Buddy Johnson can speak confidently about his 1954 Ford business coupe’s history hauling liquor.
Johnson, 81, knows it was used for this purpose. He was the one hauling it.
Johnson was never caught, though he did have some close calls. Part of the reason he evaded the law, Johnson believes, is because he kept quiet about his side gig.
“I don’t brag about what I did or how many times I got away,” he said.
The other part was luck.
Johnson’s ‘54 Ford is one of several cars that will be on display at Saturday’s Moonshine Heritage Car Show hosted by the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College. The event features cars that were or could have been used to haul liquor.
Roddy Moore, the recently retired director of the institute, said visitors could expect to see 50 to 60 cars of varying kinds.
“People don’t realize that there were all kinds of cars that transported liquor,” he said.
Most people envision flashy, fast cars, Moore said, but those with sense would haul liquor in something less likely to draw attention.
There’s a strong interest in car culture today, Moore said. Given the historical heritage of moonshine in Franklin County, he said it makes sense that the cars used to haul it would be of particular interest in this region. Plenty of stories have been told about locals outrunning the police in such cars, and also dramatized by Hollywood.
“We’re dealing not with hero worship, but the anti-hero, the person that is looked up to because of what he’s doing and getting away with,” Moore said.
Growing up in Franklin County, between Callaway and Ferrum, Johnson said he just fell into the moonshine business. Friends would ask for a little help with this, a little help with that, and all of a sudden you’d have your own customers, Johnson said.
Sometimes Johnson hauled moonshine he’d produced, sometimes it came from others. He lugged the liquor as far as Richmond, Norfolk and West Virginia. He used the ‘54 Ford, which he acquired in the ‘60s, and other cars as well.
There are two kinds of cars used for transporting liquor, Johnson explained: hot rods with engines that would give the driver a chance to outrun police and “luck wagons,” where the driver’s best chance of escaping was getting out of the car and running.
Sometimes, Johnson said, hot rods would be used as a distraction, leading police in a chase when the liquor was actually inside another less noticeable vehicle down the road.
Johnson said police had gotten close enough to shoot his doors. But he managed to get away. Though he’s not one to boast, Johnson acknowledges it was exciting to outrun the law.
W.D. Messenger’s 1936 Chevrolet was well made for hauling liquor. There’s no trunk, but tilt the backseat forward and there’s a perfect place to hide a small load.
“All of it could go behind the seat, out of sight and you put the kids in the backseat. Nobody realized there was anything back there.
“They’d say, ‘Oh, he’s going to church,’ ” Messenger joked.
Messenger, 77, does not speak from experience. He acquired the car, which the former auto-mechanics teacher restored himself, in the 1960s, so he’s not sure of its earlier history. But it will be on display at Saturday’s car show.
There’s really no way to know if a car was used for illicit purposes, Messenger points out, unless the owner was behind the wheel.
“And there’s very few of those still around,” Messenger said.
Though Messenger wasn’t in the moonshine business himself, he’s from Franklin County, so naturally knows people who were and has worked on some cars used to haul it.
Messenger recalls a man driving a working car into his dad’s garage wanting to get rid of it. The car was known to the authorities. He remembers friends with blue or green cars disappearing for a few days and then returning in the same car, but painted black so it wasn’t as easy to identify.
It might sound like a movie, but it all happened right here in Franklin County.