When Tommy Ring and his pal Ronny Robinson pulled the 1933 Plymouth out from the bottom of the creek, he had no idea what would become of the nearly 80-year-old car.
Country Music Hall of Famer and onetime NASCAR driver Marty Robbins had discarded the car back in 1976.
All those years ago, it had slid sideways into the water with the suicide doors open, and the body broke free from the frame when it hit the creek bed. Now, on a drizzly Saturday morning in 2010, Ring and Robinson cut the weeds back that had grown high above the roof line and found the old Plymouth along with the remains of several other classic cars.
Robbins had abandoned the automobiles after becoming displeased with an attempt to refurbish them.
A night earlier, Robinson — Robbins’ only son, who currently lives on the Williamson County property once owned by his father — and his wife, Kathy, were dining with Ring and his wife, Keri, when he told Ring he could have the Plymouth if he could find a way to get it out of that creek.
Less than 24 hours later, Ring had it out.
“His daddy was a car nut,” said Ring, speaking of the legendary country and western crooner, who passed away in 1982. “That got me back right in the middle of things.”
By “things,” Ring was referring to his interest in rebuilding and restoring old cars.
Life on the road
Ring was born in Arkansas and raised in more towns than he cares to remember.
His father was a preacher, who packed up the family every six months to a year and moved “from everywhere to anywhere.”
The Ring family was poor, but the elder Ring would work on cars during the week to pay for an apartment “in the worst places in any given town.” That’s where Tommy was taught how to tear down a transmission and rebuild a motor from the block up.
On the weekends, his father went door to door trying to set up a local Sunday school class.
“Once he got the kids, he got the parents, and once the church got up to 100, we moved,” recalled Ring.
The gypsy lifestyle had made him an outcast.
After years of being the awkward new kid, he became a self-proclaimed hellion by the time he was in high school. He “befriended all the wrong people” and joined a rock band, which led to drinking, partying and eventually doing dope despite his parents raising him on gospel music.
“I think why I loved music and cars so much is that if you grow up an underdog, you never had friends,” Ring said.
At 24, he arrived in Los Angeles and got a gig playing piano at the popular Palomino Club in North Hollywood. He did that for two years before winding up back in Arkansas and living with his parents in a dry county.
“Couldn’t get a drink, couldn’t get drugs and I was strung out,” Ring said. “It’s a long story, but I lost everything and went through a divorce. It was a good thing, but I didn’t know it then. I was stuck in Brookland, Ark., a dry drunk trying to survive.”
Ring went from driving a Corvette and living in Hollywood to driving a tractor. It was humbling, but he was clean and sober and, more importantly, he met his second wife, Keri.
Eventually he landed a job writing jingles for television commercials, playing gospel music and mentoring a youth ministry before he and his wife relocated to Williamson County and started a family of their own.
By then he was doing home repairs and building houses, another trade he picked up as a kid.
Expanding on his hobby
After settling in Thompson’s Station, Ring had an old car he hoped to rebuild, but he and Keri were raising a family and strapped for cash, so it sat unfinished.
That all changed four years ago, when Robinson gave Ring the Plymouth.
Rat rods had just become popular in the Southeast about a year earlier. Rat rods are cars that appear unfinished and, unlike the polished hot rods, are made from random parts that are from cars not newer than 1963. However, in recent years, some car shows, which draw as many 15,000 rat rods, allow for builders to use car bodies styles as new as 1968.
Once Ring was done building the Plymouth, Nashville photographer Russ Harrington photographed the car and found a writer to do a feature story for a national rat rod magazine.
“I thought, ‘This is cool,'” Ring said. “It’s something the young guys are into and I don’t have to spend 60 or 80 grand to do it. I didn’t know I could do it for $1,500, but I thought I would just experiment.”
It started as a hobby. However, it’s fast-becoming a full-time gig between writing a column for Rat Rod magazine, building a garage full of rat rods and attending car shows throughout the Southeast.
His monthly column takes readers through a step-by-step process of building a rat rod. Ring also filmed and self-released his own do-it-yourself DVD.
Ring’s learned to be resourceful.
He makes what he can — the accelerator in the Plymouth is made out of two heavy-duty washers and two large nails — and bargains everything else.
The roll bars were old monkey bars from a playground, which is where he also found the exhaust pipes he made from basketball hoops. The dashboard came out of a dump truck. He doesn’t use salvage yards, which he said are too expensive, and prefers searching through scrapyards. So instead of paying for parts, he’s paying for the weight of the metal.
“That wouldn’t have been accepted when I was a teenager,” Ring said, “but now, the more creative you get the better they like it.”
Ring still has the original Plymouth he built along with several other rat rods.
He’s sold, traded and been commissioned to build others — rat rods sell for anywhere been $9,000 and $22,000 — and is currently finishing at 1949 Chevy truck, which Ring described as a “novelty rod.”
He’s thinking of pushing boundaries by building a 1974 Volkswagen, which is popular among German readers of his monthly magazine column.
Once the weather warms, Ring will be easy to spot driving around Williamson County in the street-legal Plymouth.
“It’s low (to the ground) and it’s loud,” said Ring. “You feel every bump in the road, but it’s a great time.
“It’s just the coolest thing.”