Car enthusiast channels passion into creativity

The scene was set at Raceway Park during its Spring Drag Race. A rainbow of cars packed the entryway in bumper-to-bumper fashion. Traffic directors waving orange flags controlled the surge of vehicles as they made their way into the stadium, and anxious drivers leaned against their rides while waiting to show their stuff on the strip. Excited fans packed the stands, watching each set of cars approach the starting line, and wait for the tower of lights to flash green.

Missing from the scene was the telltale scent of exhaust, and the sound of tires screeching, because the racing scene was not outside, but tucked away in Paul Bierly’s home. Ever since he was a child, the Lake Panorama resident has been a car enthusiast. And what started as a passion has grown into a collection of nearly 1,200 model vehicles brought together in a handmade diorama in his basement.

“I have had a love for cars and trucks for most of my life, I’ve always been into them,” Bierly said.

Before Bierly, 73, began work on his diorama, he was an avid model car collector. He grew up in a “car family,” and the learned interest led to him building plastic models of cars and trucks. As the years wore on, he tried his hand at creating dioramas to accompany his model collection, starting with one made out of a cardboard box he colored. With that, what would become a long-term project was born.

“I started this all in 1958 with plastic models, I had a table and I just started making dioramas, and it was all downhill from there,” Bierly laughed.

Eventually, he sold his collection of plastic cars, and switched to metal ones — known as diecast models — when they were introduced in 1995. The diorama in his basement now features dozens of these cars, in just about every color and style. The diorama takes up a corner of his basement, and features three large shelves of cars and scenery. On the top shelf, Bierly stores a portion of his truck collection. The middle shelf is set up like a small town, complete with people, streets, shops, and of course, cars. He painted and constructed the miniature buildings, backgrounds and accessories in each scene on display, and even installed real lighting inside some of the structures. Many aspects of the diorama were made using creatively repurposed items, like cardboard painted to resemble rusty metal buildings, and push pins transformed to look like red, green and yellow lights.

“I’m very proud of what I do, I really like using my imagination to come up with different ideas,” Bierly said. “I’m always looking for what I can do to create something.”

He also took time to customize 90 percent of his model cars to make them as unique and realistic as possible, from repainting to adding stickers. He even detailed the engines inside the model cars. They would be incomplete without the extra features, he said.

“I always look for realism, that’s what I’m searching for in the models,” Bierly said, pointing to a 1941 Willys Coupe that was a glossy purple before he detailed it to look rusty and worn. “They’re just some of my creativity.”

On the lowest shelf of the diorama is a set up with personal significance: a jam-packed drag race at “Raceway Park.” When he was a teenager, Bierly got involved in the drag racing scene. After starting out in a blue 1951 Chevy Coupe, he eventually purchased an orange 1969 Plymouth Road Runner Hemi, and went on to race for nearly 40 years.

“I had my own car, and I started taking it to the drag races, contrary to what my parents wanted,” Bierly said. “They’d say, ‘Have you been running in the races?’ And I’d say, ‘No, father,’ with the numbers still painted on the side of my car. It was an exciting time in life.”

Now that he is retired from that aspect of his life, the drag race portion of the diorama (and the orange Plymouth that still sits in Bierly’s garage) is a tribute to the memories he made.

“They tell a story, they all tell a story,” Bierly said, gesturing to the rows of cars and tiny figurines in the drag race part of the diorama. “Cars come in, and they’re on trailers, or maybe they drive in. They go back and get ready to race, and this is where the drag strip starts. When I go to a drag race, things are jammed just like this.”

The entire diorama is modeled after the way things looked between 1960 and 1970. Bierly chose that time period because he views it as the “hayday of muscle cars,” a term used for small cars with big engines and horsepower.

For now, the two year building project behind the diorama is complete. There is not enough room to add on to the display, even with many of Bierly’s model cars tucked away in closets, on shelves, and in his garage.

“I’ve had to stop building, I don’t have any more room!” Bierly said. “I’ve kind of run out of places to put stuff.”

Instead, the car enthusiast routinely moves pieces of the diorama around, admitting things are never in the same place twice.

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