Sometimes you just have to slide over and let someone else take the wheel. That’s what Gary Thompson is going to do now that he and his 1969 Plymouth GTX have been inducted into the Portland Roadster Show’s Hall of Fame.
Earlier this month, Thompson took the car he’s owned and modified since 1971 to the prestigious annual indoor car show, which features cars worth as much as $3 million. The show, 56 years in the running, is hosted by the Multnomah Hot Rod Council. Years can pass before the show’s officials find a car and its owner worthy of being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The honor is reserved for a car that has racked up so many awards and so much fame that it’s moved to a status beyond competition. And, show chairman Duane Caseday said, that makes room for other cars to take the spotlight. “You can’t get a bigger award,” Caseday said.
This week, Thompson backed the car out of the west Tacoma garage where he stores it. The car is so pristine, it’s engine so shiny that it seems impossible that it has any moving parts. But when Thompson turned the engine over, it jumped to life with a deep-throated rumble. Dual-velocity stacks and carburetors rose above a hole in the hood. Subtly painted flames shoot across a deep maroon exterior.
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Thompson popped the trunk, revealing a fully upholstered compartment holding the original jack and tire iron – fully chromed. Arranged in holders around the trunk are about 150 small liquor bottles.
The chrome doesn’t stop with the jack. The underside of the car is painted gold and the all of the suspension is chrome-plated. The real axle housing is so shiny it looks like a fun-house mirror.
The car wasn’t always so tricked out. After buying it used in 1971 for $1,300, Thompson, now 60, used it as an everyday car and for drag racing in Puyallup in the early ’70s. In 1972, he began to modify it as a show car. The gold upholstery alone cost $2,000. “That was a lot of flippin’ money in 1973,” Thompson said.
The 1969 Wilson High School graduate took the GTX to his first car show in 1973. He took second place.
“I wanted to win a trophy at a car show. That’s all I wanted to do,” he said. “But I got hooked, hooked, hooked.”
In 1983, more than 150 awards later, he gave up showing the car. At that point, it was the 16th highest-rated show car in the country.
It wasn’t until 2003 that he began showing it again.
“I was convinced by friends and family that I should bring my cars back because there are new generations that haven’t seen them,” he said.
With few exceptions, the car looks the same as when Thompson finished it in the early ’70s, he said. Gold-veined mirrors in the dash and plush upholstery lend it a “Starsky and Hutch”-era feel. But the dated look clearly doesn’t diminish its popularity.
“The younger people respect it,” Thompson said. “This is what show cars used to be.”
Caseday respects not only Thompson’s long history with the GTX, but his hands-on approach to building it.
“It took every award there was. Everything from underside to upholstery,” Caseday said. Today, it’s one of the top five cars for points in the history of the International Show Car Association.
“This is not a checkbook car,” Caseday said. “He’s done it with blood, sweat and tears.”
Thompson estimated he’s sunk $35,000 to $40,000 into the one-time muscle car that now falls into a street machine category.
Thompson will still make the occasional public appearance with the GTX, but after winning 180 awards and being retired from the Portland show and others (“I’ve won Good Guys three times and I’m not allowed to come back”), he’s moving on to other projects.
The GTX is just one of 11 cars Thompson owns in various states of restoration. His current project is a Franken-car of sorts: He’s married a 1979 Camaro body with the bullet nose of a 1950 Studebaker and the fins of a 1959 Cadillac. He hopes to have the car, which he’s named “Imagination,” ready to show by 2014.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 firstname.lastname@example.org