Papillion Man Fulfills Hot-Rod Dream
By Jeff Barnes
Every since he was 16, Gary Sortino wanted a gasser.
The stock-appearing hot-rods reigned the drag strips from the ‘50s through the ‘70s until the emergence of Pro Stock, but the Papillion man could never keep the idea of getting a gasser from his mind.
“And I could never find one with what I wanted on it,” said Sortino, 63. “When I did find one, it would take too much work to get it where I wanted it. I flew as far as California to find one.”
Surprisingly, Sortino found one just down Interstate 80 in Lincoln in the form of a 1955 Chevy Bel Air. “I knew he had it but didn’t know he wanted to sell it,” he said. Once the deal was made last year, Sortino drove it for two to three months… and then completely gutted it in November.
“All I really wanted was the shell and that’s what it was,” he said. “I didn’t want to spend two to three years at a body shop – I wanted to get a gasser with the body ready to go because I can do everything else.”
And Sortino can do everything else. His first car came as a 14-year-old when his grandpa bought him a ’57 Chevy and told him to work on it until it was running; he’s been under the hood since. For the past 31 years, he’s worked for Papillion dentist Joel Janssen in rebuilding and restoring the cars and tractors in his collection, in addition to helping many four-fendered friends in their auto projects. Sortino’s had his hands on countless cars and had a better than average idea of what he wanted for his.
“Starting in the engine compartment, I got rid of everything and put in a 383 stroker with an 871 blower,” he said. “I chrome plated the front axle, added a chrome bumper, and I’m not done yet – I plan to put in as much chrome as I can.”
He put a fake fuel tank above the bumper which actually serves as an overflow for the radiator. “I wanted it to look functional, even if it isn’t used for fuel,” he said. The new fuel tank itself was made of polished aluminum as well as the radiator.
For the interior, Sortino tore out the steering column to replace it (naturally) with a chrome column, topped with a steering wheel Christmas present from his wife. Mickey Thompson street slicks went on the back along with chrome shocks.
“I didn’t like the bucket seats so I replaced them,” he said. “I tore the carpet out and redid the back seat so everything would be black – really a nice contrast with the yellow paint.”
Initially, Sortino wanted an orange car. The yellow has grown on him now and he wouldn’t dream of changing it. “It’s a perfect gasser color.”
Thanks to friends Andy, Ed, and Larry, Sortino’s extreme underbody makeover was completed by May. He said there are a couple more chrome projects he plans for the car and will continue to tinker on it to get the bugs out while taking it to car shows and cruises.
No drags are planned for the gasser, however. “It costs too much to break parts,” Sortino says.