The Mechanics of Tinkering

By Chelsea Retherford | Living 50 Plus

Bryan Hamilton got his first car, a 1966 Ford Mustang, while he was a student attending Coffee High School in Florence. Today, that same sports car and several others fill a garage in Lauderdale County, occasionally making appearances at vintage car shows all over the Southeast.

“I bought it in 1976 from a neighbor, and I paid $625 for it,” Hamilton, 63, said. “It had just been painted.”

The ’66 Mustang was pearl blue when Hamilton made his purchase, but today it’s a glossy metallic black and sports the same Coffee High School front license plate it did when it was used to carpool Hamilton and his friends to school.

He said his car was the last vehicle painted in the Florence High School auto-tech center after Coffee High and Bradshaw High School were integrated to form the current school. He and a friend, Danny Carson, took on the work themselves.

Hamilton prefers to do all the handy work himself. For one, he said it’s cheaper that way.

“Bryan likes it all from the mechanics to the body work to painting. He does it all,” his wife, Brenda Armstrong Hamilton, said.

Her husband grew up on a chicken farm in Walker County, where he watched his father, Herbert “Pete” Hamilton, do most of the repairs and maintenance for his farm equipment.

“He did whatever needed to be done. He was a do-it-yourselfer,” Bryan said. “He would take me down to the National Guard Armory. I didn’t go to kindergarten. I don’t even know if they had kindergarten. He would take me to the National Guard Armory, and I would hang out at the motor pool, where the Jeeps and the big trucks were.”

The memory undoubtedly sparked an interest in cars, but Bryan, who is a collector of all types of vintage memorabilia from jukeboxes and pinball machines to retired road signs — picked up the art of restoration from his grandfather, Marvin Moomaw.

“My Grandaddy had a little store — we called it a junk store,” Bryan said of the former Moomaw’s Sale Mart that was once located in Cloverdale.

“He would repair the furniture. You know, if it was broken,” Bryan said. “He sold it to people who needed used stuff. It’s an old — I guess they’d call it thrift store now, but I don’t think they fix things at thrift stores.

“So, I hung out with my Grandaddy. If anything needed fixing, he’d fix it. He sold rod and reels, furniture, chairs, some appliances, and he would fix lawn mowers.”

Bryan said he learned to see the value in everything from his father and grandfather. That goes for the painted sign that once read “Moomaw’s Sale Mart” above his grandfather’s business. The sign now decorates Bryan’s car shop.

While he learned to tinker from his family, his father-in-law would teach him all he knows now about cars.

“My Daddy showed me how to turn a wrench. Brenda’s Daddy showed me everything else,” he said.

Lowell Armstrong taught Bryan to weld, paint, cut and grind on a vehicle.

“He gave me confidence and he taught me how to do everything else with a car,” Bryan said. “Her Daddy didn’t throw anything away. He would go into it, tear it apart, and go OK here’s what it needs.”

Bryan and Brenda Hamilton met at church, and began dating while the two were attending the University of North Alabama. They were married in March of 1982.

Brenda recalls coming back from honeymooning in Tampa, Florida, and picking up the old rusty truck that once belonged to Bryan’s grandfather.

“We drove it back to our little apartment in Florence, and you could see the street beneath our feet through the floorboard,” she said with a laugh. “I knew then that it would never end. Cars were in our life.”

Early in their marriage, Bryan said he was approached by Shoals Mustang Club member Bobby Brown and urged to join. He did for awhile.

“I didn’t have time for a club, you know, with kids — recreation ball, band boosters, and I had a great time. Every now and then I would see Bobby and he would say: Are you ready to get back in the club?”

Bryan said he’d always retort with, “Well, not right now.”

The exchange went on between the two friends for years until about 2009 or 2010.

Bryan had picked up another project and was working on his favorite car, a red 1973 convertible Mustang. After being asked to join the Mustang Club yet another time, Bryan told Brown he’d be ready when he finished restoring the vehicle.

“I’ll never forget, we were in Sam’s Club parking lot, and he pulls up. I was in that car,” Bryan said. “He says, ‘Are you ready to get back in the club?’”

Bryan rejoined, and a couple years later served as club president for the first time. He is currently serving a second term as Shoals Mustang president and holds the same title with the Muscle Shoals Region Antiques Automobile Club of America (MSAACA).

Bryan said joining clubs like the Mustang group and AACA afford him even more opportunities to tinker on cars and talk shop with new friends.

“We’re always meeting people. Can you do this, or do you know this part?” Bryan said of common questions. “You learn a lot and you can pass down a lot.

“Making those connections really means so much, and we’re always trying to grow our clubs. It doesn’t matter if you’re involved in this one or that one, we all support one another.”

When Bryan retired as a nuclear chemist from Browns Ferry in March of 2022, he assumed he’d have more time to dedicate to the auto clubs and his passion for tinkering, but that hasn’t always been the case.

His three sons, Mathew, Sam and Andrew, are grown and starting families of their own. The Hamiltons welcomed their first grandchild in November. The weekly trip to Huntsville to see their grandson keeps Bryan as busy as ever.

Still, whenever he has a free moment, he can usually be found tinkering in his shop, showing cars with one of his auto groups, or even occasionally racing.