Throughout Barn Find Hunter host Tom Cotter’s adventures in Alaska, he’s uncovered several Mustangs, Broncos, a sweet Chevy Sedan Delivery, unique Pontiacs, and much more. The road to discovery isn’t over yet, though, as Tom’s next lead brings him to John McDonald’s place, in the forests around North Pole, Alaska. There he finds a wildly eclectic grouping of vehicles, all with a delightful patina. And each with a price tag.
John’s place is nestled into a dense collection of spruce trees, down a gravel lane that juts off from a single-lane road. As soon as you come through the gate and up the gentle hilltop, there is a baffling variety of American metal parked in the yard to greet you—old Ford hot rods, Studebakers, a crazy-looking ambulance with a set of antlers on top. When Tom and I arrive, John is there waiting for us, along with his new puppy, Banjo.
Donning a Rat Fink hat and a “Surfink Safari” t-shirt, John is obviously in his element surrounded by his various hot rods and custom projects. He’s thin, looks to be in his sixties, and sports a gray goatee. He tells us he’s lived at this location in North Pole for 31 years.
“I’m into everything—I have a bucket list and it changes every week,” John says, admiring the collection he’s cultivated. He spends a lot of his free time browsing eBay Motors, clicking around and finding new projects to get shipped up to Alaska for him to sink his teeth into. “If I’m attracted to it, I’ll get it so I can enjoy it.”
But as his projects pile up, John realizes he can’t do it all. “I just don’t have time to deal with all of it,” he says. Pretty much everything out in the yard is for sale.
Tom’s eye first catches the lovely red and white paint on a 1957 Ford Ranchero, packing a 312 V-8 under the hood with dual carburetors. John says he bought it for a birthday present, and Tom prys a little, asking if it was a gift to himself. “Why not?” John quips, with a laugh. “I’ll drive it til I wear it out, and then I’ll sell it. I’ve been driving it every day this summer,” he says.
Sure enough, the Ranchero starts right up. John says he’d part with it for $20,000, but he doesn’t offer road trip insurance for the maiden voyage off his property. “I don’t guarantee anything past that gate at the end of the driveway,” he makes clear.
Nearby, John’s red 1960 Studebaker Champ truck offers a much different flavor of utility. It’s a one-ton model with a V-8, three on the tree, and 53,000 miles that may or may not be original. For $6000, it could be yours.
If modified 1930s Fords are more your flavor, John’s got you covered. His 1932 Ford 1.5-ton dualie has a flathead V-8 that starts right up, or if you prefer a ‘33 pickup, he’s got one with a V-8 and aluminum heads. He built that one back in high school—now he’ll part with it for $18,000.
There’s more Studebaker goodness afoot, too. John shows us a huge truck he drove up from Oklahoma, and he claims that in the process he burned through 15 gallons of oil in the 500-cubic-inch Cadillac engine it used at the time. As soon as he got home he tossed that old monster into the junkyard and swapped in a 390 Ford instead. These days he mostly uses it to haul firewood.
Want to make a real statement? Show up to cars and coffee with a 1943 ambulance, complete with an official plaque indicating it was purchased with World War II-era war bonds. John suspects it never saw official service and likely was a support vehicle of some kind in the U.S., as the roof rack and big winch up front indicate. Under the hood is a flathead single-carb six-cylinder. For $8000, it’s up for grabs. The antlers on top come with it for free.
After a few more trucks and assorted hot rods, John pulls a glorious 1937 Studebaker Dictator out of his garage. It has a 283 Chevy small-block in it with a three-speed transmission, along with a new rear end to replace the insanely short gearing it had previously to handle the hills in San Francisco where it lived. This thing looks straight out of Frank Miller’s Sin City, and John already posted it on the local Craigslist for $18,000. Also in the garage is a sweet Model T speedster hopped-up with a Model A crank, 351 Cleveland valves, electronic ignition, and a bigger carb. There are more Model Ts around as well, including another speedster from 1926 that was brought up from Minnesota many years ago for Alaska’s centennial celebration.
What’s crazy is nearly every single one of these vehicles starts right up when John turns the key. The uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking this weird roster of aging metal was just a decaying scrap pile, but there’s no doubt the man puts a lot of care and effort into running and maintaining all of his cars. He loves to drive them, too, especially if they have a bench seat. “Nothin’ beats the bench, because I can take along Banjo for a ride,” he tells us.
Out in the fresh air, breathing in the smell of sprucewood, gasoline, and exhaust, going for a ride with a new puppy in an eight-decades-old machine you’re keeping alive—sounds like a pretty good way to live to us.