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.
Tokar is frank with new customers — restoring a classic car is anything but a practical investment.
"One thing I always warn people about is that you can spend a lot more money on a car than it will ever be worth, because of the nature of the restoration process."
Tokar noted that a lot of these old cars were originally built by workers and technicians who were paid a little more than a dollar an hour.
On average, Vintage Restorations charges about 80 times that much.
"What we're doing is restoring a car that's been all worn out," he says. "We have to take it apart — one step, refurbish or replace many of the components -- two steps and put it back together --three steps. And we're working at $80 an hour, not $1.50
"So do the math," he says. "You can end up spending $80,000 on a car that's worth $12,000.
But people will do it, he said, because of an attachment to cars that's more than dollars and cents.
"If somebody, for instance, has a car that's been in their family for 30 years, and they've had it stored in their back yard, and they decide they want to restore it to the way it was in 1960 — for them, it's worth it," he said.
"That's because, when they get behind the wheel of that car, it's like they are back in 1960. They're not worried about getting their money out of it."
On the plus side, Tokar poined out, customers end up with "an absolutely perfect product. It's going to have better paint, better fabric, better structural material than the original." But it's not going to handle like your BMW or Mercedes or whatever, because it will still have 1950s or 1960s technology, and that is what it is."
Tokar walks over to a 1963 E-Type Jaguar which is only a few steps short of being showroom -ready all over again.
"The most expensive projects we've worked on are these E-type Jags," he said. "They can be very expensive and very time-consuming to restore -- as much as $120,000 to $150,000
"Jaguars of this type just turned 50 years old last year, and because of that everything involved in restoring them, such as parts, has gone up," he added. "But on the positive side, the E-types will hold their value. You can spend $120,00 restoring one of these and you can probably get that out of it. But if you spend $80,000 restoring an MG-B you won't ever get your money back."
During his 25 years of ocean engineering, technology development, ocean chemistry work and instrumentation development for the federal government, Tokar never stopped tinkering with cars.
As he neared retirement, he was itching to jump back into restoration full-time.
In 1994 he incorporated Vintage Restorations and opened a small, three-bay auto shop in Ijamsville, in Frederick County. In 1998, he retired from NOAH, turned his business into a full-time enterprise and moved to a larger shop in Mount Airy.
About five years ago he bought and completely renovated a former filling station/auto dealership/woodworking shop at 52 N. Main St., Union Bridge, that now serves as his headquarters.
"We spent about a year getting rid of about 40 years of sawdust," he said.
His current facility is 10 times the size of that first shop in Ijamsville.
Vintage Restorations Limited now draws customers from all over the country. Tokar advertises his services via the Internet and in vintage automobile club journals and magazines.
"We also get a lot of repeat customers and customer referrals," he said.
"The beauty of the Baltimore-Washington, D.C.-northern Virginia region is that there's a high concentration of British car owners," he said. "There's a British car club for almost every British car that was ever made, and we draw from that crowd."
As a member of the Chesapeake chapter of the New England MG "T" Register, Tokar has also for years sponsored an annual Original British Car Day, held in the early summer at Lilypons Water Gardens, in Frederick County.
Tokar's tinkering is not just confined to vintage cars. He's also a long-time volunteer in the mechanics shop at Baltimore's B&O Railroad Museum. His office walls display photos of some of the museum's world-famous antique steam locomotives that he has helped restore and repair.
He's also building a pair of miniature steam locomotives. He's working from the original specs for a Prairie-style locomotive built at the Baldwin Locomotive Works, which operated in Philadelphia from the early 1800s to the mid-20th century.
Eventually, he wants to run his little steam trains and offer rides to the public on the 3,200 feet of track at Leakin Park, in Baltimore, where members of the Chesapeake & Allegheny Steam Preservation Society regularly operate similar miniature steam locomotives.
"It's just one of those crazy hobbies you're involved in that nobody knows about," he said.
Which means, one day, it might be his next business.