Tom Cotter: Inside the Mind of That Barn Find Hunter Car Guy
Some years back, during a Morning Edition segment on National Public Radio, a 100-year-old veteran gave the world his secret to a long and fulfilling life. That secret? “The same things that excited me as a 14-year-old still excite me today.”
In the case of 66-year-old Long Island native Tom Cotter, that means cars.
New cars. Old cars. Racing cars. Touring cars. Restored cars. Need-to-be restored cars. Two-seaters. Woodies. Classic hot rods. Stunning barn finds. Grocery-getters. Everything from the stock Pinto he drove on his honeymoon 44 years ago to an iconic Cunningham C-3 and the 1964 Corvette he races just for fun.
“I’m a one-trick pony, and it’s all about cars.”
“I’ve been a car guy almost from birth,” says Cotter, a runner and even a marathoner (he’s done most of the world’s major runs at least once) now living in Davidson, North Carolina. “I’ve hunted once, fished maybe three times, and never played golf. I’m a one-trick pony, and it’s all about cars. They’ve always fascinated me, always made an impression, even when I was just a little kid. I get as excited about a cool car now as I did when I was 14.”
In one form or fashion for most of their lives, Cotter and his wife, Pat, and their son, 29-year-old Brian, have pushed, pulled, towed, hauled and occasionally driven cars to the garage beside their home. Cotter left college after two years, hoping to become the next Bob Sharp, the famous Connecticut-based championship sports car racer/team owner/businessman. When that didn’t work out, he ran a repair shop, sold auto parts, sold furniture (?!), and spent several years working with motorsports marketing pioneer Dick Bauer. That led to a 1985-1989 gig with Humpy Wheeler at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Cotter’s “pass in the grass” promotion—even though there was no pass—remains legendary.
He ran the Cotter Group motorsports marketing firm for 12 years, split time in 2012 between Davidson and New York as president of the ill-fated effort to bring Formula 1 to the metropolitan New York area, taught media and public relations at Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte, N.C., and served on the board of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida.
Once free of business obligations, he returned to cars and his lifelong passion for writing and racing. He’s authored 17 car- and racing-related books for MotorBooks, including 10 in the “barn find” series. The success of those books—upwards of 100,000 have been sold—led to a 2015 deal with Hagerty Insurance for a video crew to follow him into God-knows-where to find “underappreciated treasures.” The Barn Find Hunter series has been filmed in almost half the states and the U.K., and is available new on YouTube every other Wednesday.
Coming up soon: A semiautobiographical Barn Find Hunter-themed book on how Cotter and others go about locating cars that everyone else has abandoned. He’s hoping to work with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on a book about its museum’s legendary basement, home to dozens of seldom-seen classic cars. And he wants to take an Airstream trailer on the legendary Four Corners Tour to write about the people who live on the country’s extreme edges.
Despite all that—and in the midst of marathon training—he recently found time to tell Autoweek how he came to be one of America’s better-known car guys. Certainly not Jay Leno … but maybe Jay Junior:
When was the first moment a car made a lasting impression on you?
“When I was 6 (in 1960), walking home from school, I found a Model-A roadster in the woods near my house on Long Island. I tried to get a friend to help me push it home because I wanted to turn it into a hot rod. I thought I’d put bicycle tires on the front and snow tires on the rear. That’s how little I knew at the time.”
What was the first car you bought, and how old were you?
“When I was 14, I found a 1940 Ford convertible. Lumpy Rutherford had driven one just like it on Leave It to Beaver and I had fallen in love with it. I paid $25 for it.”
Growing up, what was on your “got-to-have” bucket list of cars?
“Since about 10, the carrot dangling in front of me was a 289 Shelby Cobra. I always told myself that if I ever made it in life, I’d own one of them. It took me until 2001, but I found a 1965 model in California that I could buy. I’m proud that it had 40,000 miles on it when I got it and has 80,000 now. I can’t wait until it turns 100,000. It’s been in most of the states. A grizzly bear in Alaska tore back the (convertible) top and stole some Fig Newtons from behind the driver’s seat. That was a big story, and people still ask me if that’s the same car the bear broke into. It’s amazing how people remember that from (July of) 2018.”
After you got the Cobra, what was next on your list?
“I’d always had this fascination with Briggs Cunningham and his effort to win Le Mans with an American car with American drivers. (He did so, finishing first in class in 1952 and 1962). But to run at Le Mans back then a team had to homologate their cars for racing … (building) at least 25 street cars for public sale. I’d always dreamed of owning one of those 25. One day, while I was working with Dick Bauer, I found a Cunningham chassis listed for $4,500 in Hemmings Motor News. This was ’82 or ’83, and I remember telling Dick that if I had that kind of money, I’d buy that chassis. But back then, I didn’t.”
It took another—what?—how many years to get one?
“Fast-forward several decades to 2007 or 2008. I gave a speech about barn finds to the annual SCCA awards banquet in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Afterward, the guy beside me asked what would be my ultimate barn find? I said a Cobra, but I’d already found one and checked it off the list. He then asked what would be my second-best ultimate barn find … and man, what a great question that turned out to be. I said, ‘This may be crazy because there are only 25 in the world and they’re probably all owned by millionaires, but I’d love to find a Cunningham.’ And he said right away, ‘I know where there’s a Cunningham.’”
And the rest of the story is …?
“Turns out it was in the basement of a home in Greenville, just a little south of Spartanburg and not far from my home in Davidson. I couldn’t believe it was true, but a week later I drove down and it was. It was the second Cunningham built, the company’s ‘media car’ for magazine stories and car shows. The chassis was constructed in West Palm Beach, Florida, and shipped to Turin, Italy, where an aluminum body was fabricated by Vignale. It had a Chrysler Hemi with four carburetors and a Cadillac gearbox. The owner didn’t know if he wanted to sell because his father had loved Cunninghams and he’d bought it to honor him. But he said if he ever sold, he’d sell it me. And he did, about two years later, in 2008 or 2009, for market value. I’ve raced that car, done hill climbs, driven it on tours, and presented it at concours events. To me, it’s the ideal, all-around classic car.”
What are some of the more notable cars you’ve had in your collection through the years?
“At 14, when I was too young to drive, I found a 1940 Ford convertible. At 15, still before I could drive, I found a 1939 Ford Deluxe Woodie that I still drive regularly on The Barn Find Hunter series. There was the 1964 AC Cobra from a garage in Indianapolis; a 1967 Shelby GT 500 from a former racer’s garage in Lincolnton, N.C.; a disassembled 1966 Austin-Healey Sprite prototype from a former racer in Portland, Oregon; and the Cunningham from South Carolina. I once had 21 cars, most of them road-worthy. I’m down to 14 after my latest selling spree. My current project is restoring both a ’65 Lotus Elan Series 1 and the ’72 Datsun 510 that I raced and drove on the streets in the late ’70s and early ’80s.”
Of all the barn and garage doors you’ve opened through the years, which one produced the most stunning “holy crap” moment?
“I once followed a lead in the tony Myers Park area of Charlotte. The city had condemned the property and the house and garage were scheduled to be torn down. A friend of the owner asked me to help remove a couple of cars before the bulldozers arrived. The garage had been overrun with spiderwebs, crickets and tree branches. Inside, parked for more than four decades, were two amazing cars: a 427 Cobra and an alloy-bodied 275 GTB Ferrari. The owner had bought them in the 1970s, paying $42,000 for the Cobra and $48,000 for the Ferrari. He drove them for a little while, then parked them in the garage, locked the door, and wouldn’t see them again for 42 years. I encouraged the owner to consign them for sale at Amelia Island. The Cobra sold for a million and the Ferrari for 2.5 million.”
How did the Hagerty/Barn Find video deal with YouTube come about?
“After the barn find books did so well, I began getting calls from lots of video producers wanting to do a show about finding old cars. I didn’t especially like what they were proposing because they said I wasn’t enough of a character and didn’t have enough personality. I didn’t have any tattoos or throw wrenches across the shop or do a lot of the stuff people did on Discovery Channel. I told the Hagerty people I’d only consider doing something with them if I could just be myself, be natural. They said that’s all they wanted, so they sent a camera crew as I drove Route 66, from Chicago to LA, in my Woodie for the Route 66 Barn Find Road Trip book. YouTube tells us we’re up to about 1.5 million subscribers every other Wednesday night.”
Your strategy for finding old cars usually doesn’t include following leads from readers or viewers. Why is that?
“More than just a car, I’m hoping to find great stories behind the cars I find. I’d rather find an owner with one interesting car and one interesting story than a junkyard with 1,500 cars but no interesting stories. I like to go into a small town, look around, then ask somebody in the auto parts store or someone in the gas station or someone in the repair shop if there are any old cars in town. One car person might lead to another who might lead to another who knows where there are some cars. That’s how you find stuff organically, the old-fashioned way. I like it that way. I want it to be authentic. I don’t want it to be like American Pickers where everything is staged and planned out ahead of time.”
Is your pal Jay Leno a real car guy or just someone who collects cars like other people collect beer coasters?
“Oh, he’s a very serious car guy who can recite the history about all his cars. He’s very much a student of automotive history. There’s not much he can’t speak about. The only reason you’ve heard of him (and his cars) is because of his TV/standup fame. There are lots of serious car guys like him, guys who you’ve never heard of because they keep their collections out of the spotlight. And Jay’s not a comedian when he’s around cars and other car guys. He’s just one of us, a regular car guy.”
You raced in your Northeastern life, then stood down while working at the speedway and running the Cotter Group. You’re back now, racing a ’64 Corvette. Still having fun?
“I’ve had a competition license for 41 years. I love competition, but couldn’t care less about winning. I’m happy to have someone to race with, someone close to me, wherever we are in a tight pack. I’m not a win-at-all-costs guy. If the track is wet, I probably won’t go out. If I can maybe pass somebody … but I also might wreck … then I’ll let him go. Vintage racing is a gentleman’s sport. First place pays the same as last place. There’s no money, no trophy, no anything. We’re all friends before the race and we’re all friends after the race. The competition is the big thing because the losers buy dinner.”
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