If you read about the family of an elderly doctor finding a rare 1937 Bugatti Type 57S in his garage in December, 2008, don't be too surprised. Granted, there are stories circulating all the time about lucky people finding rare cars in barns or old garages, much in the way these folks did in England. The Bugatti, by the way, is extremely rare and one of only 17 made. It will rake in millions when it's sold in Paris in February.
Most of us only read in envy about other people's luck. I'm no exception, and this story reminds me of one time I came very close to such a find. It took place about 25 years ago and within 15 blocks of my house in Arlington VA. The neighborhoods here date from the 20s and 30s, so in the late 70s and early 80s there were plenty of houses around where elderly people were living. Younger people like me were buying houses that came on sale and doing major renovations on them.
There was one such house located on a steep hill on the street next to the local supermarket. I went down that street every week for at least 5 years while on my way grocery shopping and occasionally glanced at the decaying under-house garage door as I passed by. I never stopped to take a closer look nor did I ever see anyone stirring inside the house. It was just an old house.
One day on my way to the grocery store I saw a flatbed truck in the driveway of the old house. Two guys were attaching the winch cable to the front end of what was obviously a 1966 Mustang fastback. I stopped the car and walked close enough to see that it was a Shelby GT 350.
A short conversation with one of the guys loading the car revealed that the old lady who lived there had passed away and her daughter sold off everything in the house, including the car. He bought the car for $500. He also bought a lathe, table saw and drill press that had belonged to the old lady's long-passed husband. He said he paid $50 for all three.
So it goes. I only had myself to blame, as I'd never taken the initiative to see who lived there and if there was anything for sale. I'd like to think I would have offered to pay a more appropriate amount for the car and machinery, though.
The point of the Bugatti and Mustang stories is that there are terrific "barn finds" out there to be discovered. Granted, the era when there were automotive treasures lurking in garages all over the country is over, and it's not too likely you'll find an AC Cobra sitting in someone's garden shed.
There are a bunch of 50s and 60s Corvettes lurking in undiscovered storage places, though. Chevrolet made a lot of them and even though most are either restored or parted out, statistically there are hundreds — maybe thousands — more just sitting there waiting for some lucky buyer to open a door or lift a canvas cover.
All it takes to find one is to keep your eyes open, ask around and put yourself in situations where you might be able to generate opportunity. It isn't impolite to walk up to someone's door and ask if there are any old cars in the barn or garage. The worst that can happen is an unfriendly reply to "leave me alone." Most of the time, however, you'll find that the person will respond in a cordial manner and, if you're lucky, mention that some friend or neighbor has an old car nearby that they'd probably sell.
The rule is; if you don't ask you won't ever know.
It's all well and good to find a great old collectible and take it home, but what about getting a legal title for it? As likely as not the person who sold it to you won't be able to find any old paperwork, so what do you do with your bill of sale or cancelled check?
Generally speaking in most states you can get a "Registration Certificate" for pre-1967 cars. This, for all intents and purposes, becomes that vehicle's title. However, since the vehicle probably hasn't been registered for decades there's no real proof of ownership that makes the bill of sale legitimate. It's a judgment call in each case, but be prepared to talk with your state DMV office.
Georgia, Alabama, Vermont, Michigan, Pennsylvania and a number of other states issue registration certificates for vehicles without titles, but you do need to provide some sort of proof of ownership or at least make a convincing argument. There are a number of title companies on the internet that will go through the title process in various states for you — for a fee, of course. You can also retain an attorney to get your car titled in most states.
Basically it isn't all that hard to title an old vehicle when you don't have the proper paperwork but you really need to do some research in your state before going off to seek that barn find.