Usually, you just hear about the possibility of a car through word of mouth, with no promise of an actual, tangible automobile. Someone’s grandmother dies, or your college roommate’s neighbor is cleaning out their garage, and someone thinks to tell you about it because you like cars. You’re not sure what to think, and if you’re smart, you don’t ask too many questions before going to check it out in person, all the while keeping your skepticism or excitement to yourself.
When you get to it, it’s covered in dust. It’s your first look at it, and you begin to accept that you might actually have something here. Of course, you do your best not to cartwheel through the lawn, because you still have to negotiate payment. As it turns out, they just want it gone and are happy that someone will love it as much as grandpa did. It’s dusty, it’s beautiful, and now, it’s yours.
We all have the same dream.
Every auto enthusiast loves the idea of a barn find: a chance encounter with a car of considerable value that, for some reason, has lived in the shadows for decades, skillfully hidden from rabid collectors and flippers before finally, as fate would allow it, lands in your hands.
Unfortunately, as is the case in most of life, the dreams rarely represent reality. Turns out the car isn’t exactly the one you wanted, it’s rustier than the USS Arizona, its title is lost to history, or, and this is my personal favorite; the owner knows how much it’s really worth.
In extra-special cases, the owner thinks it’s worth double what it’s actually worth. Or, if the seller doesn’t have a clue that they’re giving away a mint, can you live with yourself if you pay a song for a valuable car because the seller didn’t know any better? And then, how will your niche automotive community react if they know that you maybe took some clueless person for a ride? Should you even care?
Maybe it doesn’t go the way you want. You sigh and compromise, or walk away, clinging to the impossible dream that one day, you too will find the perfect, unmolested car of your dreams in the air conditioned garage of an octogenarian widow who just wants it gone, all the while wondering what Wayne Carini’s magical formula is.
Nothing ever works out that cleanly.
I once saw a sale go awry when a vintage BMW owner attempted to flip a recent score. The problem was that a lot of people knew exactly how much he paid for the car, and his asking price was triple that. He didn’t even wash the dirt off. Sure, it’s legal capitalism, but enthusiasts get uneasy when they realize someone is more interested in money than in getting the cars back on the road. No one was right or wrong here, but we all have to live with the decisions we make.
In 2007, I was looking to replace my recently, and thankfully, rear-ended 1970 BMW 2002. I bought that car from a scam artist a few years previously and took one in the shorts, so I was actually relieved when a local college student braked late in her CR-V and crunched into the layers of body filler and rust that made up the tail panel.
In the following months, I obsessively checked eBay in between classes in a hopeless effort to find an affordable replacement of similar kind. The one car inside my price range was a 1976 BMW 2002 with a starting bid of $2000.
At the time BMW 2002s were just beginning their price inflation, so I clicked in curiosity as to why this auction had zero bidding activity, despite being almost done. The ad revealed the problem: A blown head gasket and pictures of such low quality that I couldn’t discern the color of the car.
I waited until the auction ended and offered the seller a ridiculously low $1200 for it. He took it. The car had belonged to his mother until it blew the head gasket four years previously and had remained in storage. Now he just wanted it gone.
An engine swap in a friend’s garage later and I had a complete, running vintage car with cash to spare.
Fast forward to a few months ago. A friend calls me up and tells me that his college roommate’s sister (yes, really) has a 1967 BMW 1600 that she and her husband have finally decided to release into the wild. It’s not running and has been sitting for some time.
The deal was that if I could pick the car up, my tipster friend would get the wheels and the pick of a few parts, but the rest would go to me. I knew better than to argue.
Then we saw it in person. Apparently, it had endured a decade without moving an inch from its outdoor, uncovered storage in Baltimore, Maryland. All the super-rare, year-specific pieces were there, but everything bore the cruel scars of unloving time. It was rustier than a Civil War shovel.
I had a secret hope that I would be able to lightly restore the car to functional order in my spare time and eventually sell it off for enough to pay for paint, or some other grand venture, for my current 1967 BMW 1600. But now, all I could see was the collection of a few pieces and a trip to the metal recycler. I didn’t have the heart to tell the previous owners what likely fate befalls rusty, near-gone vintage cars.
Reality struck again.
After swapping out the wheels with roll-able stock, the car was loaded onto a flatbed and delivered to my garage. What hath the Automotive Gods wrought?
I mean, it’s complete, but it’s completely gone. Tetanus boosters and respirators are not a requirement for entry into my garage.
Before long, I turned to the only option I thought I had left: taking stock of sellable parts. I made a few phone calls and started a few leads. If this thing had to meet its maker, I would ensure that at least a few parts lived on.
I reminded myself that when I got my `67 1600, it was stripped of most of the rare parts, and that this one would provide a handy source for a few replacements. I could easily make enough cash to buy a few new parts for my 1600, or for one of the other cars. This is the automotive circle of life, right?
But I couldn’t get over the fact that I was going to kill it.
For a little fun, I posted a picture of it online. The terminally rusted floors weren’t immediately obvious, and the nose looked almost artistic. The hood had swathes of missing paint, replaced with surface rust in an almost intentional pattern. The response was fantastic.
Despite referring to my garage as “hospice for previously great BMWs” no one else seemed to want to face the reality that I knew: it was too far gone. They didn’t care. The dream of getting it back on the road was too attractive to reject in favor of rationality.
Within a few hours, I was in contact with a distant acquaintance who had a history of restoring old BMWs. We chatted on the phone about the car, and I was boldly honest about both the physical condition of the car, and of my previous intentions. I may have even mentioned that I wanted to make a couch out of the tail and rear quarters.
I slowly began to realize that the fire wasn’t quite out, yet. In the right hands, with a certain amount of expertise and patience, this could work.
The next day I chatted with the friend who pointed me in the direction of the car to begin with. He gently hinted that he hoped to see the car saved. It was clear by then that it would be a crime to chop it up, despite the clear financial and parts advantage to be had with doing so.
As it turns out, the interested party really was an old hand with these cars and had plenty of credibility. They wouldn’t be flipping it; they would be returning it to its rightful place on the road. I’ll get to keep a few parts from it.
So, tomorrow I’ll watch the 1600 get loaded onto a trailer for a trip to Minnesota. I’ll be keeping an eye on its progress, and I think I’m owed a ride in it when it’s done. Almost zero money changed hands, but I’m finding myself more and more happy that it’s going to be saved.
There is a moral to this story, but you’re probably going to have to find it for yourself, because your finds aren’t going to match mine. You’ll have a different seller, with different intentions, and your bank account, free time, and spousal tolerance will likely differ wildly from mine. How much do you offer? What do you do with your find? How much money are you comfortable making off your fellow enthusiasts? How much should you care about public opinion?
You’ll have to answer all these questions if you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a find, but start with this one: What do I really want out of this?
The rest is up to you.
Clay Weiland is a ham-fisted shade-tree mechanic when he’s not managing construction projects in Washington, DC. He has owned, driven, and modified vintage BMWs for 15 years, and one or two of them have even had nice paint.