Rich Gortsema of Spokane has fueled hot rod dreams for four decades. This weekend, he received a statewide accolade for creating those buffed-up classic cars.
Gortsema, 68, was inducted Saturday into the Washington State Hot Rod Hall of Fame as 2019 Builder of the Year. Only one person each year receives the recognition, and he and generations of his family were on hand for the ceremony in Lynnwood, Washington.
Nominated by members of the Spokane Dukes Auto Club, Gortsema is well known in Inland Northwest circles for his craftsmanship on multiple hot rods of various styles for car buff customers both regionally and beyond.
“I’ve been doing hot rods for 30 years, and then I did drag race vehicles for the 10 years prior to that, so I’ve been around the hot rod world for a long time really – 40 years,” said Gortsema.
Self-taught, his work “doing” hot rods requires hours upon hours per vehicle. He owns and works out of his north Spokane shop, Power Plus, on North Market Street.
“We take a rusty, old body and build it into a nice, shiny and new functioning car – replace drivetrains with late-model components, new upholstery, new paint, new every piece on it, really,” he said. “What you have after is a real nice, new reliable car that’s got old skin on it.”
Typically, that means he rebuilds the engine and transmission. Gortsema also does most of the upholstery work, mechanical work, steel fabrication, rust repair, updates to brake and fuel lines and electrical wiring for the cars. He subs out painting work.
In August, a 1932 Ford two-door sedan that Gortsema built for a customer won a Top 10 award at the 2019 Pacific Northwest Goodguys show. Among all his projects, he’s built seven 1930 Ford Model A “rat rod” sedans, including one for a Los Angeles buyer.
Another car of that style went to someone in Australia. Other cars and trucks Gortsema has built over the years include a 1932 Chevrolet “Jolly Rancher” wheel stander fire truck, 1932 Ford Vicky vehicle, 1940 Ford Coupe, 1937 Lincoln Zephyr, 1939 Buick Coupe and 1932 Ford Roadster.
And the list goes on, such as a 1953 Mercury, 1928 Ford Woodie and 1932 Ford Cabriolet. Then there is a diesel-powered salt flats truck he built in the early 1980s that is now in the Smithsonian Institute.
He opened Power Plus in 1999 initially with his sons, Brad and Mike. Both work elsewhere now, but Brad still comes by some evenings and on Saturdays to help on cars.
Gortsema spent his childhood years in Grangeville, Idaho, then moved to Spokane as a teenager with his family. He graduated from Rogers High School in 1969. That’s where a car fancy was planted.
“Of course in high school, we all had an old car because that’s all we could afford,” he said.
“A love of cars early on in high school days is what really got things rolling. I had a 1936 Chevrolet two-door sedan. I had a ’69 Chevelle when I graduated. I also had a ’66 Impala and even a Corvair.
“When I was in high school, I tested my limits with my parents because I always had a nice car to drive, then I had multiple cars that I bought and sold.”
Out of high school, he first worked as a framing contractor and built “spec” houses until the 1980s, when the housing market fell apart and interest rates skyrocketed. Before that, he’d started building cars at home when he got into drag racing during the 1970s, beginning with his own vehicles.
Increasingly, he turned to building super-comp dragsters out of his home garage. From 1985 through 1990, Gortsema ran his first shop, Performance Chassis. He also worked briefly for Spokane Diesel and traveled with the Spokane Diesel top fuel dragster for two years.
By the early 1990s, he switched over mostly to building hot rods for customers. In 1992, his first project was a 1936 Chevrolet two-door sedan. A member of the Dukes Auto Club, Gortsema owns a few prize cars himself, from a 1936 Ford Coupe and 1966 Nova Super Sport to a 1970 Suburban.
His wife, Nadine, as well as their two sons and daughter and four grandchildren all planned to attend Saturday’s ceremony to see Gortsema be inducted.
The hall of fame group at the banquet presents an award for one builder of the year, as well as recognizing an inspirational winner, community service award and car club of the year.
“There are a real limited number of awards given out every year by the Washington State Hot Rod Hall of Fame,” he said. “It’s a pretty big honor.”
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