All gearheads dream of this sort of thing. The undiscovered gem. The hidden beauty. The squirreled-away-for-someday cache. Two words have become the Holy Grail of classic car buffs: Barn Find!
The allure of the barn find is being the actual person who stumbles upon the great treasure. That means cruising the back streets of rural America, peering through mold-encrusted window panes...and sometimes, just being in the right place at the right time.
For the first half of 2010, I was regularly traveling to Chicago for work. One of the guys I was working with up there happened to be telling me over lunch one day about how his mother-in-law was moving in with them and he was tasked with cleaning out her house and garage. This included selling her late husband's vehicle.
My car-dar instantly began to go off. Old ladies are notorious for harboring all manner of interesting machinery. "Its a Cadillac." he told me, and the car-dar beeped louder. Visions of a bespectacled blue-hair piloting her Yank tank to bingo and the hairdresser's danced in my head. "And its pretty old." The beeping was deafening. I finally convinced him to take me down to her house one day after work, and so it was that one late winter day, I stepped inside a non-descript two-car detached garage behind a row home firmly in White Sox territory, and laid my eyes upon a 1969 Coupe DeVille.
The car was wedged into the garage so tightly that I couldn't get a good look at the grille, and the rear bumper nearly touched the garage door- which was rusted shut. Water leaking from the roof pooled around the tires; garden implements were propped up against its flank. A two-by-four held the hood open. The Patina Silver Metallic paint was mostly intact, and white leather hides swathed the interior. Two-hundred and twenty-five inches of Awesome.
I had to have it. The fact that it hadn't been registered for road use since the Carter administration, and was still wearing bias-ply tires installed by Sears in 1976 (with a 28,000 mile warranty!) meant driving it home was unlikely. Besides, I happen to own a car hauler, a winch, and a stout pickup for just this sort of thing. We agreed on a price, under the stipulations that he would a) find the paperwork for the car, and b) get the garage door repaired. So I went back to South Carolina and waited.
Months rolled by and soon it was August. One day at work, I received a telegram-esque email. "Garage door fixed, found title, come get it." As a happy coincidence, my girlfriend's family was having a reunion in Ohio the following weekend, which we had planned on driving up for. In my most persuasive manner I convinced her that we should head up to the Windy City first and grab the Caddy before heading off to the reunion.
We left that Thursday afternoon in my turbodiesel Dodge, dragging an 18 foot car hauler behind it. We chugged over the Eastern Continental Divide, and through Tennessee, Kentucky, and into Indiana. Just north of Indianapolis we called it a night, wedged the tow rig in with the semi-trucks behind the Econo-Lodge, and went to sleep.
Friday morning we rejoined the interstate, planning to hit Chicago an hour or so after rush hour. Traffic was thick but manageable- most sane drivers stay well clear of a battered, smoke-belching pickup towing a big steel sled, I've found. We soon exited I-65 and began navigating south side neighborhoods.
The garage that housed my prize opened onto an alley, which in turn emptied onto a one way street, with cars parked along one side. Jockeying 40 feet of articulated tow rig into position to allow us to roll the Caddy onto the trailer took a spotter, several tries, and patience. Having maneuvered into position, we rolled back the garage door. There she was, the Queen of 1969. The bias plies clung desperately to the air molecules inside, but even with four rolling wheels and reasonably level ground, it took the three of us all the strength we had to get the monstrous boat lined up with the trailer. The alley was peppered with totes full of garbage, and as we gasped for breath our nostrils were treated with pungent, rotting odors. Swarming flies added to the fun. Finally I hooked up the winch and cranked the 4800 pound yacht up onto the deck.
Experienced hands made quick work of the ratchet tie-downs, and after exchanging a fistful of dollars for a 40-year-old title, we enjoyed a good, greasy, Chicago-style lunch, and headed off for Ohio. Between the drive to Ohio for the reunion and the final run back to South Carolina, the only drama was a flat on the trailer, which resulted in a quick stop at a TSC and me becoming the proud owner of one spare tire.
With the Cadillac finally home, the next step was resuscitating the old beast. The Illinois plates hailed from 1979, the battery had long ago passed into its afterlife, and the gasoline tank smelled very, very foul. Figuring I'd better see if it would at least crank, I removed what appeared to be the original spark plugs, squirted some oil down the cylinders, hooked up the jumper box, and twisted the key. Four Hundred and Seventy-Two cubic inches of engine began reciprocating. I cleaned and gapped the plugs (which still looked to have some life left in them) and replaced the stale, lead-enhanced fuel. Then, cameras running, I tried the key.
The Caddy lives! While simply starting was an amazing feat, the fact that it was able to back down the trailer and drive around the cul-de-sac across the street was incredible. The power windows, seat, climate control, and even the brakes worked. What a Barn Find!
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