To the untrained eye, some of the cars Tom Cotter will have on display at the Food Lion AutoFair this spring may look more like junkers than diamonds in the rough. But that’s the beauty of his “barn finds,” rare vehicles that he salvaged long after they had been sitting unattended, sometimes for decades, in barns, locked in basements or left to weather out in the elements.

Several of his barn finds, and others like them, will be on display among thousands of other classics when the world’s largest automotive extravaganza returns to Charlotte Motor Speedway, April 19-22.

And while the AutoFair display, which includes a 1967 Shelby GT500, a 1967 Shelby GT350 vintage Rally Car, a 1964 Shelby 289 Cobra, a 1964 Sunbeam Tiger and a 1958 Chevy Wagon, won’t be the flashiest collection ever assembled, it’s the stories these cars tell that make them special.

“It’s human interest stories wrapped around cars. In other words, the car is the catalyst for the story,” Cotter said. “This is the reason we tell those stories. When you find something like this, it’s like finding King Tut’s tomb.”

Among the recently uncovered treasures from the past that will make an appearance at the AutoFair is Cotter’s 1952 Cunningham C3 – the second of only 25 such vehicles manufactured by revered Le Mans legend Briggs Cunningham.

“He said, ‘I’m going to build a specific car and run Le Mans,’” Cotter said. “So he proposed that to the organizers, and they said, ‘That’s fine. We look forward to that, but you have to be a manufacturer… You can’t just build race cars and race them.’ So he had to build 25 street cars, and this is the second one he built.”

At the time, it was the most expensive car available in America, selling for about $10,000. “The Rockefellers had one. The DuPonts had one. You had to be very wealthy to have a car like this,” Cotter said.

Cotter found his car in a basement in South Carolina, where it had been stored more than 50 years. Now, sitting in the garage of his Davidson, N.C. home, the Cunningham shows its age. The interior is tattered and there are only traces of the dark green and beige two-tone paint scheme that once decorated the car. The 50-year-old tires are cracking and the door handle is missing its spring.

Since acquiring the car, Cotter has turned his attention to finding out more about its history. He has collected photos from the Cunningham factory where the car was built, found magazines with photos of his car on display and even acquired the original bill of sale from 1952. That is the second aspect to his barn finds.

“It’s the journey, not the destination. I’ve got the Cunningham, now I want to go diving in more and more,” he said. “We’re keeping a little bit of history alive. It’s kind of cool when you can do that.”

A former NASCAR publicist, Cotter has also written a series of books about his barn finds and stories he has heard from others about their search for hidden automotive treasures.

The Food Lion AutoFair features more than 150 acres of classic, specialty and rare vehicles, parts and memorabilia. It attracts more than 110,000 spectators annually, includes a collector car auction presented by Dealer Auctions, Inc.; nearly 60 car clubs; a flea market with more than 10,000 vendor spaces; and a Manufacturers’ Midway, all offering a huge array of automotive parts and memorabilia.

Hours for the April 19-22 Food Lion AutoFair are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 per day for adults. Children under 13 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.

For more information, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.charlottemotorspeedway.com. For all the updates from the track, be sure to “Like” Charlotte Motor Speedway on Facebook at www.facebook.com/charlottemotorspeedway or follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cltmotorspdwy.