Classic style: Retired educator Cameron loves restoring, showing and driving old cars

By Bruce McLellan | Living 50 Plus

Bob Cameron has an expression he uses when discussing some of the classic cars he has owned.

“You don’t see yourself coming in that one very often,” Cameron said recently. He was referring to the red, 1948 Cadillac convertible that he restored and has kept for more than 20 years in his Southwest Decatur garage and workshop.

Cameron prefers driving a unique automobile.

“I like something different,” he said. “Everybody’s got a ’34 Ford. There’s millions of them out there.”

Ironically, when Cameron is driving his hobby cars — whether it’s the Cadillac convertible, a 1934 Buick 67 series he also owns or the 1965 Dodge Coronet he used to drive while serving as Austin High assistant principal — you do see the retired Decatur educator coming.

Passion for cars

Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, during the 1950s, Cameron, now 69, developed a love for automobiles, including those from the 1930s and ’40s that were still on used car lots.

“I just liked them,” he said. “When I was a kid, my grandpa had an old car in the garage. I wanted it, and they wouldn’t let me have it. I was 10 or 12 years old.”

As he got older, he worked and saved his money.

“When I turned 16, I got my driver’s license and bought a car before I got home. I’ve had them ever since. … Before I went to college I had five or six.”

When he went to junior college at what is now Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio, he and his friends would check out junkyards. He met his future wife, Hannah, the daughter of a Nazarene minister, at the college.

“One of our first dates, Hannah and me, we went to a junkyard up in Ohio,” he said.

Cameron, who finished college at Olivet Nazarene University, began buying and restoring old cars in the late 1980s after having previously owned and driven muscle cars.

“I just kind of got tired of them and wanted the old stuff,” he said.

A salvaged sign that used to promote products in Chapel Hill Market now hangs on a wall in his workshop/garage and lists some of the more than two dozen classic and muscle cars he has owned — from a 1934 Hudson 8 to a 1957 Chevy and 1986 Porsche 911.

“We’ve had numerous cars. Just ask my wife,” he says with a chuckle.

Restoring history

The 1948 Cadillac convertible that he takes for occasional pleasure drives with Hannah and displays at car shows, including Decatur’s 3rd Friday, is a good example of what’s involved in finding and restoring a classic car.

The convertible wasn’t even in one piece when he bought it, and just acquiring it in 2001 from the previous owner in Hartselle took good timing.

“I’d been trying to buy it for two years,” Cameron said. “He wouldn’t sell it to me. He called me up right after 9/11 and said, ‘You want to buy this Cadillac? I said, ‘Yeah.’

“Well, I went down and bought it. I had it here about six or eight months and I was down at his place. He said, ‘You know why I sold you that car don’t you?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘I thought we were going to war.’

“He was trying to get money up because he thought we were going to war.”

The car was in several pieces that Cameron hauled to his home, and he began to search on the internet to find parts to put it back together. It didn’t have a left door, top, front end, motor or transmission.

“But it was a good car,” he said. “The floors were good. The trunk was good.”

Cameron started buying other cars to salvage parts from them.

Son Zach Cameron remembered, “It took five Cadillacs to build that one.”

The parts cars weren’t convertibles, just other Cadillacs, Bob Cameron explained.

“The front end and things are all the same,” he said. “I bought three Cadillacs in Ohio and hauled them down here and had them behind the garage. We got pieces off of them for years. Finally hauled them off because the neighbors were starting to point.”

He paid a mechanic in Louisville, Kentucky, to put the engine in the Cadillac convertible and had it painted in Cullman, but trying to find replacements for the torn, rusted chrome spears on each of the back quarter-panels was tougher.

“I found another guy who had a Cadillac convertible. … The spears were perfect. I said where did you find those? He said, ‘Oh, this guy made them for me.’”

Cameron asked for the number of the craftsman, who was in his 80s, and called him in Cleveland, Ohio. Cameron then spent more than a year on a waiting list to have the spears custom-made.

“They weren’t cheap,” Cameron said. “He must have been quite a craftsman.”

The spears helped the car have an authentic appearance after a decade-long restoration.

“This car looks stock, but it’s got an LT1 (Chevrolet engine) in it, power steering, four-wheel disc breaks, air conditioning. It just looks stock. That’s the way I like It. The seats are out of a Honda. The center console’s out of a Cadillac.”

When restoring cars, Cameron does tasks like reassembly of the parts and rough body repair.

“A friend of mine from church did the interior,” he said of the Cadillac. “But I put the seats in and the console. He just covered the seats.”

Retirement pastime

Although Cameron has sold all but two of the cars he has restored over the years, he said he’s not in the hobby for profit. He said unless you can repaint the cars yourself, it’s hard to make any money on restorations because you have to invest so much in spare parts, engines and painting.

“I just do it,” he said. “I just enjoyed doing it.”

Cameron spent 33-plus years in Decatur’s school system. He started out as a PE teacher and basketball coach at Brookhaven Middle School. He later served as assistant principal at what was then Oak Park Middle and at Austin High before being named principal at alternative schools CASE and Horizon. He retired in 2007. Hannah spent 27 years teaching elementary school at West Morgan.

The couple’s sons and daughters-in-law — Zach and his wife Candice, and Matt and his wife Brooke — are also all educators. Zach is assistant principal at Decatur Middle, which replaced Oak Park Middle, his dad’s former school.

Bob Cameron’s car hobby was well-known in the school system.

“As long as I can remember, Bob has been into old cars,” said Ed Nichols, former Austin High principal and Decatur City Schools superintendent who is now Madison City Schools’ superintendent. “He loves old cars.”

Nichols said he remembers Cameron taking “all of us at Austin High around to visit the floats for homecoming” and later “he drag-raced down the Beltline.” Cameron says the 1941 Cadillac limousine he remembers driving on that tour probably didn’t have enough pep for drag racing.

Cameron retired from the school system in 2007 and says his auto restoration activities, including his current work on old square-bodied trucks, has been a good way to spend time.

“You got all day to do it,” he said. “But the problem is, like it or not, when you get to be (almost) 70 years old it’s hard to get down and get underneath of (cars).”

“… That’s why I fool with those trucks. I redo the inside. I like doing that because it gives you something to think about and it gives you somewhere to go. Rather than sit in the house or sit on the deck, you come down in the garage open it up and tinker. You tinker three or four hours and go do something else. …

“Normally I buy an old truck and I just tinker with it, fix a few things, just to give me something to do. … If you don’t, you’ll end up watching ‘Gunsmoke.’ And I’ve seen all the ‘Gunsmokes’ and Andy Griffiths.”

Car-owning camaraderie

Ownership of classic cars isn’t all work. He and Hannah also enjoy going to car shows, including the Street Rod Nationals in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Shades of the Past in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

“One of the best things we’ve done with cars is make a lot of friends, a lot of good friends,” Cameron said. “You see them every year and you talk to them. A lot of people you only know them by their car. You don’t know their name. You just know, ‘Oh that dude’s got a ’33 Dodge or something. I remember him.’”

Cameron usually puts his Cadillac on a trailer to take it to Louisville to keep the front end from collecting bugs and dirt on the road. He has driven old cars to shows, and that can have consequences.

“When you’re in an old car, it’s an old car. They break down,” he said of one year they took his 1934 Hudson 8 to the Kentucky show. “We were coming back from Louisville, running about 70 miles an hour on (Interstate) 65. Hannah was with me. The speedometer went ‘uurumph.’ It just shut off.

“There you are on the side of the road. If you’re going to have an old car, you’re going to end up on the side of the road.”

They ended up putting the car on a rollback truck, and he rode home in its cab while Hannah rode with friends who had been following them.

Favorite rides

Cameron says his favorite from all the cars he has owned was probably the 1934 Hudson 8 that he later sold.

“Man, I loved that car. I drove it eight years and it just got too small. A guy in Florence bought it. I talked to him (earlier this year) and he sold it to another lady we know in Madison. So now it’s in Madison. It was on the cover of a magazine. It was a cool little car.

“You just want something different (after a while). But I kind of wish I had kept that car. It was so unique. There was only 10 or 12 of them in the United States like that.”

He has held onto the Cadillac convertible, he said, because “I just like it. I like to just look at it. I haven’t driven it much. That thing hasn’t got 2,000 miles on it since I built it. I get it out on nice nights or I’ll take it to 3rd Friday. The sun’s gone down, put the top down and take it down there. Or we’ll get it out at nighttime and ride the back roads out here. That’s about all it gets.”

He also has held onto the 1934 Buick 67 four-door sedan for about 11 years, partly because it has sentimental value for Zach and Candice.

“I’ve come down here three or four times to put it the internet and sell it,” Bob Cameron said. “But every time I do, my wife and my son and his wife get upset because that’s the car they left the wedding in.”

They don’t want to see anybody else coming in that car.