The Man Behind the Books (And the Wheel) Getting to Know Tom Cotter
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read Tom Cotter’s books that when he picked up the phone for our interview, he was entering Chicago, towing a 1965 Ford AC Cobra in his trailer, en route from Maine to Idaho. Mr. Cotter, author of well over a dozen books on the classic car hobby, most recently Motor City Barn Finds, has more than done his time on the road, exploring big cities and small towns on his search for the next great barn find and car enthusiast story to tell. Most surprising is likely the fact that he was driving a Ford pickup truck, instead of his ever present 1939 Ford Woodie Wagon.
Though located on the east coast, originally from Long Island, New York and now living in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mr. Cotter’s love for the classic car has taken him on adventures across Route 66, Cuba and Detroit, just to name a few. A car enthusiast from the very start, his history in several facets of the classic car world, including building one of the most successful motorsport PR companies in the industry, Mr. Cotter has now found a home in the world of classic car writing, exploring the depth of the hobby, specifically the barn find, as he explores the country.
“To me, these books are not as much about the cars as they are about the people,” Mr. Cotter says, speaking of the characters and personalities that show through so clearly in his many works. “[Cars] are catalysts to bring human interest stories to the fore.”
And in that regard, Tom Cotter is one very interesting man. When asked of his own collection, he explained that he likes a little of everything, from Shelby Mustangs to racing Corvettes to the Cunningham he coveted for years and found in a basement in Greenville, North Carolina, owned by a man who originally had no plans of selling the car.
“The fact that I could find a car that I dreamed about owning, it doesn’t seem real. I dreamed about owning a Cunningham for 25 years,” Mr. Cotter says, of the rare find, one of just 25 cars produced. Of course, he doesn’t stop there, including small cars, such as Mini Coopers, in his dream car list, or to put it more concisely, anything from a Hemi engine to cars with 36 horsepower and everything in between.
And he had found much of the in between, while researching for his books over the years. Along with a photographer, such as Michael Alan Ross, his partner on Motor City Barn Finds, Mr. Cotter hits the road in search of people with stories to tell. And, as any car enthusiast knows, there are plenty of stories to tell. It is much in part due to Mr. Cotter’s passion and drive – literally and figuratively, that the barn find trend is so incredibly popular today. His first book on the subject, Cobra in the Barn, which came out in late in 2005, was right at the forefront of the barn find hobby, proving to the car enthusiast that a car doesn’t have to be shiny to shine.
“I guess it goes back to being an adventurous 12-year-old trying to find pirate’s treasure,” Mr. Cotter explains, of his specific love for the oft-abandoned classics. “I think this is an adult form of finding treasure and sometimes you find gold.”
Anyone who has followed Mr. Cotter’s adventures, whether through the pages of his books or on his multi-media program with Hagerty, Barn Find Hunter, knows that Mr. Cotter has found gold – and he has done so organically. In Motor City Barn Finds, for example, the first book where Mr. Cotter ever stayed in one place for more than a day, he headed out to Detroit with only one lead in his pocket. Of course, after a single Cars and Coffee event upon arrival, he had more than enough leads to write a series of books, and he followed the trails all across the city, learning of new ones all the time.
“I find cars the old-fashioned way. I find cars the way they were found when I was a kid,” he says, preempting the stories of when he used to live in Long Island and would spend long Saturdays out on his bike or two feet searching for cars. “I keep it purposefully low tech and unplugged, anyone can imagine doing it…Go out on a Saturday morning and have the right attitude. I’m not going to come home until I find a barn find Ford of 1940 or earlier.”
Over the years, Mr. Cotter has learned the best techniques for getting strangers to talk to him about their cars. One is in the form of his 1939 Ford Woodie Wagon, a hidden find he bought at just fifteen, well before he began driving, and which has done nearly as many miles around the country as Mr. Cotter himself.
“Car people have this way of bonding very quickly, and they can tell if you’re authentic or not, that’s why I drive the Woodie, it proves I’m an enthusiast, it proves I’m authentic,” he says, going on to explain how once he’s up the driveway, he engages barn find owners and classic car hobbyists in ways that make them trust him and invite him to look at their car. And if the volume of work he has produced is any indication, his methods are effective. From the photography to the stories, Mr. Cotter has been invited into a great many places, and his hard work more than shows through in his books.
Of course, he’s far from finished. Despite expressing a favoritism toward writing biographies, Mr. Cotter recently completed a trip for his next book, likely coming out next June. For it, he drove a 1926 Ford Model T Speedster across the Lincoln Highway, the oldest cross-country road in America, dating back to 1913 and stretching from Times Square, New York to San Francisco, California, a trip that he believes is soon going to be a thing of the past, or rather, more recent past.
“This book is about the last road trip,” he explains. “Driving the way people did 100 years ago on a road people drove 100 years ago as kind of a last piece of liberty.” As someone intimately acquainted with the classic car hobby’s passing of time, Mr. Cotter believes the days of meandering road trips and, yes, even barn finds are limited. Soon the GPS and self-driving technology will turn road trips into exercises in efficiency and expedience, and cars that have maybe already been saved once or twice will not be so lucky a third time, as the more collectable finds get snatched up and preserved and the less valuable cars are passed onto younger, less interested family members.
But Mr. Cotter does have some hope for the future of the classic car hobby. He speaks of eras past, where enthusiasts and naysayers alike wondered about the world around them.
“The car companies stopped building muscle cars and they started building cars like the Mustang II,” he says on a laugh. “I remember telling my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, well I guess that’s the muscle car of the future, I guess we’ve seen the best there is, the GTOs, the Road Runners and the Boss 302s. But look at it now! When I was 22-years-old I never would have imagined I would see this time come so maybe it’s not all doom and gloom.”
Regardless, Mr. Cotter will continue writing about the cars that the world loves and the cars that history has left behind, and he encourages other enthusiasts and writers to do the same. Write, he says, for anyone or anything that will have you. Consider it your volunteer work until you can find a job that pays. This, coming from a man who spent 17 years writing his first book and is now working on new releases at one or two a year.
And while he acknowledges that some things are going to change, Mr. Cotter is adamant about one element when it comes to the passage of time, keep the car as original as possible.
“You take all the character out of it,” he explained, “I’m very much a preservation guy. I probably own fifteen interesting cars and I have two that have been restored. The rest I enjoy just the way they are.”
And whether on the Lincoln Highway, exploring the streets of Cuba or recording the lives of famous race car drivers and classic enthusiasts, that’s exactly how we enjoy his books.
Images provided by Tom Cotter.