Avoidable Contact #152: Not born in a barn, but I’m going to die in one

Jack Baruth

“You have to be careful,” Steven Cole Smith told me. “My threshold was two thousand dollars for a long time. That’s why I have an ex-Improved-Touring Fiero out on the property, along with … many other things.” Mr. Smith is the newest editor here at Hagerty; his autowriting and competition resume is so long that if I put it here I wouldn’t have room for anything else. I rely on him for advice, wisdom, and a combination of the two. He has lived in rural Florida for many years now, assembling an enviable group of affordable but unique cars, so when I told him that I’d just taken possession of a pole barn next to a race track, he immediately tried to nip my hoarding impulse in the bud.

“Too late,” I told him, “it’s a 40×80 barn and it will be completely full the day the floor cures. I can maybe fit an extra motorcycle or two in there. Maybe.” There was silence on the phone as “SCS” considered how, ahem, coachable I might be. I heard him sigh, then:

“Well, be careful.”

What is it about autowriters? Why do so many of us disappear into the wilderness the minute we can manage the trick? Egan, Yates, SCS. Many such cases, as they say. Rich or poor, we all do it. Bob Lutz built a monstrous Swiss chalet about the size of an aircraft carrier that sits at the distant end of a million-dollar asphalt driveway. (I can now tell you to the penny what it costs to cover something with: asphalt, concrete, gravel, sod, fill dirt, salty property-owner tears.) Gordon Baxter took his young second wife out to the middle of nowhere and built a shack with his own hands. No electricity, even.

I will be somewhere between these two situations, but right now I’m closer to Bax. My “house” is a few hopeful sticks on a fresh foundation, and my barn is still very obviously the horse home it was when I took possession, right down to the way the dirt floor emits that slightly scratchy aroma of manure and animal sweat. As of last week we have electricity. At some point in the next month we will have a concrete floor. Six inches thick, with fiberglass reinforcements in one corner. It will cost me approximately what I paid for a new Land Rover in 2002. In one corner you’ll find a Rotary SP0A10 lift. I wanted something American-made, but couldn’t afford a Mohawk. Another corner will have a small bathroom and office in perhaps 150 square feet. The top of that building-within-a-building will boast a bicycle maintenance stand and a couch so I can sit out in the evenings and survey all that I own, which isn’t much.

Yet it’s almost too much for a 3200-square-foot barn. My spouse, the infamous Danger Girl, who will not be pleased if I innocently brag that she just ran a 1:41.8 on MidOhio Pro in her Miata last week, made me a paper scale-model of the barn with little squares that represented all my cars. “See if you can make them all fit,” she laughed.

“Of course I can. This is a forty by eighty barn.” Two hours of playing paper Tetris later, I almost had it. As a computer scientist and math hobbyist I have often looked at the knapsack problem in abstract terms that relate to encryption, but this was my chance to do it in meatspace. It was not easy. I expected my Grand Marquis coupe to take up a lot of room, and it does. But even a little Radical PR6 occupies about eighty square feet. An F-250 takes up one hundred and fifty-six square feet. But you’re going to want to open a door, so budget one-seventy. You can’t hop over the sidepod of an F-250 to get in it the way you can with a Radical. I can put the Radicals just a few inches apart. All the swing-door cars need extra space. In the case of the swing-door race cars, the door needs to open wide so I can get over the rollcage and into the thing. I’m neither Bo nor Luke Duke, and never was.

Later that night, after much agitation and effort, I brought my perfectly packed paper barn to Danger Girl the way a cat brings home a dead mouse. “Don’t forget the motorcycles,” she said. “And we have … how many extra wheels and tires for the race cars?”

“You didn’t make me little scale wheels, though,” I griped. To be fair, she didn’t have that kind of time. We have about sixty wheels that aren’t on a car, and about thirty tires like that as well. Spare transmissions, too. Fenders, doors. By the next day, I’d come to a realization. “We need a second barn, pronto. What do barns cost now?”

The answer is: as much as a new Range Rover, if you want a floor. I don’t have that kind of money. If I did, I would spend it on a Genesis G90 5.0 Ultimate. The solution was this: The barn has a lean-to attachment that covers 80×10 with a roof. I’m having concrete put on that. Then I can park five cars outside, but under some shelter. That will do until I can get a second barn built.

When the second barn arrives, I can fill it with all the cars that have wandered through my heart over the years. I really want a 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Talisman. I know there’s a lovely silver one coming up for auction. I have nowhere to put it. I also want a 1979 Eldorado Biarritz. And an early SCCA Sports Renault. And a Ginetta G40 Junior for my son. A 1983 200SX hatchback. Somewhere out there is a perfect 2011 Ford Fusion SEL 2.5-liter six-speed, and I’ll eventually find it.

Oh, and I’m going to need a tractor on the day I move in. Feel free to leave your comments on that below. A Lamborghini tractor, like the one Jeremy Clarkson uses, would be fun, but in reality I’m looking at compact Kubotas or Yanmars. I don’t have a thousand acres like Clarkson does. Might do a little farming, but not much. One thing you learn in a hurry when you go rural: Farmers are a lot smarter than I thought they were when I was a child growing up in Brooklyn and Baltimore and Cherry Hill. Any successful farmer knows infinitely more than the average white-collar person. I might be smart enough to write my own encryption schemes or to have gotten every question on the WISC correct when I was six years old, and I’d bet real money on the idea that I’m objectively smarter than every executive in the auto business, but I am not smart enough to be a farmer. Farming is like playing Russian roulette, in the dark, with winter gloves on, plus there’s someone, call him Mr. Weather, putting extra bullets in the gun.

Thankfully I’m not doing any of it alone. City dwellers don’t know their neighbors; suburban people are locked in a sort of frenemy-envy struggle with theirs. My little township, by contrast, is like Sam Malone’s bar. Everybody knows your name, and vice versa. All of the “trades” who proved so enigmatic, unreliable, and occasionally combative during my twenty-two years in the Wall Street Journal–commended bedroom community of Powell, Ohio? They all live out here, and they couldn’t be more straightforward. People drive their little Gators or side-by-sides from house to house. Always looking to help. One of my neighbors is a professional logger, well past eighty but easily capable of curb-stomping me before cracking open a beer. He came rolling up the drive in a little Polaris. “I’ve been checking up on things,” he tells me. Then he examined me carefully, clearly making a determination as to how often I would need to be personally checked up on.

I bet Gordon Baxter handled all of this stuff better than I will.

If my neighbor can thrive at the age of 83 or whatever, perhaps I can do the same. Hard to imagine returning to “assisted living” or “managed care” after thirty years on my own property, the sun rising over the orange roof of Mid-Ohio’s tower every morning and setting over a perfectly manicured field of corn to begin the night. You come to understand why animals die when they’re put in the zoo. One painful concession: I’m building a single-story house, in anticipation of the day that a second story will be as impossible as the chlorine valleys of Venus. So long, curb appeal. It’s okay. Nobody can really see the house anyway.

Jack Baruth

To be out here is to be continually confronted with the mildly old. There was a decrepit footlocker in the corner of the barn, filled with horse tackle. I’m going to clean it up and use it in the house. Many years ago the New Yorker ran a terribly arch piece about “farmhouse tables” and whatnot in Manhattan co-ops, concluding with a phrase like, “If you do it right, everything you touch in your home will once have been owned by someone much poorer than you.” Which makes you laugh until you think about the bizarre, cultish doublespeak land of modern middle-class corporate existence and you wonder if, in fact, the man who bought that footlocker was, in fact, poorer in any way that matters.

I’ll hold a little party when it’s all done. Stop by, if you’re in the neighborhood. Probably do it over a race weekend. It won’t be much to show off. Not compared to the kind of homes owned by the Illuminati of our business. Not a concern for me. Comparison, as Tomo Fujita says, is the thief of joy. Or something like that. If you feel compelled to say something kind, then save your compliments for the precisely determined manner in which all my cars fit together on that polished concrete floor.

Steven Cole Smith, if you’re reading this: Feel free to bring your Improved Touring Fiero to the party, and to leave it behind. You and I will eat of the forbidden tree and be as Gods, owning as many mid-engined GM cars as we like. Caution is for lesser men. A Fiero in the barn is safe, but that’s not what Fieros are for.

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