John Tokar, owner of Vintage Restorations Limited, in Union Bridge, started tinkering with British cars in 1969 when he was a teen in Bayonne, N.J., and his uncle sold him a 1959 Hillman Minx for $50.
"It needed a clutch, so I got involved in working on it and I never stopped," the 61-year-old New Jersey native recalled, pointing to a framed photo of his office wall of himself and that '59 Hillman.
"That car was what got me started, then I went to Triumphs, and now my specialty is MGs, which is mostly what I do these days," he said, pointing to another photo, this one of himself a few years later, a college student standing next to a vintage Triumph Spitfire.
"I also worked on some muscle cars, like Camaros and a '68 GTO. But the whole idea of British cars particularly fascinated me, and I never got them out of my system."
Tokar, who spent 20 years as a scientist and engineer with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, said restoring vintage European cars is "a hobby that turned into a business."
And he's not exaggerating.
These days, he and his small staff, which includes wife Ginny and daughter Laurel — also a vintage car collector and accomplished mechanic — work out of a 8,000-square-foot shop in a building Tokar owns in Union Bridge.
At any given time, about 30 cars are in various stages of restoration in the service bays that take up three large rooms.
A 1946 MGTC, a '50 MGTD, a '57 Sebring MGA, a '59 Morris Minor, a '65 Mini Cooper and '57 and '59 Austin Healeys are just a few of the classics that have recently been driven (or towed) to Vintage Restorations in less than ideal states of repair.
Many months and, in most cases, many dollars later, they roll back out not only road-ready, but in near-mint condition. On his website, http://www.vintagerestorationsltd.com, Tokar has a photo gallery of some of the cars to which he's given a second life.
At any given time, European machines are undergoing refurbishment in the shop. On a recent afternoon these included a slew of MGs, Triumphs, Jaguars, Austin Mini Coopers and autos ranging from the 1940s to the early 1970s.
In one corner is a rarity — a 1955 Studebaker Speedster. Studebaker only made about 2,300.
"I guess the rarest car we ever restored was a 1932 Packard," Tokar said. "Only five were built of that particular model."
While some vehicles gleam like new, others are little more than rusted shells.
"Resurrection jobs" Tokar calls them.
"Some of these cars, pre-restoration, quite frankly do look just like junk," he said. " We've had a couple where we started with nothing but the shell."
But "anything is restorable," he said. "It's just a matter of time and money."
He warned against unrealistic expectations.
"Don't go in some barn on a farm somewhere and get a car that's been laying there for 30 years and think you can have it restored for 20 grand," he said. "It ain't gonna happen. You can't even get it painted for that money.