9 November 2015

The Mountain Man

Talking cars with Bernie
What is it about some car collectors that drives them to save, protect and store cars or parts many would have scrapped? What is the common thread that pulls them together as a “carchaeologist” on a mission to preserve rusted metal? Whatever it is, it knows no social or economic boundary, and it doesn't recognize cultural differences or geographical lines.

I've spent almost 40 years towing race cars around the country, from local dirt tracks to the high banks of Daytona. I've looked at thousands of cars and met collectors from all walks of life, but it was right up the road from my shop in North Carolina that I found the answers to my questions.

There is something magical about the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. You feel that magic as you drive the kudzu-lined roads, which were no more than dirt paths when Confederate soldiers marched north. There is no straight shot up the mountains, so you run through an endless line of switchbacks that take you to the peaks. They slow you down enough to feel their magic and you just enjoy the ride.

Nestled at the foot of those mountains, just off Interstate 77, sits the town of Mount Airy, which is better known to many as Mayberry. That's right — the home of Sheriff Andy Taylor, Opie, Barney, Aunt Bea and the crew. Mayberry was a fictional place, but Mount Airy is real and was the inspiration for the TV show based on the hometown of actor Andy Griffith. It’s also a place where, for some reason, one man has gone to extraordinary measures to save a variety of both fascinating and very ordinary vehicles.

Not far from the center of town there's a stretch of highway that runs all the way into Stuart, Virginia (home of the famous Wood Brothers). Just over a little bridge near a sign that proclaims the birthplace of Confederate General Jeb Stuart is where my buddy Jon introduced me to Bernie. Jon is a real car guy and the unofficial mayor and historian of this stretch of highway. He knows where to find the best authentic car stories. The people on the mountain trust Jon, and that's important, because people up there can be fierce when protecting family — and old cars.

Bernie, well he’s a bit of a legend in these parts. Seems he's fixed or redesigned every type of machine in the county, and he’s taught many a local racer how to weld and fabricate. You don’t just stop in to see Bernie and his cars without an invite, but I got one, thanks to Jon.

Bernie is in his mid-80s but still as tough as nails. He lives on his land with his wife and his dogs. He keeps a loaded shotgun on the wall near a picture of his grandpa in full Confederate uniform.

Rumor has it Bernie hauled some moonshine in his time and carved corners on the same dirt roads as the legendary stock car racer and bootlegger Curtis Turner. They say Bernie was good and never got caught. Bernie won't admit to running ’shine, but he did tell me he saw a revenuer chase Turner up a mountain road, and about 10 minutes later Turner came idling down the mountain; there was no revenuer on his tail.

There are half-dozen or more mid-1960s cars in varying conditions scattered around Bernie’s land, each wearing the residue of several years in the mountains. Near the center of the property is a military surplus Quonset hut filled with cars and parts: ’55 Chevy Nomad, ’57 Corvette, a couple of 1930s sedans and a row of 1950s Cadillacs that would inspire a country song.

There are stacks of flathead engine blocks and big V-8s under tarps, piles of tires and wheels, and some vintage garage equipment.

After a tour through the hut, Bernie walks me to another shed where he hides his real treasures. First he shows me a rare Cadillac limo that he says is his favorite car, and then I spot a very cool 1940 Ford sedan in pieces, but Bernie doesn't say much about it — only that it’s been apart for a while. The parts seem to be all there but a few things catch my attention, like a Columbia two-speed rear with a spring hooked to it that looks like it came out of a dump truck. I also notice there is no backseat to be found. Oh, and the engine was an old Cadillac V-8, not a flathead.

The conversation goes something like this:

“They say it was the fastest liquor hauler around here. Never got caught.” Bernie says.
“Wow, where did you get it?” I say.
“I've owned for a while,” he says.
“Did you run liquor with it?” I say.
“Never said I ran liquor. No record ever of me being caught.”
“Is it for sale?”
“No!” he says. “I'm gonna put it back together.”
“Really? When did you take it apart?”
“Are all the parts here?” I say.
“All the ones I need.”
“What's that motor from?”
“A Cadillac ambulance.”
“A Cadillac ambulance?” I say. “Why?”
“V-8 made way more power than other production cars. Thought you were a car guy.”
“When are you going to start putting it together?”
“When I get to it.”

Bernie and I talked for several hours. We talked cars, stock car racing, life on the mountain and about responsibility to your family. I learned a lot from Bernie that day and might have even sipped a little of the “product” Bernie never admitted to hauling.

Before I left, I asked one final question. “Why keep all these old cars?”

“Every one of those cars has a story to tell,” he said. "It ain't like having a scrapbook with pictures. They're here, they're real and I can just look at ’em. They tell the story of my life, my family and life on this mountain. They've been with me in the good times and the bad times. When I look at those cars… I feel my life. Now stop asking questions and just go in there and sit and listen for a while. They'll tell you.”

Bernie called me not long ago to tell me he wanted me to have that ’40 Ford. So now I sit in front of this pile of parts in the back of my shop and just listen to my own imagination tell me the stories of where this car may have been, and what it may have seen on the mountain. And I know some day I'll put it back together.

When I get to it.

1 Reader Comment

  • 1
    Michael Wagoner Seabrook, TX December 29, 2015 at 14:40
    Ray, it is cold today (real cold for older folks like me) in southeast Texas so have been catching up on my many car magazines. I have to say that the Rodders Journal and Hagerty have the best stories and this one by you is a good one. We spend time in Cashiers (western NC) so we know the mountains. I want to just say that the fact that Bernie gave you the 40 is absolutely amazing. You must have impressed him. That is about my favorite car though I now own a coral and shadow gray 55 Bel Air HT that is exactly like the one I had in high school that I had to sell when I went in the Navy. "Beating around the bush....." but really want to say that you have to put that 40ty back together as a restoration or survivor but you have been given such a huge responsibility. It would really be good if Hagerty would give you a small space on each magazine edition so that you could show what you are doing (progressing) with the 40ty. I sure hope this is not the last time we hear about it. At age 71 I would love to have such a responsibility. Love Bernie - definitely a native mountain man!!! Thank you for your story - Mike Wagoner (Get to it........)

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