Between the Lines: Tom Cotter

The title on Davidson resident Tom Cotter's business card reads: "Certified Car Geek." For the past 30 years, Cotter has worked on nearly every end of the car business: mechanic, car sales, automotive public relations and marketing executive, auto racing authority, historian, racer, collector, restorer, journalist, and author. He has authored 10 automotive books, including most of the popular In the Barn series for Motorbooks. He has written for the New York Times and Road & Track magazine, as well as hosted the Hagerty-sponsored YouTube series Barn Find Hunter.. When he sat down at his keyboard to respond to MSB's interview questions, you can be sure that he had grease under his fingernails.

On Saturday, May 26th, Tom Cotter and a Ford Model T will be parked outside Main Street Books, where Tom will sign copies of his new book, Ford Model T Coast to Coast: A Slow Drive Across a Fast Country, and chat about old cars. 


MAIN STREET BOOKS: How did you learn to restore cars? Are you self-taught or did you have a mentor?

TOM COTTER: I’m pretty much self-taught, having started working with my father in the backyard.  I’m also a voracious reader and learned a lot from magazines. Luckily I also benefited from auto shop class in high school. And as a teenager, I hung around “old timers” who taught me many tricks of the trade.


MSB: Is it correct that among the many professional hats you’ve worn is that of race car driver? If so, what types of cars did you race?

TC: I’ve raced cars since my 20s and still race today (64), but always on an amateur basis. I began road racing a Pinto (believe it or not), went to a Datsun 510, a Mini Cooper and a Morris Minor, all four-cylinder cars.  Several years ago, I graduated to a big-boy car: a 1964 Corvette. Now, I’m in love with V-8 power! I raced it in April at Road Atlanta, plan to race it in May in West Virginia and again at Lime Rock, Connecticut, over Labor Day weekend.  Three or four times a year is enough.


MSB: How and why did Tom’s Annual Woody Party begin? Can you tell us more about the concept?

TC: I bought a 1939 Ford Woody Wagon at 15-years-old for $300, hoping to restore it before I received my driver’s license. That never happened, and after toiling alongside my father for several years, I sold the car to a collector in Puerto Rico in 1973. In 1998, my wife, Pat, rediscovered the car in Puerto Rico, and eventually I was able to repurchase the car. I decided it would be fun to invite a few friends over to celebrate the car’s homecoming. Now, 20 years later, I must limit attendance to 300, with folks coming from all over the United States. Participants must donate a gift card to a local supermarket. All gift cards are then given to the Ada Jenkins Center. Lately, the total amount of contributions have exceeded $10K.


MSB: How did your path cross with car photographer Michael Alan Ross’ path?

TC: Michael is a brilliant photographer, who I am so lucky to have met. We’ve done five books together, and our styles and work ethics seem to be complementary. We met at a car show about 10 or 12 years ago, and we’ve become great friends and collaborators since.


MSB: In an interview with Retrograde Classics, you said, “Cars are simply catalysts to bring out interesting stories.” What is the most interesting story you’ve uncovered via an automobile?

TC: Cars and car people are an amazing source of interesting stories. Without the stories, cars are just hardware, which I would not have much interest in writing about. 


There are so many stories: the elderly woman in Texas whose husband had died of ALS. She was broke and about to lose her home when she called me about the value of her deceased husband’s 1955 Porsche Speedster that had been sitting in the garage. When that car was sold, for more than $300K, it gave her the finances to live comfortably for the rest of her life.

Another is the rare 1932 Ford Roadster pickup a young 12-year-old collector discovered in a barn near his home. He asked the farmer if the truck was for sale. “No, but I like you. Come back from time-to-time,” the farmer told him. He came back throughout high school and college, and the two became friends. As time went on, both men continued to meet with each other on an annual basis. When the farmer died, he left the younger enthusiast the 1932 Ford in his Will. The enthusiast was 62-years-old when he finally became the car’s owner.


MSB: You’ve also hosted a YouTube series. . .what was it like to be in front of the camera? How much license did Hagerty give you to do and say what you wanted?

TC: I had been approached by many producers over the years about hosting a Barn Find television show, but they all insisted on drama, urgency, and tension, all fabricated. I was not interested. When Hagerty Insurance approached me four years ago, they said I could just be me, which was very relieving. Now in my third season, I am very comfortable in front of a camera. I work with a dedicated and talented crew based at Hagerty’s headquarters in Traverse City, Michigan. We get together for four or five days each month somewhere in the United States, and I search for old cars. It has been an amazing experience. And my old 1939 Ford Woody is a constant character in the program. We have visited California, Texas, New England, Michigan, Arizona, Nevada and even North Carolina. And this July we’ll shoot an episode in Alaska!


MSB: How long did it take to track down all of the musicians interviewed in Rockin’ Garages? Who were you most nervous about talking to and why?

TC: The hardest part about writing the rock-and-roll book was digging through layers of managers and agents in order to speak to the actual artist about their love of cars or motorcycles. I made so many wonderful friends: Billy Joel, J Giles, Keith Urban, Pat Simmons from the Doobie Brothers, Nick Mason from Pink Floyd. They all make their living as rock musicians, but their passions are cars and bikes. My only regret is not being able to interview Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, or Bruce Springsteen, all of whom are car guys. I was unable to break through their wall of gate keepers.



MSB: What factors did you take into consideration when charting the course of your slow drive across a fast country?

TC: Driving a Model T across the United States was a life-long, bucket-list event. It was very much an historical reenactment, as well as a protest of the fast-approaching driverless car revolution. In the near future, will riders in driverless cars have the choice of driving on secondary roads, lodging in historic hotels, or eating in classic American diners?  I think not, which is a major loss of freedom.

The planning factors included choosing an appropriate route (Lincoln Highway), driving a reliable example of a Model T, developing a contingency plan in case the car broke down (it didn’t), preparing for both cold and hot weather, etc. All-in-all, it was a wonderful experience that I would gladly do again. 


MSB: It seems really fitting (and so cool!) that Henry Ford III wrote the introduction to Ford Model T Coast to Coast. Was it your idea to have the introduction penned by his hand? How did you get in contact with him?

TC: I thought it appropriate that Henry Ford’s great-grandson author the foreword since we were driving the car that Henry made famous throughout the world. He put America on wheels with a car that was cheap and, in our case, still operating reliably almost 100-years later.  

Under his great-grandson, Ford Motor Company is again at the cusp of revolutionizing transportation, but instead of moving the world from horse-and-buggy to horseless carriages, Ford is introducing driverless cars.  

Ford Motor Company was a client of mine for many years when I was in the public relations and marketing world, so getting Henry Ford III’s involvement was easier than getting Bruce Springsteen to contribute to my rock-and-roll book!