Barn Find Hunter Tom Cotter is always offering tips to anyone with an interest in discovering hidden old cars. Some of his greatest hits: Go to local shows and meetups to make friends; keep an eye out for cars in driveways, yards, and open garages; and when meeting a potential seller, it helps to show up in an old car to break the ice and let them know you’re not just a looky-loo.
[Editor's note: The video above, and a previous version of this story, incorrectly refer to the Jim Wagners Pontiac as a Ram Air IV. As some of our readers pointed out, the car is a Ram Air III. The story has been updated.]
Some people, however, are just born naturals. Father-son barn-find team Terry and Preston have turned up some fantastic vintage metal over the years in their town of North Pole, Alaska. Tom met the duo at a car parade in Fairbanks, heard that they had a few trophies to show off back home, and paid them a visit to see for himself.
I’m riding with Tom down a small lane off the main highway through North Pole, about 14 miles southeast of Fairbanks. The guys are sitting outside, in front of the house, waiting to greet us. There are several crates of stuff in the front yard. With his white goatee and a bandana tied around his head, Terry looks like a former biker. He tells us he moved to Alaska from Minnesota about 40 years ago to work on the pipeline. His son, Preston, is clean-cut and ready with a handshake to welcome us and show off their cars.
We walk right past a pair of gorgeous muscle cars—which are shiny, and therefore not what Barn Find Hunter is all about—and Tom sets his sights on a sweet 1969 Ford Torino Cobra. According to Preston, he and his father found it in someone’s yard seven years ago, buried under a few feet of snow, during one of their usual cruises looking for cars around town.
Wearing its original green paint, black interior, and SportsRoof fastback, this Torino came from the factory with an uncommon combination of options. It has factory hood pins, air conditioning, an automatic transmission, a clock, and yet no gauge package, which would have added a tachometer. The Marti Report shows that it sat on the lot at a dealership in California for about a year, which Preston thinks indicates it might have been a display model. Today, the floors and panels are all totally solid, and the odometer shows 78,000 miles.
Tom is really into this car, remembering how it was exactly the imaginary spec he built out as a kid in one of Ford’s advertising inserts in many car magazines. A big smile appears on his face when Preston offers him the chance to fire up the big 428-cubic-inch V-8.
Next, under a pair of covers wait two other Fords—a pair of Mustangs. First is a 1967 fastback with 51,000 original miles, which Terry and Preston found three years ago in a warehouse. The original owner was a parts runner who’d run into some health problems and had to sell of the candy-apple red car. It’s a choice example of a ’67 Mustang, complete with its 289 C-code V-8 and two-barrel carburetor, four-speed manual transmission, styled wheels, heavy duty suspension, and rare blackout rear panel. The same seller also had a 1965 Mustang convertible, painted to match, which was his aunt’s car. It’s also a C-code V-8, and Preston notes it’s a little freaky to drive given the lack of standard seat belts.
Around back, amidst a bunch of bramble and tall grass, and past a 1971 GTO the duo also discovered in North Pole, are several cars in proper barn-find condition. It’s a real graveyard of Pontiac metal, including a 1967 LeMans “Post” coupe with the overhead-cam six-cylinder engine (standard hardtops had no B-pillar). Preston freely admits he uses it as a parts car, which makes sense given the condition. The car looks to be sinking into the earth, and vegetation is growing up through the engine.
A few feet away, Tom, a lover of vintage wagons, admires a crusty 1967 Pontiac Bonneville with a big 428. It’s a project Preston started, meant to be a competitor to his friend’s hot-rod Oldsmobile station wagon. When Terry and Preston found the old Pontiac wagon, the owner offered it to them for free.
We make our way out of the tall fireweeds and back into the driveway. Terry and Preston have a treat they want to show Tom. It’s not a barn find, but there’s no doubt it is a fantastic car with an even better story. In their garage is a beautiful-looking 1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am 400 Ram Air III, which the father and son bought from none other than Pontiac executive Jim Wangers. A longtime champion of Pontiac’s performance efforts, Wangers sent the car back to Pontiac for restoration and repainting, adding to the car’s mystique and legitimacy. It even still has Wangers’ Detroit plates, and on the passenger-side visor is a note written from Wangers in silver Sharpie, telling Preston he’s happy the car is finding a good enthusiast home.
Tom lights up when he hears this story and sees the car up close. He remembers when he was a kid and used to hitchhike home from sports practice, he once rode in a Trans Am and remembered the experience for the rest of his life. When Preston offers him to take it for a ride, Tom hesitates, as if he isn’t sure he should alter that childhood memory. His curiosity wins out. After gingerly backing out of the driveway and accelerating out of the neighborhood, he finds an empty stretch of road to lay down a little patch like it’s 1969.
I can’t help but be amazed at how a group of perfect strangers, from complete opposite sides of the country, are so quickly united by something simple as a love of cars. Truly, it’s what the hobby is all about. When you hunt for cars, you often find new friends.