historical significance. Despite this fact, O’Hara wouldn’t deign to have anyone see the car, even denying Carroll Shelby’s request. It turned out that O’Hara’s father had bought the car for $5,000 from his employer, one Phil Spector (music producer and convicted murderer) who’d been advised to relinquish ownership of the car by his lawyer after racking up numerous speeding tickets. Following Donna O’Hara’s passing, her mother sold the car for some $3 million dollars. It now resides in the Simeone Automotive Museum.

Bullitt Mustangs

Bullitt Mustang stunt car - POWERNATION on YouTube.com
Bullitt Mustang stunt car - POWERNATION on YouTube.com

The chase scene in Steve McQueen’s Bullitt is one of the most iconic in film history and made the green 1969 fastback “Bullitt” Mustang an icon in its own right. Two cars were used during filming, the “hero” car, used for principal photography, and the stunt car. The latter of the two was rather thrashed in filming and was sold for scrap, ending up in a Mexican junk yard where it was discovered by restorer Ralph Garcia. After some sleuthing Garcia confirmed his suspicions, this was no ordinary ’69 Mustang but none other than the Bullitt stunt car. The “hero” car was passed among collectors for a number of years before it arrived in the hands of insurance executive Bob Kiernan in 1974. Kiernan liked the car so much that he turned down multiple offers from McQueen to purchase the car. Following a breakdown in 1980, the car was garaged for some 34 years, before Kiernan’s son began restorations. It was displayed alongside the new 2018 Bullitt Mustang at the Detroit Auto Show.

Buried Ferrari Dino 246 GTS

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The story of the buried Ferrari Dino may or may not strictly qualify as a barn find, but the story is too good to pass unmentioned. Originally purchased in 1974 in California, the Dino 246 GTS was reported stolen shortly thereafter. Jump to 1978 and the LAPD gets a tip that there’s a buried car in the front yard of a residential home. Whether this tip came from local kids who just happened to be digging in the yard, as the police claimed, or the information came by confidential informant remains the realm of speculation. Regardless, the car was discovered to have towels stuffed in the ventilation and other cracks, a clear indication that whoever buried intended to retrieve it. It remains unclear whether this was simply a case of grand theft auto or an insurance fraud scheme gone awry. The car was sold by the insurance company and eventually found its way to one of the police officers who unearthed the car. The restored Ferrari Dino, repainted in green, still makes appearances at California car shows.

Citroen 2CV Prototypes

Citroen 2CV Prototype - citroenet.org.uk
Citroen 2CV Prototype - citroenet.org.uk

The Citroen 2CV maybe unfamiliar to many Americans but its proletarian popularity in post-war Europe is undeniable, seeing decades of production from 1948 through 1990. Though the 2CV wouldn’t be released until after the war, development on the car had been underway since 1939. Such details would become salient in 1995 when three prototype 2CVs were discovered in a barn in France. There are two competing theories. The first suggests that the cars had been stowed away during the Nazi occupation lest they fall into German hands. The other theory goes that the cars had been preserved by Citroen workers after the prototypes had been slated for scrapping. Either way, the rediscovered cars were forklifted out of the barn’s loft and now reside, unrestored, at Citroen’s collection.

Porsche 901

1964 Porsch 901 - newsroom.porsche.com
1964 Porsch 901 - newsroom.porsche.com

The 911 has become synonymous with Porsche, but the second car made by the company didn’t start out with that moniker. Instead, it began as the 901. And it’s under that name that the first 82 cars were built until Peugeot filed suit claiming the rights to all car names featuring a zero in the middle. Rather than fight it out in court, Porsche simply modified the car’s name to 911. None of the 82 901 cars had been sold publicly which made them exceedingly rare. Add that many were lost or destroyed and, decades on, even the Porsche Museum itself did not possess an example. That is until they got wind of a 901 tucked away in a barn in Bradenberg, Germany. Despite the car’s decrepit condition, Porsche still shelled out $127,000 for the car.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous August 16, 2021

    I know where a ac cobra is sitting in a field..

    Reply

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