Tom Cotter keeps talking about his friend Bernie, but in the previous two episodes of the Barn Find Hunter’s trip to the U.K. we’ve only gotten a brief glimpse of the witty Brit. That’s about to change.
In the third installment documenting Tom’s week-long search for automotive treasures on the other side of the Atlantic—back in the pre-coronavirus days—we’re properly introduced to Bernie and his sister, Valerie, who generally refers to him by his proper name, Bernard. “That’s Ber-nerd,” she says, correcting her new American friends, “not Ber-nard.”
You’ll have to wait just a bit longer for that. First up on this rainy English morning is Simon Lane, a friend of Bernie’s (isn’t everyone?), who stores a few of his vehicles in the back of a BMW repair shop located on a gorgeous horse farm near London.
Tom jokes that he’s traveled a long way just to see a lot of American cars. “We’re in the U.K.,” he says. “Where are the Lotuses?”
Nope, no Lotuses here, Tom. Just Chevys and Fords. We begin with Simon’s 1968 Chevrolet Camaro, which he has owned since 2000 and has raced several times in the States. “It isn’t FIA sanctioned,” he says, referring to the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the 115-year-old motorsports governing body. “I just make it as quick as I can.” The Camaro is powered by a bored-and-stroked 436-cubic-inch small-block V-8 that produces a hefty 610 horsepower, and Simon did all the work himself. The result: “It blows the cobwebs away.”
Nearby is the shell of a 1960s Ford Falcon that Simon says began as a three-man project before “the other two slowly, but surely, backed out.” When completed, the Falcon will have a 289 engine and be FIA compliant. The problem, Simon says, is it’s the fourth or fifth car on his priority list. “I should be about 109 when I get to this one,” he jokes.
Tom spies a 1929 Ford Model A truck that Simon says is “a truly intercontinental car.” The pickup carries a 283 engine from a ’57 Chevy, a cab from an American-built Model A, an English right-hand-drive chassis, a three-speed gearbox from a Lincoln Zephyr, and “splash aprons and various other bits from Australia.” The truck hasn’t been driven in 8–10 years, and it sat outside for a time, but Simon says it will be roadworthy again someday. “I’m not mad on the rat rod scene, but it is just a nice old car,” he says, then admits the truck isn’t exactly a luxury automobile. “Everyone should have a car like this so that they realize just how nice their modern cars are … This is hell on earth, driving this.”
Soon we’re transported to Simon’s home garage, where we’re introduced to his pet project, a 1928 Ford Model A roadster sporting rare Ardun heads. Designed by Zora Arkus-Duntov and his brother Yuri, the Ardun (ARkus-DUNtov) OHV conversion added power to the venerable Ford flathead. The brothers sold the heads through the Ardun Engine Company of New York in the late 1940s, and they’re labeled as such—although Simon says the heads were actually built in England.
Simon explains that he started building the roadster in 1978 and got it on the road in ’82. Then he blew the engine. “I bought the Ardun from a pal of mine in the mid-’80s,” Simon says. “It sat in the corner of the garage ever since, and I vowed when I put the car on the road, I’d put the Ardun in it.” That happened last year.
Simon says when he began working on the engine, he discovered that newspapers had been used to fashion the gaskets. He peeled them apart and was able to read the sports pages, where he identified four football players—we’d call them soccer players—who played professionally in England for just one season in 1954. He says that indicated that the engine hadn’t run in more than 60 years.
Tom says, “These heads are so rare that in five years of Barn Find Hunter, we’ve never seen another set.”
Speaking of rare finds, the time has come to meet Bernie Chodosh. The humorous, energetic 67-year-old car collector tells us, “I’m a busy body. I enjoy life! That’s what I do.” And he proves it time and again.
Bernie and Valerie invite us to a London storage garage, which hasn’t been opened in decades. We’re here to meet “Mable,” a 1956 Morris Minor 1000 split-screen convertible that Valerie’s daughter bought “30–35 years ago and drove for 5–6 years” before she got married. That’s when Mable went into storage.
“By the way,” Valerie says, “Mable and I aren’t too far apart in age.”
“Nineteen twenty-eight,” Bernie interjects, adding a few decades to his sister’s actual age.
The miniscule Morris was originally powered by a 948-cc, four-cylinder engine that mustered a measly 37 hp, but Bernie swapped in a 1275-cc engine from an MG Midget years ago. He thinks it wouldn’t take much to get it roadworthy again, but the strength of our entire crew is required to push the car forward, breaking the wheels loose, so that it can see the light of day for the first time since 1998.
“It’s a fun little car, you know. It’s quite a rare car in as much as most of the cars that were built were two-door sedans or four-door sedans, and this is a convertible,” Bernie says. “[The] split screen makes it, sort of, relatively rare. It’s a bit of an iconic car. I know they made millions, but there aren’t really that many left.”
When Tom refers to the front glass as the “windshield,” the siblings quickly correct him, calling it a “windscreen.” Tom doesn’t make anything of it at the time, but he returns to the subject later and asks Bernie for a vocabulary lesson.
“You Americans have bastardized the English language,” Bernie says, and he begins to point out the car’s features. “This is a bonnet, not a hood. The hood is the top. The top is not the bonnet …. These are wings, not fenders. Wings. W-I-N-G-S. And the boot is the boot, not the trunk.”
Bernie points to the side directional signals. Before calling them both “indicators” and “trafficators,” he asks Tom a question.
“What’s a flasher in America?”
“It’s someone who takes their clothes off,” Tom says.
“Well, it’s the same over here.”
So is our love for cars. As we close the door and say goodbye to Mable, Valerie blows the car a kiss. “See you soon … I hope,” she says.
Something tells us that we’ll be back to get Mable running again. But we have other cars to see first. Stay tuned …