Jeff Gale was looking for a car. In doing so he happened on a machine that couldn’t keep a secret.
Moonshine is as American as apple pie, and the tales of running stills to running ‘shine have taken on a modern mythological feel. It’s where folklore, history, truth, and legend get drunk and hook up for some back-woodsy love; and the resulting story-babies are barely believable. Heroes are good ol’ boys, ten feet tall and bulletproof, always staying one step ahead of the law. Villains are the government’s Revenuers, those of black souls and iron fists who care only about extracting a pound of flesh for Uncle Sam. It’s a battle fought on many fronts, but our favorite arenas are the country roads of Appalachia where runners run and agents chase. Not all of the characters are flesh and blood, however, people lie, steel does not.
A Chief Designer for FCA, Jeff got his start at GM but has been with Chrysler since 2000. He’s worked on concept vehicles like the ‘02 Dodge M80 and the Demon’s spiritual predecessor, the Challenger 1320, along with a plethora of other Mopar Underground vehicles for SEMA and the Jeep Safari in Moab. Jeff also has had his hands in on the looks of the base and SRT versions of the 300, Magnum, and Challenger, among many other production vehicles. His dad is Tom Gale, the highly regarded engineer and designer who helped lay the groundwork for what FCA Design is today. Ask Ralph Gilles, Mark Trostle, or any number of designers why they were drawn to Chrysler from the get go and you’re gonna hear about the work Jeff’s dad did on concepts in the ‘80s and ‘90s and especially one particular American legend, the Dodge Viper.
When he went on a hunt for an early Chrysler muscle car, Jeff was looking to bag either a Barracuda or ‘Cuda. It was 2003-2004 and the prices of that particular car had already begun its insane ascent, so a b-body was next on the list. One of the first to solicit serious consideration was a 1970 Road Runner in Virginia, found via a for sale ad in Hemmings.
Jeff and friend/fellow car enthusiast Matt Jensen made the trip from Detroit to Roanoke, VA to check out the Plymouth. I talked to Matt about the trip and he laughed “the entire time I was telling him to keep a straight face, let me negotiate. ‘Yup, yes, no problem!’ Then we get there, and as soon as the barn door opened Jeff’s jaw hit the ground. So much for driving a hard bargain.”
Every automotive magazine and blog has already written about the hot rod and racing legacy still owners and moonshine runners created, and I don’t want to delve too deeply into a story so extensively covered. But the impact they had really can’t be overstated. The hot rod industry has innovative bootleggers to thank for its development in the ‘40s and ‘50s as much as engineers in Detroit and hot rodders in Los Angeles. Go fast parts and suspension tricks were invented and sorted out on the fly with more than just bragging rights at stake: they needed to outrun police and would-be rivals to stay in the money and out of jail. But bragging rights were important too, thus began stock car racing, which was literally invented by the drivers who smuggled illegal booze. The foundation of this country’s preeminent racing series, NASCAR, was poured with moonshine.
When I think of runners I think of a 1940 Ford with a hopped up flathead and built suspension. From the outside it looks like your parents’ car, but underneath it eats up and spits out everything in its path all while carrying Mason jars full of liquor. As time went on the drivers and their mechanics swapped out the flatheads for higher powered v8 Cadillacs and Hemis. Eventually they moved over entirely to the bigger car bodies of the ‘50s and ‘60s, as the larger platforms proved more useful for hiding contraband. Then into the late ‘60s and through the ‘70s moonshining kind of left the public conscious, right? I mean there was Uncle Jessie distilling and Bo and Luke running with the General Lee, but I kind of always thought that was a made for TV kind of scenario.
As it turns out, truth really is stranger than, or at least as strange as, fiction. The Duke boy’s 1969 Charger wasn’t the only b-body running from the cops with a trunk full of alcohol.
The 1970 Road Runner Jeff was interested in came with a bunch of old paperwork and photos. The seller was the second owner of the car, his uncle being the first. So it had been in the family since it rolled out of Chrysler’s St. Louis plant in 1969. Pictures show the Plymouth as it emerged from a barn in 1999, 23 years after it was parked. Jeff noticed a few oddities, like this Road Runner had the chrome from a less-racy GTX or Satellite.
“The photos from when the car was pulled from the barn had the Satellite a line moldings, the rear moldings, and the tail lamp trim. The a line molding was deleted during its restoration.”In the grand scheme of things none of this really messed with the bottom line so Jeff shook hands and a deal was done. But his sharp eye earned an unexpected remark.
“I owe you the real story.”
Well, shit. At this point Jeff’s heart sank as he wondered what the hell was gonna follow. Instead, the tale just became more intriguing.
“Do you know anything about this county in Virginia? It’s kinda the moonshine capital of the south. Black paint, stripe delete, added chrome . . . you do the math.”
Tucked in the receipts was another part of the equation. Along with “add wheel lip moldings” were the words “added leafs.” Now we have a Road Runner in Franklin County with a 383, minus attention grabbing aggressive stripes, plus “old people” chrome, AND the dealer installed more leafs to the heavy-duty suspension.
We’re not going to use names here because nobody wants to get fitted with concrete boots for a swim in the Detroit River. After “you do the math,” junior got a scowl from his old man on the porch and any talk about moonshine was cut off. Jeff’s interest was piqued, however, and he did some research on his own. Without getting too specific the seller’s family had gotten in some legal trouble involving...uh...the subject matter at hand...and the car’s original owner, the seller’s uncle, wound up dead by his own hand. In fact a couple of people tied to the story wound up dead, and not so long ago.
Reality TV recently put the spotlight back on moonshiners, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. In reality Real Life moonshine never went away. As the economy drops, people want cheap booze. When it picks back up...people still want cheap booze. With cocaine and opioids getting the headlines, the ATF has bigger fish to fry than fellers making white lightning. And if there’s a way to make money without paying taxes Americans will make a go of it.
The Road Runner was originally purchased in 1969 and parked in 1976 with 70k miles on it.
“I like to think they were made by the fuzz in ‘76, then hid the car.” Jeff says with a smile. While the family stayed in business the car stayed locked away. Considering the equation handed him by the nephew, it would be hard to argue otherwise.
Cars don’t lie.