Originally published 2004

Story by Ben Lorentz,
Photos by Lance James

When Paul Reichlin bought this old Model A in 1999, he thought he got a nifty old race car. What he has now, however, is an obsession to preserve its history.

But this history remains a mystery, leaving Paul sleuthing around for the story of the car’s origins.
Paul bought the car from Dave Simard, owner of East Coast Customs in Massachusetts. Simard, in turn, found the car in Riverside, Calif. four years earlier.

Ray Gonzales built and owned the car. Simard tried several times to buy it, but Gonzales would never sell. Then Gonzales died unexpectedly, leaving his family with no life insurance. Gonzales’s widow contacted Simard then, to sell the car.

Living close by at the time, Simard paid cash and took it within an hour, pushing it to his home. When the widow’s son came home, he was extremely mad at her for selling his dad’s car. So to this day, no one in the family will talk about the car.

Paul contacted her through Southern California friends, but so far, she has refused to talk to them. He also sent her pictures of the car, but she has not written back. Paul is working up to calling her.

“I’ve been trying to give her subtle hints,” he said. “I sent her pictures of the car in front of my house with my family, my two kids and wife around it. Told her whenever I take it out, people want to know more about who her husband was, who he was who built it. So far, she hasn’t responded.”

Simard told Paul that the car raced at Fontana Drag Strip and likely, at El Mirage. But Paul has not found any proof of where or when it raced.

Perhaps because of this, Paul wants to preserve the car, changing only what he needs to change to drive it. Otherwise, he keeps it as much as he can in its original state, and recreates what he thinks is how it once existed.

“This car needs to be left the way it is, as found,” he said. “People have really appreciated seeing it as it was found instead of all fixed up. There’s been a lot of history there, and simple details of how a low-budget builder used to build them.”

The car was used primarily for drag racing. Paul knows this from the tierod in front of the front axle, which prevented the car from doing anything but go straight. “Some people have told me, or thought, that it was what they call a roundy round car. Or dirt track,” Paul said. “Never did that because it couldn’t do that. It wouldn’t go around corners. The steering wheel would get stuck. So I put the tierod back in the back, so I could actually drive it around the street.”

Besides moving the tierod, the car also needed an engine, since it did not have one, so built a ’41 Ford flathead.

“It had the motor mounts and the holes, the cowl and everything to the exhaust, so I knew it was a flathead, even without pictures,” he said. The car still has the original Firestone racing tires that came with the car.

The car also had no battery, and had the original racing gas tank, which only held 1.5 gallons. Paul installed an old Model T gas tank and Model T battery box in the trunk so he could drive it farther. Paul also rebuilt the brakes, master cylinder, and added turn signals to the rear taillights.

“We believe that it was towed to the racetrack with a towbar, because there was no headlights (and) no wiring,” Paul said. “No signs of headlights. But to tow it, you’d have to have a license plate and taillights.”

The car still has the original 1956 California license plates, with tags dating to 1959. The original Crosley steering wheel with original steering box remains. The clutch likely blew up at one time because the bell housing was busted off the Zephyr transmission. Paul found another Zephyr and put it back the way it originally was.

“It’s kind of a unique transmission and shifter arrangement,” he said.

He mentioned that Gonzales must have added the hood later, as it is slightly off in size and color.
Although Paul has practically no personal information about Gonzales, he feels he has come to know the man through his car.

“The guy that built it, he had some pride in it,” Paul said. “He had it fixed up. It wasn’t just a total beater. In that way, I could restore it, because that’s what he did. He didn’t just leave it all rusty and stuff. That happened over the years.”