A Passenger Seat Look at Chattanooga’s Classic Car Enthusiasts

In the Rearview Mirror

The automobile has been a subject of near-global fascination since its invention. For well over a century now, cars have had a widespread and loyal following that reaches far beyond their utilitarian purpose. As the years have passed, the popularity of car races, auctions, and shows has hardly waned; in 2013, the car-centric BBC television series Top Gear secured a Guinness World Record for “Most-Watched Factual TV Program,” and models such as classic American muscle cars, the Volkswagen Beetle, and the “James Bond” Aston Martin have become mainstays in the pop culture lexicon. 

To learn more about classic cars, we’ve decided to get to the heart of the matter by talking to the local men who love and care for them. Read on to find out what got them into the classic car scene – and what keeps them there.

By Anna Hill / Photography by Matt Reiter

Ian O’Shea, Ringgold

Ian O’Shea has been fascinated by collector cars since he was a kid. “My dad took me to a lot of car shows growing up,” he tells us. “He would sit me in the driver’s seat of Mercers, Stutz Bearcats, Alfa Romeos, and Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts and shoot rolls of film while talking to the owners for hours. They were great memories I’ll always thank him for.” 

As O’Shea grew older, his taste developed into a more specific direction: British cars. “My mother was born in England, and my dad’s best friend had a 1955 MG TF that I fell in love with at 15. Since then, I’ve owned at least 14 British cars,” O’Shea explains. 

Though MGs aren’t the only cars that O’Shea has owned over the years, they’ve certainly been part of many defining moments for him. His first car was a 1971 MG Midget, followed by a 1979 MG Midget as his second vehicle. More recently, last summer O’Shea had the honor of acquiring the MG TD-8888 previously owned by the late Hank Rippert, who was somewhat of a legend in the MG and British car community. “Shortly after that purchase, I was informed I had the ‘responsibility’ to drive the car from Ringgold up to Atlantic City and back so the car could be put on display during the MG International inside the Harrah’s Convention Center,” O’Shea tells us. 

“Just sitting behind the same steering wheel, working the controls and going through the same gears as Hank for over 1,800 miles and six days straight was my biggest-ever thrill to date,” says O’Shea. “Doing that with several car club friends and my close friend Terry Barker in the co-pilot seat made that entire adventure even more memorable, and certainly was the reason for the trip’s ultimate success.”

Though MGs hold a special place in O’Shea’s heart, he’s owned a few other makes and models in his time, including a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro, an Oldsmobile 442 Cutlass Supreme, and a 1971 Mercedes SEL. Ultimately, though, it’s always the British cars he circles back to. “The camaraderie between British auto owners is fraternal,” he shares. “We all experience the same driving thrills, similar maintenance issues, and learn from others’ experiences. The friendship bond between these gentlemen and ladies typically lasts a lifetime.”

 

Current Collection: 1971 MG MGB | 1951 MG TD (pictured)

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Barton Close, Signal Mountain

For Barton Close, his links to automobile history extend far beyond himself. “My great-grandfather, Walter Lorenzo Marr, was Buick’s first chief engineer from its start in the early 1900s to 1925,” he explains. “I grew up in a car culture.” In fact, Close even grew up in Marr’s first Signal Mountain home, which Marr had settled into in 1913. Marr has been renowned as an American automotive pioneer, and his legacy lives on in his great-grandson’s collection of cars. 

Close’s first-ever collector purchase was his 1953 Buick Skylark, which was Buick’s 50th anniversary car. He currently owns three Buicks, with his fourth vehicle hitting even closer to home: a 1903 Marr Auto Car, which was manufactured by his great-grandfather’s marque, the Marr Auto Car Company. The Marr has been his favorite purchase so far; in fact, many of Close’s most memorable car moments surround Marr vehicles. “The three one-of-a-kind, Marr-designed automobiles that still exist have only been together twice in 119 years, and I was there with my car and my cousin’s cars at both shows. It’s been one of my most rewarding experiences so far,” Close tells us. 

The community surrounding these cars is one of Close’s favorite things about the entire scene. “I love the stories people share with me about their Buicks or Buicks their family has owned,” he shares. “I met the grandson of the gentleman who ran the plant where the Marr Auto Car was built. I met another gentleman who helped assemble all 1953 Buick Skylarks – since they were a limited run, that means he helped assemble my car. The stories go on and on.” 

The history of classic cars is something that Close believes is important to maintain. “One of the challenges we face is a dying interest in the hobby,” he explains. “As the older generations die off, so does their knowledge of these older vehicles, and that’s a hard loss. For example, when you collect Brass Era cars – manufactured prior to 1915 – you are dealing with technology that many people don’t understand and parts that no longer exist.” 

As someone with ancestral stakes in these cars, Close is doing his part to keep the scene alive – and is grateful for others that do as well.

 

Current Collection: 1903 Marr Auto Car  | 1909 Buick Model 10 | 1931 Buick Model 56C (pictured)  | 1953 Buick Skylark

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Charles Adams, Jr., Signal Mountain

Like so many other car collectors, Charles Adams’ fascination with the automobile has been decades in the making. Something that’s always been of particular interest to him, however, is the parts and systems that keep them running. “Growing up, I helped my dad work on many of our family cars. During this time, I developed an interest in automotive mechanical and electrical systems,” he explains. “After the war years, new cars were not easily available, requiring that you perform your own repairs. These experiences in my youth impacted my decision to become a mechanical engineer.”

Given his passion for “how things work,” when it comes to machinery, there are few things that Adams loves more than a good project where cars are concerned (as can be seen from his 1936 Auburn pictured here, which is powered by a 5.7-liter Hemi). He’s been building and restoring vehicles for years, and each time, it’s been a thrill. When Adams salvaged his 1934 Studebaker Dictator, he was told that it wasn’t restorable, but that didn’t stop him. “I enjoyed the four-year challenge required to complete the project,” he tells us. “This ‘unrestorable’ Studebaker was later featured in a national car magazine as well as Jasper Engine Company’s annual calendar.” 

That being said, Adams believes that the mechanical aspect of building and restoration is one of the hobby’s biggest learning curves. “It gets tricky when the builder decides to modernize the vehicle’s drive train with current technologies,” he explains. “For example, converting a naturally aspirated engine to fuel injection managed by a computer is a big challenge.”

On the flip side of that are many rewards, according to Adams. “The most rewarding experiences in the hobby have been traveling to shows to display my craftsmanship in a project car. These activities offer opportunities to involve younger participants and develop lifelong relationships with other classic car enthusiasts,” he says. 

Adams treasures the friendships he’s developed through the classic car scene over the years, as well as the ways it’s connected him to his family. “Restoration of older cars brings back memories of the cars I worked on with my dad,” he says. Adams has also passed down his enthusiasm for these vehicles to his own sons as well as his grandson; suffice to say, the Adams family passion for cars certainly won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

 

Current Collection: 1936 Auburn Boattail Speedster (pictured) | 1934 Plymouth Rumble Seat Convertible | 1934 Studebaker Dictator | 1941 Willys Americar | 1984 Mercedes 380 SL Convertible

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Frank Butler, Ooltewah

Frank Butler has been fascinated by the mechanics of cars since he was a teenager. “What really got me into the scene was when I was 19 and my dad called and asked if I was interested in a 1974 Cadillac that his buddy needed out of his garage,” Butler remembers. Unfortunately, the Cadillac had been rotting away in the garage for almost two decades, but Butler and his father still managed to get it running on the first day after picking it up. Butler then took on the project of cleaning the car up, and the rest, they say, is history. 

“I’ve been passionate about cars ever since,” Butler tells us. “I love to visit museums with them anywhere we happen to travel to.” He also holds membership with the Porsche Club of America and the Cadillac & LaSalle Club, and he writes for The Self-Starter, which is the national publication of the latter. 

However, as much as he loves the world of restoring, maintaining, and collecting cars, Butler acknowledges it’s not without its challenges. In his experience, one of the trickier elements of the hobby is part sourcing. “For my Cadillac, it can be difficult finding the parts, as there are specific pieces that can be much harder to come across,” he explains. “This is probably true for most classics, since the cars have been out of production, often for quite some time.”

That being said, the joy of it all often outweighs the difficulties. Butler’s 1986 Porsche 911 has been one of his favorite purchases, and after all the work he’s put into it – including an engine rebuild – it’s a car he loves to drive. “There’s just something special about that car,” he shares. 

Beyond the machines themselves, Butler loves the way that cars can bring people together. “One of my favorite experiences is winning Best in Show with my parents’ 1964 Cadillac Eldorado,” he tells us. “It was the first time my wife attended something like that with me to help with prepping it for presentation and judging. My parents were there as well, so it turned into a family experience. It was a really special time.” 

In the future, Butler hopes to continue navigating the world of collectible cars with a hands-on approach. “I like to do the mechanical work myself, as much as possible,” he explains. And for him, though it may be time-consuming, it’s absolutely worth it.

 

Current Collection: 1974 Cadillac Eldorado | 1986 Porsche 911 (pictured)

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Benton C. Bilbrey III, North Chattanooga

For Benton Bilbrey, car culture has always been a family affair. “My family was immersed in antique car culture in Chattanooga, and my father’s friend Jack Daugherty owned a shop on Bonny Oaks Drive where I spent my high school years learning mechanical skills and paint and body work,” he explains. At 17, he purchased a 1970 Pontiac GTO, but ultimately couldn’t pull off the restoration; two years later, with the help of his mother, he traded for a 1969 Corvette – and he did find success with that build. 

Now, Bilbrey continues to expand his horizons when it comes to working on – and even racing – classic cars. He’s done paint and fiberglass work for years, but more recently, he’s taken an active role in learning new skills for restoration. “When I was almost 40, I took welding courses at Chattanooga State,” he tells us. “The newfound ability to weld repairs and fabricate at home has opened a lot of new possibilities.”  

Bilbrey is passing on the family enthusiasm by getting his son, Benton IV, involved. “Vintage road racing is my passion,” he shares. “My son, who’s 12 now, and I camp at Road Atlanta during the vintage races each year, and I’ve traveled doing a few track days in my Corvette as well.” 

In fact, Bilbrey believes that one of the most important things about keeping the classic car scene alive is allowing younger people to see classic cars doing “normal” things. “So many beautiful classics sit around more and more with each passing year – it’s hard for a new market of buyers to want a car they perceive doesn’t go anywhere but from the garage to a car show and back,” he explains. “I want younger people to see that cool old cars can really integrate with life.”

At the end of the day, Bilbrey is just happy to be along for the ride, and he’s grateful for the relationships he has that have encouraged him. “I would never have had the chance to do the work I’m doing today without a very patient wife, my parents helping me when I was young, my Uncle Gaither – who’s still a car guy at 84 – and Jack Daugherty, who’s been a brilliant mentor since I started hanging around his auto shop all those years ago,” he shares.

 

Current Collection: 1964 Chevrolet Corvette (pictured) | 1967 Ford Mustang Fastback (pictured) | 1965 Ford Mustang Coupe | 1967 Ford Galaxie | 1973 Porsche 914 | 1973 Jeep Commando

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