Texas Time Capsule: Five pre-war automobiles discovered in barn

Barn find. Arguably the most powerful, attention-grabbing two syllables in the classic car universe.

“It’s the Holy Grail for a car guy,” said Antonio Brunet, chairman and founder of Motostalgia Auctions in Austin, Texas. “Opening the doors, seeing the cars covered in dust, untouched for years … It’s like you’re in a time machine.”

Brunet should know. He recently experienced the thrill first hand. And although the discovery wasn’t a true “barn find” since the owner never lost track of what he had, it was still an emotional experience for Brunet. He expects more of the same when five pre-war automobiles and a travel trailer – stored for more than 40 years – cross the auction block at Motostalgia’s sale on June 12 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with the owner in attendance.

“The final chapter of a magnificent story,” Brunet said.

And what a story it is. Brunet said few people knew about the collection, which includes  a 1932 Cadillac 370B V-12 Victoria Convertible, 1933 Cadillac Model 370C V-12 Town Coupe, 1938 Cadillac Series 90 V-16 Fleetwood Limousine, 1923 Milburn Electric Model 27L, 1908 REO Model G Boattail Roadster/Sedan Tonneau and a twice-used 1937 Kozy Coach Travel Trailer. Until two years ago, Brunet didn’t even know they existed, and they were stored only seven miles from his shop.

The owner, Jack (who doesn’t want his last name publicized), moved to Texas from Wisconsin in 1972-73. “He had some amazing vehicles that he put away in his new barn, always with the intention of getting the time and money to fix them,” Brunet said. “But as it often goes, he never found that time.”

Although the cars sat untouched for more than four decades, except for a curious raccoon that left its paw prints in the dust on the hood of one of the Cadillacs, Brunet said it was obvious that the collection held a special place in Jack’s heart. “He really took the time to put the cars away properly. They were on blocks, perfectly spaced, waiting for the day they would be on the road again.”

The rarest of the five cars is a 1932 Cadillac 370B V-12 Victoria convertible, body No. 1. One of only four Victoria convertibles built for 1932, it is the only one with a V-12 engine. “It was used as a prototype to show executives to see if they would approve the concept of a Victoria convertible,” Brunet said. “It’s on the V-16 registry, but it obviously carries a V-12 engine.”

The car has only had three owners, and it has never been offered for public sale. Motostalgia estimates its value at $285,000-$350,000.

The 1933 Cadillac Model 370C V-12 Town Coupe, designed under the watchful eye of legendary Harley Earl, is one of only 952 built. It has all of its original running gear and has been started (and driven a short distance) since being removed from the barn. Motostalgia estimates its value at $55,000-$75,000.

The third Cadillac, a 1938 V-16 Series 90 Fleetwood Limousine, was once owned by the Wrigley family, chewing gum magnates and longtime owners of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. “It’s unusual in that it’s a five-passenger limousine, when most pre-war limousines were seven- or nine-passenger cars,” Brunet said. “This one doesn’t have the jump seats because the original owner only wanted it for himself and his wife. It’s a great car, absolutely enormous. It really speaks to the eccentricity of Cadillac in American life.” Pre-auction estimate: $45,000-$65,000.

Jack acquired the last two cars from an attorney who had accepted them as payment for services rendered. Brunet said the 1923 Milburn Electric Model 27L is one of the last models that Indiana-based Milburn built. “In the 1910s and ’20s, companies like Milburn and Detroit Electric built very competitive electric cars,” he said. “Milburn had a fleet of taxis in New York in the late teens and early ’20s. It was a very successful brand. But in 1924, GM bought the company and dismantled the factory so they wouldn’t have to compete against the car.” Pre-auction estimate: $90,000 -$125,000.

The final car, a brass-era 1908 REO Model G, was the first that Motostalgia got up and running again. Brunet said it’s unusual in that it’s actually a “transformer.” Its three-person backseat can be removed and replaced with a wooden rear section, turning it from a five-person touring convertible into a two-person boattail. “You can choose, depending if you’re going out for a cruise with the family or a high-speed drive of 25 mph – which was probably what they were good for in 1908,” Brunet said with a laugh. Its pre-auction estimate is $75,000-$95,000.

The last piece of the collection, a 1937 Kozy Coach travel trailer, has been used only twice in the eight decades since it was built – first by its original owner in Wisconsin and again by Jack during his move to Texas in the early 1970s. “I’m obviously a car guy, and I just don’t see vintage travel trailers that often,” Brunet said. “They’re built with Masonite (pressed wood) and a lot of the older ones just waste away. But this trailer has been sitting in a barn for so many years that it’s in great condition. The mahogany wood inside is fabulous. It’s a museum piece.” Pre-auction estimate: $75,000-$100,000.

Brunet said that his promise to Jack was to get the five cars running again before the auction, and he’s already close to fulfilling that vow. “Jack’s dream was to see them back on the road,” Brunet said. “So by giving us the honor of putting them in our auction, we promised to bring them back to life.”

While Jack struggled to let the auction cars go – actually, he’s hanging on to two others that have an emotional connection – Brunet said just seeing the cars is a gift to anyone who enjoys the magic words, barn find.

“I think the main reason why barn finds are so exciting is that most car guys like originality,” Brunet said. “Cars that are 40, 50, 80, 100 years old or more … They’ve transitioned from basic transportation to collectible vehicles. And during that transition, most cars are repaired and modified here and there; they evolve over time. But with a barn find, it’s like time stopped. The cars haven’t changed, other than getting older. They’re just as they were when they were put away, right down to the smell. It’s incredible.”

For more information, visit motostalgia.com.

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