The Father & Son Hunting Team

Corvette in the Barn

Don and Keith Isley have the perfect father-and-son hobby: searching for old cars. The two have developed an eye for seeing cars that are virtually invisible to most enthusiasts. Take the Corvette that appears above. It was discovered by son Keith as the family was driving home to Greensboro, North Carolina, from a vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, four or five years ago.

“We had been driving for four or five hours,” said Keith, 17. That’s when he said to his father, “Stop!” Father Don thought something was the matter, so he quickly came to a stop. “What’s the matter?” he asked his son. “There’s a 1970 Dodge Challenger back there.”

So, as they had done so many times before, Don turned around the family car and drove back to the Challenger on the side of the road. All this happened without waking up a sleeping Mrs. Isley in the back seat.

The two enthusiasts spoke to the car’s owner for 30 to 40 minutes. The car wasn’t for sale, so they kept driving up the road.

One mile later, Keith yelled, “Stop!” “Now what?” asked Don. “I saw something in an old garage,” answered Keith. “I think it might have been James Dean’s Porsche.” Keith, at the time 12 years old, certainly had a robust imagination. “No more stopping, we need to get home,” said Don, who had more than an hour left to drive before they pulled in their driveway. Mrs. Isley still hadn’t woken from her sleep.

Hidden Vette

Keith never forgot that car in the garage. It was more than 100 feet off the road, surrounded by trees and partially blocked from view by cardboard boxes and other trash.

Six months later, again returning from a weekend at Myrtle Beach, he remembered the garage and this time convinced his dad to stop. Instead of James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder, the car-hunting duo found an old Corvette parked in the open garage. It was the ideal barn find.

“We knocked on the door of the house, but nobody was home,” said Don, 48. “So I left a business card in his mailbox with a note and kept driving toward home.”

The Isleys never heard from the Corvette’s owner, so Don did an Internet search for the name on the mailbox. Calling the phone number, he spoke to the woman who answered. “Oh, that car belongs to my son,” she said. “His number is unlisted, but I’ll give it to you.”

The next phone call began a relationship that continues today, nearly six years later.

The car belonged to Bill McKinnon, who purchased the 1960 Corvette as a used car in 1967 for $1,200. “I was nineteen or twenty years old and found it on a used car lot in Asheboro [North Carolina]. There were two Corvettes on the lot, a customized one and this one, which was original. I decided the original one looked better, so I bought it. The car had about sixty thousand miles on it when I bought it.”

It was McKinnon’s everyday car from 1967 until the mid-1980s, when he parked it in his garage with about 120,000 miles on the odometer.

Corvette Uncovered

“We offered to buy the car from Bill, but it wasn’t for sale,” said Don. “Then we offered to take the car out of his garage, clean the car and the garage, and install a proper garage door, but he said it could stay there just fine. “So I asked him if we could stop by and visit next time we drove by, and Bill said, ‘Sure.’”

The Isleys also offered to bring the Corvette to a warehouse his brother owned in Greensboro for secure storage. They even offered to get the car running and go through the mechanics, but McKinnon wasn’t interested. On one of the family’s biannual trips to Myrtle Beach, Don and Keith stopped at McKinnon’s and gave him a gift: a copy of my book, The Hemi in the Barn. Inside they wrote a nice message and their name and phone number.

“Our fingers are still crossed that one day we’ll get that phone call from Bill that he’s ready to sell us the car,” said Don.

 

Buying a Collector’s Collection

The Isley boys, father Don and son Keith, have it figured out. Rather than search for one interesting car here and another there, they search out older car collectors who often have several cars in the garage or in the “lower 40.” Here’s how they lucked onto a multiple gold mine:

“We were riding down the road one day and went past an old homestead,” said Don. “We had driven past the place many times, but this time the garage door was open, and inside we saw a 1969 Camaro.

“A nice older gentleman spoke to us for a long time. It turns out he was a retired engineer from AT&T in Burlington, North Carolina, near Elon, the town where we lived at the time. For many years, he would buy an interesting car, use it for a while, then put it up.” The gentleman had good taste; inside the garage and various carports that had not been visible from the road sat a 1969 Corvette, 1965 Mustang convertible, 1956 Ford Thunderbird, 1930 Model A Tudor, and two 1950 Fords, a coupe and a convertible.

Outside there were many, many more vehicles. Behind the garage sat three motor homes, three boats, several later Thunderbirds, a couple of Cougars, and some 1970s Camaros. In what resembled an apple orchard toward the back of his property, sat at least 20 more cars that, according to Isley, had been there for 20 or more years. Included in that group were Cadillacs, Mercurys, Rancheros, some tractors, and a fairly nice 1949 Ford pickup.

“He had a compressor and some tools in a back garage,” said Isley. “It seemed he liked to tinker. “He showed us everything and enjoyed spending time with us. We were mostly interested in the Camaro for Keith, but he said he could never sell that car because, ‘My wife would kill me.’”

They didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last time they would speak with the gentleman. Don and Keith said thank you and departed. They waited six months, called the house and spoke to the man’s wife.

“Yeah, I know he spoke to someone and showed you his cars, but nothing is ever going to be for sale,” she said.

They waited six months and then called, and the wife told them the same thing.

Six months later when Don called, there was no answer. He found out through a man in town that the family had moved to Florida and actually sold the property but retained lifetime rights to keep the cars parked there.

Six more months and Don searched for the couple in Florida through the Internet. He wrote an email letter offering to help the couple get the cars running. “We never heard from them,” said Don.

The town of Burlington is in Alamance County. At the time, a new ordinance was passed that restricted property owners to no more than two unregistered cars visible from the road, and they had to be covered. “When we made our semiannual phone call, the wife said that she knew of the new restriction, and that, ‘We’ll have to come up there to straighten it out,’” said Isley. “But we didn’t hear from her again.”

Once when Don and Keith were traveling to the 24 Hour Race at Daytona, they attempted to visit the couple in nearby Astor, Florida, near Deland on the St. John’s River. But as usual, they left a message and never received a reply. “We’re about four and one half years into this relationship at this point, and we were still going nowhere,” said Don. Or so he thought.

“The wife called and told us her son, who lived in Greensboro, wanted to talk to us. It turns out that the older gentleman had Alzheimer’s disease and was unable to manage his affairs. “She told us that the man who bought their Burlington property had paid them additional money so he could begin construction of a subdivision immediately, so the cars had to go.”

When Don and Keith spoke to the son, he asked them to make a list of the cars they were interested in and how much they were willing to pay. Their list included the 1956 Thunderbird, the two 1950 Fords, the 1949 Ford pickup, and two Cougars. And of course, the Camaro.

“The son met us over there and we made him an offer on each car,” he said. “He told us that his stepfather had purchased the ’56 T-Bird in 1958 from Atwater Ford, the local Burlington Ford agency on Main Street. It had only fifty-six thousand four hundred miles on it. “It was in nice condition even though the roof in the garage leaked on the car every time it rained.

“He told us he wanted a little more money than we offered him for the Thunderbird, but once we upped that, he agreed to sell us everything except the Camaro, which was a four-speed RS/SS. That car was given to him by his stepdad.”

Finally, by March 2009, Isley was able to buy the collection’s most desirable cars.

Out of the blue soon after the transaction, Don received a phone call from a man in Burlington. “I heard you bought a few of those old cars,” he said. “I’ve been trying to buy that 1950 Ford convertible from him for twenty years, but that old bastard wouldn’t sell it. I’d like to buy it from you if you’re interested.”

“So I decided to sell the Ford to him,” said Don. “He bought it and has done a nice job on it.

“Funny thing was, when we started dragging cars out of there, lots of people would stop by there and tell us they’d been trying to buy these cars for thirty-five years. “I sold the ’49 Ford pickup to one guy who stopped by as we were loading up cars on trailers.” While the Isleys were loading up their stash, other collectors who had purchased cars from the son were also loading up cars. According to Don, one man bought all the Falcons and Rancheros, another bought all the pickup trucks.

“People were lined up there all day Saturday,” said Don. Of all the people who had attempted to purchase the collection of cars, it was Don and Keith Isley who had the patience and perseverance to see it through.

What a great gift a father can pass onto his son.

 

We hope you enjoyed these stories. Automobiles may have this father’s and son’s passion, but we are sure that the time they spent together and the memories they created are worth more than any car they may have dragged home. Happy Father’s Day! ~Jesse

 

corvette-in-the-barn-cover

This story originally appeared in Tom Cotter’s The Corvette in the Barn.

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Comments

  1. Dolphin Member

    When I hear stories about car collections like this that were only sold off after the owner passed on to that great garage / warehouse / junkyard in the sky (take your pick) I wonder whether the thought “The one who dies with the most toys wins” was at play here.

  2. David

    I would love to see pictures of the cars they rescued! A great story of perserverance for the Isley’s, but a sad story nonetheless. That guy maintained a tight grip on his old vehicles, even when they had moved away. He could have sold his vehicles left and right over the years, yet prefered to hang on to them. Why? Good thing his wife kept track of the guys who were interested in his vehicles or they might have all been hauled to the wrecking yard! I just don’t understand this mentality.

  3. scot

    ~ this is wonderful Father’s day episode of ‘In The Barn’.

  4. Jeff

    Great story, I share the same thoughts as Dolphin & David. Some people are motivated by power or wealth, when you lack one you might make it up with fulfilling the other. In this case it might be “Power” (having something others want), just my opinion as I cant think of another reason why so many hoarders are so selfish in denying true car buffs the satisfaction of a “Rescue/Restore” experience.

    • Thomas Bean

      People don’t like change. Visual change when cars are gone….might seem like a loss in wealth or memories or dreams. Some don’t know what the value is….and don’t bother unless they need cash. Some don’t want to bother with figuring out the stress of thinking “did I get screwed” or not? Others are defensive when strangers show up wanting something like a favor……regardless of the value question. Why change wealth positions…when you can look at your stockpile and feel good about having something that strangers slobber over. You guys made this guy feel wealthy and smug as a success….in his own mind.

  5. jim

    another great story, keep them coming. thanks

  6. Ben Dobrie (Dobreuenaski)

    Thought you might like to know Ed Walther of Walthers auto wrecking passed away May 22nd. He was a great source of parts back in the day.

  7. Father Coughlin

    Great stuff! What a wonderful Dad!

  8. Bryan Cohn

    I’ll go one step further than Dolphin, Dave and Jeff: Its not just having something others want, its denying others the opportunity that really gets these people their jollies.

    Wee see this in all walks of life: business, family, work, hobbies, you name it. In order for me to “WIN” its not enough for you to “LOSE”, but I have to deny you the chance to play.

    Frankly I do not have the patience to chase like this father/son pair. Instead, in situations like this I hope the owner never reaps the benefit of his hoarding and that his heirs lose out as well. Not cause I’m mean, but because its a just ending. It also helps the value of those cars that survive.

    Sorry, I know this sounds petty and mean. The hoarders are all that plus worse, they have no respect for their bounty.

    • Thomas Bean

      Maybe you should make a much better sales pitch….with higher offers.

      Are you guilty of what you project onto hoarders, who…….ahem……..actually own the vehicle and enjoyed the deal they negotiated at their purchase day.

      Memories exist…..and cars evoke those memories…..why do you want to steal the fetish of power (the car) that keeps good memories alive for those who actually own the car? Maybe your lowball offers……..are insulting…….and not worth loseing the memories?
      I don’t like fast talking, lowballing car flippers……..and, “your opportunity” might be my loss regardless of the cash. Cash………it all looks the same……but, a Lincoln Mark II, is rare indeed.

  9. Noah

    I would love to see some pictures of the collection. Anybody?

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