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Vrrrrrrooooooooooooom: Lifetime of tinkering culminates in hand-built hotrod

When we were 10 years old, my twin brother, Peter Portugal, modified our long-outgrown tricycles. He took them apart and put them back together with the chassis upside-down. Suddenly we had long, low, hot-looking vehicles with plenty of leg room, more interesting than our customary bicycles. All the kids in the neighborhood brought their old tricycles for Peter to modify, and we held a series of hilarious tricycle races.

Portugal has been modifying vehicles ever since. As a preteen, he rebuilt a couple of scooters and a motor bike. When he was 14, he rescued a Model A Ford that had been sitting in a meadow for many years. By the time he was old enough to get his driver's license, the Model A was running great and looking beautiful.

While still in high school, he restored a 1932 Chrysler and sold it at a good profit. Our parents convinced him to study architecture at Cal Poly, because he is a genius at visualizing how things will fit together. But his passion has always been cars.

In the 1990s, he designed and built a classic-style sports car, using redwood from a fallen tree in his back yard for most of the body. That car, the Dolphin, was the star of many automobile shows, and was featured in magazines and on TV.

Portugal was commissioned by Carl Schneider, a car dealer and Packard classic-car race driver based in Eureka, to envision and build classic automobiles that Packard might have produced as one-offs. The Schneider-Portugal Packards were spotlighted in a cover story in Collectable Automobile (April 2002), and one was sold by the Packard Museum for $375,000. Schneider turned down a $950,000 offer at the Kruse Auction last year for another of Portugal's creations. Others have been successful on the vintage racing circuit, and have been shown at Meadow Brook and Pebble Beach.

All of Portugal's cars would be equally at home in a car show or an art gallery.

Now working in his own studio, Portugal has created a 1926 Packard Boatail Speedster, which will be unveiled at the Back to the '50s Sock Hop and Car Show sponsored by Golden Gate Street Machines Unlimited July 15 in San Carlos. It will be auctioned by Barrett-Jackson in January unless someone makes a substantial offer before then.

Portugal started with a cowl (the part under the windshield, between the doors and the motor) from a 1926 Packard, and from there built the speedster. In the early 1920s, when automakers first attempted to streamline automobiles for racing, the first feature they used was the boatail. Portugal put a boatail on his speedster and enhanced it with a redwood deck lid.

Portugal said that he "built the speedster to look old, but upgraded the steering and tires to make the car more drivable.

"From there, I thought I might as well make a hotrod, so I put a modern engine in it. It has modern headlights, taillights, transmission and a huge engine - a 2005 10-cylinder 500-horsepower Viper. It's really fast."

The writer is a longtime resident of Los Altos Hills. For more information, visit www.wildhorses.com/car or call Peter Portugal Design Co. at (707) 443-7110.

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