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BOOK REVIEW: THE COBRA IN THE BARN

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Published on Sat, May 20, 2006

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

Book Review

THE COBRA IN THE BARN GREAT STORIES OF AUTOMOTIVE ARCHEOLOGY by Tom Cotter forward by Peter Egan Motorbooks, St. Paul, MN 2005 Hard Bound; 256 pages 6w x 9h ISBN: 0760319928 Catalog ID: 137444AP $24.95

Review by BRIAN KENNEDY, PhD

Cobra in the Barn

Tom Cotter might not know it yet, but he's going to have a problem on his hands pretty soon. As soon, that is, as a few people start reading this book. Because when they do, they're going to finish it fast. Then they're going to demand another. And another.

Cotter, known in automotive circles for having built a large PR agency servicing the elite of NASCAR clients, has also been a "barn finder" for years, stumbling upon or searching out cars to buy after owners have left them untouched, if not unloved. You know the kind of cars in view here - they're the stuff of the urban legend that starts something like, "Yeah, I know a guy who knew a guy who bought a 66 Mustang. A Shelby, it was."

That story starts ends one of two ways. "Kid who had it got killed in Viet Nam, and his parents stored the car for years." Or, "Old lady who owned it thought the engine was seized, but all it needed was a couple of freeze plugs."

It turns out, those kinds of things actually happen, and this book compiles dozens of tales which will make you swear that you're going to keep a sharper eye out the next time you wander down a street, even your own, to see what might be hidden in garages and under tarps. Proof of that comes all the way at the end of the book, when Cotter reveals that a special car was located for twenty years in the house next to his, and he had no idea it was there. But I'm not telling you more than that. You can enjoy reading about it for yourself.

As the book unfolds, readers realize that the story is always the same - car in barn, lucky timing, buy, initial startup, rebuilding process (though some cars are happily left in the condition in which they're found, as you'll see), driving and enjoying. But though the formula doesn't vary, the human element does. The psychology of the sellers differs incredibly from one chapter to the next. The lucky stroke which makes buyers aware of cars is not always the same. The cars themselves are incredibly different one from another. And so it's impossible to put this book down and turn out the lights for the night.

Cruising through his volume, you'll learn a few things. First, rarely are these cars "for sale" but usually, they can be bought. It just takes time, patience, luck, and the right offer.

Second, there's often more available than the car itself. Parts, history, paperwork - garages are full of goodies, and sometimes the lucky barn finder comes away with way more than he or she thought possible in the first place. Like more than one car, or an extra engine that goes perfectly with another project. Third, the kind of people who store a car for decades are often slightly outside the mainstream when it comes to their social skills. They're not nuts (well, some of them may be), but they definitely don't always play well with others. (You'll see what I mean when you get to the old lady with gun story). So hopeful finders of the cars these folks own will need to master a combination of skills which include evasion, escape, and psychology. From what I can tell, that takes time, and the more one does it, the better the skills. But that's what makes the barn finding masters the best at what they do, and it's what makes their stories worth reading.

Fourth, hopeful barn finders should never overlook any possibility when it comes to finding old iron. Tarps, garages, sheds, basements, interior rooms of houses - yes, but read the book to see for yourself - a forgotten classic can be found anywhere.

Not all the stories in the volume are Cotter's, and that's what gives The Cobra in the Barn part of its appeal. Reading it, you'll learn about models, makes, specials, and one-off race cars you may never have heard of before. The stories come from the US, Europe, and other places.

The other benefit of having some of the stories come from outside his own experience is that, by doing so, Tom Cotter opens the possibility that future similar volumes could be compiled, because this book as a series won't depend just on Cotter having stories of his own to tell. And as was mentioned above, you're gonna be begging him to get at it as soon as you zoom through this volume.

One final thing to like - though some of the finds in these pages have generated incredible profits for those who grabbed them, the book doesn't dwell on money, but on love. The point is stressed that it's bringing old cars back to life and seeing them drive again which is the goal. It's about the spirit of the car itself, raised from the dead. If you love cars and believe they're alive (and if you're reading this review, you probably do), I don't need to explain that further.

In summary: the only thing wrong with this book is that it's not twice as long, not because it's too short (it's a chunk of text - 256 pages), but because it's so interesting. But I'm sure others have already told Cotter this. Here's hoping he's willing to give up some barn-hunting time to put together another volume. Pronto.

The Cobra in the Barn Great Stories of Automotive Archeology by Tom Cotter Published by Motorbooks hardcover, 256 pages $24.95 order via Motorbooks or Amazon.com

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