Let me tell the story. I can tell it all, about the moonshine picture and the history it recalls. It’s from the 1950s. Robert Mitchum drove the load. And when his engine roared, they called the movie “Thunder Road.”
I’m reminded of this cult-classic film after spotting this 1957 Ford Custom Tudor hidden next to barn in the Caruso community near Canton, N.C. Even in retirement, this black beauty looks every bit the part of a North Carolina moon runner.
As I child, my father regaled me with tales of the 1958 movie “Thunder Road,” which was filmed in Asheville and other locations across western North Carolina. He followed the crew the summer they filmed the now classic bootlegger’s tale. Years before I saw the movie, I knew by heart the scene filmed on the straightaway on Brevard Road near Bent Creek where Mitchum’s character rolls a ’50 Ford to escape the law. (It’s the same site where he rams the ‘57 Ford through a roadblock). And just last week, I drove across the bridge over Toxaway Falls, site of the scene where Mitchum runs the mobsters off the cliff.
Family reunions as a kid meant visiting with my father’s Uncle Joe Gouge, who married a moonshiner’s daughter and began to run white lightnin’ from stills deep in the high mountains. I’d always get Uncle Joe talking about the ol’ days. He spun tales of driving through creek beds and cow pastures, daring exploits of fleeing the Revenuers as they fired shotguns at his car, busting the crates of Mason jars and spilling the highly flammable liquor and fumes onto the driver’s floorboard.
On another occasion, his car gave out during a pursuit and he legged it up the hillside. The federal agents soon got tired and went home, but Uncle Joe walked the mountain ridges and hollars for two days to find a safe spot to call for help.
“Thunder Road” remains my favorite Robert Mitchum movie. He actually cowrote the theme song and his son plays his little brother in the movie. Some say the ending was inspired by a real incident in which a bootlegger crashed his car on the Kinston Pike near Knoxville.
One detail that certainly rings true are the names of the mountain moonshiners. In fact, the actors mispronounce my family name of Gouge (it’s pronounced “googe”) when referring to the traitorous character “Stacey Gouge.” The film also mentions the Gouges’ cousins, the Buchanans, as well as several other common mountain surnames, indicating the writers did a bit of research in the region before filming the movie.
As for the 1957 Ford, it never gets the devotion from fans like the ’57 Chevy. But proved a popular car for stock car racers. In Fairlane trim, it remains one of my favorite pre-muscle-era offerings from FoMoCo. Even Andrew “Dice” Clay loved ‘em! And I wonder if I’d look as cool as Robert Mitchum roaring through the hills in this baby?
— Michael Gouge