There is a single question that resonates through the crowd at British Car Day, the country's largest gathering of automobiles manufactured in the United Kingdom, held each June in Bowie, Md. The owners of the 600 cars on display, which range from Austin-Healeys to Rolls Royces, know the question. The 4,000 spectators, peering into engine compartments, gazing at hand-rubbed paint jobs, remarking at burled walnut dashboards, know the question. And a few vendors are making money selling bumper stickers and T-shirts emblazoned with the clarion call of the British car owner: "Why do the English drink warm beer?

Because Lucas builds the refrigerators."

To understand the bittersweet humor in this, it's necessary to recount the history of the British sports car in this country and understand the masochistic life of the British car owner.

When U.S. soldiers returned from England after World War II, they brought with them more than GI wives. They also brought back memories of an English sports car known as the MGTC. The car was good looking -- if a bit anachronistic, with running boards and fender-mounted headlights -- and nimble fun to drive.

Other makes soon followed -- including Triumphs and Austin-Healeys -- and before too long American drivers were being weaned on British cars. In the 1950s and '60s many a high-school kid pined for an English roadster and many a college man realized that a pair of leather driving gloves, a driving cap worn at a jaunty angle and a shiny MGA or TR3 worked wonders with coeds. Nearly half of the British sports cars made were destined for American shores.

While most of the cars that spearheaded this British invasion no longer are available, victims of federally mandated emissions and safety laws, a dedicated group of enthusiasts are keeping their cars on the road with a fervor that borders on the religious.

"The Americans never really made a true, great sports car," claims Beltsville resident Wally Swift, a retired Chrysler executive who owns an all-original 1967 Sunbeam Tiger. "The British featured more sports cars. The cars were different and they were affordable."

Affordable and different, indeed. In 1967 you could buy an MG Midget for $2,200. If you had $2,900 in 1973, you could drive away with a Triumph TR6. Most of the cars were convertibles; this despite the fact that England isn't exactly known for its top-down weather. Roll-up windows and outside door handles were luxuries that many of the early models did without. And though the cars were simply made, ("You can look at the engine and see things you recognize," says one owner) they were not known for their reliability. Owning a British sports car from this period, many people have discovered, presents a maddening dichotomy: With their flowing, timeless lines they represent the peak of man's automotive creativity. On the other hand, their leaky fuel pumps and haunted electrical systems represent the reality of his fallibility.

For British car owners, every fond memory of zipping down a country lane with careless abandon is balanced with a memory of pounding on a recalcitrant fuel pump with a ball peen hammer. Peter Egan, senior editor of Road & Track magazine, is no stranger to the finicky English car. "My first car was a Triumph TR3," he recalls during a phone conversation from his Newport Beach, Calif., office. "The Easter vacation after I bought it I decided to drive to Northern Wisconsin to meet my future wife's family. The car broke down three times. I had to replace the radiator hose twice and the third time I had to patch it up with tape. The patch finally gave way three miles from her house. A man stopped to help me as I was fetching water from a nearby ditch with an old beer can. It was her father. He's never trusted me since."

Egan, an ex-British car mechanic, echoes a lot of owners when he says, "The cars are nice to drive when they're working right. If you expect a perfect car that doesn't need service, they're not for you. If you just want transportation, stay away."

It's possible to tar nearly all British sports cars with this broad brush for a few reasons. Many of the cars share common parts and, thus, common ailments. Ruth and Len Renkenberger of Derwood, Md. -- two of the people who plan British Car Day -- own five British cars. "My 1972 Rolls Royce uses the same brake calipers as a Triumph TR6," she says. "The Rolls cost $85,000 when new; the Triumph, $2,800."

Most of the sports cars shared the same type of SU carburetors, too, an odd collection of springs and tubes and aluminum chambers that look, in Peter Egan's words, "like a piece of 19th-century lab equipment."

And then, there's the infamous Lucas electrical system, butt of countless jokes and the real glue that bonds British car owners. Put two owners together and the conversation will eventually turn to the mythic Lucas, a system so possessed that the savvy MG or Triumph owner fully expects to have some electrical breakdown at some point in the life of his car and nevertheless exudes a strange British brand of cheery fatalism that recalls Londoners during the blitz.

This amalgam of joys and vicissitudes means that British car owners empathize with one another more than most. MG owners flash their headlights at one another when they pass in an act that is as much commiseration as communion and even if you've only ever owned MGs, you're well aware of the indignities suffered by Triumph or Healey owners.

Despite such problems, the cars remained popular until, one by one, they stopped being made. The Austin-Healey ceased production in 1967. The last MG -- its engine encrusted with U.S. pollution-control devices, its nose marred by black rubber protective bumpers -- rolled off an Abingdon, England, production line in 1980. A few years later, Triumphs became a thing of the past. The cars that are on the road today are the only ones left.

So, more and more people are saving them from the scrap yard and rebuilding or restoring them. In typically melodramatic, thoroughbred car fashion it's called "maintaining the breed."

Seven years ago, Bruce Phillips and his wife, Inan, opened Healey Surgeons, a garage in Takoma Park, Md. "When I first started," he says, "I would work on anything, even old Cadillacs. Now if someone comes in with a Triumph or Jag I have to say, 'Sorry, I'm busy.' Word has gotten around and things have changed." Things have changed so much that today, the Phillips work only on Healeys and their typical customers are doctors and lawyers, hoping, as Bruce Phillips says, "to recapture a little bit of their youth."

Phillips says that a complete, ground-up restoration can cost as much as $18,000 and that doesn't include the $10,000 one should expect to spend on the "tired, but roadworthy" Healey that's to be restored. MGs and Triumphs usually aren't as expensive to buy, (a recent issue of Road & Track included the MGB, MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire in a list of used sports cars that can be had for under $2,500) but they can be as expensive to rebuild to pristine condition.

With such royal sums involved, many owners are tempted to look at their cars as investments. Phillips and others caution against this. "I try to be frank with customers. I tell them they will spend twice what the car is worth to restore it," says Phillips. "If you want an investment, go to a broker."

This increase in restorations has sparked great philosophical debates on the proper way to restore an automobile. Some want to improve on the car, perhaps adding a more powerful engine, more comfortable seats, a more striking paint job. Others approach restoration like art historians: The car should look exactly as its creator intended. That's where the services of someone like Rich Shnitzler come in handy.

Shnitzler is a dealer in "original automotive literature" -- sales brochures, magazine ads, paint chip charts -- all printed at the time the cars were made and useful as mini Rosetta stones for restorers. He had come down to the recent British Car Day from Narberth, Pa., with a dozen boxes of literature that was being snapped up by inquisitive enthusiasts, anxious to make sure their restorations were accurate. Says Shnitzler, "It's as serious a search for truth and beauty as you'll ever find." And what would Shnitzler be doing with his proceeds from British Car Day? Buying an Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite? A Triumph TR4? Maybe an MGTF?

No, he says, "I should have enough to buy a 1960 Cadillac limousine I've been looking at."

The void that was created when the economical British sports car stopped being made has never been adequately filled, though among the young, the two seats of a pickup truck seem to have replaced the two seats of a roadster.

The British still make cars, of course. Hand-built exotics like the Lotus, Morgan and TVR are beyond the reach of most enthusiasts. Jaguar has just introduced what is being touted as the best luxury sedan in the world (the Lucas spector having been quietly vanquished some years ago). There's even an Austin-Rover known as the Sterling that was created with the Japanese.

However, it's the endearing machines of the past, with their characteristic smell of leather and gasoline, that will remain the quintessential British sports cars.

"I'm not overly tall or smart, but when I'm in my Healey I get attention," says Dave Doyle of Silver Spring, who's owned Austin-Healeys since high school. "I can be in a crowd of 10 Corvettes and my car is the one that turns heads."

"My car sits in the garage all winter and each year I tell myself I'm going to sell it," says Germantown resident Larry Berger, president of the local MG Car Club. "After I drive it for the first time in the summer I know I couldn't."

But in the words of one owner, "It's better to have {a sports car} when you're young. It's not the same when you're older."

Washington free-lance writer John Kelly owns a 1973 MGB GT. He rides the Metro a lot.