Well I was going down Route 40 in a ‘57 Chevrolet,
’59 Cadillac mill.
I had been up in the mountains hauling illegal whiskey
from a pure copper moonshine still.
--First verse of the song “Going Down Route 40,” by Gary Thompson
As immortalized in the film “Thunder Road,” revenue agents have long gone after moonshine as it is being transported to market. Historically the trip from still to buyer was uneventful in most cases. Yet if agents had a tip as to when and where a load of whiskey was being moved, revenuers might set up a roadblock or simply wait along the route for the “hauler” or “runner” to pass by.
In the era prior to police two-way radios, a hauler could possibly outrun officers with a fast vehicle. Some of the resulting chases are the stuff of Blue Ridge legend. Officers at times did shoot at the tires of their prey, and revenuers and liquor haulers alike suffered car crashes. If the hauler was spotted, he might lose his pursuer on dark country roads. Some skilled drivers perfected the “bootleg turn,” a technique of spinning 180 degrees in a quick skid. With the flick of a special switch, a hauler could turn off his taillights, and occasionally vehicles were fitted with bright rear-facing lights to blind pursuing revenuers. If the hauler could not shake the agents, he might jump out the car and run on foot into the woods, avoiding arrest but losing both the vehicle and the liquor.
Haulers had no desire to draw attention to themselves by speeding or driving a conspicuous vehicle. Special springs and shocks were installed on cars and trucks to hold the vehicles level when loaded. At times drivers switched license plates to avoid identification. Packed with up to 132 gallons of whiskey, the 1940 Ford coupe was the “runner’s” vehicle of choice into the 1950s. Since the 1970s haulers have switched to vans or pickup trucks with camper shells.
Much has been made in popular culture of the connection between liquor haulers and NASCAR auto racing, but in truth few Blue Ridge moonshine drivers dabbled in organized racing. The real ties between the two activities took place in local garages where mechanics modified engines for speed and suspensions for handling. The mechanic’s skills were useful to both stock car racers and moonshine runners.
At Ferrum College's 2004 Blue Ridge Folklife
Festival, retired moonshiners and revenue
agents gathered onstage to share memories.
Click here for liquor hauler Paul Radford's
account of a wild ride and a narrow escape.
Equipped with three two-barrel carburetors, the Edelbrock manifold shown here was fitted to a Cadillac motor in a 1955 Ford “liquor car.” The carburetors had to be shortened in order to close the hood of the car. The Ford was confiscated in 1968 after the driver
jumped out and escaped into the Franklin County, Virginia, woods during a police chase. Seven cases of moonshine
were found in the vehicle.