Readers share their best barn find stories

In the September edition of our e-newsletter, we asked for your best automotive barn find stories – and you delivered. Here are some of our favorites.

1960 Bugeye Sprite: ‘The Chilipeppermobile’
1969 AMX: Lost and found
1957 Ford Fairlane 4-door: Still under the tarp
1963 Corvair Monza 900: A rare find
1955 Chevy Bel Air: A welcome-home gift
1967 TR4A: Back from California

1960 Bugeye Sprite: ‘The Chilipeppermobile’

About 10 years ago I was visiting a friend in the small northern California town of Oroville. We went next door to his neighbor’s to have some brews, and after we had exhausted the subjects of women and sports, talk naturally turned to cars. I remarked that I wished I still had the car I drove in high school, a red Bugeye Sprite. It was the first car I had owned; I paid $500 for it and my dad and I pulled it home on the end of a rope. I drove it through high school and then to college.

The neighbor jumped up and said, “Heck, I’ve got one of those things in my storage unit. Belongs to my brother-in-law and he won’t get rid of it. I need the space.” Well it turns out that his brother-in-law was a retired Air Force colonel who only drove the red 1960 Austin-Healey Sprite on the base. When he left the Air Force, he and his wife – the neighbor’s sister – moved to Northern California and she forbid him from driving it, saying she knew he would get squished by a logging truck. So he drove it into his brother-in-law’s storage unit, turned off the key, and left it sitting there for 6 years. Not once did he fire it up and he never drained any fluids.

So the next day the three of us went down to see it. He opened the door to the storage unit and there sat a near-perfect 1960 red Bugeye. Not only was the body straight, the paint was OK, the interior looked like new and it had a brand-new top that had never been up. It also had like-new aluminum sliding windows. I, of course, was smitten. It certainly wouldn’t start but everything under the hood looked ship-shape.

John “ChiliJohn” Fenrich
John “ChiliJohn” Fenrich

Later that week I called the owner and he told me his sister was really on his case to get the car out of her brother’s unit. I had gone online to see what ’60 Sprites in good condition were selling for and knew I could not afford this vehicle, even if I didn’t already own a 1972 Fiat Spyder convertible. I knew my loving wife would never agree to her hubby having two toys in the garage. After going back and forth on the phone with him for a couple of months, I finally got a call. He asked how much I could get for the Fiat. I replied that no one wanted a Fiat, but I would run some ads and see what happened. After about a month I finally got a firm offer, so I gave the Sprite guy a call. “I know what the Sprite is worth and I know what I can get for the Fiat,” I said. When he asked what I could get and I told him $2,000 all I heard was silence. Then I heard him swallow and say, “What the heck, can you come get it tomorrow?” Two grand for a 40-year-old classic British sports car that had been a real babe-magnet when I was in high school? You bet I could come get it tomorrow.

I had it towed to a friend’s auto repair garage (he had worked on the Fiat when I lived in Oroville) and asked him just to get it running. He drained everything, dropped the gas tank and had it coated on the inside, cleaned the carbs, added an electric fuel pump, changed the oil, flushed the radiator and I’ll be darn if it didn’t fire right up.

I drove it to my home, about 100 miles, and the next year replaced the clutch. Other than a new “arrest me” red paint job and a set of tires, it is just like it was when it rolled into that storage unit some 16 years ago.

I figure I have about $4,000 invested in it and it is a consistent winner at Show ‘n Shine shows in the northeast Oklahoma area where I now live.

John Fenrich brought the Chilipeppermobile to his grandson's school to get kids excited about a fundraiser.
John Fenrich brought the Chilipeppermobile to his grandson’s school to get kids excited about a fundraiser.

Whenever I drive around town (and I do drive it almost every weekend, weather permitting) I get waves and smiles. Everyone loves the red “Smiling Frog.” I did get a personalized Oklahoma plate reading “Bug Eye” and my 10-year-old grandson is the hit of his elementary school whenever granpa comes to pick him up in the “Zoom Zoom Car.”

It is also the mascot at the International Chili Society cook-offs I put on and compete in. It has been featured in “Chile Pepper Magazine” and is know far and wide as the Chilipeppermobile.

Last Spring I was asked by the principal of my grandson’s elementary school to put on a fundraiser for the school during these tight economic times. I put together the Mills Elementary Family Fun Chili Night and we raised about $2,000 for school needs. To get the kids excited about selling tickets I took the Chilipeppermobile to a pep rally in the gymnasium and drove the little car through the doors into the gym. The kids loved it. I get such a kick out of making people smile when they see the Bug-Eye Sprite.

-John “ChiliJohn” Fenrich, Owasso, OK

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1969 AMX: Lost and found

In 1970 my mom bought a red, white and blue 1969 AMX from the AMC dealer in town. It was painted like the SC/Rambler-white car with red sides and a blue stripe. This car had been briefly raced and had gold lettering on the door that said “Desoto Memorial Speedway Pace Car.” It had a 390 4-speed and red interior with a low rear gear. Mom put a trailer hitch on it and pulled a trailer out to Houston with it, which messed up the wide 60 series tires from fender rub. It had Cragars on it with very wide back tires.

This '69 AMX was restored to match his mother's old car -- which he found, but couldn't buy.
This ’69 AMX was restored to match his mother’s old car — which he found, but couldn’t buy.

Mom traded it for a more family-friendly car after less than a year, but it had made an impression on my brother and me, which set us both on the collector-car path in life.

Around 2005, I had just sold a ’59 El Camino. I met a guy in town who said he had a few AMC cars and I stopped by his house just to car talk and see his newly acquired AMC collection. When I went into his backyard, he had 6 AMXs and Javelins! I told him about my mom’s AMX, and he opened the doors on his enclosed car trailer and said, “This must be your mom’s old car!”

I looked it over, and although the years had not been good to it, I verified that it was indeed mom’s old AMX! All the clues were there: remnant of the old paint scheme, holes in the trunk floor for a trailer hitch, a four-speed, low-rear gear, red interior – it even still had the original 390!

Now here’s the bummer: I told him I would be interested in buying it and he said he would only sell it for $50,000! I told him I could not give that kind of money and left it at that, but I did buy another ’69 AMX from him for $2,500 and restored it to look like mom’s.

The last time I saw mom’s old AMX, it was sitting outdoors and had been the victim of a less than amateur restoration.

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1957 Ford Fairlane 4-door: Still under the tarp

This '57 Ford Fairlane was found under a tarp in a barn in Colorado.
This ’57 Ford Fairlane was found under a tarp in a barn in Colorado.

In the summer of 2005 my wife and I went to visit my daughter who was living near Moffat, Colo. She was renting a trailer on the property of an elderly man and would watch over his property and several head of cattle as part of her rent. On the property was a pole barn which housed several tractors and miscellaneous pieces of farm equipment.

Knowing that I am into just about anything with four wheels, she thought I might like to see an old car that had been sitting in the barn for years. In the back of the pole barn next to a tractor and some boxes was a car covered by a tarp. I could tell from the style of the white walls sticking out from under the cover that it was a ’50s car. Pulling back the tarp we found a two-tone green, four-door 1957 Ford Fairlane.

The car was in excellent shape. The Ford was complete right down to the wheel covers. The engine was a Thunderbird special, 4-barrel carb, dual exhaust and three-speed manual. The two-tone green interior was spectacular. No rips or tears, and the seats were covered with dealer-installed covers. The trim was all there and in very good shape although in need of some polish. The odometer showed 43,000 miles and the car was in running condition, having been moved around inside the barn once in awhile.

"The two-tone green interior was spectacular."
“The two-tone green interior was spectacular.”

The story from the owner was: A very close friend of his had purchased the car new while in the military and stationed in Florida. Although the equipment options as noted above were strange for a four-door car, it’s what his friend wanted. The car was in Florida for quite a long period of time until the death of the original owner. At that point the dead owner’s wife determined that her late husband’s good friend should have the car. It is not clear if the current owner bought the car from the widow or was given the car, but he moved it to Colorado sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s and it had been in the pole barn ever since.

I informed a close friend of mine who was in the market for a ’50s-‘60s car about the Ford. Working with my daughter he made contact with the current owner inquiring about condition, but negotiations broke off when the current owner could not make up his mind about selling the Ford.

My daughter has since married and moved to a different part of Colorado. To my knowledge, the car is still setting in the pole barn waiting for the owner to decide what he is going to do with it.

-Ron and Elaine McLeod

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1963 Corvair Monza 900: A rare find

This 1963 Corvair Monza 900 Spyder was found on Craigslist for $1,300. It had sat in a barn since 1972.
This 1963 Corvair Monza 900 Spyder was found on Craigslist for $1,300. It had sat in a barn since 1972.

One day I was looking on Craigslist and came across an ad for a turbo-charged 1963 Corvair Monza 900 Spyder for $1,300. I restored a Corvair once before, but nothing as rare as this one. It was the first year that Chevy brought out a turbo-charged motor; the’63 was a test run for the Spyder before it was in production in ’64. It is hard to prove that you have a ’63 Spyder because it was an option, not a model.

This car had only one owner, and he had kept all documentation from day one. On the order sheet that he had to fill out, he had the Spyder package on it. What a find! The car sat in a barn since 1972, and the motor had been rebuilt in 1969.

I’ve had the car for two years and just about have it done. I’ve taken it to a few car shows – it even won an award at the first show. You can look at each step I took to get the car where it is today at

-John Glass

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1955 Chevy Bel Air: A welcome-home gift

About ten years ago, my son was driving his 1966 Mustang when it sucked a piston. He was a junior in high school at the time. He needed wheels quick. So I ask our bishop, who was a car salesman at Hertz, if he had anything that my son could get into reasonably priced. He said that he didn’t on the lot, but he had a 1955 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop in his barn.

He told us that when he got home from his LDS mission some twenty years ago, his dad had purchased the car for him and it was sitting in the driveway. He drove the car for a number of years, and then put it in his barn. I showed the car to my son, who did not appreciate its vintage look. So I bought it, and put it in my barn, where it sits today. We bought my son a 1972 Mach 1 Mustang, which he really liked. I ended up with that car, too.

-Larry Allen

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1967 TR4A: Back from California

Fred Robson's granddaughter has named his '67 TR4A
Fred Robson’s granddaughter has named his ’67 TR4A “Pearl.”

The 1967 TR4A wasn’t so much hiding in the barn – an actual barn in New Hampshire – as it was sitting unloved among a number of restored American cars. The latter weren’t collectors’ gems, but nicely done Model A Fords, early ’50s flat-head 6 Plymouth, Chevys, etc.

It arrived in N.H. after being stored from the early ’80s to 2006 in a garage in Berkeley, Calif. The daughter of the original owner tried to drive the car but wasn’t a fan of shifting, especially in the hilly areas around San Francisco Bay. The car was offered for sale in California, but after several years, it was shipped to the grandfather in N.H. because he “restored” cars and could fix up the car for sale in New England – possibly a better market for older cars.

On the Internet, the car looked a bit grungy but was “rust free” – but, aren’t they all?! But when we looked at it sitting outside the barn, it truly was rust free. Maybe a bit of surface rust, but even the inner-fender wells were as clean as anyone could want. A compression check surprisingly read 150 psi +/- 4 psi across the cylinders. It started up rather slowly and spit and burped, but it did drive and sort of stop.

We loaded it on the trailer and headed off to Connecticut. We’re still rejuvenating – versus restoring – the TR4A. It’s not a show car by any stretch, but a decent “10-footer” that can be driven without remorse for dings and enjoyed at local cruise nights. And it even has the original black CA plate, a rarity here on the East Coast.

Now, if we can just get the SUs adjusted correctly and the voltage regulator to regulate, we’ll be able to drive it more than 5 miles at a time.

-Fred Robson, Amston, Conn.

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Do you have your own barn find story you’d like to share? Tell us in the comments!


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