Diamonds in the rust
Perhaps $150 will pay for a new set of brake pads and installation. A pair of tires might draw that price. Depending on the car, it might be enough for a refurbished alternator. For Max Davis, $150 bought the car that got him to Bonita Springs less than four years ago. It was a white, aging Nissan that did the trick. That car and the $80 in his pocket were all he had when he arrived.
He's not rich now, but he's doing pretty good. The Nissan is long gone. In its place has been a stream of automotive classics that he and neighbor Dick Campbell have reincarnated from worn-out heaps into shining models from car history.
Last month, Davis finished work on a 1969 Corvette Stingray convertible for a client. That car has a long, sloping hood shaped for acceleration. It's the type of car that rumbles a deep bass in a simple idle.
Max Davis stands with some of the vehicles that he has rebuilt at his home in East Bonita. From left, a 1947 Ford, a '65 Thunderbird, a '79 Corvette and a '63 Chevy Nova.
The garage of Davis' Bonita Springs home also held a reconditioned 1979 Corvette that he recently sold. Now there's a 1937 GMC truck that he and Campbell tore down to its base in the past month. Soon it will sparkle in coats of $150-per-pint paint.
In previous years, Davis' mechanical work was focused on keeping whatever he was driving from coming apart. In LaBelle he made a living working on off-road vehicles for citrus companies. Predictably, his first car, a 1980 Ford Thunderbird, needed some paint and a little help with the power windows.
"Before I came here, I could barely afford to pay rent, and that was in LaBelle," Davis said. "Now I come over here and I can buy a $200,000 house."The statement comes in a slightly surprised voice. Davis, who makes his living primarily by running a small maintenance company that cleans up several city properties as well as residential services, has seen his car work sprout into a profitable small business. It's a change for the 30-year-old who in 1999 made ends meet by working at an insulation business each day and cutting fish at the seafood department of the now-abandoned Bonita Springs Winn-Dixie each evening.
Neighbor Dick Campbell, left, helps Davis move the cab of a 1937 GMC that he is rebuilding into a street rod.
"I've always worked on cars ever since I was a little kid," Davis said. "I got started here when people saw me working on an old car and they stopped to ask if I could do that for them." Now Davis and Campbell keep an eye out for classic cars hidden in dust and rust.
Campbell, who moved to Bonita Springs full time in 2001, said he has worked on about 30 old cars in the past two decades. Beginning with a 1937 Ford, Campbell has helped rehabilitate street rods and other classics.
One of his projects, a 1947 Ford truck, has earned a pair of trophies in nearby car shows.
Campbell and Davis met as neighbors with a shared interest.
"He said he had worked on vehicles but he hadn't worked on the old ones," Campbell said. "I told him the old ones are more basic, but they're also more valuable. That's where we got started."
Campbell's experience goes back a few decades further to the 5-year-old Ford sedan he bought when he finished his time in the Navy in 1960. In that era, the experience of owning a car typically brought with it the experience of learning how to fix one. Now people who buy new cars rarely do any repair work themselves, a change that Campbell won't embrace.
"Today they manufacture vehicles so you can't hardly do anything with them," Campbell said. "There's nothing wrong with doing some work."