They call him "the Mustang Man."

And with reason.

Wayne Columbia owns 30 Mustangs -- mostly 1964s to 1966s, with a few '67s and '68s. Oh, and one 1969.

"The coupes made after 1969 really didn't impress me," said the 44-year-old mechanic and auto bodyrepairman from Hampstead. "From a value standpoint, they are (worth)less, though people seem to think they cost more."

Columbia, whose favorites are the 1965 and 1966 models, works almost exclusively onthe classic Fords at Columbia's Garage on Hanover Pike, the shop he has operated since 1977.

"I guess it's the novelty of the first years, the body styles of the early makes that is so impressive," Columbia said. "Their styling is as good as any sports car you can buy today."

Columbia, his wife, Ronoda, and sons Jason, 8, and Justin, 9 months, live in their home in front of the garage.

Ronoda says herhusband's commitment to the car goes beyond the work he performs in the four-bay garage that is home to a multitude of Mustang parts dating to 1964.

"He's pretty dedicated, and that's why I don't drive one," she said. "I don't like to walk, and every time we go to the grocery store or shopping, we have to park in the back of the lot. He will not park a Mustang close to the store."

Columbia has been up tohis elbows in Mustangs since he was about 17.

"I had bought one for myself in 1968, and I found that I really enjoyed working on them," he said.

Now he rebuilds the early Mustangs for others looking for a classic of their own.

Mostly, customers buy a "driver" Mustang as a first car for a son or daughter who plans to use it every day,he said. Others want a restored Mustang that's "detailed out" to mint condition.

"These are the people who are only going to drive thecar on special occasions," Columbia said.

A new paint job, interior and tires, automatic or standard shift, power steering, air conditioning and engine size and price are just some of the considerations a customer faces when having a Mustang restored.

"What they want done to the car determines the price. If they just want a 'driver,' a car that they can drive every day, they could spend between $4,000 and $5,000. If they want to make their car a real showpiece, the price could go as high as $20,000."

Though no one special job comes to mind, Columbia has taken a special shine to working on the "Shelby," ahigh-performance version of the Mustang developed by racer Carroll Shelby.

"There were less than 1,000 of these cars made between 1965and 1970," Columbia said. "There were noticeable differences: the scoops on the side, fiberglass hoods and side window in the back seats that replaced the louver windows."

Columbia said the most expensive Mustangs to restore are the convertibles, because the inner floor structure is more susceptible to rust than that of the coupe or fastback.

What began as a hobby and became a profession started before Columbia began his senior year at North Carroll High School in 1967.

That summer, he had worked at Rhoten's Garage in Hampstead, helpingwith mechanical and auto body repairs.

Columbia, who had earned the credits needed for graduation, wanted to continue his job at the garage during the school year.

"I approached the administration at North Carroll and asked them if I could do work-release," Columbia recalled.

"This was something they had done in West Virginia, where I lived before moving to Maryland in eighth grade. I told them that since I had enough credits, I wanted to spend half the day working at the garage."

Columbia received approval from the school and gainedthe valuable hands-on experience he needed to become an automobile mechanic and repairman.

"By spending the time in the garage, I was able to expand my knowledge in auto repair and mechanics," he said. "I found that the best teacher for me was the practical experience I gained from being in the shop."

Columbia spent nearly 10 years working for Rhoten's and one other garage, before deciding to venture outon his own in 1977.

"I knew that when I went on my own, I wanted to stay with Mustangs," he said. "I had worked on them through the years and found them simple to work on."

Probably 98 percent of his business is dedicated to working on Mustangs, Columbia said. Mustang enthusiasts want to go to someone who specializes in fixing that kindof car when they need theirs repaired, he said.

Columbia said that hands-on work on the sound, basic Mustangs has always intrigued him. And, as far as he can tell, he will continue to work on the classiccars as he has for nearly a quarter of a century.

"I have no desire to work in a dealership or a big shop," he said. "I really enjoy coming out here and working on these cars.

"I feel like I am accomplishing something worthwhile," he said. "Most of the time, these carscome in here looking decrepit. But you give them some tender loving care, and when they are done, it looks like they were just rolled offthe showroom floor."

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