Just enough off the top

HUTCHINSON — Let's face it: The styling studios didn't exactly rack up a lot of overtime coming up with the design of the 1949-50 Plymouths.

The resulting cars were kind of softly rounded blobs on wheels... decent, kind of generic-looking cars that performed utilitarian tasks in a nice, dependable way.

Even Johnny Torres, who owns a '50 Plymouth DeLuxe 2-door sedan, admits as much.

"It was kind of an ugly car," he said. Although his wife, Janelle, agreed with that assessment, she was the one who said, "You'd better buy it, or you will always be sorry you didn't."

"I really wanted a fastback," he said. So he took a picture of the car from the online auction where he found it and cut it up, radically lowering its bulging roof line. That was the look he wanted.

But once the car was in his possession, it wasn't just a matter of styling. "It was all rusted out, the rockers, the floors... there wasn't a straight panel on it," recalled Torres.

"My dad thought I should take it to the swap meet and get rid of it. He sure didn't think it would end up like this."

Torres and his father, John Torres, a longtime body and paint man, got the old Plymouth running and Torres drove it around in its rough condition for quite a while. But that roof line kept taunting him.

"The first thing we did was chop the top," Torres said. "This was the first car that I learned on, and I wanted to do it myself," he said.

But he wisely enlisted friends Justin and Roy Fields to help with the project. The roof was cut and lowered 3 full inches.

"We had to cut the trunk all into pieces. We couldn't get the roof and the trunk to flow together. We looked at it and we thought we had ruined the car," he recalled.

But eventually, after countless hours of work, the pieces fell together and the car suddenly looked "right."

"We took so much out of that trunk... it was just insane," Torres said.

Only then did the rust repairs to the floors and lower body take place. The front suspension, it turned out, had been rebuilt and, after a set of 3-inch dropped spindles and GM disc brakes, things were rolling right along.

Roy Fields handled most of the body work, but Torres was right there, learning the tricks of the trade, like molding the rear fenders into the body and frenching in not two, but four, classic '59 Cadillac bullet taillights.

The Plymouth drew a lot of attention, even in primer, and made road trips to southern California and to Austin for the Lone Star Round Up.

Torres was able to transplant an unusual 267-cubic inch Chevy V-8 from a 1980 Malibu into the Plymouth, complete with a 200 R-4 automatic transmission and a set of tall highway gears in the rear. "It doesn't go fast, but it's a cruiser," he said.

Inside, the innovations continued, as Torres and his crew used a '59 Chevy Impala gauge pod for instrumentation, but built the rest of the dashboard from scratch to match. Wichita's Jeb McGregor pinstriped the dash, while Jerry Johnson of Hutchinson sewed up a set of stark black-and-white seats and door panels for the car, accented by a white "furry" headliner. "He did a very good job on it," Torres said.

Torres now makes his living doing custom car upholstery. "I learned right after my car was done... I bought a sewing machine from the guy who did my car," he said.

Finally, it was time to chose a color and a painter. Torres went with a deep, vivid House of Kolor Kandy Purple for the hue and with his dad for the painter.

It means a lot to him that his father agreed to paint the car for him. The sleeker shape in transparent purple is complemented by a set of Coker wide whitewall tires, smoothie wheels and chrome "sombrero" hub caps.

"Two guys came up to me at the Lone Star Round Up and said, 'How much do you want for it?' I said, 'How much have you got?' But I'll never sell it... it's the first car I ever did," Torres said.

And in February, the purple Plymouth will head out on another long-haul road trip. "I got invited to show it at the Detroit Autorama," the 25-year-old car builder said.

Not bad for a first effort.

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