When you are a young person, How do you choose what altar to worship at? There are so many to choose from, and all have their pluses and minuses. At that time in your life, you can be swayed by so many factors. Parents, peer pressure, a guru. It’s an impressionable time in your life. So why not “Leave it to Beaver”?
Tom Cotter was a young and impressionable kid on Long Island. One day walking home from elementary school, he found a 32 Roadster body in the woods. No Chassis, just the body—he can still picture the handles for the rumble seat.
Young Tom hatched a plan. He could build a chassis out of 2x4s (his dad had those), he would put bicycle tires on the front and snow tires on the back—and shazam! He would have himself a hot rod, just like the ones he saw in “Hot Rod” magazine.
There were two things that stood in his way. #1: no motor. #2: his buddy Ricky Anderson wouldn’t help him drag the body home. Even though he didn’t help Tom with his dream build, they remain friends to this day, and Ricky is a hot rodder. “Tom, I would check closely at your friend’s 32, he may have kept that body for himself.”
Tom was Ford-conscious up to that point, but what made him a true Ford believer was the site of Mayfield’s local bully Lumpy Ruthaford’s 1940 Ford ragtop from that black and white TV show “Leave it to Beaver.” The die was cast; Tom was a Ford guy.
In fifth grade, you had to put covers on the books the school lent you to protect them. Tom’s family didn’t have a lot of money, so his books were covered with brown paper salvaged from shopping bags. A classmate knew Tom liked cars, so he bought him a book cover with sports cars on it. Cotter remembers it vividly, there was an Aston Martin, a Ferrari, a Lotus, An MG, and a car he had never seen before, a Cobra.
There was just something about that car’s profile that did it for the young Cotter. It was love at first sight.
That car became the carrot that was hung out in front of him. Someday, when he really made it, he would own a Cobra. All these experiences in his life cemented Cotter’s belief that Ford made some cool cars.
At 14, Tom bought himself a 1940 Ford convertible just like Lumpy’s for $25.00. He had big plans for that car. He was going to drop in a 283 Chevy, it was going to be a cool ride. But…
He had no money, no garage, no tools, no talent, and one last thing—no license. Still, he made out pretty well when he later sold it for $275.00.
At 15, Tom came upon a 1939 Ford Woody sitting next to a barn. He went up to the house and knocked on the door. The lady who answered said it was her son’s surf wagon. He had picked up a bread truck so he could sleep at the beach and change into his wetsuit, so the Woody was for sale for $300.00 cash.
Tom didn’t have that kind of cash. He told his dad about the car, and he went and had a look at it with Tom. He thought it was a nice car, but he didn’t have the money to lend him.
Cotter went on the street for the money. Well, down the street to a lady he did yard work for. She fronted him the cash, and he worked it off during the summer by washing her car, planting bushes, and mowing her lawn. That was the seed money for the woody.
Still, 10 months away from his driver’s license, Cotter felt he had plenty of time to take the Woody apart and restore it in time to start driving it around. Unfortunately, he still had no money, no garage, no tools, and no talent. But Cotter jumped in with both feet.
Tom’s dad started in on the woodwork—stripping, bleaching, and varnishing. He helped his son out whenever he could on weekends and holidays, but soon the project was put to bed for the winter under a heavy canvas cover. Sadly, when it was uncovered the next spring, mother nature had undone all their good work. This happened again and again.
At 19, Cotter was heading off to college and wanted to pay his own way. He got a chance to sell the partially-restored Woody with a finished engine, almost-done wood, and a painted cowl. A man from Puerto Rico gave him $1,250.00 and off the Woody went, and off Tom went to college.
After that, Tom found himself in the glamorous world of furniture sales. From there, he moved on to selling Fords. Tom had just bought a house on Long Island—work was 15 miles away, he had a company car, and was making 32K a year.
At that point, a job opened in automotive public relations in Montvale, NJ. It was a 2 ½ hour commute each way for half the money, but Tom wanted to be involved in racing in a big way. He had a long talk with his wife. This was something he really wanted to do, so less money and long commutes be damned, he was going to go for it. He never looked back.
Cotter worked in Jersey for two years and was then offered a job as director of PR at Charlotte Motor Speedway, so in 1985 the family headed south. Tom worked at that job for 4 years and then opened his own agency—Cotter communications.
It was everything racing: NASCAR, Trans Am, drag racing, motorcycle racing. He handled the PR for Mercedes coming back to Indy, also F1. The company branched out into driver representation, merchandising, and other activities, and became known as the Cotter Group.
Tom had been working his ass off now for 10 years and thought it would be fun to get back into racing. While he was attending a NASCAR race at Sears point, he stopped in Joe Huffaker’s shop looking for a race car. He ended up buying a rust-free Morris Minor for $900.00.
His only problem was how to get it home. He knew one of the NASCAR teams had come out with only one car. With a little help from some plywood (so the little car would fit on the big car ramps) and $50.00 for gas, he got the car home.
Once Tom got the car home, he faced another question: now what? Maybe, he thought, it would make a cool race car. A Morris Minor is just an MG Midget or Healey Sprite with a different body, so why not? He painted it BRG with yellow accents like a Jim Clark Lotus, added a few other modifications, and went racing.
The Morris became famous up and down the east coast. He also raced a Mini.
Tom restored and raced a Le Mans Sprite prototype built for BMC factory driver Paddy Hopkirk that had raced at Le Mans, Sebring, and Daytona. Tom only raced it twice as it was built for the diminutive Hopkirk, and Cotter was almost a foot taller (so it was not a good fit).
It was scary for him to drive. So off it went to Scotland, to a nice, short driver—who, months later, called and asked if Tom wanted to co-drive with him in the Lemans Classic. Tom’s response: ”Yes I do, but no I won’t.” Tom was just too big for the Sprite; he loved the car but didn’t want to die in it.
Cotter was having plenty of fun with these 4 cylinder machines, but he still had that dream that had started when he was a kid. When Cobras were $5,000.00, Tom was 10 and didn’t have $5.00. When they were $20,000.00, he had $500.00. The carrot kept moving further and further away. But it was still a dream he aspired to.
Tom put his head down and grew his agency—traveling all over the world, turning the Cotter Group into the largest motorsports agency in the world, and then other companies came a-knocking.
IMG came along to see if Cotter was ready to sell. They showed him a number and he said no thanks. This happened a few more times, until one group came along and showed Tom a proper number. “I think you just bought yourself an agency,” was Cotter’s reply.
The company that bought The Cotter Group was great—the company that bought them, not so great. He stayed on for two and a half years with a management contract and then got out; it was the worst two and a half years of his life. There was only one way to make it better.
He told his wife, “It’s Cobra time!”
The search was on. One thing Tom knew: when you go in search of a real Cobra, it’s a car you can make a big mistake with.
Tom didn’t want to make a mistake. You could buy a car that had the same chassis number as a car in another country, or it was a shirt button restoration that had little or no original parts. At the time, Cotter didn’t know about the Cobra Register—the bible that lists every serial number and gives a documented history of each car.
He took his time searching, going against his instincts as he usually would rush into things—but not this time. He wanted a proper, real-deal Cobra.
Corresponding with a guy in France, he learned of a car in California. For a 10% commission, the guy would tell Cotter who owned it.
This is how Tom met the well-known collector Jacques Harguindeguy—otherwise known as “Frenchy.” Jacques had restored a 1937 Delahaye with Figoni & Falaschi bodywork and had won best in show at Pebble Beach in 2000. He also had a thing for Nash Healeys. Another part of his collection was a red 1965 slab side 289 Cobra.
Tom took a trip out to Walnut Creek California in December 2000 with his buddy Ray, who had given him that book cover when he was 10 years old.
Jacques went over the car with Tom and then threw him the keys. “Take it for a test drive,” he said. Tom and Ray were gone all day. They visited Sears Point Raceway, stopped in Napa for lunch, and came back with 200 miles on the clock.
Jacques was beside himself. In his heavily accented English he cried, “Where you go with my car? You drive it more in one day than I do in two years!” But Cotter’s dream was to drive a Cobra, so he’d said, “screw it, I’m going to drive this car!” He wanted to go sideways into a Burger King parking lot. That didn’t happen (this time).
The car sold itself, and Tom committed to the car, but didn’t take it right away. He came back in May of 2001 to get it. Frenchy asked him when he was going to have it picked up. The answer, “I’m driving it home.”
“What! You’re crazy!”
But the idea was to use the car—not have it be a trailer queen.
A Lifetime Love Affair with Cobra Cars
From the book cover, there were other Cobra touchpoints in Tom’s life. The first time he saw a Cobra was at Ramp Ford in Port Jefferson, Long Island. The first time he got to sit in a Cobra was when he was working in an auto parts store making deliveries to a foreign car repair shop. There was a 427 Cobra in for an engine rebuild. Tom asked the owner if he could sit in it. No problem.
Then there was the first time he drove a Cobra. He was racing his Morris Minor in Savannah. A fellow racer named Pat Ryan was racing a Sunoco Camaro, and he was using his Cobra to get back and forth from his hotel to the track. Tom had become friends with Pat and asked if he could sit in the car. Pat said, “The keys are in it, take it for a drive.” These are all the people and events that led up to Tom owning his car.
For years Tom had been trying to buy a Cobra and people would say “That’s too much; you can’t spend that much.” A year would go by and the asking price was 20 grand more for a car in the same condition. “That’s way too much,” people would say, “you can’t spend that on a car!”
Tom would not be swayed. He pulled the trigger.
Tom Takes the Cobra Home
It’s now spring of 2001. Tom has just handed over a check for more than 100K (but less than 200K), and Frenchy has handed him the keys. He is about to embark on the epic road trip of a lifetime.
Who would be the perfect driving companion? Honey West wasn’t available, but even better—the greatest automotive writer in the world (and all-around great guy) Peter Egan was.
They got in the car and headed east.
Peter remembers they got all the way across the country and never had to put the top up (or even tried). It’s a good thing too. After arriving at Tom’s home the next day, for the hell of it, they tried to put it up and it disintegrated in their hands.
Two good friends on the road in a Cobra—what could be better? Until the car just stopped running in Colorado, that is. It just stopped dead. They realized the fuel pump wasn’t coming on when they turned the key.
Egan, feeling the car was part British, gave the fuel pump a shot with a hammer—nothing. He traced the wire back to an unmarked switch on the dash, the switch that Frenchy had told Tom was for an auxiliary fan and should be left on. In reality, it was for the fuel pump and had been hit while making a turn. With the switch on, they got back on the road.
The only other mechanical problem was an out of balance front wheel that started acting up around 75 miles an hour—but maybe that was a good thing, keeping the driving companions’ licenses intact.
Passing through Craig, Colorado, Tom started musing. “You know what this car needs for cross-country travel? It has that luggage rack on the back. What it needs is a Samsonite suitcase. You know that brown varnished fabric material? It would be perfect. I wonder if you can buy one of those anymore?”
His driving companion turned to him. “At the next light, turn right and go back a block. There is a buy-and-sell shop that has two Samsonite suitcases above the counter.”
Tom looked at him. “How do you know that?”
Egan had been through the tiny town a few months previous in his 356 Porsche, bringing it back from California. Egan’s driving companion at that time was a collector of frontier firearms, and the owner of the shop was a noted gunsmith. While his friend looked at guns Egan was wandering around the store and saw the suitcases. So he knew just where to go.
Onto the Cobra it went—instantly doubling the cargo space—and it was a good place to put stickers.
The drive was also the first time for Peter in a Cobra. There is a saying that you never want to meet your heroes. This wasn’t the case.
Peter had always loved Cobras, and now that he was driving one, he knew why. It was amazingly un-quirky; nothing was outstandingly strange about it. You got in and drove it and instantly adapted to it.
It had plenty of power and torque without being crazy; it made beautiful sounds; it was relatively comfortable. It was the perfect cross-country conveyance. Shelby had a good idea, putting that engine in an AC.
Peter took that drive and turned it into a story for Road & Track that took millions of readers along for the magical cross-country odyssey.
A few years after the story came out, Cotter was underneath the car at Nashville Motor Speedway at a Shelby American Automobile Club event. He saw a pickup drive up and then a pair of legs.
“Is that the car I read about?” Tom looked out from under his car—shit! It was Caroll Shelby.
“Yeah, I drove it cross country.”
“Now that’s what I’m talking about; I didn’t build no damn trailer queen.”
Tom and the Cobra have been to almost every state. Each year, he puts on Cobra tours all over the country. There are only two requirements to participate: you have to own an original Cobra, and you can’t be an asshole. Some applicants, unfortunately, only fit into one category.
Cotter’s car even survived a bear attack in Alaska. When a bag of Fig Newtons was accidentally left behind, a hungry bear helped himself through the top.
Tom just drove the car from his home to Amelia Island for the Concours. Ten hours both ways. The first question he gets: “Is it real?”
“And you drove it here?”
“It’s a car.”
Some 20 years later, people still remember that Road & Track story. Cotter is as enthusiastic about the car now as the day 21 years ago when he bought it. He’s as enthusiastic about it as when it was on his book cover 58 years ago. So do you think Tom has any buyer’s remorse?
Never, never, never. Not a damn bit.
By the way, this picture of a Woody is not just filler. It’s Tom’s actual Woody. 26 years after he sold it off, he became a member of the Ford Woody Owners Club, and his wife discovered two Woodys in Puerto Rico. One was Tom’s old car.
Some calls were made, and Tom got the car back. He rebuilt it and put a modern drivetrain under it, and he now takes it all over the country, using it on his “Barn Find Hunter” show. A true Ford guy.
All Images VIA: Sean Smith, Peter Egan, and the Cotter Collection
Great article Sean – I always liked Tom on “Barn Find Hunter” now I really like him!
Keep up the good work guys – drive on!!
TOM IS A 5 STAR GUY…
OUTSTANDING WRITER,AND GREAT Cobra AFICIONADO…
Very nice story of Tom Cotter. I do know where he got the LeMans Sprite from, Stan Hutley of Faspec of Portland Oregon. Stan was selling everything. But he told Tom that I had a motor that was for sale and Tom contacted me and purchased my motor. Restoration complete Tom raced the car in Monterey’s biggest event. I have a couple of pictures of the Sprite altho I myself was not there. I have followed Tom’s journey doing: Barn Find Hunter. I wondered about the woody and now I know some of its story.