Having made a few friends along the Blue Ridge Mountains, it was not a total surprise to run into one at a local car show in the wine country of western Virginia. While doing a little catch-up with my friend and Drivin’ News reader Dick Carroll, he abruptly pointed across the grassy show field to an older gentleman with a weathered countenance, easy manner and a T-shirt adorned with restored pick-up trucks. “There,” Dick said with absolute conviction, “Is a man with stories to tell.” Dick continued, “He is a gifted craftsman known for the beautiful vehicles that role out of his garage. To confirm my understanding I asked, “He has a restoration shop?” No, he has a garage at his house where he does everything including paint. And no he does not have a spray booth.
Meet Septuagenarian Benny Bryant, a rural Rembrandt of restoration.
Benny Bryant’s 50 years of building Blue Ridge beauties
Unassuming yet quietly confident in his ability to artfully craft wood and steel with skills for which he thanks the good Lord, Benny Bryant projects the grounded presence of a man at peace with himself and his seventy-five years of life lived in Nelson County, Virginia.
Speaking with a voice possessing a slow talking sincerity reminiscent of a cowboy recalling truths around a campfire, Benny lays out his story like a chef’s timely delivery of each subsequent course for a well prepared dinner.
As a teenager Benny began a life-long career in the automotive business by prepping new cars at the local Ford dealer in 1964. It was at that time that Benny bought the first car of his own that he would work on, a 1955 Ford.
One of the few perks of his entry level position resides in the Pantheon of his young life’s experiences. He remembers prepping new Fords for delivery and driving numerous high performance 289 mustangs and a very rare 1965 Galaxy 500 with all the right boxes checked: 427 check, 2x4s check, 4-speed check. A fun job, but not forever.
Benny migrated to what would be his life’s work in the automotive parts business from which he would retire after 43 years as the owner/manager of a Fisher-Federated parts store. During those years Benny would build a family and populate his spare time honing his God-given abilities for restoring distressed vehicles. Indeed his two passions, love of family and love of restoration would interweave seamlessly as he shared his passion with his children and their children. Benny’s long life and passion had blossomed into a family affair. He says, “My son Benji stayed out here in the garage with me from the time he was probably two years old up until he got married and left at about 30.” Benji became a serious contributor to projects about the age of 14. Benji says, “I learned so much. We did a little bit of everything. I mean we pulled motors, did body work. We would just tear things apart head to toe. My dad and I got along good. It made things easy.”
Once retired, Benny would kick his passion for classic vehicle restoration into high gear as a full time pursuit that would sustain him and his family. He says, “I am not a wealthy man. Restoring cars defined my retirement plan.” The last decade witnessed Benny hit his stride as the consummate restoration artist possessing a special affection for pickup trucks. For those who know Benny, an added mystique enhancing the personality of what Benny creates resides in where he makes his restoration magic happen, the garage behind his home.
A handsome and neatly manicured residence, featuring many pieces of hand-made furniture crafted by Benny, sits on the side of a quiet country road that is now paved. For many years that was not the case.
Behind the house a two-bay garage two cars deep with a single lift and an upholstered recliner (more about the recliner later) provides the stage where Benny performs. To appreciate the achievement Benny’s work represents, demands a look at where it takes place. Neat, clean and organized with photos on the walls and trophies on shelves accompanying all the equipment Benny needs to turn trash into treasure.
For those raised on watching high tech restorations on the Velocity Channel, Benny’s garage (Wow what a great name for a TV show) offers a stark contrast. Benny in describing the technical sophistication of his garage says, “We do it with nothing. I got a little welder and that’s all really that we got. Heck, I got a few little old body tools. I got a couple of D.A.s (Dual Action sanders) and some grinders and that’s it. That’s all we got. In describing work on two of his projects he says, “All that frame work under that Plymouth and the one under that Nova both, we built lying on the floor with grinders, cut off wheels and a little weld.”
In looking at two of his restorations up close and personal the paint showed well. When asked about his paint booth, Benny responded, “I don’t have one.” Benny shoots all his restorations in his garage.” When asked how, he explains that he first sweeps out the garage and wets down the floor. A powerful fan fills a window to draw out dust and fumes. He often shots with a Binks spray gun but other equipment as well. When first visiting Benny’s garage two examples of his work grace his driveway.
With an aggressive stance and a dazzling red paint job a pristine 1964 Plymouth Fury says all you need to know about Benny’s work ethic. Owned by Benny for over 50 years, this Mopar beauty through pride and service has earned its place as part of the Bryant family. He says, “My daughter was born in ‘72, I bought it just before she was born and it brought her home from the hospital.” While loved, his Fury has not always enjoyed such an easy life. He says, “When we first got it, we kind of treated it like a four-wheel drive truck even though it was only 2WD. Out front of our house used to be a dirt road and in the wintertime the ruts were real bad. So bad I broke the steering box off it.” Luckily the panels remained good with damage primarily to the chassis.
Since surrendering its daily driver status, the Fury has been repainted twice and reupholstered twice. Its present garage applied lustrous red skin was applied 20 years ago. The chrome, done over 30 years ago shows very well. The stainless steel grill and all other trim are original. Everything is basically as new including the engine. Its aggressive presence screams 413 wedge but no, power comes from a 318 with a two barrel. When asked why the modest power plant Benny says, “Money. I had a wife and two children and I was the only one working.”
Today Benny’s Fury has 208,581 miles and counting.
When asked to tell a good story about his Fury, and knowing Benny, it had to involve family as well the car. And the story is a good one. Benny’s son Benji drove it the full length of the 2001 Hot Rod Magazine Power Tour.
For those not familiar with The Hot Rod Power Tour it began in 1995 as the brain child of the Hot Rod Magazine staff. Basically intended as the world’s largest traveling car show, its intention was to invite car enthusiasts of all stripes to participate in a seven-day gearhead circus and carfest that traveled across the country. The point of the tour is about driving your car, seeing new parts of America, meeting more people and sharing the total car experience. Today, it involves thousands of cars and tens of thousands of people. In 2001 the tour kicked-off in Pontiac, Michigan, ran for nine days and 2,414 miles and concluded in San Bernardino California. Benji and a friend ran the full tour across the country without a mechanical issue.
Clearly with a soft place in his heart for ‘64 Plymouths, Benny performed an amazing transformation on a ‘64 Plymouth Savoy that was well along the journey from dust to dust. He says, “Bought it at the West Virginia line and brought it home. Seeing it, everybody said why in the world did you bring a pile of junk like that home. The front end was just about rotted off. No floor boards. The cowl where the windshield wipers went had been eaten completely out of it so badly that the windshield wipers fell down inside of the car.” But Benny had a vision and a spectacular one that would become a reality.
It began by moving the front axle six-inches forward and the rear axle 13-inches forward. Why? Benny says, “Well back when I come along about everything at the drag strips was altered wheelbase cars and I just loved them for their looks. To me they just are beautiful.” When completed, the
Savoy had a Dana 60 rear, a really strong 383 Chrysler V8 and a four-speed all wrapped up in one mind blowing bad-ass black Mopar monster. Of course, Benji took it on the 2003 Hot Rod Magazine Power Tour.
As pickup trucks star in Benny’s mind as a favorite restoration subject, his red and white 1972 Chevy C10 shines like a gem with roots very different than that of his Fury. Benny says, “Bought the chassis in one place. Bought the bed in another place. Bought the cab in another place. A guy give me his two front doors and the two front fenders. I bought the hood in another place.” Now, completed, it has a Chevy 350/350, lowered springs in the rear and cut coils in the front, new upholstery and new paint. When asked how long ago he started this project he says, “A year.” Benny does not drag his feet with a project. A partial list of his projects since he retired boggles the mind.
In the past seven years Benny has done two Dodge diesels, an ‘89 Ford F-150 short bed, ‘96 Ford F-150 short bed, 13 Ford Rangers, 19 Toyota pickups and two Chevy S10 pickups. In the years prior to retirement completed projects included: A 1932 Ford 3-window coupe, Three 1972 Chevrolet pickups like his, one Jeep, a Bronco, a ‘32 Ford 5-window Coupe, ‘31 Ford 2-door sedan, 1964 Plymouth Savoy and a 1967 Chevy II tubbed with a 355, Littlefield blower and 2x4s. There were more. This, now, brings us to the La-Z-Boy in the garage.
When asked why he has a recliner in his garage Benny says, “It’s because I am 75-years old. I have had two heart attacks and I have had triple bypass surgery. At this point in life I work about 10 minutes and sit about three or four minutes and then, maybe, I can work another 10 minutes. I love what I do.”
Benny Bryant’s extensive roster of masterful restorations leaves no doubt as to how well he has succeeded in sharing the fruits of his passion with family and friends alike. And he continues to do so in his reclining years.