It was a powder blue, 1957 Ford 40A Thunderbird Convertible Coupe, one of the last of a three-year line of such cars. It was beautiful.

The interior was all cream colored, as was the removable hardtop roof. Except there was a funny thing about the roof. It had portholes on either side, the kind you found on '56 'Birds.

But the top fitted nicely on the '57 body, so no one fretted about the parts mix, not at all. There were other touches: the brushed aluminum instrument panel, a factory original, and beautifully rechromed bumpers.

The car was love: agape--spontaneous, altruistic, divine--and eros. You could admire it from a distance, marvel at its grace. But it felt good to touch it, and looked as if it would have felt even better to drive it. But at $12,000, the cost for restoring that elegant body, you couldn't do that sort of thing, not with someone else's machine.

"The guy would kill us if you scratched that car," shouted Mark Hawkins, part owner of a high-ambitioned, Beltsville body shop called Coach Craft.

Body shop? Hawkins sniffed at the term. A body shop is where you bring your dented, four-year-old American battle cruiser, or your damaged Japanese econobox, a place where you want nothing more than to get the dents out, the rust holes filled and the paint shiny.

"This is no body shop," Hawkins said of Coach Craft. "This place is not for everyone. I don't want to fix some guy's Toyota, or some guy's commuter car. We can do that stuff, yeah. But you would have to have a real nice commuter car or a damned good Toyota to make it worthwhile."

It's not that Coach Craft doesn't need the money. The tiny, closely held company started in 1975 with $1,500 in capital, and now has about $125,000 in assets, mostly equipment. It only recently started making what its owners call "a little money."

Coach Craft has 14 employes, including Hawkins, who oversees the "coach building and painting" operations, and John Connolly, the company president. Most of the employes are craftsmen, highly skilled welders and metal fabricators, and most are in their twenties, work odd hours, long hours, often on one car, and they work on a commission basis, collecting about 40 percent of the price of each job.

"This is not a production shop," Hawkins said, which means the cost of the work done at Coach Craft is far from cheap.

"You have to love a car to bring it here. You have to be patient, because we don't cut corners," Hawkins said.

But they do cut metal, lots of it. The 1957 Thunderbird is an example. It was a rusty old thing when it was brought in six months ago, an elegant lady fallen on hard times. The floors were in bad shape and the upholstery was a mess.

The first job was to remove the rusted and decaying metal, and to clean the surviving metal with phosphoric acid to remove any lingering rust and scale. Coach Craft workers produced a new floor, made of heavier gauge steel, to better resist rust in the future.

Fender patches were fabricated and welded to the surviving metal, as were new quarter panels and rocker panels, and other metal parts in the main structural supports of the car. Many of the parts could not be found, or were too expensive to order, so they were made on the premises of the Beltsville shop.

Extensive undercoating and rustproofing of the new and cleaned metal was needed, and so it was done. Finishing included the use of lead and other body fillers, and the repainting of the entire body shell, inside and out. New upholstery, of course, was installed.

"It was a marathon job," said the 27-year-old Hawkins, walking around the Thunderbird. He stood back a bit, the craftsman admiring his work. "It's a real turn-on when somebody says: 'Here. Do the very best job you can with this. Take the time you need to do it right.' I just love it when that happens," Hawkins said.

People who want that kind of attention and who are willing to spend that kind of money include Michael Wren, owner of The Virginia Lodge motel in Alexandria.

Wren, 31, is an amateur racer and self-avowed "car buff," and he was just beside himself with glee, he said, when he came across a red, battered 1963 Ferrari 250 GTE. He paid $5,000 for the car and is spending about $10,000 to have Coach Craft rebuild the body.

Why? "Well," says Wren, "when they finish, the car will be worth about $20,000, maybe more. But the truth is that I love cars, and this one is special."

The car is one of about 1,000 similar models built by Italy's Scuderia Ferrari (team Ferrari) from 1961 through 1963. It has a V12, overhead cam, all aluminum engine--a powerplant that is heavy on passion, but low on reason by any practical standard. But "practical" is not a term often heard around Coach Craft, and it is not the kind of repair approach that the company's customers want.

"I don't want somebody who is just going to throw a bunch of putty at rust spots," Wren said. "I don't want something half-done. The underbody of the car has to be rebuilt. . . . I want the job done right, and that's what I'm paying them to do."

There are Mercedes-Benz SLs, MG Midgets (including a 1959 MG TF-1500), a 1964 Porsche, and several other Fords (including a 1955 Ford pickup truck) at Coach Craft. Other battered bodies, some of them classic and some not, come in at the rate of about 15 a month.

There is a collegiality about the place, a hobbyist's atmosphere. Connolly and Hawkins say they hope to keep it that way. But staying in business often means expansion, and expansion, in turn, often demands tighter production schedules. That means giving quantity a higher profile, which, all too often in American industry, has meant diminishing the status of quality.

"We don't think that'll happen," Connolly said. "We've been on a certain learning curve, in terms of developing techniques, and we think we're about 80 percent of the way there.

"Our competitors think we're crazy," Connolly continued. "But there are a lot of people out there who have been holding on to cars that they like and who want them fixed right. I believe people will pay for quality, if you can show them that they're getting what they pay for."