The Shelby in the Barn Mystery

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The barn find… it is the legend of all car collectors and enthusiasts. This is the story of such a barn find and it is true, but it is much more than the discovery of a low mileage collectable. It is a story with an attachment of tragedy.

The person involved first heard a story about an old man that had an ultra-low mileage Shelby Mustang in storage. The car never left the barn and had been there since it was almost new. He heard this story again and again over the years as he continued his quest to find a nice Shelby Mustang for his own collection.

In the days prior to eBay or Craigslist the way to find cars was by scouring swap meets, classified advertisements, and garage sales, looking to find original Mustang and Shelby parts. Along with the search for parts and pieces he would ask if anyone had heard the story of the old man with the Shelby in the barn. Many said that, yes, they too had heard the story, but no one had anything new to add.

Then he met George, who worked in a junkyard about fifty miles from where he had first heard the story. This junkyard was not a used auto parts service or a “wired in” auto salvage operation. This was a junkyard, old school style, nothing more and nothing less. George had worked there most, if not all, of his life. George knew his stuff, his profession, and his junk. This collector treated George with respect, and over time George told him about where the old man and the Shelby was.

He offered George twenty dollars, which was refused. He just said, “Thank you”, and wished our searcher good luck.

It didn’t take long for him to find the place that George had described. It was a series of Quonset-style buildings on the 1950’s vintage. There were four or five of them in a row that essentially were left in almost suspended animation when the nearby highway was put in. Some of the buildings were industrial looking and some were military looking, but if you squinted your eyes you could tell that at one time this was a fully functional service station in the post-war style.

While many of these places have been bypassed and crumbled into the landscape or were plowed down for shopping centers, this was the exception. The fuel pumps were long gone, along with the signs, outside air pump, vending machines, and pay phone, but it was easy to see where they once were. This was not an abandoned garage; this was an unplanned museum to the time when interstates were not limited access and went through every town. It brought back memories of the era of Route 66. The garage’s doors were shut and had no windows in them, but the main building did have windows. He shut off his truck and got out, looking the surrounding over, waiting for someone to appear. Cars were parked randomly on either side of the building and none were younger than twenty years old. It wasn’t clear if they were here to be fixed, sold, or were just sitting there collecting dust. A couple still had license plates mounted on them.

The silence was intimidating. He eventually approached the windows and peered in. No one seemed to be about, but through the dirty glass he could see the Shelby, the legendary barn find, sitting there. He could tell that it was an early Mustang, and it appeared to have the correct color, stripes, wheels, and features of a Shelby. It was just as George had described.

Finding no one about, he left, but returned several times over the next couple of months. He finally summoned up the courage to try to find someone inside. On this attempt he found a heavyset man in his early eighties. He acted like it was everyday occurrences to have someone walk into his building. He was just as George had described and from a hand painted sign on the wall it was clear that his name was Frank booth, and he was the proprietor of the place. Frank was busy working under a droplight on one of about forty cars in the building. It was hard to tell much more as his was the only light on in this dark, silent space. The building had been added onto many times and seemed to disappear into the darkness in all directions.

Now inside, he told Frank, that he had noticed the Shelby through the window as he was driving by, which they both knew was a fib. He asked Frank if it was for sale. “No”.

“A lot of people try and buy it,” said Frank. At a loss for words, our collector looked about the walls and spied a large framed picture of a B-24 Liberator. Hoping that he could keep Frank from believing that he was just like all the other guys who got this far, he asked Frank if he flew Liberators. “No,” Frank said with a bit of a laugh. After a moment Frank broke into a warm smile and said, “Those planes were not meant to fly, worked on them though.”

He sked if Frank minded if he looked at the Shelby, and was told to go ahead. The hood was open and the front of the car was up on jack stands. He took his time and went over the car carefully stem to stern. He found that all the parts unique to this year Shelby were there and the odometer read just over four thousand miles. He even crawled under the car and what he saw confirmed to him that , yes, this car had only seen four thousand miles. It was a surreal feeling of information overload, but he kept his head and got a small disposable camera from his truck and took several photographs, including the VIN (vehicle identification number).

The passenger side front fender had primer where a minor dent had been repaired from about the center of the axle forward. The hood also appeared to have been replaced, but it was an original Shelby hood. The rest of the car had its original paint that had not been exposed to the sun, and there was absolutely no sign of rust. This car had clearly been in inside storage for decades.

For the next six years he would continue to drop by and see if the car was still there and if Frank had changed his mind about selling the Shelby. He found that Frank, like many senior citizens, was polite and would engage in conversation when he would visit. In those conversations he learned that Frank and his wife, who seemed to possess a remarkable recall of all things relating to cars in their garage, had no children and had spent their life working together repairing and selling automobiles out of this garage. This place was a testament to their life together and where they were age-wise in their lives.

In those conversations Frank told him that he had bought the car from a guy who had it in storage since the late sixties, and yes, it was the original mileage. He hinted that he would probably sell it eventually.

Meanwhile he ran the VIN. His profession allowed him to develop close relationships with people who had access to most state, federal, and public databases in the US, that relate to motor vehicles. Strangely, there was no record of this car ever existing. Ever. Apparently, this Shelby was never bought, sold, registered, insured, inspected, in an accident, or stolen… not on any government data base. How could a car that physically existed never have left a paper record of any type anywhere?

One of his contacts was a retired state trooper who explained how it might have happened. In the 1960’s, before microfilm and computers, car registrations were stored on hardcopy paper records. All someone had to do, as long as they had access, was to pull the hard copy out of the file and never put it back. When departments of motor vehicles nationwide converted to microfilm, formal titles, sales tax, and eventually convert to computer databases, if the paper record was missing it would never exist. No hard copy to convert from – no record. Like this Shelby, it would never have existed.

This retired trooper had spent a good part of his career investigating auto theft, so he asked him how often this kind of thing happened. “No, not often, but it definitely happened, probably more often than we ever knew.” He was asked who might have had access to hardcopy records. “Anybody with law enforcement credentials, just like today. You never know, a low mileage car, maybe it was only driven with dealer plates.”

Maybe this car ended up in this garage for all those years, as well as the garage before it, for a very simple reason – it had to disappear.

Sometime in the early 2000’s Frank said in an offhand way, “You know, you may own that car someday.” It was the first time Frank had ever deviated from “No, not for sale”. Now he had our collectors full attention. “You know about that car don’t you. Frank?”

“You mean the Carroll Shelby story?”

“No, the story of this car.”

“No, I don’t. Not everything.”

Frank said that what he did know was that the Shelby had been bought new by a young woman for her teenage son when he got his license. Shortly thereafter, while driving home late one night, the boy struck a pedestrian. The boy went home, and told his mother, and the two of them immediately went to his mother’s uncle and told him. The uncle put the car in a barn and the mother and son went south. Never to be seen again.

“What happened to the person that was hit?”

“They were killed.”

The shop became quiet as a church.

Elizabeth Chase was born on New Years Day, 1946, to parents who met while working for the military during WW II. Her mother graduated from Smith College with a degree in economics, which she put to use by working for the War Production Board. Her father was a Navy man who worked stateside as a statistician. He described his job as boring and of little importance, yet it is written that this easy going and quiet man’s reports were classified information. Elizabeth, was named after her mother and was called Lizzy. She was the bond that cemented her parent’s relationship. Like most young families coming out of the World War, a lot of moving around ensued with both of her parents transitioning to the world of academia at the college level. Lizzy, an only child, grew up in an environment of books, learning,and questioning the status quo. During the awkward period where a girl becomes a young lady, tragedy struck her family. Shortly after her thirteenth birthday her mother died of a brain tumor.

Father and daughter carried on the best they could, but by the time Lizzy was to start high school it was decided that a private boarding school was the best direction for all, and she went willingly. Four years of a liberal arts college followed boarding school. Lizzy matured into a tall, brown eyed beauty. Her long brown hair and outgoing personality meant she was very popular and she excelled at photography and the arts. She spent her summers working in restaurants at various vacation spots around the northeast. Lizzy, had become the young lady that every young man would want to bring home to meet his family. Life was good for Lizzy.

Lake St. Francis is a small New England town on the shore of a beautiful and large deep water lake that its named after. It is a favorite resort and vacation destination of the down-staters and flatlanders in the summer months when the shuttered restaurants, bars, cottages, and stores, open for the booming influx of vacationers and tourist.

It was here that Lizzy, newly minted college graduate, and her best friend from home, Marth, found themselves in the summer of 1968, hoping to land summer jobs in the hospitality industry and enjoy the summer before the real world came looking for them. It was here that Lizzy met David Hemmings, a “new town” graduate himself, who came to St. Francis looking for the very same things Lizzy and Martha were looking for.

Lizzy and David were attracted to each other from the beginning. They would meet after work at the late night gather spots that summer kids hung out at. In the very early morning hours of a hot August night Lizzy took her boyfriend’s dog for a walk while she waited for him to get off his bartending shift.

Maybe she heard the car coming. Maybe, the car had a rumbling V8 exhaust that couldn’t help but be heard. Maybe it didn’t and she never heard it coming. Maybe the dog yanked her out in front of the car or maybe it didn’t. Maybe the driver took his eye off the road for a split second. A car did hit her and left the scene.

Strangely, the St. Francis police received an anonymous phone call in that early morning hour from a female who wanted to report what she thought to be a body on the side of the road. The police responded to the call immediately, but found nothing. It was later that morning, just before dawn, when David’s dog returned home alone. David called the police and it was at his urging that they reinvestigated and found the body.

From newspaper accounts it was apparent the scene was pretty cold from the start. This motherless child, with her whole life in front of her, lay in a crumpled lifeless heap on the side of the road, in an unfamiliar town, a long way from home. Her father, traveling in Europe, was notified by phone.

The hours, days, months, over which the investigators pursued the case turned up nothing. Repeatedly, they asked for the female who made the original call to come forward, to no avail. They did have a paint sample. The scrapings came off a traffic sign that had been plowed over at the scene. They were looking for a “light colored sedan.”

Our collector contacted the Shelby American Automobile Club. SAAC was loosely formed by a small group of Shelby enthusiasts in the early 1970’s to compare notes, parts, and information on all things relating to Shelby Cobras and Mustangs that were produced in relatively small numbers from about 1964 to 1970. The organization has grown substantially over the years along with their knowledge base. They had received the records of every automobile that Carroll Shelby’s company completed and sold, and make no mistake, these records are incredibly valuable in providing authenticity and originality of these automobiles that are prized by collectors. Their input, based on their experience, knowledge, and records is universally respected.

Within five days copies of the original paperwork was received. There was not much, but it was clearly significant. The paperwork from Shelby American, the manufacturer of record, showed that the dealer was the general store/Ford dealership in St. Francis. The paperwork put the Shelby Mustang, with its hit and run story, in the same small town and at the same time where Lizzy drew her last breath.

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4 Responses to The Shelby in the Barn Mystery

  1. Jim's sister says:

    wow

  2. Noel Ward says:

    Fascinating story. Nice work!

  3. Noel Ward says:

    At the Amelia Island Concours in 2013 there was an original GT 350. It had literally been in a barn almost since new and was totally unmolested. It had about 5,000 miles on the clock. To most people’s eye, it was a wreck. The tires were soft and cracked. It was dirty and looked awful, even in the original white and blue livery. But anyone who knows cars could tell it was the real deal.

    The big question was whether it should be left as is or restored, it probably being the oldest fully original and lowest mileage example of these cars. The jury was out. No idea what happened.

    OTOH, at the same event was a ’60s era Ferrari with a detailed and impressive racing provenance. It went to auction and the gavel came down at something like $50 Million. It was a very nice car. Me, I’d take the Shelby any day.

    • jimsgarage says:

      So true! I’m sure that you remember John Hansen’s 289 Cobra roadster. It may not have been the big block but it was very exciting to see at the Cape Cod Sports Car Club autocross events!

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