Meet the Auto Archaeologist

Many dictionaries define an archaeologist as “a person who studies human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.” But Ryan Brutt has applied this skill set to unearthing rare and vintage muscle cars that have been buried in barns and garages for decades. And while these vehicles may not be remnants of a lost Inca civilization, a forgotten colony in the New World or a World War I trench located along on the Western Front, Ryan’s finds are just as important. You’ll never see Ryan’s discoveries on the pages of National Geographic, but you will find them in a host of automotive magazines, websites and in person, as we recently saw first-hand at the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals (MCACN). We’re not sure who created the whole “barn find” phenomenon, but Ryan was definitely on the forefront of the movement.

Man standing next to vintage Plymouth vehicle

Ryan, who’s only 36 years old, began his hunt for these four-wheeled, V8-powered diamonds in the rough over five years ago. Growing up in Skokie, Illinois, his father was a mechanic and mother was a teacher’s aide. His father was a “car guy” and took Ryan to a few shows, but it wasn’t something that occupied their lives 24/7. Ryan, a self-admitted “train nut”, loves all things mechanical as long as they’re powerful and make a lot of noise. Maybe that’s why he gravitated to muscle cars that were built decades before he was born. The defining moment for him came when he was getting a CD player installed in his car and he noticed a 1971 Plymouth ‘Cuda buried between two work bays in the shop covered up with a bunch of junk. “This thing was so cool with the gilled fenders, menacing grille and right there a whole new world opened up for me, not just in muscle cars, but barn finding,” said Ryan. “When I found the 1971 ‘Cuda in the shop, it flipped the switch in my brain. I was blown away by this awesome car just sitting here, buried in a random shop in Chicago. Since I found this car by accident, I was sure I could find other even cooler cars if I actually worked at it. With my Dad’s friends being in the classic car hobby, it started the slippery slope to where I am now.”

Man standing next to vintage Plymouth vehicle

That “slippery slope” has taken Ryan all over the country searching out buried and hidden muscle cars while accumulating over 250,000 miles on his trusty 2009 Challenger R/T that has served him as well. Ryan also has a 1971 Sublime Green Challenger he’s been building for years, but with his crazy travel schedule that also includes contributing to Hot Rod magazine and authoring two books on his cool barn finds, time to work on the ’71 is hard to come by. “The first book was just a way to culminate some of my writings and photography. A way to put it into memory beyond the internet and magazines. I could only publish 120-ish pictures out of the thousands I had taken. It was a real challenge figuring out what stayed and what went. But both books turned out well,” declared Ryan.

Book sitting on top of vintage vehicle

Now you can see how Ryan has little time to finish his personal car projects. He’s also trying to revive a 1970 Plymouth HEMI® engine-powered ‘Cuda his father bought new. But it’s the traveling and being on the road that takes up a majority of Ryan’s time, as he’s on a mission to find and document vintage cars that have been left for dead in barns, garages and even fields. “I travel as often as I can and used to do far more before COVID hit, but I’ve scaled it down with everything going on,” noted Ryan. “If something pops up that I must shoot right away, I will run out and do it. But it’s usually every other weekend. Or a week here or there. I have a map I’ve created through the years with pins showing the leads on cars. So, when I travel, it allows me to hit up a bunch of stuff at one time.”

Man standing next to vintage Plymouth vehicle

Upon his travels over the years, Ryan has uncovered a lot of rare iron that has not seen daylight in decades. According to Ryan, “I’ve found tons of amazing cars, multiple HEMI ‘Cudas, Yenko Camaros, T/A Challengers, AAR ‘Cudas. Every one is amazing with its own story and history. My favorite in recent memory is probably the Purple ’70 HEMI ‘Cuda in the backyard, with grapevines growing around the 426 HEMI with Hilborn injector stacks.” Now, Ryan’s passion of being an auto archaeologist does have its “interesting” and “tense” moments: “The weirdest one was a guy in Iowa. I had posted online that I was traveling through Iowa looking for barn finds. A gentleman (who was not the owner) said to go check out this town, there was a guy there with cool cars. He said nothing else, no name, no address, just the town,” reminisced Ryan. “So, I went to this small rural town in Iowa and found the guy. And as I pulled on the median of the road, he was waiting in the driveway for me.  It was odd for me, but I said what the heck. I walked up the driveway and introduced myself. At that point, he told me he knew who I was, and that I was ruining the car hobby and was a horrible person. So, I defended myself for about an hour, until his wife came out, and she started yelling at me. She then said she was going to call the cops for trespassing, I told her we were on the median of the road, and it was public property. After that, I gave them my card, wished them well and left. Well, they still filed a police report on me, and I received a call from the Iowa State Police informing me of this fact. Ironically, the trooper sided with me! Saying the people were ‘a bit unstable’ and just to leave them alone, which I guaranteed him I would! Then the crazy owner went onto an online forum to blast me. Crazy stuff to say the least!”

Man standing next to vintage Plymouth vehicle

Looking toward the future, Ryan doesn’t see the barn find movement slowing down anytime soon. “More and more collections are going to come out in the open with that age group getting older and wanting the cash out of their collections. So, I’m excited to see what will be coming out of the woodwork,” grinned Ryan. With the barn finds exhibit growing every year at the MCACN event, show organizer Bob Ashton and Ryan put a great effort into making this display a fan favorite.

Man standing next to vintage Plymouth vehicle

As with any archaeologist, Ryan never stops exploring and digging to uncover rare artifacts from another era. With Ryan on the hunt for these treasures, his quest won’t end anytime soon. In the meantime, check out these amazing Mopar® barn finds Ryan located for this year’s MCACN show!

1 Comment


Doing the muscle car world a great service. Love those cudas. Wish I was paid to travel and search for vintage muscle. Restoring them must be highly satisfying. Great work!