I wish I had Bobby’s job. I guess anytime I meet someone who has a job that looks greener on the other side of the fence, I think about that. You do a job for twenty or forty years and you can’t help but get a little wonder lust in your heart. You start thinking, “Man, that would be cool to get to do that.”
In my teen years, I wanted to be a pilot. Took lessons and everything. I flew a puddle jumper for a couple hundred hours and life got in the way of the dream. Every time I meet a pilot, I admit, I’m a little green on the inside. I wish! I wish!
Bobby is not a pilot. Bobby is a mechanic. He has grease under his fingernails in spite of the fact that his hands have been washed up for lunch. We’re eating a BBQ sandwich at the same table inside a barn in Semmes, Alabama. Today is open house at the nursery for visitors like me who want to see one of the finest growing operations anywhere.
Bobby is 65 and looks like he could be a stagehand for Van Halen. Hair, white and on his shoulders. Face, shaven. Skin, tough like leather. Hands that look like he could tighten a bolt without a torque wrench.
“I’ve been working on cars since I was a teenager,” he says. “It’s about all I know.”
I dig deeper. “What’s your job like here?”
Bobby is not just an oil changer. His skills go way beyond swapping out a water pump or fixing a flat. He does a lot of that on the farm equipment. He works on everything from golf carts to Caterpillar equipment. But the job I envy? He takes care of the car collection in the car barn.
“I’m headed down to open up so folks can look around. You want to go with me?”
“I’m right behind you.”
I’ve walked around this showroom almost every time I’ve come to Mobile in the last 20 years. It’s crazy. A hidden vault of automobile royalty. But I’ve never walked around before with the guy who knows every bolt and cylinder in the collection.
“How long you been working here, Bobby?”
“Thirty-two years, almost thirty-three now.”
“How did this all start?”
He laughed. “The first restoration was that 1970 Ford Ranger over there. It was the first truck Mr. Buddy owned and he wore it out delivering plants. In the early 90s, not long after I started working for him, he told me he wanted to keep the old truck. He wanted to know if I could fix it up and make it look new again.”
Bobby is a magician.
I know. A Ford truck is not very exciting. Big deal. But this thing is pristine. Every detail is better than perfect. You can comb your hair in the reflection on that paint. The upholstery stitching is immaculate. The engine glistens. The tires are glossy. And Bobby did it all.
There are 33 vehicles in this collection. You impressed now? Twenty-one of them are Corvettes. Bet that got your attention. That’s right. America’s sports car. Six of those are Indi-Pace Car replicas. The oldest is a 1953 Corvette. The newest is the 2016 Z06; the only one in the collection that has not needed Bobby’s special skills.
“So, you’ve worked on every car in here?”
“All the upholstery?”
“I do it all.” He hesitated. “I hate doing the wiring. I’ve done some of it, but I’ve got a guy I call in to run most of the harness and hook-ups for me.”
I am awestruck. Over there is a 1972 Chevelle SS soft-top. Snow white with a black top and black stripes down the boot and the hood. Over there, a Mustang GT. Next to that, a ‘72 Pontiac Grand Prix with a 455 Rocket under the hood.
I tap Bobby on the shoulder. “My mama had a 1972 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with that same engine in it. Lawd, my folks should never have let a 16-year-old drive that car. She weighed like a tank but, man, would she fly.”
“What’s your favorite car in here?” He had to think about that one.
“I guess it would be either of those two ’67 Corvettes over there in the middle. Raw power. Thrush pipes out the side. No power steering. You can feel the horses going down the road.”
“What about that ’55 Belair over there?”
“Oh yeah, the ’55 would have to be in my top five for sure.”
This car is jet black with red interior and chromed out to the gills, trim and under the hood. I can’t quit walking around it in circles like a kid.
Every car in here has its special spot. The tires sit on small little carpet squares atop this hard slick concrete coated floor, inside this climate controlled barn and surrounded by trophies and memorabilia from the past.
The most recent addition to the collection is a 1965 Cheyenne pick-up. Bought for $6500 from a guy down the road, Bobby drove it home. Hardly anything wrong with the vehicle but totally made over. There are not enough word pictures in my head to describe this truck.
I ask him, “How much of this truck is original?”
“That’s easy. Nothing but the body, and there’s one or two cut-outs I had to make and rebuild.”
“Up in my shop, there is a perfectly good chassis along with every nut and bolt that held this truck together if somebody needs it.
“And you did this paint job?”
“I’ve been painting cars since I was 20. I’ve got a rotisserie inside my down-draft paint booth where I can roll everything and get it right. The underside is as clean as the top. And the color scheme matches the Z06.”
A ’65 Chevy truck with Corvette colors. That is bad! So bad!
“Took me two and a half years to get it all done,” Bobby says. “Of course, I was busy with other stuff. I dismantled our CAT Loader and repainted it and that kind of slowed me down.”
Every hood is up. Every surface is polished. Every fender has a towel on it where the cord from the battery charger lays across the paint, so it won’t get scratched.
Bobby has a certain 30-mile route where he takes each car out for a country ride once every three months. The weather must be perfect. He might take six out in one day. The cars don’t always crank. He has to tinker with them. They get washed when he returns and they go back on the shelf, so to speak.
“You must really like what you do?”
Bobby didn’t hesitate. “I love what I do. I’ve even got a few cars of my own, so it’s in my blood.”
His phone rings. One of the old nursery trucks wont’ start.
“My real job is calling me,” he says. “Gotta go.”
Maybe the other side of the fence is not so green.
But I sure do like Corvette blue.