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Q&A with Tom Cotter, Lifetime Car Enthusiast

Chris Harrell

Tom Cotter Woodie

Tom Cotter is known by some as a barn find "master", including his Barn Find Road Trip book series. He is known by others for a myriad of other car-related endeavors: Tom has spent a lifetime immersed in the automotive industry and culture, including auto repair, parts sales, car sales, and auto racing public relations. But these are just the tip of the iceberg for a man who defies labels when it comes to car enthusiasts. We sat down with Cotter last month at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas and talked to him about everything from the genesis of his car passion to his current projects. 

RGC: Tell us about your love of cars. When and how did it begin? Is it a family thing?

TC: It’s the only thing I do. I know nothing else. No one else in my family shares my lifetime passion.

RGC: You’ve had a unique opportunity to experience many facets of the automotive industry and community, as a journalist, as an innovator in automotive PR, and as a racer, just to name a few. Tell us about your story, and how your professional life has intertwined with your personal passion for cars and the car community. What are some standout experiences?

TC: I am the luckiest guy alive; I work hard every day, but I’ve never worked a day in my life. It began as a hobby that I managed to find a way to make into a career. I’ve touched every area of the industry: mechanic, salesman, PR and marketing professional, author, journalist, historian, racer. Collector, restorer, educator, advisor, etc. I was once told to find a field and learn everything about it. I feel that I have reached that point in automobiles. And I am very lucky.

Tom Cotter 2 Wheels

RGC: In your opinion, how has the automotive industry and community changed over the years, for better and worse?

TC: It’s hard to say. The industry goes through cycles. Sometimes it employs car people and sometimes it seeks consumer product folks to learn the car business (which has almost always turned out to be a failure.) The ideal scenario is when a competent car guy is employed in the car industry. I’d prefer if every executive within the automobile industry occasionally get a little dirt under their fingernails.

RGC: We understand you own several interesting cars. Which are your favorites, and why? What is your daily driver?

TC: Daily driver: 2004 Mini Cooper S with a JCW package. Favorite cars that I own: 289 Cobra, Cunningham C-3 Coupe, 1939 Ford Woody. Plus a vintage Mini, a Morris Minor, GT 350, vintage VW (with a supercharger!), 1932 Ford Hiboy, etc. I have a very eclectic taste in vehicles.

Tom Cotter Mini

RGC: Tell us about the annual Woody party that you host at your home. What other interesting car-related events do you enjoy most?

TC: Tom’s Annual Woody Party, 18 years and counting, is an amazing celebration of automobiles, attracting attendees from across the United States. Limited to 300 people, it is my favorite day of the year. I apply the K.I.S.S. principle to the party, and to nearly everything else I do – Keep It Simple, Stupid. There are no awards, no announcements, no entertainment, just diehard enthusiasts spending several wonderful hours together.

Tom Cotter Woody

RGC: The classic car community has grown exponentially in recent years, and is now—in many ways—the focal point of popular culture. Why do you think this is, and will it last?

TC: I am not sure I agree with that statement. To me there are far fewer enthusiasts today than in years past. In the past, every high school boy had a hot rod they were building at home, or driving a race car. Today youngsters are more interested in social media. Many don’t even want a driver’s license. Look at every car club of note: the membership is “graying,” and no youngsters are filling in the ranks. I believe that television and social media is making the car hobby seem larger, but my belief is that the population is actually shrinking. I’m not discounting the drifting and rice-rocket/import crowd, but in reality, that crowd is pretty small.

Tom Cotter Mustang

RGC: Is there anyone in the car community (builder, racer, etc.) whose work you find particularly interesting or inspiring?

TC: Michael Alan Ross is my hero… My other hero is Roger Penske.

RGC: We share your passion and appreciation for classic cars. Are there any late model cars that elicit a similar passion for you?

TC: I really dig the new GT 350 Mustang. I really like the 2016 Mazda Miata/MX5. In actuality, all new cars are pretty darn good.

Tom Cotter Driving

RGC: Tell us about the “Barn Find Road Trip” book series. How did you come up with the idea? What are some of the highlights and most memorable moments from meeting people, finding cars, and creating the books?

TC: The book series is simply an extension of what I was already doing. It came about quite by accident, but spurred a series of television programs (American Pickers, Chasing Classic Cars, etc.), none of which existed prior. And a number of copy-cat books have been published. Thankfully, my books are the official “franchise,” and are generally viewed as the trendsetting books in the field. The books are all about the people, not the pistons or the sheetmetal. I seek to discover the human interest story with each car I find. Cars are simply catalysts to bring out interesting stories.

Tom Cotter Barn Find Leno

RGC: What is your next big project or event?

TC: Pull and rebuild the engine in the vintage Mini (1964); help my son work on his BMW; install a new carburetor on my latest acquisition, a 1967 Ford Country Squire; install the rebuilt fuel injection on my Corvette race car.

Tom Cotter Vette

Follow Tom Cotter on Instagram: @thebarnfindhunter
Images © 2016 Michael Alan Ross and Tom Cotter

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  • Linda Zehnder-Wibholm on

    Hi Tom, we enjoy your videos very much. We own a 1938 Buick Special, unfortunately the cylinder head needs to be replaced. Do you know where we could find one? We have tried ebay etc without any luck. Hope to hear back.
    Thanks Hugo and Linda (we live in Switzerland)

  • Frank Palmer on

    Hi Tom, I have to agree you are the luckiest guy in the world. Was talking to Tom Cross tonite, says he’s heading to your annual party. I’m sure you guys will gave a great time. I bought the two Oldsmobiles from Tom’s friend, Ted Levey’s family that you showcased on your show. Ever in N.Ky.
    area stop by, plenty of barns around here for you to check out. Have fun.

  • stephen a jones on

    Hello, Tom Cotter! My previous message may not have gone through. The gist of it was: I enjoy your enthusiasm and intelligence in presenting the Barn Find episodes, which I get via the Hagerty website. And I share your concern (dismay?) about the fading connection of young people and the automobile. All the VERY best in your many activities. Cheers, sj (Kitchener, Ontario, west of Toronto).

  • stephen a jones on

    Hello, Tom Cotter! I enjoy your enthusiasm and your intelligent presentation of the Barn Find quests — along with the interesting cars and characters, of course — which I get via the Hagerty website. As you’ve observed, it certainly is a different world today so far as young people and cars are concerned. Maybe some of us older gents will become like the guys who curate steam tractors and threshing machines. Fifty years ago we thought they were … really old… Sigh…. All the VERY best in your many activities. Cheers, sj (Kitchener, Ontario, west of Toronto).

  • Ronnie Braine on

    Hi Tom,
    I live in Australia and are classic car man from way back, with a few classics of my own.
    What a great series you have on barn finds. I just love it. Best show going around by far and you do a great job. I have been coming to your great country every 2 years for a long time now and have always done road trips all over USA and love it.
    Keep up the great work.
    Kind regards.

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