COVER STORY: EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
A Plymouth gasser “so ugly it’s bitchin.’”
You know the neighborhood car guy. Chances are, you are the neighborhood car guy. The one who’s asked for advice on what car to buy, or what that strange noise is coming from the engine, or if he knows anyone interested in buying Grandma’s old clunker now that she doesn’t drive anymore.
Paul Soliz is the car guy in his neighborhood. Or one of them, anyway. You see, his neighborhood, the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte, has been home to more than its fair share of car guys, from Mickey Thompson to Pete Chapouris.
Paul credits his brother, Rudy, for introducing him to fast cars, with trips to the original Irwindale Raceway. It wasn’t long before Paul was buying cars and spinning wrenches, fixing (and hopping up) a succession of local iron, flipping most, keeping some. He’s lost count of just how many cars have passed through his hands. Maybe 100. He does know he’s owned only one new car, an ’85 IROC Camaro “that I lost in my divorce,” he says, laughing about it now.
Paul laughs often, and easily, a man happy with his life. He’s retired from his day job as a fleet manager and spends his time working on cars out of a three-bay garage tucked behind his midcentury suburban home. Like most car guys, he’s a collector, with parts stashed on shelves and in corners, and memorabilia from his
years of car building and drag racing hung on his shop’s walls.
Those photos are a handy visual aid he uses to recount the cars he’s had over the years. There’s a photo of Paul and Rudy with Paul’s high school car, a ’55 Chevy wagon. There’s his ’66 Nova boiling its hides, and the Willys pickup, called Strip Tripper, that occupies one of the garage bays. The other two slots are filled with a newly finished Chevy II and a slow-slung (and mean-sounding) ’61 Pontiac Ventura called Strip Tripper 2. Under a tarp outside is a ’55 Hillman under construction, mocked up with a ’57 Pontiac rearend and straight front axle.
Paul’s cars have run the gamut: three V8 Vegas, a ’66 Chevelle, three ’49 Chevys, even a ’72 Chevy shortbed pickup, riding high on a 3⁄4-ton frame and 44-inch tires. But his favorites, clearly, are those with big-inch motors and a straight axle lifting the nose.
“Ever since I was a kid, I always loved gassers,” he explains. “I’ve raced all kinds of cars, but I always wanted to do something different.” Years ago, when old-school gassers caught his fancy, his friends didn’t get it. “‘Why would you want those old 1960s race cars?’ they’d ask me. ‘Those things didn’t work.’” But over time, as Paul brought his gassers to cruise nights and drag races, momentum built, until “cars started coming out of the woodwork,” he says. He’s far too humble to suggest that he relit the flame for gasser enthusiasm back in the mid-1990s, but he was certainly a major spark for the movement.
Of all the cars that have passed through his busy garage, this ’50 Plymouth business coupe is a definite keeper. He first spotted it at the Pomona swap meet in 1995, where he knew immediately, “I gotta have that thing.” He traded an all-original ’49 Chevy Styleline Deluxe for it.
Part of the attraction was nostalgic. “My grammar school principle drove a ’50 Plymouth business coupe,” he recalls, “and that’s why I fell in love with it. It brought back memories.”
But he also saw it as a diamond in the rough. “There was something more to it than just an ugly old car. It’s so ugly it’s bitchin’, you know? I had a vision of what it was going to be when I bought it.”
Paul soon learned the coupe had some local history. Back in 1968, its then-owner brought it to Blair’s Speed Shop in Pasadena for some gasser-style mods. The Blair’s treatment included a front subframe fabbed out of rectangular tubing, with 40-inch leaf springs hanging a dropped axle. In back, a ’57 Pontiac rearend was fitted with lift bars that helped the car scrabble for traction.
At Blair’s, the car got the rollbar that’s still in it and the snaky headers that still peek out from the wheelwells, though today they’ve been treated to a fresh white ceramic coat from Cap’s Powder Coating in Fresno.
Paul doesn’t know if the car was ever raced. He hasn’t found any records or old timeslips. When he bought the car in 1995, it had the “X A GAS” license plates it still wears, leading him to believe it spent some time at the strip, but there’s no proof. Those plates, by the way, led to a longtime friendship with another El Monte local, Robert Rey. Robert, whose deep ties with the gasser community enable him to put together gasser displays for car shows around Southern California, wanted those plates for his own Ford Prefect gasser project. When he learned they weren’t available, he did some sleuthing to find out whose they were. As you might imagine, he and Paul hit it off; Robert says if he’s not at Paul’s shop, Paul’s at his. (Paul was among the contributors to the blue Studebaker Lark
belonging to Robert’s son Sebastian that was on our gasser issue cover a year ago [“Blue Bird,” May 2017]).
Paul wasted no time getting the Plymouth running, paying more attention to its mechanicals than its appearance. A number of engines and transmissions have been in and out of the car, as he’ll take components from one of his projects and try them out in another. When Steve Magnante wrote about the Plymouth in the Aug. 2000 HOT ROD, it was running a 454/TH400 combo; today, there’s a 427 with real-deal Winters aluminum heads under that tall tunnel-ram backed by a Powerglide.
Paul drove and raced the Plymouth in its primered, patchwork state for about three years. He was motivated to paint the car after a friend removed the factory trim, leaving behind 52 holes—later 52 rust spots—in the Plymouth’s gray sheetmetal. At some point in the car’s life, someone had painted the underside of the trunklid orange, so Paul chose that color for the car’s exterior. The same “friend” who removed the trim (he’d prefer to remain nameless) looked around his shop and found a quart of orange paint that he mixed with a gallon of white primer, and voil‡. At first, the car was painted just from the cowl back. The front fenders and one-piece fiberglass hood were painted later, which is why the colors don’t quite match.
Paul’s Plymouth has become a fixture on the Socal rodding and racing scene. And beyond: The Jalopy Journal’s H.A.M.B. named it one of its “11 Favorite Gassers,” putting the orange High and Mighty among the likes of Stone Woods & Cook, Ohio George Montgomery, Big John Mazmanian, and others. Paul is beyond honored to be a part of that group.
That’s a heady place, and even more special when you consider that Paul still races the car, and he drives it on the street. Before he retired, he would drive it to work on Saturdays. “If the weather was good, that baby was on the road,” he says. He’s a regular at the Thursday-night Irwindale drags and for the Mooneyes events held there, he’ll drive it to cruise nights and shows, and he takes it up to Famoso for the March Meet and Hot Rod Reunion. He runs with a group of like-minded car owners and was wearing a T-shirt with their “Outlaw Gassers Socal” name when we photographed the car.
Magnante said in his 2000 HRM story the Plymouth’s best quarter-mile e.t. was 11.71. Today, it’s a 10.60-second runner, aided by the new motor and better rubber—hoosier DOT slicks—grabbing the pavement with an assist from those old-timey Blair’s lift bars. “Old traction tech and new rubber tech, that’s what gives me those wheelstands,” Paul says of the Plymouth’s tendency to moonshot.
“Hey, if you can’t use it, you can’t abuse it.”
> The racing buckets were in the Plymouth when Paul bought it, and the rollbar was done by Blair’s in 1968. The side windows are Plexiglas, while the windshield and back window are the original glass. That’s a vintage Sun tach on the dashboard, and a Superior steering wheel.
> Paul’s Plymouth is a unique combination of early 1950s Chrysler design, 1960s gasser modifications by Blair’s Speed Shop, and a constant tuning effort by Paul to make it a driver that will also run mid-10s on the strip.
> Blair’s cut off the front of the Plymouth’s frame and grafted on 2x3 rails to hang the leaf springs and dropped axle. Those are Moroso shocks, and the Corvair steering box is just visible on the other side of the rail. > Blair’s installed the ’57 Pontiac rear and those beefy lift bars. Ed Sutton of Sutton Industries helped Paul set up the rearend, which has 35-spline Moser axles, 4.88 Richmond gears, and a spool.
> “This thing would sit even higher if it were a straight axle!” Paul says about the dropped axle. Wilwood disc brakes on ’49 Chevy spindles are a relatively new addition. “When you go faster, you have to slow quicker.”
> Beneath the fiberglass lift-off hood made for Paul by buddy Bruce Boardman is a big-block Chevy based on a 427 block fitted with early 427 “snowflake” Winters aluminum heads under vintage Mickey Thompson valve covers. Niel Nielson of Engine Dynamics in Baldwin Park, California, built the motor for Paul, while his partner John Avery built and tuned the twin Holley 660-cfm carbs, which are mounted on a tunnel ram out of a boat and fitted with stacks custom made by Avery. The radiator is original and welded in place, so it’s essentially a structural member of the front end. “I love the primitive parts of this car,” Paul says.
> Yes, Paul drives a car with a spool and slicks on the street, regularly making the round trip to and from Irwindale for the Thursday night drags and Mooneyes events. The 10-inch Hoosiers are DOT tires, and “so mushy” they compensate for any rearend binding. Of his wheel choice he says, “I’m an old guy. I like Cragars.”
> The engine’s compression is pump-gas friendly, though Paul does mix the 91-octane with 112-octane race fuel. Front tank is a vintage Eelco piece. Robert Rey, who joined us for the shoot, told us the quick way to tell an Eelco tank from a Moon tank: The Eelco cap is a flapper type, while the Moon caps screwed on.
> Paul installed old-fashioned hood latches to hold the trunklid closed, as it tended to open during quarter-mile blasts. No junk in this trunk; it’s all business. Here, too, are the most obvious remnants of the Plymouth’s original paint color, though the gray is also evident in the door jambs and other places.
> Tom Clark lettered the nod to the historic speed shop. And while C/gas is painted on the C-pillar, Paul runs the car in D/gas.