Charles Watson has never married. His relationships with women all end the same way. The woman will say, "It's either me or the car, Charlie."

He always chooses the car. It isn't just any car, the man from Alexandria explains. It is a shiny old Ford Retractable.

Another Virginia man admits he will do without a new pair of shoes or a piece of meat for dinner if the Ford Retractable needs a new part. "That hunk of metal and rubber has become the important thing in my life," he says. "I sacrifice for it the way I would for a kid."

Ford Motor Co. produced 48,000 Retractables between 1957-'59. About 2,000 still remain. For many of the people who own them, life revolves around the automobile.

The members of the International Ford Retractable Club describe the financial and emotional investment they have made.It is a constant search for the right car or the right part at exactly the right price. Then there are long hours of sanding, scraping, painting and polishing.

But, the Retractor collectors believe it is worth it in the end. Like proud parents, they display their cars at shows such as the National Convention last weekend in Old Town Alexandria. "I can compare it to having a baby," says Joyce Moore of Jerseyville, Ill. "After months of waiting, you can finally show it to the world."

Moore, the group's membership chairman, estimated that about 200 of the nation's 900 members attended the convention, some coming from as far as California. One member had his car flown to Virginia. Another had a trailer specially built to transport the car.

This year's event -- the 10th annual meeting -- was dedicated to the founder, John Bobo from Dayton, Ohio. In 1959, when Bobo first saw a Retractable hardtop hood slide gently into the trunk, he instantly fell in love with the "magnificent piece of machinery." But, as a General Motors executive, he was not permitted to buy a Ford.

"As soon as I retired," Bobo explained, "I went out and found the car I had always wanted."

While restoring his car, Bobo wanted to share his excitement with other Retractable owners. He advertised in several newspapers and organized the first meeting in Lake Mills, Wis. Only 13 people showed up.

Toby Gorny from Brian, Ohio, was one of the original 13 members and he has attended every year since then. "I have such special feelings for these cars," Gorny says. "I remember in '57 my father buying one when they first came out. It was absolutely beautiful."

Like Gorny, many of the Retractable Club members owned original cars, but then sold them. "These cars bring back so many memories," says Henry Henson from St. Louis. "Riding through town with your girl next to you and the top down. Boy, it was great."

Henson's pregnant wife was unable to attend the convention. She expects the baby any day now. "I have another show next week," Henson says. "If the baby doesn't come before then, I'll have to go alone again."

His wife, he says, is as crazy about the Retractables as he is. Get that first car and absession follows. "When you get interested, you get hooked," says member Sidney Beasley. "Be prepared to give up a lot of time and money."

Tony D'Emidio and his family in Levittown, Pa., bought their first Retractable seven years ago. They now own 13. "Each car is a solid year of dedication," he says. "I spend every night until 1 o'clock working. The only time I leave is to go to a funeral or a graduation."

For families like the Moores, restoring cars becomes a full-time hobby. Car parts clutter their living room. The house always smells like paint. "While I'm watching TV or talking on the phone," says Joyce Moore, "I'm still banging out a bumper or fixing a hub cap."

Moore and several of the women in her town have taken up "junkyarding." They rummage around garbage dumps looking for parts. Even if they don't need them, they know someone else probably will.

"Once I called my husband, afraid that he would kill me," she said. "I bought an entire yard of Ford parts. Then I had nowhere to put them, so I had to buy a building."

In the Moore home, the cars have brought family members closer together. "We have a strong common interest," says Craig Moore, 17, as he polished his mother's black '59 Retractor. "We do it all as a team."

Mary and Max Brockhouse, from Central, Ill., also see the cars as a family project. For months, Mary and the children labored over the interior, while Max concentrated on the body. They took a photo album out of the trunk and carefully described each step of the process.

"We're damn proud," says Max, "and we did it together."

Max slides back under his car. Another member walks by and yells, "hey, is that where Mary makes you sleep." Everyone laughs. The members know each other well after years of trading advice at conventions.

"There is such a feeling of fellowship here," says Jamie Walker, who drove from Seattle with his wife, Doris.

Other members, however, warn that the friendly atmosphere is deceiving. When a little dust on the carburetor can make the difference between first and second place, the competition gets nasty. "Too often things get so fierce, I question the sport of it all," says Jack Stewart of Canton, Ohio, another of the original members. "At times it isn't as much fun anymore."

In this year's competition, Joe Geswein from Fawler, Ind., won the "Best Car in Show" prize for his blue and white '57 Retractor.

Another highlight of the convention was the Retractor parade through Washington, D.C., yesterday morning. "When people look at my car," said Joyce Moore, "they may not know it, but they're looking at a part of me."