Monthly Archives: September 2022


Conversations With People We Value #40

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

Benny Bryant in his 1964 Plymouth Fury

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.

Benny with 1955 Ford

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 and son Benji

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.

Benny’s garage

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.

Benny’s 1964 Plymouth Fury

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.

1964 Fury on 2001 Hot Rod Power Tour

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.

1964 Savoy pre-restoration

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.

1964 Plymouth Savoy on 2003 Hot Rod Power Tour

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.

Benny’s 1972 Chevy pickup

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.

Benny in his recliner

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.

By |2022-11-25T13:08:43+00:00September 29th, 2022|4 Comments

Conversations With People We Value #39

With Alaska in my rearview mirror, the late summer sunshine inspired a journey south along the Blue Ridge Parkway in search of stories to be found on the country byways that splinter off from the great mother road of the rural southeast in North Carolina.

Some stories stoked an inspiring blend of incredulity and awe such as that of the engaging gray haired gentleman with a roadside repair business sharing space with an array of deteriorating foreign and domestic classic cars snuggled fender to fender like sardines in a can. He began collecting vehicles around his ninth birthday. His collection, now, stowed away in nondescript chicken coups and barns included hundreds of cars and over 1,000 motorcycles.

Another story came alive when stopping at a farm stand nestled in a valley bounded by thickly forested mountains. That stop introduced me to a remarkable gentleman, retired rocket scientist and Apollo 11 team member. Together with his sister he continued his extraordinary life by buying an historically significant orchard and by turning it into a non-profit 501c3 changed lives while preserving and promoting the culture of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Those, however, will be stories told another day.

This week’s story tells of a man who created a community designed for classic car enthusiasts.

Meet Allan Witt visionary developer of Hawk’s Hill.

Visiting a community built for car enthusiasts

Departing from the Holly & Ivy Inn B&B in Newton, NC we headed out on some twisties toward Lenoir, NC. The Holly & Ivy deserves a shout out as easily the best bargain in a refined B&B I have ever enjoyed. At $92 a night this immaculate and exquisitely appointed restored Manor House of a 19th century industrialist could be considered a bargain at twice the price.

In Lenoir, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, resides Hawks Hill a community dedicated and tailored to the interests of the collectible car enthusiast. Created by now retired businessman and British Car enthusiast Allan Witt, Hawks Hill migrated from vision to reality over a period starting with the purchase of the land in 1987. At that time Allan and his now deceased wife Patricia, who passed in 2016, purchased a beautiful, wooded 108 acres in Lenoir. Allan gives much of the credit to Patricia, who owned and enjoyed her 1958 Morgan, for sparking the concept of a collectible car friendly rural community.

Passing the sign announcing the entry to Hawks Hill, one proceeds up a smoothly paved serpentine drive through a thickly forested community. In the age of clear cutting and cookie cutter homes, the handsome houses of Hawks Hill enjoy a setback that subordinates their presence to promote a pleasing sense of a forest ambiance.

A sloped driveway snaked up to Allan’s residence. The attractive home at the top included an attached garage with a lift and space for three vehicles. Across the driveway stood a handsome barn capable of accommodating 6 cars in various states of repair including a bare Jensen-Healy body on a rotisserie stand. Down the sloping approach to Allan’s home stood yet another barn that accommodated six cars. As the man espousing the vision of a car enthusiast community, Allan clearly walked the walk.

Allan Witt, Sherrill Eller

Walking about his property with his companion Sally Tatham and his friend and skilled mechanic Sherrill Eller Allan details how the vision of a car enthusiast community manifested itself as Hawks Hill.

Allan says, “When I sold my business in Connecticut my wife and I looked at the property we had bought here and didn’t know what to do with it.” Allan and his wife decided to subdivide it into lots of over 1 acre each and sell the lots in phases. In the early 1990’s phase one with nine lots went on the market. None of them sold. There was little interest. It was time for a plan B for phase 1. It was at that time that Allan’s wife said, “You like cars. Lots of people like cars. Why don’t we make a car community out of it?” Allan loved the idea.

Step one, they advertised in “Old Cars Weekly” which ranked as their magazine of choice. Allan says, “It came out weekly. It was inexpensive.” And it was brilliant. Quickly after placing their ad the first half dozen lots had sold. Hawks Hill had a working plan and they would hold true to its winning formula. Over the ensuing years Hawks Hill rolled out four more phases. Hawks Hill contains a total number of 48 building lots. At the age of 86, Allan has no plan for a phase 6 to sell the final five lots.

While a “car guy,” Allan sought to tailor amenities that could be enjoyed by a broad spectrum of families and individuals alike while resonating strongly with car enthusiasts. Hawks Hill features an unusual integration of features appealing to both those with an affinity for hiking though the woodlands and those who savor driving through the forest.

Club House with 8 bays

Almost assuredly unique to Hawks Hill would be its 2-story clubhouse that features a downstairs offering eight (8) shop bays. The bays have a full complement of tools including access to a lift and machinist tools for fabrication. A milling machine, a lathe, sheet metal tools, sand blasting equipment, a large capacity air compressor and more stand ready for any home owner’s use.

The upstairs contains three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a giant kitchen, a huge living room and a wood burning fireplace. Allan says, “Fundamentally it is a guest house.” The upstairs also contains a club room for gatherings.

In driving around Hawks Hill the sensitivity of car enthusiasts to the importance of the necessary space to properly pursue their passion makes them hyper-vigilant. For car guys, encountering space in abundance borders on a religious experience. In driving through Hawks Hill, the presence of a wealth of space to nurture the passion screams out. Handsome homes with three bays incorporate independent structures that attractively provide an additional three, four, or five bays. Jaguars, Healeys, Mercedes, Model As, muscle cars, supercars, fire engines, name it, all find a home here. At the wheel, it would appear the quality of the roads serves to celebrate an avocation built on the joy of driving.

Demographics of the area began as predominantly retirees. However, with the recent explosion in work-from-home opportunities that mix appears destined to change.

Allan’s House and attached garage

Allan says, “It is extremely affordable to live here.” He has his three buildings on over ten acres with taxes in the area of $3,000. He says, “At this point I do not see additional new construction happening. When a house goes up for resale it sells very quickly.

If you want to live where you can walk to downtown, Hawks Hill is not the place for you. That said, if you want to live in a region rich in automobile activities they abound in the area. Allan says, “There is lots of car stuff around here.” The first of each month Lenoir has a downtown cruise that pulls over 500 cars. Allan points out that there exists a number of marque and non-marque specific clubs in the area. Most interestingly, a race track at North Wilkesboro that closed in 1996 has received state funding to rebuild and reopen. Allan says, “It is already reopened and they are having a variety of races including stock car and sprint car. Last week Dale Earnhardt Jr. was racing there.” As well, other speedways abound. Allan says “Antioch Speedway, Tri-County Speedway and Hickory Speedway add to the motor sport offerings in the area.”

Sally Tatham, Allan Witt and 1980 IH Scout

As to Allan “the car guy,” he pretty much sticks to the British offerings that almost exclusively populate his collection. He has a special affection for Jensen-Healeys of all stripes and Austin-Healeys though a few Humber Super Snipes have found their way into his heart through the years. However, somewhat surprisingly, his favorite may be a rare American in the fold. Produced for only one year, Allan’s totally restored 1980 long wheelbase turbo-diesel International Harvester Scout sits in the catbird seat at Hawks Hill.

By |2022-11-25T13:07:13+00:00September 15th, 2022|4 Comments

Conversations With People We Value # 38

My experiences in Alaska benefited considerably from the character of many with whom I became acquainted. In some ways they projected a presence that seemed “realer” than that of the quasi-urbanized east coast sort common to where I call home. Not saying that either one holds an advantage as being better or worse as a human being, but realer? I say yes.

To a degree I believe that the beauty and challenge associated with life in this water wonderland that clings like a barnacle to the southern tip of Alaska shapes the character of those who call this archipelago home. It stamps each with a decidedly “made in Alaska” personality. Not so much a chip on their shoulder, far from it, it is more like they are playing an honest hand with chips in the game.

Emblematic of this living life in living color mentality is a woman whose trip to Ketchikan in 1985 profoundly altered her future vision. She never left. Meet Michelle Masden, Alaskan bush pilot.

Reaching the heights of her dreams on the wings of a deHavilland Beaver

Michelle Masden with Lady Esther

Smart, confident, engaging, rugged as the Alaskan terrain and just as pretty, Michelle Masden does not fit conventional wisdom’s image of an Alaskan bush pilot.

Interestingly, it was Michelle’s airplane that led to my meeting Michelle. Seeking the source of the powerful, lumpy, growl building from a radial engine peaking to a crescendo from a nearby waterfront dock led me to a beautifully restored vintage floatplane and its owner and pilot Michelle Masden.

Like a featured vehicle at a concours firing up to take a trophy lap, the plane, a 1959 deHavilland Beaver roared to life. Decked out in a striking livery of red, white and silver, it clearly took “Best in Show” among the area’s large population of floatplanes. Named the Lady Esther, it honors Michelle’s grandmother who hated to fly but whole-heartedly supported Michelle’s airborne dreams.

One of a series of deHavilland DHC-2 aircraft built between 1947 and 1967, now completely restored, this deHavilland Beaver started out as a military surveillance plane.  As a military plane this model had been relied upon by more than 30 countries. It began life in 1959 equipped with a machine gun drive synchronized with magneto timing allowing it to fire harmlessly through the propeller. As well, it came equipped with a camera bay allowing for mounting cameras vertically down through the belly to photograph enemy territory. The camera bay remains. The machine gun does not.

At Island Wings Air Service Michelle pulls her weight and much more

Standing, no correct that, I quickly realized that Michelle never seems to stand still, especially around her floatplane. We spoke while she actively tended to her plane, much like a concert musician tended to her violin. Shortly a new half dozen or so tourists would be arriving to fly into Alaska’s Misty Fjord National Monument or go into the bush to set down and witness the interaction of bears and salmon.

Generous and polite in sharing the little time available, she first spoke of her plane, then of herself.

Michelle purchased her floatplane from Kenmore Air of Kenmore, Washington in 2002. Much like the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center, Kenmore stands as the go-to experts for deHavilland Beaver restoration and upgrades.

Powered by a 450 horsepower Pratt & Whitney 9-cylinder radial engine, Lady Esther is a very capable lady. With its large wing area and powerful engine, the Beaver displays exceptional STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) performance making it a favorite of bush pilots. It certainly ranks at the top of Michelle’s list. She says, “This is a fabulous plane. It was designed to take off and land in relatively short spaces. That is what my business is all about. In my opinion no floatplane does it better.” The last one left the factory over 50 years ago. Nothing built since then has supplanted its number one ranking in the bush pilot community.

Michelle at 17. The day she got her pilot’s license

Born to be a pilot, Michelle took her first flying lesson at the age of 16. By the age of 17 she had earned her pilot’s license. Later, fresh from graduation at the University of Nebraska with dreams of becoming a commercial airline pilot, Michelle came to Ketchikan as many College students did to enjoy a post college summer fling. The year was 1985. Seduced by the beauty and character of the 5,000 island Alexander Archipelago in which Ketchikan is situated, Michelle’s goal of becoming a commercial airline pilot morphed into a dream that would be her life’s passion and profession.

Michelle says, “In experiencing Ketchikan I realized that I did not want to have the life of a commercial airline pilot flying from city to city living in hotel rooms.” Michelle realized her life would be lived in the skies over Alaska. Making her dream a reality posed many obstacles. First and foremost ranked the need for a plane around which she could build a business. Her present job as a deck hand on a sailboat paid nothing other than free transportation to Alaska. However her salvation would be found at sea. She went to work as a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat. Being a “girl” the offers did not pour in. But Michelle is nothing if not tenacious and strong willed. Once she got a job each subsequent year finding work would not be a problem. Michelle says, “The first summer, it was challenging to get on a boat. However after that, no. Why, because for anyone who isn’t a hard worker, it shows immediately. Up front everyone knows that it’s not going to work, right? But anyone who demonstrates an ability and willingness to put in the effort will get work.” She had eleven job offers her second year. Michelle ended up crewing on a fishing boat for seven summers. The money was good and it allowed her to pursue her second passion, traveling.

The first three years she fished for three months and traveled for 9 months. By her fourth summer she had saved enough to buy her first airplane, a Cessna 172, a little four-seater on wheels.

For the next four years she continued to fish in the summer but, now, the other nine months would see her flying her Cessna out of Saint Croix doing inter-island ferry work. Now the dream had gained some momentum. In 1993 she sold the paid off Cessna 172 and bought a Cessna 185 floatplane and settled in Ketchikan to live full time. She set her sights on building the business that would bring her dreams to life. Michelle started Island Wings Air Service. Interestingly her experience on the water gave Island Wings the boost needed to get it off the ground. She says, “My fist customers were fishermen because that was an industry I knew from the inside. The commercial fleet uses airplanes for spotting fish, tender placement, delivering parts and people.” From there her business expanded into tourism, transportation to forest service cabins, charter work and basically anything people need that will fit in an airplane.

Michelle recognizes that no accomplishment comes without help from those around you. She says there were many but expresses a special fondness for veteran bush pilot and flight instructor Jack Cousins who generously shared all he had learned in over 50-years in the Alaskan sky. Michelle says, “ Jack called Alaska the greatest place in the world to fly.” Jack passed away in 1999. Michelle says, “He was a great friend and mentor. I miss him.”

Jack Cousins and Michelle

Michelle’s life in the air above Alaska has offered a rich diet of life experiences across a spectrum of emotions. She says, “I fly famous muckety-mucks all the time. I have to sign a nondisclosure so that I can never tell anyone that they were here. What kind of life is that?” Michelle also performs medevac flights and participates in search and rescue missions. She says, “Search and rescue is really difficult because it is never a nice day and often times you know the people you are looking for.”

Island Wings now approaches its 30th year in business. It stands as a true success story and a tribute to an enterprise built on the dreams and dedication of a woman with her head in the clouds and her mind squarely focused on sharing the beauty of Alaska with others. Michelle’s success in translating her passion and sharing her joy can best be expressed by comments on the Trip Advisor travel site where of 757 reviews of their experience with Michelle and Island Wings, 18 say very good. 728 say excellent.

By |2022-11-25T13:08:06+00:00September 1st, 2022|10 Comments