By Michael Jaenicke
A product made by the hands of an American means everything to the man who has worn the same pair of Doc Marten boots for a decade.
Quality design, craftsmanship and a blue-collar work ethic go into every work of art that roars out of TBC Hot Rods and Bikes, hidden behind an antique shop, just over the railroad tracks on Russell Street. The final product leaves customers ready to should praise to the gods of machinery or become blissfully speechless.
It is a reputation that has come to the shop and its owner Tim Bradham, a self-taught metal fabrication artist that can repair, rebuild, revitalize or reinvent the designed box form of just about anything.
“We talk about it all the time how guys at dealerships change out parts and how people come to me because they are thinking outside the box or looking for a voice that will go there for them,” Bradham said. “They are coming to me because they can’t do it and in most cases now because they know I can.”
Any given week Bradham and his crew will be working on up to 10 projects, which vary in scope and difficulty — from a $500 motorcycle project to work on a hot rod that has a street value of more than $100,000.
“While I run a business I look at this as a hobby, so there’s very little stress because I don’t treat it as a job,” he said. “I just lock down and focus 100 percent. People don’t know whom to trust anymore. But I’m also willing to do projects no one else will touch.”
Bradham, a Terry Sanford graduate, has quietly been labeled a rock star in his field since started out on his own in 1989. In his field of play defying genres, stereotypes and expectation is required. So while every business owner will stress quality, Bradham said he holds himself to the highest standard.
“It’s not about what I want or expect it’s what the customer expects and thinks,” he stressed. “They’ve seen stuff on our website. Craftsmanship and quality are number one and come before everything. It’s not about the money. Yes, I tell them its ‘x amount of money’ until we get the job done right. But, I also live to my standard, which is kinda working for free until I get the quality to where the customer is happy. I may put three hours of work into something, but if it’s not as I would like it I do not charge the customer. It’s a whole new ballgame when they see it completed.”
Two projects define his character and abilities. The first is a five-window 1930 Ford Coupe he rebuilt for a member of the Road Devil Car Club. He received only the vehicle’s rough body, built a chassis around it and crafted the rest of it in typical TBC fashion— from the ground up.
“Two or three weeks after it was done the client drove it to a car show in Las Vegas,” Bradham said. “I did about 80 percent of it on my own. Members of the Road Devils came in, hung out and gave me some opinions and a little help at the end.”
And then there’s the 1930 Dresch motorcycle he built piece by piece. The French bike is so sharp that it would even impress its original design and build team, which became an international sensation but stopped manufacturing bikes at the start of World War I.
However, we can’t forget about Bradham’s current project for 7th Group Special Forces 7th Group soldier, SFC Josh Burnette. Before Burnette deployed to Afghanistan, his 1963 Ford F-100 pick-up was parked at the shop, ready for some fine-tuning and detail. Tragedy struck when Burnette hit an I.E.D (improvised explosive device) and returned from the war as a double amputee. But that didn’t stop the truck of his fantasy from becoming a reality.
“Josh called me up and said he still wanted me to fix his truck. He wanted the ‘baddest’ truck around… TBC style,” Bradham explained. Making the vintage truck Wounded Warrior friendly, advanced adaptations are being made so Josh can drive the vehicle with ease. “We are re-building the truck from the ground up, with the handicap controls and a late model fuel injected motor. It will be more user friendly.” Josh added, “Tim’s work is great and his attention to detail is amazing. He’s a master of his trade.”
Bradham said the Discovery Channel has approached him about filming a reality show from his shop. While he’s thrilled at the invitation, he’s concerned about losing shop time. Bradham loves his craft so much that he’s leery of another distraction. Travelers from up and down the east coast frequently drop by his shop wanting to speak with him.
“We may put our bid in the Discovery hat, but I’m not real big on going off a script,” he said. “I’m not going to go nuts, throwing tools. I don’t do that kind of drama. It’s already hard enough to get eight good hours of work in the shop.”
Customers frequently ask for near impossible tasks, ones that do not exist in Bradham’s world.
“I enjoy the thought process of taking nothing or something in rough condition and turning it into a unique product that is custom made,” Bradham said. “I’m told I get a little anal but I have a knack for seeing a finished product before I begin. That doesn’t always come quickly or early nor do I always have pristine days.”
Bradham said he had an epiphany three years ago that he had been on the right track and his and design and building skills shredded the conventional modality of his trade. He was seeing himself inch closer to iconic restoration idols such as Cole Foster and Chip Foose.
“I started knowing and feeling great about what I was here for, why I was doing it and to then be able to see the outcome made it incredible,” he said. “I’m probably the oldest shop in Fayetteville that is still going. A few years ago I talked to the old timers and they told me they hated it because it became a full-time, overloading job. I’m just the opposite. I feel so fortunate to be able to come to work knowing how much I love what I do.”
Bradham said for a few years he worked 12 to 16-hour days, and that it took him away from his first love, his wife Jennifer. The couple has been married 17 years and has no children.The only other “family” member is Brennan, a lab mix.
“It came down to I just wasn’t seeing her enough,” said the 45-year-old. “That really got to me. Marriage is something I want to continually grow.”
The solution came when the couple moved two businesses into the old 1910 Coca-Cola bottling plant. The two endeavors are a perfect fit in the historic 16,000 square foot facility. Jennifer’s antique and collectible shop, Lodestone, fills about half of the building.
“It’s absolutely perfect,” said Jennifer, who was wearing a Celtic cross made by her husband. “We have lunch together every day and I don’t have to call him because he’s so close by.”
Brad Tindale runs the front end of the antique shop, which has quality and extremely fair prices, and acts as a knowledgeable first contact for customers of TBC. He also tends to all things antique from Jennifer’s collection.
Tim, who rebuilt Jennifer’s 1932 Ford Coupe, said his wife deserves gold wings for being a voice to guide him into working on motorcycles. She has owned the vehicle since her teen years. Bradham’s evolution started with building roll cages, then drifted into hot rods and finally he was led by demand to work on motorcycles.
“I remember her saying, ‘Tim, you’re great at building drag cars but you should be able to accommodate motorcycle people.’ This came at a time when I was not so much looking that direction.”
Safety is also a priority for Bradham. “It’s important because when you wreck something going 200 miles per hour you’ll know you’ve got a real good chance to be OK,” he said.
Bradham’s surface knowledge of hot rods and motorcycles as a youth came mainly from the pencil drawings he created. He started his journey in earnest while working for Meineke Muffler.
“I sorta started teaching myself how to weld,” he said. “I was intrigued on how you can take a flat piece of metal and mold it into a curved structure and how a piece of metal could become a curved and detailed structure.”
Bradham then said he started using different algebraic and geometric forms in his work than he learned in high school. Bradham melds both into his current studies.
“I hated math in school and now I use it every day,” he said. “The reason it is so interesting is because I made it interesting.”
Part of that interest involves Bradham interweaving art and mechanical principals. He wears his Doc Martens, a pair of Dickie’s work pants, t-shirt and welder’s cap while the sounds of punk rock band Social Distortion paint the background of his shop. This is where his imagination marries his creativity and is often transformed into ingenuity. “The only limit is what the customer or my staff can think of,” he said. “While you are sometimes limited by the equipment you have there’s still a lot that can be done. It’s not just one person for most projects. I have to delegate the work. We have fab guys, paint guys, motor guys and I’m just the ringleader.”
Bradham and TBC’s newest project is manufacturing 1932 hot rod frames. He wants to use quality control while mass-producing them. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for awhile and I’ve built a jig table to start it off,” he expressed. “It’s what everyone wants to build in terms of hot rods and they can be sold all over the country.”
As for his preference and pride in American-made products, Bradham, of British descent though he’s colored with stars and stripes on the inside, said this nation needs to return to its working class roots for ingenuity and quality workmanship.
“It’s very important to me that something is made in the U.S.A.,” he said. “I sense the blue-collar American worker is gone. Not here. Sure, I have four or five Triumph motorcycles and I wear Doc Martens because they’re the best things made when working on concrete, but I would never discount what Americans can do.
And he doesn’t mind passing along what he’s learned to inquiring minds in all 50 states.
“A lot of them watch my videos and get inspired,” Bradham said. “I’m thankful we can try to give back. I started in my backyard and I don’t dog anyone who does that. There are probably guys in backyards that can do things 20 times better than are turning out cars and bikes that are the American dream.”
Ever the teacher, he noted, “I’m also flattered by the many people who come here wanting to apprentice.”
There’s a lot one can learn from Tim Bradham.
Anyone with an I-always-wanted-to-do bucket list project can call Bradham and TBC at 910.424.9811. The shop is open Monday through Thursday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.