Cars of the Moonshine and Rum Runners

The1940 Ford Coupe

The moonshine distillers favorite rum runner car in the 1940's thru the mid '50's was a 1940 Ford.. The flathead V-8 could be souped up, or replaced with a newer, more powerful engine ... maybe from a Caddy ambulance.
The moonshine distillers favorite rum runner car in the 1940s thru the mid '50's was a 1940 Ford.. The flathead V-8 could be souped up, or replaced with a newer, more powerful engine ... maybe from a Caddy ambulance. | Source

The Familiar Ford Flathead V-8

The flathead was simple and reliable, but it couldn't be powered up like the newer, larger overhead valve V-8s.
The flathead was simple and reliable, but it couldn't be powered up like the newer, larger overhead valve V-8s. | Source

Newer OHV V-8 Set up for "Runnin'"

A good runner had to be able to outrun the law even with 800 lbs. of "white lightnin'" on board. That task required power and the new V-8's of the 1950's could be modified to have plenty. Some old runners claim they had 500 HP going for them.
A good runner had to be able to outrun the law even with 800 lbs. of "white lightnin'" on board. That task required power and the new V-8's of the 1950s could be modified to have plenty. Some old runners claim they had 500 HP going for them. | Source

"Mine, Moonshine or Get On Down the Line"

These were the job choices for many Appalachian residents of the past. Making moonshine had it’s appeal -- it was potentially profitable but it was also dangerous. Revenue agents, rival "shiners," local snitches and even professional criminals were all threats to the life and livelihood of the alcohol entrepreneur.

What Car Made the Best Runner?

Transporting the finished product was the most challenging part of the business and in post World War I Appalachia the solution was to be the best driver in the fastest vehicle. What made the best "Runner?" How were they set up? Who set them up? Probably no two moonshiners would agree on the answers to any of these questions, but here are some typical tricks and tweaks used on their "delivery vehicles.”


Rule #1 ... "Don't Attract Attention."

Moonshine Runners were never flashy vehicles -- no chrome pipes, no loud mufflers, no distinctive paint jobs -- plain and dark colored were the norm. The 1940 Ford Coupe was favored by most for it’s huge trunk and it’s familiarity on the road, but many different cars (and trucks) were used.

Fill 'er Up
Some runners were loose haulers; they hauled moonshine in mason jars or later, in 1-gallon plastic jugs. This made it easier to verify quantities with the customer and also made unloading faster.
A "tank runner" could carry a bigger haul and provided a better hiding place for the product. It might have custom fashioned tanks under the floorboards, plus, maybe another tank secreted inside the auto's own gas tank. It might also be shaped like the rear seat and covered with fake upholstery.

Prepping for "Thunder Road"

A load of 'shine could typically weigh about 800 to 1000 lbs, so the runner's suspension had to be stiffened. Extra leafs in the rear springs, “helper springs” in trucks and double shocks on each front wheel were typical add-ons. The police and government revenue agents often drove stock V-8 powered Fords which could catch most passenger cars of that time, but not a moonshine runner.

Who Worked on the Cars?

There were many mechanics in Appalachia (and some ‘shiners) who could modify almost any vehicle to outperform the government-issued autos. This became easier in the 1950’s when many California hotrod shops sprang up and began selling all kinds of parts for souping up engines and beefing up suspensions. Oddly, many of their orders came from poverty-stricken Appalachia.

The Whip Antenna Means the Odds Are Now Even for Smokey

The roadblock began to replace the chase as police 2-way radios came into common use by police and agents. This was somewhat countered by improving methods of hiding the load. Dump trucks might be used with a tankful of moonshine under the gravel.
The roadblock began to replace the chase as police 2-way radios came into common use by police and agents. This was somewhat countered by improving methods of hiding the load. Dump trucks might be used with a tankful of moonshine under the gravel. | Source

Making Moonshine Was Easy But Delivering...Much Harder

A wrecked runner and the paddy wagon tell the tale of this 1920's bust -- in Washington D.C., of all places.
A wrecked runner and the paddy wagon tell the tale of this 1920s bust -- in Washington D.C., of all places. | Source
Many Appalachian mechanics could hop up an engine as well as the professional racing mechanics of the day.
Many Appalachian mechanics could hop up an engine as well as the professional racing mechanics of the day. | Source
The massive trunk of a Ford Coupe might be full of groceries, or, maybe something else...
The massive trunk of a Ford Coupe might be full of groceries, or, maybe something else... | Source
Many thought that if moonshine burned with a blue flame, it was safe. Sadly this isn't true and many were blinded, crippled or killed by the lead contamination often found in the innocent looking mason jars.
Many thought that if moonshine burned with a blue flame, it was safe. Sadly this isn't true and many were blinded, crippled or killed by the lead contamination often found in the innocent looking mason jars. | Source

More on Moonshine Runners and NASCAR

Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR
Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR

This is the story of NASCAR's early decades -- of the "dirt-poor" southern teen Moonshine runners in jacked-up Fords loaded with corn whiskey. They originated NASCAR.

 

Tricks of the Moonshine Trade

Sometimes the moonshiner would adjust their brakes so that one front brake grabbed before the rest. With this set up, a good driver could spin his car around 180 degrees on a single-lane road to escape a roadblock. Fake license plates were common and a runner might use one plate when loaded and another when running empty -- so his “runner” could also be his daily driver.

The Chase…
A good moonshine run was an uneventful one. The runner wanted to avoid roadblocks and he didn’t like roads with few turn offs. His main advantage was his ‘40 Ford with a supercharged Caddy engine -- it could outrun anything the Government Men (G-men) had.

The 'shiner always knew the roads better than the law. Police shot at the runner’s tires and the 'shiner might purposely pick out dangerous roads ... roads on which he had practiced and knew well. A switch would cut out the tail lights and brake lights, making it difficult and dangerous to chase him at night. He was willing to risk everything for his load of moonshine and his freedom. The runner would abandon his vehicle and load only in the most dire of situations.

The Police Turn the Tables

Good times never last forever, it seems. The lawmen added an accessory to their cars which suddenly turned the tables … the two-way radio. Moonshine runnin’ went into decline -- for this and for other reasons (but it still had a few good days left).

Modern Runners Raise the Bar

In the 1960s Detroit went on a power binge and began to produce cars that could be ordered with huge engines, superchargers, racing suspension and just about anything a runner needed. Mopars were one favorite; a plain looking Dodge with a specially ordered 440 cu. In. hemi was perfect for the task . The surviving moonshine runners of the 1960’s thru the 1980’s drove some of the best runners ever made. And, Detroit provided them.

What now?
Some moonshine is still brewed but the business has mostly died out. Dry Southern counties have one-by-one become wet and "store-bought" liquor is now relatively cheap and much safer. The still on the hill is mostly just a memory and the few high powered 'shine runners that are left just sit awkwardly in museums and barns -- looking ready to fire up and roar off at any moment ... on a delivery run that willnever happen again.

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Comments 21 comments

Granny's House profile image

Granny's House 5 years ago from Older and Hopefully Wiser Time

This was a great story. Loved it.


Hugh Williamson profile image

Hugh Williamson 5 years ago from Northeast USA Author

GH - Thanks for reading. I didn't actually do any hands-on testing of the product but I may at some point...for medicinal purposes of course.

I had a lot of fun writing this.


NicoleSmith profile image

NicoleSmith 5 years ago

Nice car. I love it


Hugh Williamson profile image

Hugh Williamson 5 years ago from Northeast USA Author

NS - Thanks for reading and commenting.


Jason R. Manning profile image

Jason R. Manning 5 years ago from Sacramento, California

Hugh, this is a really well crafted piece of automobile history. Great job on the research, I had no idea shiners were making use of superchargers back then. Like you said, an impoverished area such as Appalachia getting their hands on the best vehicles seams like an oxymoron. Great story telling.


Hugh Williamson profile image

Hugh Williamson 5 years ago from Northeast USA Author

Jason - thanks for reading. Superchargers for cars became readily available in the 1950's, although in 1937 the Cord 812 offered one as an option.

Your pic of Rodney reminds me of one of his lines: "I just bought the perfect second car...a towtruck."


Dr Rockpile profile image

Dr Rockpile 5 years ago from USA

I have to say this is a topic I'd never have thought of. Really interesting. Thanks.


Hugh Williamson profile image

Hugh Williamson 5 years ago from Northeast USA Author

Dr Rockpile - thanks for reading and commenting. It was a fun topic to research.


ThomasRydder 5 years ago

What a cool article, and full of things I didn't know. The part about adjusting the brakes in two ways was particularly intriguing. Met a guy in Myrtle Beach a couple years ago who still made moonshine and had some with him. Claimed he and his buddy sold it for $80 a gallon, and let me tell you, it kicked like a mule and was as good as any store bought liquor you choose. Great read, and I just hit the vote button to prove it :)TR


Hugh Williamson profile image

Hugh Williamson 5 years ago from Northeast USA Author

Tom - Thanks for reading and commenting.

I see they sell moonshine legally in bottles now, but I wonder if it has the kick of the real thing.


ThomasRydder 5 years ago

I never had the old time stuff, but I can tell you that I was real happy for awhile after imbibing my new friends product...whew!! And it was delicious too..they use cinnamon or apples or other things to flavor it, and it's smoooooth as silk. Which after all, rendered even more dangerous :)TR


ThomasRydder 5 years ago

Well, I can tell you that I was one happy fellow directly after imbibing my new friends potion. They flavor it with apples or cinnamon and it is both delicious and dangerous. I'll guarantee it would add 20 horsepower to one of those old Fords... :)TR


Hugh Williamson profile image

Hugh Williamson 5 years ago from Northeast USA Author

Maybe you could write a hub about the product itself? It would be an interesting read.


ThomasRydder 5 years ago

Might be..I'd just be afraid that the field studies would blur my eyes too much to see the darned keyboard.


ThomasRydder 5 years ago

You know...on second thought...you might just have a point there...think I'll look into that..thanks for the thought...


mdhotrodder 4 years ago

your pretty good on your facts,moonshine hauling cars go all the way back to the brand new model T,...however caddy, & olds overhead valve v8's starting replacing the popular ford flathead v8 in the late 40's early/mid 50's. by the late 50's ford,g.m.,& chrysler all had large motors that could be souped up even more & larger cars that made it easy to haul a lot more moonshine. however u goofed on 1 small part,..there's no such thing as an 440 hemi. in the 50's the 1st hemi's were 331, 354, & 392 cubic inches& were made from 1951 to 1958..the second series started in 1964 with 426 cubic inches & ended in 1971.the 440 big block motor was known as a wedge motor, which came from the 383, 413, & 426 wegde family of motors, before a "hemi head" design was re-introduced. if u want to know more?...go to amazon & get automanics t.v. special "moonshine cars" on dvd it cover moonshine cars from one of the original moonshine towns/states... dawsonville georgia


Hugh Williamson profile image

Hugh Williamson 4 years ago from Northeast USA Author

MD - Thanks for the technical info.


mdhotrodder 4 years ago

ur welcome, still learning myself,...if ur interested?...also research jerry rushing... they based dukes of hazzard & the movie "moonrunners" off of his life, plus he starred in both 1 episode of the t.v. show, as well as the movie. theres a book on his life & a dvd, also, willie clay call & junior johnson have real stills & original cars featured in oct 2005 hotrod magazine...good day to you!


Hugh Williamson profile image

Hugh Williamson 4 years ago from Northeast USA Author

I've read up on Jr Johnson but the other guys are new to me. I'll check them out. Thanks.


mdhotrodder 4 years ago

in case u were interested?, just read "a breed apart" by charles h. weems. he's a retired a.t.f. agent who gives true stories on moonshining from when he joined in 1954 up to 1964 & when the a.t.f. started using airplanes, fm 2 way radios, tracking devices, & such. the book is well worth the read!


suvreviews profile image

suvreviews 4 years ago

Very thorough article. These cars capture so nicely the spirit of the prohibition period! Cheers! : ))

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