The holy grail of the typical automotive enthusiast is a barn find, and let’s face it, the best barn finds generally involve ripping someone off. Most of us would rather pay nothing or very little for our 4x4s regardless of what they are or where they come from. I mean, have you ever heard someone boast about paying full pop for a vehicle, or anything for that matter? This tendency often results in amazingly brash campfire stories about 4x4s that were traded for non-running chainsaws, baby-sitting duties, or minor ditch-digging labor. Nowhere else are these stories more prevalent than when they involve a barn-find vehicle.
Many of us have different ideas about what an actual barn find is. It’s generally accepted that a barn find is a vehicle that has been parked many years earlier and never moved again, left in a sort of dust-collecting time capsule. In my mind, a barn find has nothing wrong with it aside from the typical rotten fuel line, carb varnish, and a few rat droppings. The problem is that no one (or very few people) simply parks a perfectly running vehicle and leaves it alone for decades. Most barn finds have something mechanically wrong with them. Bottom line: Don’t believe anyone who tells you, “It ran fine when it was parked!”
Anyway, tracking down barn-find vehicles is an art, and in most cases you need to be just a little sneaky, have questionable morals, or be really lucky to be good at it. We all dream of finding some pristine, dusty 4x4 that’s been hidden in the back corner of a building behind a chicken coop for 40 or more years. Our fantasy owner is a recent widow simply ready to clean up the place with no idea of, or interest in, what she has. Now, I’m not condoning the practice of stealing from old people—or old widows, specifically. In fact, purse snatching and breaking-and-entering is dangerous. It can result in all kinds of bad outcomes, ranging from being whacked with a cane or shot at. Older folks are wily and sneaky themselves, so look out. Do you really think they haven’t learned a thing or two during the time they’ve been on the planet, which is longer than you? Consider yourself lucky if they don’t know what they have hidden in the depths of a barn.
You can’t simply type “barn find” in your online-shopping search browser. They typically aren’t even the kinds of vehicles you find on eBay or Craigslist, either. You need lots of rural contacts who know about your hobby and vehicle addiction, particularly contacts who have no interest in said hobby or any of the vehicles you might be looking for. You don’t want the competition. People like mailmen, propane or heating oil delivery drivers, contractors, farmers, and so on make great barn-finding buddies. Use them like catfish use their whiskers to find bits of tasty morsels on the bottom of a lake or river.
Obviously, barns are usually the best places to start the search for a barn find, but here in the Southwest where barns are not as common, vehicles are often hidden in fields, backyards, behind fences, or engulfed in weeds. The seller isn’t always going to be friendly or even motivated by money. Don’t be surprised if you are greeted with the business end of a shotgun when trying to introduce yourself to the property owner. You’ve been watching too many episodes of “American Pickers” if you think these people will be happy to see you at their front door. You’re on your own for that predicament; my skills at calming a gun-wielding hillbilly ain’t so great. Even if they will talk to you, the purchase of a barn find could take minutes, days, weeks, months, or even years of negotiation. The seller often thinks he will eventually get around to restoring whatever it is he has. We all know the truth, though—if you don’t end up with it, someone else eventually will because if he hasn’t found the time to restore it in the first 40 years, he probably won’t find time in the next 40.
That claimed “pristine” barn find that your buddy spotted isn’t always in perfect shape either. Anything old that still has some paint on it is sometimes mistakenly considered pristine to a non-enthusiast passerby. Many parked and forgotten vehicles have been literally vandalized with “repairs,” “upgrades,” and “improvements” that would make any purist restoration guy go into cardiac arrest, so be ready to kiss a few donkeys with glued-on paper horns during your unicorn hunt.
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time on rural roads and trails. I’ve seen a lot of potential projects rusting away in random fields and yards. Even if the vehicles are all hacked up and shot to hell, I still get a kick out of seeing some of the ingenious, but more often than not, hack modifications. Sometimes the improvements and repairs on these old forgotten 4x4s are clever, yet look more like permanent trail repairs with nasty boogery arc welds, especially on some of the old mining and drilling equipment I’ve seen.
I’ve never personally stumbled onto a pristine barn find, and I kind of don’t want to. I have a difficult enough time as it is not towing home every languishing pile of 4x4 that I see. If I acted on that impulse, I’d have an entire wrecking yard full of 4x4s, nearly all of which with some sort of imaginary potential. Fortunately, I’ve managed to repress my hoarding instincts by simply taking photos of the junk I shouldn’t own. But that doesn’t mean I can’t live vicariously through you! Feel free to pick up all the rusty hulks and barn finds you can get your hands on. I’d rather they all be in one place when I do start searching for an unbelievable sucker-deal on an unfinished project. Maybe yours.