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 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 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.

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 1950′s could be modified to have plenty. Some old runners claim they had 500 HP going for them.

“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.” 55-chevy-moonshine

 

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.

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 1920′s bust — in Washington D.C., of all places.

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.

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…
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.55

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.11

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 1960′s 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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