In case you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, the Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners TV show was a runaway smash hit last fall. The reality show is an unvarnished and unapologetic look at the underground business of distilling and delivering illegal moonshine whiskey. The stars of the show are Tim Smith and his trusty sidekick, Steve Tickle. Over the course of six nail-biting, cliff-hanging episodes, Tim and Tickle locate a secret hideaway, erect a clandestine still, brew their whiskey, and deliver it, all while evading Virginia state revenue agents. Love it or hate it, the tradition of making and bootlegging moonshine liquor has been passed on through generations for hundreds of years. It’s not fakery for movies; it’s a real part of daily life in Appalachia.
You already know Tim and JT...
You already know Tim and JT as father and son moonshiners, but they are also die-hard DIY hot rodders. While shooting was going on during the 2011 season of Moonshiners, they were also building the 350 Pontiac motor—much to the chagrin of the TV production crew.
Moonshiners was already a breakaway hit when in episode five a rapt audience was introduced to Tim’s moonshine-running ’74 Pontiac LeMans, launching muscle car Internet forums and Facebook pages into a feeding frenzy that has yet to abate. Suddenly, it seemed like the whole world wanted to know more about the erstwhile bootleg mobile—one of mother GM’s 7 million forgotten ’73-77 “colonnade” A-body intermediates. As Tim tells it, the film crew, impatient to begin taping more moonshining exploits, found itself cooling its heels one day while Tim put the finishing touches on the LeMans with his son, JT. This hot rodding business was not supposed to be part of the reality show deal—until Tim set them straight.
“We put the engine in it in three hours, but we coulda done it sooner. We’re trying to put the engine in, and the crew kept interruptin’ me,” says Tim in his characteristic Virginia drawl. “They wanted to catch me moonshinin’, and I said, ‘This is all part of moonshinin’.’ They wanted to know if the car was going to run, and I told them if we get the car runnin’, we’re gonna run moonshine in it. I was tryin’ to clean it up, and I was showin’ JT how to make it look pretty. They had their doubts if the car was gonna run again. You know, they’ve never seen an engine taken apart to where you can see into it. The film crew never seen anything like that before.”
You might think the oft-quoted connection between fast hot rods and running bootleg whiskey (stock car racing roots, yada, yada…) are the reason for Tim’s hot rodded LeMans, but the real explanation is much less dramatic. In 2006, Tim was hauling it to the junkyard for scrap when his then 9-year-old son, JT, laid the guilt trip on him. Tim told us: “I sold a Lincoln to this woman in North Carolina and I delivered the car down there on a rollback. I salvage cars for scrap metal, so I’m always looking for junk cars to scrap out. When I delivered this Lincoln, I saw this old car sitting under a barn with weeds growing around it. I asked if she wanted to get rid of it, and she told me it was her son’s car. He had been killed in an accident, and she didn’t want to see it no more. I could have the car for free if I would just take it. I get back home with the car and my son started asking me questions about it, like what am I going to do with it? I told him it’s a junk car, and I’m going to haul it to the junkyard. He then asked me, ‘Why do people throw their cars away, why don’t they fix them?’ I took it off the hauler, and he started showing interest in it. He was fascinated with it—it’s an old car, about 20 years older than him. I told him, you can fix it up if you want to, so we started working on it.”