Dwight Painter's work boots were peeking out from under his '73 Pontiac Grand Prix where he was fixing a tail pipe when conversation shifted to what life was like in "the Park," as Manassas Park people call it.

Painter slid from under his car into the thin winter light, slowly wiping the grease from his housepainter's hands until a buddy finished grousing about potholes and high city water bills.

"Thing that gets me," said Painter, the Virginia hills still rolling in his voice after 14 years in the Park, "friend of mine had a car he was workin' on right in front of his house. And the city came along and made him get a work paper just so he could work on his car in the street."

Now that shook his friend.

"Told him to do that and it was right in front of his own house?" demanded Painter's incredulous buddy. They both snorted at the outrage.

In Manassas Park, 30 miles or so outside Washington in Prince William County, just where a guy works on his car ought to be his own business. This is blue-collar country. Not a doctor or a lawyer or dentist in sight. An island of blue in a Northern Virginia sea of white collars. It was that way in the beginning when the first Manassas Park homes were sold to veterans in the mid-'50s, and it remains so today now that most of the 6,524 residents are transplanted rural Virginians and West Virginians who have come to Washington for work.

It is a community unlike any other in Northern Virginia. Its government is run from top to bottom by its working class residents. One-third of its high school faculty are vocational education teachers. Collectible comic books are the biggest seller at a local book store. And the local chain electronics outlet sells at least as much do-it-yourself equipment as any other chain member in the region.

On the surface at least, Manassas Park suffers from none of the unemployment woes confronting other blue-collar communities around the nation. Unemployment here is a scant 2.5 percent, the lowest in the Virginia suburbs, nearly half the regional average of 4 percent and well below Alexandria's 6.5 percent, Arlington's 5.2 percent and even wealthy Fairfax County's 3.6 percent.

But those figures can be deceiving, for Manassas Park's per capita annual income in 1978 was Northern Virginia's lowest at $6,539, below even the state average of $7,721. And almost half the city's households received food stamps last year, though many of them only briefly.

"People here are proud," said Nancy Osborne, director of the city's office of Social Services. "When they take food stamps, they really need them. And when they don't, they get right off. They work hard, live hard--and probably die hard."

People in Manassas Park are an anomaly in affluent suburban Virginia, but they take care of themselves, mind their own business and expect others to do the same.

"Manassas kids think guys from the Park are rednecks," said Manassas Park High School senior Thomas Baker. "Maybe. But we work hard. And I hear anybody say otherwise and then you'll see the redneck in me come out."

At Manassas Park High, assistant principal Tim Donley bounds down the cinderblock hallway toward the gym where the wrestling team is practicing.

"Have you seen our banners?" he asked eagerly.

The banners are championship banners. In the last four years, the wrestling team of the class "A" school, with a student population of just under 500, has won two state championships and a district and regional championship. It's a remarkable record--and for more reasons than one.

In 1975 Manassas Park, which up to then had been part of Prince William County, decided to become a city and assume control over its affairs. The decision was made partly because Manassas Park's blue-collar residents believed the county was ignoring their interests and partly out of pride because the city of Manassas next door had just rejected a merger proposal.

Initially, the new city planned to continue sending its students to Prince William schools until it had built its own school system. But in June 1976, negotiations with the county over matters stemming from the severing of fiscal relations broke down. Three months before the fall school term, Manassas Park found itself having to build, staff and organize an entire school system.

It succeeded. And what emerged is a school system tailored to the people of Manassas Park. "You got to look at the nature of the community," explained acting school superintendent David Marsh. "It's blue collar." Less than 10 percent of his students go to college, Marsh said.

Instead of emphasizing academic programs, the high school was organized to teach students trade skills. "Close to 70 percent of each class takes some vocational courses," said Sidney Fawcette, assistant superintendent for instruction. "Every kid we've got hits introductory Industrial Arts." Just under a third of the 33-member high school faculty are vocational education teachers, Fawcette said.

Clarence Izzard's auto body repair class, for instance, has 48 students--about 10 percent of the entire student body. He had to turn away another 40 because he didn't have room. Auto repair teacher Mark Robinson has 60 students. The cosmetology class is always filled. Indeed, Manassas Park High does such a good job teaching these courses that neighboring Manassas sends 51 students there in an exchange program of sorts.

Fawcette has even lowered the age at which high school students may take certain auto repair courses. "They have holding power," he said. "The kids like to take them and it keeps some who might drop out a little longer in school."

That kind of special attention to their children's education is one reason Anna Faith Martin and her husband, Theodore, have lived in the Park since it first formed a town government 25 years ago.

"This is a good place," said Mrs. Martin, whose husband is a retired Lorton guard who now works as a handyman at the high school. "We thought about moving on once, but . . . here our kids get an education they wouldn't get if we were still in the county."

Newcomers such as Harold Griffin and his wife, Clara, residents for four months, like Manassas Park for different reasons. "Everybody in Manassas Park knows that everybody in Manassas Park is just a plain old working man. And they like it that way," said Griffin, a retired Baltimore plant worker.

If you don't believe it, just wait until about 4 p.m. every day when the heart and soul of Manassas Park shows itself. That's when the dusty, pickup trucks and vans and mid-'60s gas guzzlers start turning off Centreville Road onto Manassas Drive. Down past the rows of tiny cookie-cutter bungalows they cruise, carrying weary carpenters, roofers, construction workers and GS-4s and -5s home.

"I like these people," said Jerry Davis, the town's treasurer and acting city manager. "They're totally honest." Davis is the first hometown boy to serve as city manager. He's also a college graduate. Both are important in a town weary of "outsiders" holding the city manager's job for a year or so before moving up the career ladder to another job.

Even though Davis drives a brand new Datsun ZX sports car, hardly a common sight on the streets of the Park, and though he dresses in college-style tweeds, he says he shares the same hopes and dreams for his city as do his fellow Park residents.

As he drove through the city's 1.8 square miles, talk turned to attempts during the early 1960s to rename the city so that it would no longer be confused with Manassas, adjacent to it. The top vote getter in a special town election was Stonehaven. But for some reason, now lost in Manassas Park history, the name never stuck. In any event, Davis said he can't remember ever hearing about it.

But as he tooled toward the high school, past several hundred rolling acres of prime city industrial land, Davis suddenly fell silent.

"Stonehaven, eh?" he mused. "I kinda like it."