We’ve all heard the story: someone opens the door of an old barn, pushes aside some junk, and discovers an old car worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

But does it really happen?

The answer is yes, it occasionally does, but the chances are extremely slim. The reality is that if you do discover a “barn find,” it’s not going to be anywhere near as valuable as that.

“People tend to overestimate the value of old cars, and I think television has done that, especially for Canadians,” says Terry Lobzun, spokesperson for Collector Car Productions

“Think about the (U.S. television auction) show, where you have well-lubricated bidders, and they’re there with their friends on live television and it’s a competition and a sport, and that’s what has driven these prices to incredible levels. We don’t see that in Canada. We’re more conservative at prices.”

Another issue is that there aren’t as many “lost” vehicles as there used to be, which Lobzun says is because collectors, fuelled by shows such as Antiques Roadshow and American Pickers, have already found many of them.

“The whole concept (of American Pickers) is banging on doors, and that’s probably inspired a lot of people to do that,” he says. While there may be some 1970s cars still in old barns and garages, and perhaps even a few muscle cars, he estimates that most of the older and rarer vehicles have been found over the last twenty years or so.

So if you do find a gem hidden in a back corner, what should you do with it? At one time, they went straight to the restoration shop, since they were more valuable in like-new condition. But today, many collectors want them just as they were found, a condition colloquially known as “barn-fresh.”

Because restoration was usually the first step in the past, it’s difficult to find an old car today that’s exactly the same as when it was originally driven.

“It’s similar to archaeology, where you try to keep it as intact as you can,” Lobzun says. “If you’re pulling it out of a barn to resell it, don’t even wash it. You want to give the next person the opportunity to inspect it and know nothing’s been touched.

“I remember seeing an old Ferrari at one of the shows, and the dust and dirt was left as is, and it had a bird’s nest in it. You want to preserve its originality if you can.”

In addition to the historical value of an unrestored vehicle, there’s also the fact that restoration can be extremely expensive.
You may be willing to pay it for sentimental reasons—it was the model you learned to drive on, or one exactly like your grandfather owned—but if you’re doing it for resale, you can quickly chew through more money than you’ll ever get for the car. 

Many hobbyists just repair the mechanicals to make it safe and reliable, and then drive it looking as it did when found in the barn.

As far as collectability among mainstream models, Lobzun cuts it off at 1975. “The muscle car era was the last of what we call the ‘collectible cars,’ because in the mid-1970s you had the pollution equipment, the safety bumpers and all the electronics,” he says. 

“It was also the last decade where you could order a car with (specific) options, and that is what makes them rare. After that, they were Package A, Package B, the Luxury Edition. You could just license the Shelby name or slap a Pierre Cardin badge on it, and those cars aren’t bringing any money.”

With very few exceptions, a car that was expensive when new will be worth more today than one built for the masses. There were 15 million Ford Model Ts made, and a great many are still around. 

Given how many have been restored, a barn-fresh version may garner more interest with buyers.

But the truly rare cars, the ones most likely to be valuable today, were far more limited in sales: familiar names like Rolls-Royce or Bentley, and long-defunct ones such as Duesenberg, Packard, Cord, Peerless, and Pierce-Arrow. 

Some had bodies made by coachbuilders and these will be worth the most, especially one-offs designed specifically for their owners. 

Finding a forgotten one is the equivalent of winning the lottery, though. “Most people with a Duesenberg in the garage wouldn’t forget that they had put it there,” Lobzun says.

Although original cars are the most desirable overall, there are exceptions. Many Model Ts did farm duty or were crudely converted into trucks, and collectors may appreciate one with workhorse modifications made to it 80 years ago. 

Old hot rods and customized cars also have a loyal following, and one that was modified in the ’50s or ’60s and still carries its original speed-shop parts can be extremely valuable.

No matter what car you’ve found, the vehicle is only half the story. You also want to learn as much of its history as you can. 

“If it was a race car, having any information is so important,” Lobzun says. “If you know where it raced, if you have pictures of it, that could be 25 per cent of the value right there. Just having the documented history is so important, especially with photos, because that’s physical evidence of what it looked like originally.”

Your own documentation is also significant. Take pictures before you move the car—even before you move any stuff away from around it—and when you finally get it outside. 

Photograph every part of it, including the interior, trunk, and engine. If you do decide to restore it, document the process with photos. 

This will be important information for the buyer. And maybe one day, several decades from now, someone pulling it out of a barn again will be able to trace its long and storied history.