Written by Jim Murphy / Photos by Anthony Harden
Collecting and displaying classic cars in Western North Carolina are no mere exercises in nostalgia—they’re physical embodiments of deep-rooted passion.
Your car is:
A) An expensive but necessary evil that gets you where you want to go;
B) Both an indispensable accessory and a pleasure to drive; or
C) A fascinating feat of engineering and an object of magnificent design.
If you answered (C), you might be a candidate to join the ranks of proud Western North Carolina hobbyists who display their shiny classics at the outdoor car shows that pop up in dozens of locations throughout the summer.
But whatever your answer, whatever your relationship with your car, you might enjoy strolling among the old classics at the shows and chatting with the owners—who are willing, even eager, to talk about cars: their car, your car, any car on the lot.
The shows present a staggering assortment of vintage transportation. Ford Thunderbird, Chevrolet Bel-Air, Cadillac Eldorado—think of an old (or even not so old) model car, and you’re likely to find at least one of them on loving display, with the happy owner sitting in a nearby canvas folding chair and ready to talk. Some of the models at the shows not only recall a simpler time, but they also rest quietly in automotive history. Discontinued brands and models such as the Nash Rambler, Oldsmobile Rocket 88, Pontiac, Packard, or Studebaker sit side-by-side with a Model A Ford or a DeLorean.
For all their diversity, one thing the cars have in common is their gleaming finish. These babies are pampered! The paint jobs appear to be multiple coats of gleaming, vivid color showing not a trace of a blemish, not even a fingerprint. Most of the cars have hoods and trunks open to display new-car showroom appearance, which unintentionally reveals something about those owners sitting there behind the tail fins. To them, the car is not a mere hobby; it is a passion.
At a recent show, Jack Oakes, of Asheville, summed up the experience of many classic car owners. “I’ve been doing this all my life,” he said, standing by his 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air. “I just had a love for old cars—ever since I was a kid.”
His lifelong love affair is echoed across the range of cars and their owners, who cluster in groups to chat about—what else?—the cars they once had or have now or hope to have some day soon. If you happen to have an old photo of that car you once owned and loved, bring it along. The guys will be happy to reminisce with you, and they might even tell you something you didn’t know about your car. Every car has a story.
The shows run from casual, weekly get-togethers featuring as few as 20 cars in the parking lot of a fast food emporium, to multi-state extravaganzas that fill a municipal park, rec center, or even the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center, with as many as 400 classics.
Hot Rod Heart
One of those mega-shows has become a classic in its own right. Now in its 34th year, The Moonshine Run takes over most of a city park in Newport, Tennessee, a little over an hour west of Asheville near the Tennessee-North Carolina border. This year, the show included 385 cars. The show is a headliner on any car buff’s calendar, but its name is, at best, inappropriate. Moonshine Run: The cars don’t run anywhere; they just sit under the protection of bountiful shade trees. And if there’s any moonshine around, it’s well hidden. But in a nod to the name, a display at the main entrance includes a genuine moonshine still in the bed of an old pickup truck. Other displays include commercial pop-up tents selling jewelry, classic car insurance, and parts, such as carburetors, ignition systems, jacks, and radiator caps.
On the main display field, a ’55 Chevy sits alongside a ’53 Cadillac just down the lane from a flame painted purple-and-pink ’48 Chevy. A banjo plays in the background, just loud enough to add an extra touch of country to the atmosphere.
Some of the owners add their own dimension to that country atmosphere. Jimmy Bishop, of Leicester, is a farmer who is showing a yellow 1956 Ford F100 pickup. “I ain’t no mechanic,” he drawls. “But I always have to work on the cussed tractor.” He laughs at his predicament as the topic turns to money. “A lot,” he says, agreeing that he has more than $50,000 invested in his truck. And there is more. “I’ve got several old trucks—three trucks, two cars. I like piddlin’ with ‘em.” He says his farm keeps him from doing as many shows as he might like. “I don’t get to but eight or ten a year. The best part of all this is goin’ to the shows and talkin’ to the people.”
Many of the owners have several vehicles, and they agree that the hobby is costly in terms of both money and time. “Oh Lord, this one was five years, seven days a week,” says Jimmy Wooten of Asheville, nodding toward his red 1949 Chevy Fleetline. His thought quickly turns to another of his cars. “The Corvair, I pulled the engine, transmission, and rear end four times in two months.” Jimmy’s workshop is in the basement of his house. “I’ve got more money in the basement than I do the upper part of my house,” he says, and his cronies nod their agreement.
Jack Oakes says he “just had a love for old cars, ever since I was a kid. I love to tinker with them.” He has his ’55 Bel-Air on display at the Moonshine show. He has added “power brakes, steering air, all the comforts of a new car.” But no rear-view video camera? He picks up the facetious tone of the question. “Rear view camera? You throw your arm over the seat, turn your head as far as you can.” He laughs. “And if you hit something, blame your wife.”
The owners seem to agree on most of their experiences, particularly when it comes to describing the best part of their hobby.
Jack Oakes: “Driving it down the road, and everyone looking at it, giving the thumbs up.”
Jimmy Bishop: “Goin’ to the shows and talking to the people.”
Jimmy Wooten: “This car goes downtown, and I guess within a block there’s seven or eight people stopping me to take a picture, and the people who give the thumbs up. That’s the best part.”
One Piece at a Time
At first glance antique automobiles would seem to be a man’s world, but wives are often partners in the pursuit. A show at the Weaverville Steak n’ Shake on Tuesday evenings might well be called Couples Night, with wives sitting alongside their husbands and happy to talk about their cars. Kathy Chilton of Marshall points to the ’79 Pinto her husband, Edward, had restored. “We just ride it for fun,” she says. “He’s been working on it for over a year, constantly doing something to it. He also put together a kit car, a replica of a ’29 Mercedes. I helped him. I made the top for the Mercedes and helped him put the carpet and seats in. I helped him take the alternator off. I enjoy it.”
Carol and Gilbert Karn of Leicester are sitting in an adjacent slot, facing their 1930 Model A Ford. It is, she notes, her car: “I actually wanted a pickup, but he brought this home for me.” They each have a burger on their laps, dinner at the car show.
“I like driving it,” she says. “We get out and do things together. I bought him a ’37 Chevy for our 50th anniversary last September.”
At any of the car shows, you will find some cars that are truly original “classics,” but most fall into the category of “street rods,” beautifully restored, often by the owner, but including creative paint jobs and add-ons that were never available back when the car was new—such conveniences as AM-FM radio, tape deck, air-conditioning, and other features that we now take for granted.
By contrast, the classics are meticulously restored to their original condition and blessed by the Antique Automobile Club of America. The club’s Official Judging Guidelines require cars to be in “the same state as the dealer could have prepared the vehicle for delivery to the customer,” deducting points for such irregularities as Phillips head screws on a pre-1935 model, power steering pre-1951, or tinted glass on a pre-1950 Buick.
Whatever the category, restoration does not come cheap. A 1936 Packard at the Moonshine Run showed a “For Sale” sign in the window, listing such features as Bluetooth stereo, power windows, power locks, and power seats, along with several other selling points. The price? $95,000. Yes, that is not a typo: $95,000.
That price would not surprise Bill Beal, a professional restorer in Hendersonville. “Our average restoration starts at $50,000,” he says. “I tell customers, ‘It’s going to take longer than you think and it’s going to cost more than you think.’ And you’re not the exception.” He sits back at his desk in a tiny office, with two friendly dogs sprawled on the floor and warms to his topic. “There are so many unforeseen things when you take a car apart, and the more you take it apart, the more complex the puzzle becomes. So there’s no way to say up front what it will cost.” But he says many of the cars arrive with a personal story, making them special to their owners. “Most of my customers have a history with the vehicle they’re restoring: ‘My Mom had this 72 Mustang; I learned to drive in it.’ That’s the kind of story I hear.”
Beal & Co. has been restoring cars since 1987, and Bill is surprisingly forthcoming in describing how his business got started. “I was a drunk and crashed a lot of cars, and I had to fix them. I totaled 18 cars in a year. When I sobered up, people knew I could work on cars, and I started getting work.”
He’s gotten a lot of work since 1987, and he scans through hundreds of computer files showing before-and-after pictures of his restorations. “When a car comes in, we take pictures. You have to have some kind of document to show what you’re starting with.” He has moved to a room at the top of a steep metal staircase. One wall is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves holding a library’s worth of parts catalogs alongside stacks of overflowing blue plastic bins.
Back downstairs, his workspace on this day shows a restored Jeep that is ready to go. He points out some of the work. “New interior, redid the top, pulled the gaskets, things like that.” It could be the centerpiece in any showroom. Sitting nearby is a skeleton of a car that is unrecognizable as any specific brand or model. “This is a ’72 Mustang,” he says. “The floor pan was rusted out. We had to go in and cut it all out.” The replacement, a brand new pan about six or seven feet long by five feet wide, sits in a carton, waiting to be installed.
Looking at his current work and his computer files of past projects, and hearing his $50,000 average price, it’s easy to conclude that he’s operating that proverbial gold mine. He shakes his head at the thought. “My profit margin is not what you think,” he says. “My overhead is really high. I’ve got a lot of expensive tools. But we’re not going to compromise our integrity on a job, because what it comes down to is the bitterness of poor quality far outlasts a cheap price. It has to be good quality. It has to be done right.”
Outside his shop, a sprinkling of old cars gathers dust along the edges of his lot: a couple of Mustangs, a Corvette, an Edsel, and his prized possession, a 1932 Ford V8 bus in bright yellow paint. He climbs aboard and explains, “I needed something that I can take the kids in and we can have fun.” He has seven children, and anything smaller than the bus might make for some unpleasant hours on the road. “I’d been looking for a bus for a year. I want to make it more drivable, so I’m putting in better brakes, changing the drive train, stuff like that.” He takes a long pause and says to no one in particular, maybe just to himself, “When I’m done, I don’t want my legacy to be, ‘Dad spent all this time working on cars, but never spent time with me.’ I had to find a balance where cars weren’t the most important thing in my life.”
But cars are certainly important. “I have a pretty bad car addiction,” he says. “If I was independently wealthy, I’d still be down here building a car. So it’s like breathing. It’s second nature. You’re not going to become a millionaire doing this, so you better love what you’re doing.”
That passion does not extend to car shows. Sitting in the back of his bus, he shakes his head. “When I go to a car show, a lot of times 80 percent of the cars, maybe 90 percent of them, are not what I would consider a good quality job, so it doesn’t do a lot for me. So it’s not fun to go to a car show.”
AREA CAR CLUBS
Route 70 Cruisers
Mountaineer Antique Auto Club
828 553 0361
British Car Club of Western North Carolina
Rutherford County Corvettes
Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile
But for visitors less discerning than Bill Beal, car shows are, indeed, fun. At the biweekly “Music on Main” Friday night show in downtown Hendersonville, a live band adds to the entertainment. Monte Sims, president of the Carolina Mountain Car Club (formerly the Hendersonville Antique Car Club) that sponsors the show, estimates that between the cars and musical event, attendance has reached as high as eight to ten thousand people. “We’ve been doing this event for 15 to 20 years,” he says, “and it’s become an institution.”
It’s also good for local business. The bartender at a nearby restaurant summed it up: “Show nights are always busy. It helps a lot.” The combination of nearby restaurants, a rock concert, and a couple of hundred fancy old cars brings out everyone from car buffs to people with only the most casual interest. A cross section of visitors illustrates their range of interest.
A 30-something couple: “We had dinner, walked down, heard the music, and saw the cars. Cool.”
Middle-age man snapping pictures of a 1958 Austin Healy: “I’m reliving my youth here. Been driving an SUV for the last 20 years. Now I’m looking for a sports car.”
Man in his mid-20s: “I’ve got a 1961 Impala bubble top.”
His girlfriend: “My father was a mechanic so I grew up around old cars [and] I enjoy seeing them here.”
Woman with a group of friends: “I’m just along for the ride.”
Woman with a puppy on a leash: “For the music and the festivities. I love looking at the cars, but I wouldn’t say I came for the cars.”
Man pushing a baby carriage: “I came because it’s a fun thing to do.”
One car was attracting attention over a “For Sale” sign on the windshield. A powder blue 1955 Thunderbird convertible looking hot and sexy carried a price of $49,000. Sitting at the curb behind the vehicle, a man in his mid-40s was fielding questions. Why are you selling? “It’s my mother’s car. She can’t drive it anymore.” Every car has a story. On a brighter note, the wife of one exhibitor recalled, “We dated for five years before we got married. He had a ‘65 GTO.” She nods at their car, “And that’s what we have now, a ’65 GTO.” She shared a quiet grin with her husband. Every car has a story.
The visitor begins to appreciate the evolution of design that marks the different automotive eras. Even the least interested observer can soon identify, if not the year of a particular model, at least the era.
Most of the outdoor shows are sponsored by local car clubs between April and October, and they all offer the caution, “Weather permitting.” No sunshine, no show. But there is one classic car venue where the show goes on, rain or shine, weekday or weekend, from April through December. The Antique Car Museum at Grovewood Village in Asheville has only 20 cars (plus a fire engine and four horse-drawn vehicles), but every one of them is a classic in its own right. From a 1913 Ford Model T to a ’59 Edsel, each of the vehicles is not only a perfect example of automotive design in its era, it is also a revealing glimpse into that moment in history when the car first hit the road.
* The 1950 British MG TD has leather straps to buckle down the bonnet (translation for Americans: the hood).
* The 1915 Model T Ford has a crank starter hanging beneath the radiator grill.
* The 1916 Willys Overland Touring car had wood
* Fuel for the Model T was sold only in drugstores.
* The 1926 Cadillac limousine had a back-seat phone for the passenger to speak to the chauffeur. (Perhaps the earliest version of distracted driving.) Back in ’26, before the market crash, the limo sold for $4,566.
* The 1957 Cadillac Brougham was custom made. Between ’57 and ’60, only 904 vehicles were produced. The Brougham had a stainless steel roof and sold for $13,500. Nowadays it is valued at around $200,000.
Museum manager Tom Anders says they logged 26,000 visitors last year. And the question he hears most often: “Is the ‘57 Caddy for sale?” He politely declines to sell it—even for $200K. He says the museum was established in 1966 by Harry Bloomberg, an early Asheville Cadillac dealer. The cars were all part of his collection. The museum is free, but they do accept donations.
Visitors snap pictures and talk about their own car experiences. Melissa Flynn of Bedford, Pennsylvania, breaks into a grin when she reveals that the family’s 2008 Mustang GT has “been in the garage for two years.” She agrees with her husband, Kris, that they’d be happy to have any of the cars here. He summed up the museum as “fantastic.”
Monica and Lee Swanson, visiting from Minnesota, say they’re not real car enthusiasts, but she admits, “We’d like to get a classic.” The two of them share a grin as she continues. “But we have to wait for our kids to be on their way.” Lee tries to describe his reaction to the museum: “[It’s] just the history,” he says, “seeing what was, where we’ve come from, and the beauty of the cars.”
Yes, many of the cars are beautiful, but after a while, after seeing a couple of hundred cars, the visitor begins to appreciate the evolution of design that marks the different automotive eras. Even the least interested observer can soon identify, if not the year of a particular model, at least the era. The Model A Ford from the 1920s, the bulky Buicks and Packards of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, giving way to the tail-fin era of the later 1950s, and on and on. (The editor of this very publication wistfully notes that he used to own a 1961 Plymouth Valiant—“the cool fastback version with fins, before they changed the body.”) There is social history here, along with personal memories of good times in years gone by. The cars eventually evoke a nostalgia that rides in the passenger seat of that old convertible you always wanted but never owned.
It was Jack Oakes at the Moonshine Run who put words to the underlying attraction: “You can’t go back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. This is the closest you’re ever going to get—right here.”
Many local antique car clubs sponsor shows throughout Western North Carolina and the surrounding region. Events not on these selected lists may be found on the websites or Facebook pages of the clubs themselves.
Carolina Mountain Car Club
Music On Main,
201 South Main Street, 5-9PM
August 11 & 12
Vintage Street Rodders
Maggie Valley, NC
Smokin Rods at Maggie Valley Fairground, US19, 8-4PM
Land of the Sky Shrine Club
Car, Truck, & Motorcycle Show,
39 Spring Cove Road, 9AM-3PM
344 South Broad Street, 4-8PM
Shadow of the Mountains Show & Shine
City Park, 240 Smith Street, 8-4PM
Apple Festival Parade
Heatherwood Cruise-In and BBQ
Hendersonville, NC at the Heatherwood Subdivision,
US176 Noon till
Farm City Days
100 Jackson Park
Antique and modern farm equipment, 10AM-4PM
Foothills Mopar Club
Open Car Show at Spartanburg Community College, 107 Community College Drive, 9AM-3PM
(organizers suggest to bring a side dish or dessert and a beverage at the BBQ)
Fall Harvest Days
WNC Ag Center
antique tractors and more
Spirit of the Smokies Car Show
on Front Street
Cruise-In at the Blossman
170 Sweeten Creek Road
May-October, 4th Friday each month: 5-9PM
Cars & Coffee at
Frostbite Ice Cream
1475 Patton Avenue
3rd Saturday each month: 8-10AM
Cruise-In Stearns Park
1st Saturday each month: 1-4PM
Cruise-In @ Sonic Drive-In
77 Sawmill Village Lane, April-October, each Friday: 5-9PM
Streets of Indian Lake
300 Indian Lake Boulevard, April-October every
Friday night: 6-9PM
Cars & Coffee at
World of Clothing
2nd Saturday each month: 8-11AM
Old Fort, NC
307 Catawba Avenue 3rd Saturday each month
670 Oak Avenue,
April-September, every 2nd & 4th Saturday night: 6PM
each Saturday: 5-9PM
Dill Creek 379 W Wade Hampton Boulevard
1st Saturday each month:
656 Arlington Road
2nd Saturday each month
Show & Cruise-
In at Harbor Inn Seafood
321 Haywood Road
2nd Sunday each month
Note: You can also consult Garagistry.com for a list of events throughout North and South Carolina: Blog.garagistry.com/2017/04/north-carolina-car-shows-and-events.html
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