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September 2014

Incredible Barn Finds

By McLellan's Automotive History


As sellers and collectors of books and auto literature, we occasionally try to comment on trends in automotive book publishing. In this article we talked to Wallace Wyss, a Detroit native who is presently finishing his third book in a barn-find series. We talk about the genre in general and his two entries for the species so far. - The Editors


McLellan: Wallace, what intrigues you so much about barn finds?
Wyss: Well, originally I did a lot of one marque books, such as on the Cobra or GT40. But then I myself was a barn finder and it’s a hope you never lose — of driving by and spotting a treasured car forlorn in someone’s garage. It’s the hottest topic in the car book world. I spent shooting pictures of pristine restored cars, and now I lament that I should have done some reporting as well, and found out the real story of how the cars were tracked down and bought. So now, making up for lost time, I’m hot on the trail of writing about the great barn finds — cars “lost in the sands of time” only to be re-discovered by a diligent barn-finder.

Click for larger view
The first barn find book has Wyss' painting of a Ferrari Testa Rossa in a barn. The car was found for less than $5000 and eventually sold for over $16 million.
The cover of the second book shows a Greta Garbo look-alike, actually a German Baroness who left her Mercedes 540K in a hotel garage, abandoning it. It sold for over $11 million.
This oddball Ferrari is called the "breadvan" and is a racing Ferrari built by an Italian count who was mad at Ferrari and built this Special to beat the factory GTOs. Painting by Wallace Wyss
This Ferrari spyder was found by a British Ferrari mechanic through a tip from a Ferrari parts vendor in California. It had sat for decades parked under a tractor-trailer trailer. Painting by Wallace Wyss

NAHC: Where did you get the idea?
Wyss: I will be honest and admit I got the idea from Tom Cotter, a former PR firm owner out in North Carolina. He did "The Cobra in the Barn" and several others. I met him at a book singing in Laguna Seca and after that I submitted three stories to him but he sent them back and said he wanted the stories in his book to be written by him, so that’s when I approached my own publisher, Iconografix (now Enthusiast Books) to do a similar book. They went for it.

McLellan: Where does your approach differ from that of Cotter?
Wyss: We’re pretty much the same as far as how the car was found but I don’t discuss the restoration. We even have some of the same cars but I am not as concerned with finding pictures of the cars “as discovered” as he is. I used to be a barn finder myself and often didn’t have time to tack a picture — I was so intent on getting the car out of there before they discovered how valuable it was. In the first book Incredible Barn Finds, I wasted weeks trying to buy pictures and then realized, what the hell, I’ll just take out my paint brushes and paint portraits of the cars that I couldn’t afford to buy pictures of.

McLellan: Are you an artist?
Wyss: I call myself a “primitive,” like Granma Moses. One who is self taught. But the Pebble Beach Corp. has sold my work during their annual concours so I think that’s enough of a commentary on their worthiness.

McLellan: Who else is in this new genre?
Wyss: Jerry Heasley does a series called Rare Finds. Where I differ from Jer is that he features color pictures like Cotter, but he has so many what I would call rustbuckets or cars that aren’t worth that much even when restored. I purposely draw a line in the sand from the word “go” where a car has to be worth at least $100,000 when restored in order to be considered. Why: because my philosophy is ‘Why put several years into a car for a measly $1000-2000 profit?’ I want my readers, when they choose a car, to have one they can sell and put a down payment on a home.

McLellan: So how do you select the cars to be featured?
Wyss: At any one time, I am working on examining hundreds of candidates, constantly mining the
net and books and magazines for the tiny tidbits of information that will make the story more complete. Some cars just have to wait before they can be included because I can’t find the price paid when first unearthed. Some of the cars I have seen personally, like in the latest book I am including a short wheelbase two seater Mustang I saw in Greenfield Village Sports Car show over 50 years ago. I was also a barn finder professionally for a year or two and bought cars that, collectively today, would be worth million, cars like Ferraris, Iso Grifos, Bizzarrinis, Rolls Royces, Bentleys and the like. And the ones I passed up — well, they're in the books too.

McLellan: Have all the cars in your books been barn found and restored?
Wyss: Most of them, but in each volume from now on I plan to include one or two I put in the “Missing-not yet found” category like the Bertone Mustang, a car designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro that disappeared in Europe. It would be a million dollar car if found now that other one-offs by Giugiaro are fetching that at the major auctions. Another one that's missing is the GT40 7-liter roadster that won Sebring. Ford "congratulated it" for winning by cutting it up and throwing it into a land fill near LAX airport.

McLellan: Out of all fifty cars in the first book, which is the best example?
Wyss: No contest, there. It has to be the cars that barn finders got for free. Zero. Nada. Say, for instance, the $2 million Italian-bodied Corvette Two Rotor prototype that was simply given free to the first person that asked? Or there’s the case of the Hollywood stunt man and custom car builder who was walking through a building at Ford Motor Company with A.J. Foyt and A.J. nudged him and said “Tell ‘em you want one of those race cars — that you’ll put it in the movies — and they’ll give it to you for free.” The stuntman — the late Dean Jeffries–chose a Ford GT40 roadster, one of four made, and today it’s worth $4 million.

McLellan: We know your first book in the series covers many brands of cars. What is the European content?
Wyss: Over half the book. There’s two Bugatti Royales, one found in a junkyard, the other picked up at the Bugatti factory to hide it from the Nazis. There’s five Ferraris, including one found on eBay where the seller thought all he had to sell was a Devin-bodied kit car, and then there’s a Ferrari 400 Superamerica that I thought about buying that was rebodied by Pininfarina three times. There’s two Lamborghinis, and a Lancia. There’s also a Maserati 151 race car that raced at LeMans and is vintage racing today.

McLellan: Will we find you on the hunt for cars yourself?
Wyss: No, when the internet came along I found it much more difficult to let prospective buyers know about the car without having claim jumpers get into buying the cars I had found. I’m now into other hobbies, such as learning the art of thoroughbred horse breeding — I actually sold my first horse in 2011! And I am re-editing my mystery thriller novel set in the world of collector Ferraris so, in the Barn Find series, all my barn finding experiences are in the past.

McLellan: And am I to understand that you have even included some cars where you lost out financially?
Wyss: Yes, that was a tough decision to include those. I ruminated for some time about the wisdom of including cars I sold too soon, thinking–if I do include them – will that lead to some critic saying ”Well, why should we listen to a guy who is dumb enough to sell a gullwing Mercedes for $2500?” But I finally concluded I would include a few of my own stories because they are proof positive that I’ve been out there in the trenches myself along with the readers. Readers can learn from my mistakes.

McLellan: I know that you have a strong “lessons learned” component to the book. Can you explain that more?
Wyss: Well, each of the books is divided into 50 chapters, each chapter about an individual car. But at the end of each chapter I am always careful to put a one-paragraph summary of the lesson that is there to be learned from that particular barn-finder’s success. For instance, in one case, a guy from Detroit saw a great car at a horse racetrack in New York and spread the word among his New York friends that he wants to know who owns it. Finally someone tipped him off that it was seen in a junkyard in the Bronx and he was able to buy it for $400. Today that Bugatti Royale is now among the world’s most valuable cars, arguably worth about $25-40 million.

McLellan: But wouldn't one criticism be that we can’t go back in time and get these great deals? Aren’t you afraid a critic will say “What’s the use of looking–all the good ones have been found?”
Wyss: No, you can’t actually say that because it is a constantly dynamic situation that changes daily. Automakers are continually making new prototypes and show cars and race teams are continually making new race cars. Each year, both automakers and race teams shove the last year’s oh-so-precious special to the back of the warehouse until finally some leak out to the public. Say, for instance, there was a Pontiac Solstice SEMA show roadster. It was a show car but probably still street legal.

Pontiac went down but did they crush all the concept cars? I don’t think so. They always say automakers don’t sell prototypes but I’m here to tell you that yes they do and there’s several examples in the two books published so far. In the second book, for instance, I included the Maserati Boomerang, an excellent example of a prototype never intended to be on the road, but which eventually was made roadable through the passion of the barn finders.

McLellan: Well, isn’t it hard to get the original barn finders to tell you what they paid for a car? I mean, maybe they sold it for cash, so don’t want to wake up Uncle Sam?
Wyss: That’s true and I don’t always have that buying price though I can give readers a general idea. I bought and sold a few collector cars myself, from Rolls Royces to Ferraris, and sometimes “flipped them,’ i.e. sold them without bothering to re-register them under my name. But the emphasis in this series is more on the hunt; how the scent was picked up and the subsequent tracking of a great car through thick and thin by a persistent barn-finder.

McLellan: I notice the second book in the series The Baroness and the Mercedes and 49 Other Stories has a title referring to a specific car owner, a German baroness. So are the future books all going to have a theme car and theme person?
Wyss: Yes, I like the people stories behind the cars and that crazy German baroness certainly made good copy, leaving a 540K in a hotel garage for several decades, a car that eventually sold for over $11 million dollars! So the third book's title uses a famous mechanic’s name in relation to a race car he built that was the ultimate in trickery.

McLellan: So how can readers suggest a car?
Wyss: They can write me care of the publisher (Enthusiast Books, 1830-A Hanley Road, Hudson, WI 54016 or e-mail me at Photojournalsitpro@gmail.com) It doesn’t have to be a car they owned, I’d like to hear about it even if it is just their favorite great barn finding story.

McLellan: What about the conclusion chapter? How do you sum the book up?
Wyss: Each book ends with a general chapter which has general rules with examples to guide those on the hunt. Plus there’s a few caveats in there, such as don’t buy a car with a salvage title, don't travel to buy the car with a great pile of cash, etc.

McLellan: Where can we find the book and what’s the price?
Wyss: The price of the first two is under $20 each and they can be ordered directly from the publisher at 1-800-289-3504,or their website at www.enthusiastbooks.com

McLellan: Thank you for the interview and joining us for your great topic


THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of Incredible Barn Finds, available from Enthusiast Books (Hudson, WI Phone : 715 381-9755)


Auto Maniacs Newsletter, September 2014



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