The Barnfind

Julian Shoolheifer B.A. (Hons) has been a specialist classic vehicle appraiser for over twenty years and has been running his own consultancy since 2005. He is also a confirmed old car nut with a questionable penchant for restoring early Land Rovers.

“Hello, I wonder if you can help. I have an old Rolls-Royce in my barn….”

Working for the Veteran and Vintage vehicle department of one of London’s largest and longest established auction houses, Sotheby’s, this was not such an unusual conversation starter. I won’t say it was a daily occurrence, but every few weeks a similar call came in.

Usually, the ‘Rolls-Royce’ in question would turn out to be a rusty old Austin or similar and the ‘barn’ often the concrete garage next to the house. Never disappointing, all ‘discoveries’ of this sort are exciting to a dyed-in-the-wool car nut and they are all worth investigating.

Little detail was given about the car, and the location, on the Welsh Marches, meant that it was a few weeks until I made my way to the small village with one of my colleagues, fully aware that we shouldn’t be getting our hopes up.

Captain ‘T’

We were met by a lovely elderly lady and her daughter who made us tea and chatted about the car and the lady’s late husband, Captain ’T’. He had fought valiantly in the skies of Europe in his Spitfire and was shot down over Yugoslavia in 1944. He was so impressed by the Rolls-Royce engine of his aircraft that on leaving the RAF, he bought an old Rolls-Royce car, a 1932, 20/25 saloon.

On the way into the village we had driven past a large, but anonymous barn at the side of the road. It was the sort of building that you might drive past every day, never wondering what was within. The barn was some way from the house and had clearly not been frequented for many years. A cracked concrete apron with grass growing through it lead to the hundred-foot square wood and asbestos building with its dangling, rotted steel gutters. Not very inspiring.

A Bucketful of Sorrow

The first problem was gaining entry. Large rusty, sliding steel doors were held tightly shut by a rusting oversized padlock and of course the key wouldn’t fit. I walked back to the house to try to find another key and was handed a two gallon bucket full to the top with hundreds of corroded keys. “There might be one in there that fits”. I took the bucket and made my way back to the barn.

After a frustrating hour trying to make one of the bucketful of keys fit the lock, we decided to try Plan B. My colleague, Caroline, volunteered to go down the road and exercise her female charm at the local garage to find something to break the lock. A little while later, I looked along the road to see the comic image of a very slight 5’ 4” lady dragging an enormous five-foot long pair of bolt cutters behind her. I think the garage proprietor had a sense of humour, but in circumstances like this, over-kill is always good.

It took the two of us to operate the bolt cutters, but the padlock quickly succumbed and fell to the floor.

Opening the Tomb

The vast steel door had other ideas though, but gradually, a quarter of an inch at a time, slid open. It was bright outside, but quite dark in the building, although a high window at the far end shone a shaft of light through the dust that now swirled in the air. As our eyes adjusted, it was clear we had another problem, this time a significant one.

The barn was full of cars, not one, but perhaps twenty, each covered by large sheets, themselves thick with dust, making everything seem sepia toned. Lifting the corners of some of the sheets revealed multiple upright Rolls-Royce radiators with their Spirit of Ecstasy mascots. Confused, I walked back to the house. “Could you please tell me which of the Rolls-Royces we are here to see”, I asked. I was met with two blank expressions. “I think you had better come with me”.

Surprise

On entering the barn Mrs T and her daughter stood agog. We were all bemused, excited, stunned, overwhelmed, you name it. The first words were uttered by Mrs T. Her shock had quickly turned to anger. I had not heard an octogenarian swear before. Or since come to think of it. Mrs T had been aware that her late husband had bought various Rolls-Royces over the years, but he had assured her he had sold each to buy the next one.

Captain ‘T’s Secret

He hadn’t. He had secretly been collecting them and amassed quite a hoard over the years, which was quite some feat just yards from their family home.

The collection was mostly pre-war Rolls-Royces, dating from the early 1920s to the late 1930s, from 20hp through to Phantom III. These were high-quality cars, each with bespoke coachbuilt bodywork of exceptional calibre and very nicely preserved.

Moving the cars away to auction in London was a mammoth task in itself but the story created a huge amount of interest in the press. On auction day, the sale venue which was the RAF Museum at Hendon, was bursting at the seams. Happily the collection sold extremely well with most of the cars making several times their pre-sale estimates.

The Barnfind Bug

Since that time eighteen years ago the ‘barnfind’ bug has bitten me hard and I have been fortunate enough to play a part in the discovery of some incredible cars and motorbikes over the years.

There was a pre-WWI Minerva in a cellar in Belgium, a Brough Superior in a woodshed on the Fens and an Aston Martin on a hous-ing estate, to name but a few. I am certain that there are more out there to discover. So next time you drive past a nondescript barn, tired lockup or even thick bramble hedge, keep your eyes peeled, you never know what lurks within. And if your other half says they are just popping down to the shed for a while, keep an eye on them. 

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