Mark Plaia's life with Fiats — Chris Obert

Discussion in 'In Memoriam' started by budgetzagato, Jan 31, 2013.

  1. budgetzagato

    budgetzagato Administrator Moderator

    Olympia, WA USA
    I was asked by a moderator to write up something for the Xweb while Mark was still alive. When I visited with him in August of 2012 he was pretty coherent at times, so I asked Carol to spend some time with him to get down a few things in ways he would want them to be remembered by. Unfortunately Mark took a turn for the worse soon afterwards.

    When I got the call from Carol on November 11 2012, Brookie & I were just boarding our delayed flight for our vacation. On the flight I thought about how Mark might want to be remembered, and came up with this rare view from his good friend and fellow Fiat enthusiast.

    My vacation got us home too late to make the deadline that had been made for the 2013 calendar. In the end this gave Carol time to get a few facts aligned, and to find a few rare pictures of Mark never seen before outside of his Fiat world.

    Mark Plaia's life with Fiats

    I met Mark Plaia about 30 years ago. We had recently moved into the house my business was started at, and one day I noticed the R&D shop across the street had a blue 1979 X1/9 parked in the driveway.

    (Not his car, just a borrowed picture)

    In those days all of my work came to me by word of mouth, so I went over to introduce myself and find out who was working on his car.

    We hit it off and quickly became close friends. Soon Mark was spending his free work time (the alternative energy R&D place was not too busy) over at my shop. When I needed help thinking thru technical issues, it was Mark that I would ask first.

    Mark had moved to California from South Bend Indiana a few years before, and after initially settling in the San Jose area, he had moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Since his previous job had been in the San Jose area, he commuted to work on small mountain roads in a 1972 124 Spider before he purchased the X1/9.

    Again, not Mark's car. I think he said his was maroon.

    Mark grew up in South Bend Indiana, the home of Studebaker.

    Mark as a boy on his tractor which inspired the "anything with wheels" phrase

    Many of his relatives worked at the Studebaker factory, and Mark had owned many while in high school. I know he had hotrodded some of them, as many a young man that was interested in anything with wheels would.

    Mark's first hot rod

    I remember him telling me about driving to the Indianapolis 500 year after year in his Studebakers, and years later he always watched the races and kept up on the events leading up to race day.

    Mark was born in 1949 and was the oldest of five brothers. To serve his country during the Vietnam War, he chose to be in the National Guard because of his dislike for the war and anything related to war. Mark was stationed in California at Camp Roberts as a MP. Mark told me of some of his exploits there, but the one I will share is that one day he was in town while off duty, when his direct commander approached him and told him he needed to get a haircut before coming on duty that night. As soon as he got on duty the commander immediately confirmed that Mark had indeed cut his hair. Which Mark had not, but commander did not know because one of the first things Mark had done when he became an MP was to get a short hair wig, which he always wore while on duty. The commander congratulated Mark for following orders, and from then on his actions or duties were never again questioned.

    Carol says this is with his wig...

    Mark married Kathie Carr during college, and they first moved to California when she was accepted in Graduate School at San Jose State. They divorced after 9 years and Kathie moved back to Indiana.

    Soon after I met Mark he met Carol. At the time, in addition to the blue X1/9, he had a Studebaker station wagon which was in great shape.

    Memory is this what the old gal looked like

    He started driving it and gathering parts to restore it, but one night while at Carol's a drunk sideswiped the old wagon, which was parked in the street, and it was totaled. These days it would have been fixed, and Mark had even located an NOS rear quarter panel, but back then it was looked at as an old junker and the insurance company totaled it. I know Mark still had some of the new old stock wagon parts in his workshop and office to remind him of that dream that was never fulfilled.

    I got to attend his wedding. Mark loved Carol more than can be imagined. Soon afterwards the R&D place across the street was so short of work, so he approached me wanting to turn the business from a one man show into a full time productive business. We had the work, and we did well. So for our end of the year bonus we both got mountain bikes that Mark had researched, as he did everything, and had declared as the best on the market.


    So our shared love of bicycles continued on the trails and dirt roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. We spent many an hour after work and on the weekends riding either mountain or road bikes together, and even did a few tours. Years later Mark rode in many Cycle Oregon events. His love of cycling kept him on two wheels until he fell ill.

    After a few years of working in the shop and developing Fiat Plus in the direction it has gone today, Mark approached me and said he was tiring of what he called the "bad news blues", and the constant crawling around in and out of the cars we were servicing. It was quite a blow to me as Mark and I worked so well together. We would often service a single car together working side by side without getting in each other's way, something I have never had with a fellow technician since.

    Mark had sold his blue 1979 X1/9 someplace early on, then he had restored a 1969 124 Sport Coupe while working with me, making many modifications during the restoration and along the way.

    Marks was French Racing Blue, with "Mag" wheels. Lowered, of course

    It was a wonderful, powerful, and very comfortable car. Mark, Carol, Genny, and I attended what was my first Monterey historic race event in that car. Four big people, and very comfortable with excellent handling. Mark had picked up a 1979 131 Brava wagon for Carol, another great car that benefited from Marks meticulous attention to detail.

    Right color, but this is a 1980

    He had also picked up a beater 1975 X1/9 that we ended up installing a PBS 1600 stroker motor into.

    Of course Mark's looked like this only years before he got it

    Both Mark and I had gotten into auto crossing with a local group, and since we both had yellow Fiats, Mark started the Banana Slug racing team. BS Racing, all team members got team jackets designed by Carol, and I still have one. And Mark's is now on display in our warehouse. Years of fun there...

    In those years I started going to Italy regularly. I often tried to get Mark to join me, but Mark never did. He and Carol did get to travel to Bali together, and several long trips were in the planning stages when he fell ill.

    Marks new job was with an R&D start up in the Santa Clara Valley designing medical devices, a field he stayed in until he fell ill. He drove his X1/9 race car to and from work for years, and kept it "garaged" in Santa Cruz to keep from having to smog it. Mark changed jobs often, working his way up thru the medical device R&D world, and got many patents for his designs, some of which may still be in use today. He specialized at that time in tools that remove plaque from the inside of arteries, so if you have or will ever need that work done, you, along with many thousands of others, will be able to thank Mark for the tools that have extended your life.

    One day he called as he had found a low mileage, excellent condition, 1972 124 automatic Sedan to replace Carol's Brava.

    Carol's was green

    He had not had that car for long when it was also sideswiped at night by a drunk while it was parked in front of their home. Soon afterwards Carol and Mark had planned a big tour of the western US in the 124 Coupe, but the day before they were to leave Carol got T-boned in an intersection while running some last minute errands in that car. They cut the car up to get her out, but Marks favorite bicycle, which was already packed in the back seat area, was bent.

    Mark found a great 1982 X1/9, it was red and is still around today.

    With Mark and Carol

    As it's current owner will attest, Marks meticulous attention to detail made that one of the best streetable fuel injected X1/9s ever. Mark was also being courted by some R&D places in the Pacific Northwest, so when it become time to move Mark dismantled and cut up his old banana slug racer as the very rusty body was giving up. By that time that racer was so well developed that he was doing very well in the local auto cross series, but was no longer a comfortable street car other than just being able to be driven to and from the track. It was on this car that Mark decided the mounting of the aftermarket Addco front sway bar was a bad design, so he came up with what is still a very popular sway bar mounting kit to improve the performance of the sway bar.


    Mark had also applied many of his ideas to my 1978 128 Sedan race car making it one quick yellow box, so our team was always doing well in the series points.

    Mark and Carol spent many years in the Seattle and Portland areas. Mark was one of the first members in the Seattle X1/9 club, which became the xweb. During those years I know he had both a 131,


    which is still owned by a Mirafiori member, and a 1973 124 Sport Coupe, which he resold within a month to someone who stopped him on the street that absolutely needed it.


    It was during this time that Mark came up with his idea for Plaia strut top bearings, a product that any SOHC owner with them will swear has completely changed his or her Fiat.


    It was during these years that the annual Oregon events started. After the second event (often referred to as the rainy event), Mark was offered a position with a start up in the Silicon Valley, so Mark and Carol moved back to Santa Cruz. Mark then purchased a white 1969 124 Wagon from Courtney Waters for Carol to drive.


    It was a great car that Courtney bought back without question from Mark when it needed a valve job years later. This time the job didn't last long until the company folded, but luckily he landed a great job with a prominent medical R&D company down the street from my warehouse, so our daily walks, bike rides, and after hours socializing began again.

    Because Mark and Carol both never had kids, my kids often filled their needs for moderate amounts of facetime with children. Ha ha.

    When the Mirafiori group first moved the annual Oregon events to Howard Prairie Lake in July, the competition event was the hill climb. I raced my 128 for two years, then my 600. Mark brought his red 82 X1/9 to the third year’s event, and dropped the right rear wheel of the car off the road causing no damage, but quite a big scare. It reminded us both that big damage can really happen on the hill, so racing competitively in a show winning car could end up totaling the car. That night we agreed to build a full out race car together, which would allow Mark free rein at developing all of his ideas for a racing X1/9. Mark had hundreds of ideas of from his years of owning and enthusiastically driving them.

    Over the next year Mark spent countless hours researching, designing, calculating, and planning every aspect of what was to become one of the quickest X1/9 based auto cross cars ever.

    Mark's meticulous attention to detail went into every nut and bolt, and his often completely out of the box ideas for how to reach our goal during the building of the car would often surprise the vendors he had chosen to source the parts or supplies from. I remember that the company that provided his header parts completely disagreed with his design, but in the end the performance of the header proved that the supplier had no idea what works best with small displacement high rpm four cylinder motors that use one carburetor per cylinder.

    Often Marks ideas on paper didn't always work as planned, just like when he was designing medical devices. Paper to working prototype was his specialty, and those same concepts happened with the car. We would often find that ideas on paper had to be modified on the workbench, and our ability to work side by side, and my ability to improvise and improve in the field, resulted in a very surprising solution for many components of the car. One time while we were working and discussing life, Mark told me that he felt in past lives he had been a blacksmith because he loved working on machinery and fabricating needed parts out of nothing so much. He felt it was a skill he could not have picked up in one lifetime.

    We completed the car as it was being loaded on the truck to go to the Oregon event, the first year that the competition event was at the go cart track in White City. We had told no one of our work of the previous year, but everyone knew there was a black sheep in the works. I can't remember more pre-event excitement since. When we arrived at the lake silence took over the woods, and then Mark spent the rest of the day showing his creation and talking about his ideas and our execution of them. He was in heaven. Of course the car was untested, and it broke before we had both finished our allotted runs, but what a design.

    Done by one of the best!

    We also started competing in our local SCCA region events. Our first few events had our fellow competitors laughing at the little Fiat, but they very quickly realized this was one serious car when we could meet or beat almost every other car, including many national champs. Of course the car broke more than we wanted it to, but that only gave Mark another excuse to redesign that aspect of the car. Even after we had both done well, our drive back home was usually one long discussion of how this or that could be changed to tweak just a wee bit more out of the car. A lot of nights and weekends were spent working on the race car, which more often than not, resulted in better race results. One of the products that came from these sessions was the Plaia head stud kits, essential because of the compression the motor runs.

    In 2004, Mark grew tired of working for others and started his own company doing independent consulting, Plaia Design Services. That position as an independent contractor got Mark back into working with many of the companies, fellow designers, and doctors that he had previously worked for. The R&D companies in those days could no longer afford to hire employees and provide all of the services that go with employees, like paid vacations and health insurance.

    Mark's parents begin to have some health issues, so Mark and Carol decided to sell their townhouse in Santa Cruz and move to Springfield Oregon. In Springfield they could buy a home that would allow the parents to live with them. For those of us that have had and raised kids we can imagine the results of this arrangement, but for Mark and Carol it was a new eye opening experience. I remember many times talking with Mark about the joys of raising kids, or how raising and caring for parents is often even harder.

    Mark sold his red X1/9 soon after moving to Springfield Oregon, but it wasn't long until he purchased a green 1974 X1/9 from a Mirafiori member near Portland.


    Mark again had some wild ideas of how to make a high performance street car, and this was the perfect test bed for them. He wanted a high revving 1300 short stroke motor that was fuel injected with a popular programmable system. And this time he wanted a fully developed suspension system that utilized much of the tricks he had learned on the race car. The results were the Plaia Strut Tubes which allowed the use of readily available inserts that could be purchased in almost any performance level or result desired.


    Mark also learned about spring rates while developing the race car's suspension, so he applied what he had learned from the race car to street applications. Anyone that owns an X1/9 with the suspension rates and alignment specifications calculated by Mark will immediately tell you nothing but praise for the results.

    It was also during this exercise that Mark became totally frustrated with the quality of the available strut top mounts. His upgraded suspension was causing premature failure of the mounts, and he was discovering how the cones on either side of the mounts could become deformed on higher mileage cars. And about that time I was informed that the tooling at the manufacturer in Italy had broken, so I hired Plaia Design Services to completely redesign the mount with a design that would address all of the flaws of the original mount, and take into account that related parts were worn.

    And Mark came up with a solution for failures in the chassis, the Big Foot strut doublers


    Two more great products that everyone with a car that uses the mount and doubler can thank Mark for.

    This green X1/9 has Mark's touch on every nut & bolt. From the custom headlights the car came with modified to perfection, to the tip of the custom designed and made headers and exhaust system.

    One day he called me up and told me he was bored with the car as he could take it out on any local mountain road and catch anything else out there without even beginning to approach his driving limits, so in Mark's typical style he offered the car at a giveaway price, and moved on.
    But this time it was back to his roots, and a wonderful 1959 Studebaker Lark was located. In his researching of the car he found a Studebaker expert not too far away, and so after Mark had the car for a while he took it to the expert to play with and sort out. Mark had big plans for this car, and after personally seeing the results I can agree that it was well on it's way to having the go thru by Mark. But he suddenly felt a loss for a Fiat, and picked up an old beater ex race car X1/9 that he called "Code Blue X".

    The only shot I could find of the beast

    He started fiddling with it, and even allowed himself some time to experiment with some paint ideas. It was a hodge-podge of this and that when he bought it, and I could hear the frustration in his voice during our weekly phone calls about how this didn't work, and how that needed work. One of his last Fiat redesigns went into this car, the Plaia short shifter.

    What, you don't know of that one? I am not surprised as so far as I know, there was only one. It seemed like a great idea, and he even sent me the drawings so I could build a prototype. But since my test bed car is still under construction I put it off. And it seemed Mark just didn't feel the market would support this product and his enthusiasm just wasn't there... So it never went any further.

    One day Mark called to discuss some more faults of code blue X. Of course I would say things like "Well, just pull the transaxle, tear it down, & tell me what you need". In the past he would have done that before he called, but he just didn't have the usual Mark Plaia enthusiasm. As I think about it now, I know what was wrong, but Mark made it sound like the car was just too far gone, so he made the decision to part it out instead of fixing it.

    And then Mark fell ill. All of a sudden Carol noticed he just wasn't right. Ends up this man that had spent most of his life helping out others, eating his apple every day, riding his bike as often as he could, walking to the post office every day, working out, and was one of the most fit people I know, was dying of metastatic esophageal cancer. His constant battles with sinus issues had masked the cancer. He told me that he had thought it was just one hell of a sinus infection he had been fighting for, well, a long time. The doctors told him he had the body of a 45 year old. But the cancer was too far along and he had lesions in his brain.

    But Mark, being Mark, researched everything and came up with a plan. He knew he wasn't going to survive this, but he also wanted to help the medical community. So he jumped right in with some pretty serious cancer treatments. Treatments that would have killed him if he wasn't so healthy. And many of them are literally cutting edge.

    Mark donated his entire body to the study of the results of these treatments, so just like all of the products, procedures, and tools he designed while he was alive, we can all benefit from what will be learned from the results of these new ideas.

    I for one think about him often. It doesn't matter what I do, it seems it has benefited from Mark's thinking about the issue and coming up with a better solution. And, I get to drive the X1/9 race car he designed. And eventually I will have an ultimate street X1/9 that will benefit from all of Mark's ideas. He even found the car for me when he was searching for a rare Faza 5 speed conversion kit for his green 1974 X1/9.

    I can't end this with all positive stories and praise, and possibly you have seen it coming. I also must say that Mark had many dreams of things he wanted to do for himself, and for Carol, before he was done here. The lesson we should all learn from Mark is the one he was too busy to do himself.

    If you have dreams, it doesn't matter if they are small, or if they are your desire to see the world. Do it now.

    Saving up your flow charts and files of what you want to do and see after you retire aren't worth the hard disc space or the paper you might print them on if you don't do them. Mark made it to 63. At 60 he started talking about early retirement... He has done many of his small dreams, but barely got started on the big ones.

    I got to take Mark out for his final drive in his Studebaker. When we hit a straight section of road he said "punch it", and that old gal responded with youth and vigor that Mark knew he would never again have.

  2. BrettM

    BrettM 1981 RHD X1/9

    Knoxville TN
    Fitting tribute...

    Thanks for sharing this with us Chris.
  3. JimD

    JimD Waiting for Godot... Moderator

    Missouri, USA
    Thanks Chris


    Thanks for taking the time to put that together. I enjoyed reading thru it and it is a fitting tribute to Mark.
  4. geekdaddy

    geekdaddy X1/9 Learner's Permit...

    Thanks for writing this, Chris. A great story and a great man (although I didn't know him personally).

    I hope to eventually implement some of his suspension mods on my X1/9 and his life and life's work will thus connect with my own.

    Great advice about living our dreams now. Thanks for the reminder.
  5. fiatmonkey

    fiatmonkey Tim Hoover

    Redwood City, CA
    Well done and well said. Thank you Chris (and xweb) for sharing.

    I recall the 69 124 BTW. One of first I had ever seen.
  6. Old Zeb

    Old Zeb Cam Tower Seepage

    Portland, Oregon
    Thank you Chris

    Thank you for keeping the story alive.
  7. strangepod

    strangepod 1987 Bertone X1/9

    Buford Ga
    Thanks Chris - Very nice indeed!
  8. kmead

    kmead Over half way.

    Thank you Chris for writing about Mark and sharing the life experiences you had with him. We all present ourselves on forums such as this in a particular way. It rarely shows much of the rest of our lives, you have given us some of the back ground of who Mark was, given us some of his breadth and depth, which I really appreciate.

    I recently lost a coworker to the same disease. I have worked with with both he and his wife off and on for the last 20 years. It was a brutal mean spirited disease that took him despite intense chemical therapy. The toll it took on his wife and his children above and beyond his loss is dismaying.

    I expect to install Mark's stainless steel plates on my X later this year and need to order some pivots and upper mounts for my Koni reds to keep them company. Thanks to Mark for doing the design work to make those improvements to my car and thank you Chris for making them available.

  9. SpidArman

    SpidArman Collector of wayward cars

    Mount Bethel, Pa
    Thank you Chris

    Much of the story I never knew, but I am sure glad you shared it with us.

  10. Col Haiku

    Col Haiku True Classic

    Thanks for sharing this with us

    Mark was such a generous guy... sharing his knowledge and his time. I sure enjoyed watching Mark and Chris drive the racer at autoX events in the Bay Area.

    Here's a pic of the '81 X that I bought from Mark in '06 as it is today...

  11. Black-Tooth

    Black-Tooth Tony Natoli

    Thanks Chris...

    My favorite and only foto of Mark...

  12. emrliquidlife

    emrliquidlife True Classic

    So Cal
    Just found this. What a great way to remember Mark.

  13. Carol Plaia

    Carol Plaia New Member

    Springfield OR
    Thank you all

    This is a very tardy response. I was not aware that this ever actually got on the forum until a few days ago when Bernice Loui provided me with the link. Then, I figured out that I had to register in order to respond, and did that, but since I am not very computer-adept and am struggling with a brand new one besides, I had to ask for help on how to post - thank you (once again) Gregory Smith.

    Anyway, these are all very touching, and I thank you a lot. I provided the link to Mark's family, and at least one brother (Steve) has registered, too, so you'll be hearing from him.

    I am busy getting ready to move to my new very small house so I can sell this big one. I have a lot of stuff - and boy, so did Mark. Dean Rees and his son Derek moved everything down from the attic for me Saturday, and most of anything relevant will be at the swap meet. Of course, I also have Studebaker stuff to deal with. After I'm moved, I'll hire one of those estate sale people to come in and make the rest of it go away, one way or another.

    Also, email to any of Mark's addresses is being forwarded to mine, but there were some replies I sent that bounced back, and I think they must have been sent to me via the forum, and thus I was not allowed to reply. I'm sorry if you sent me something and I seemed to never reply.

    Carol Plaia
  14. Black-Tooth

    Black-Tooth Tony Natoli

    Hey Carol...


    I just tripped over this reply today and thank you for the kind words!

    You have done well in caring for our friend and your husband and hopefully there will be rewards for that in eternity...

    I have nothing else that I can really say or do but to offer up my brother Joe if he can help you with any need. He owes me! HA! He's just down the street at 541-341-8571.

    All my best,


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