Inside a cluttered garage, a group of carefully coiffed women stepped cautiously around boxes of electrical wire and tools and gently touched the pale-yellow sports car parked in the middle of the room.
The car, a 1952 Corsair convertible MG-TD, is the pride of 33 women, ranging in age from 30 to 86 years old, who spent the past four months assembling the roadster in the garage of George Mason University President George W. Johnson's stately home off Popes Head Road.
Everything from the vintage car's starter, battery and steering column to the miniature hand-cut windshield wipers was crimped, connected, plugged in and tuned up by members of the George Mason University Arts Gala Committee, a group formed to raise money for the school's arts programs.
"See the rear-view mirrors on the front fenders? That's really very sporty," beamed Joanne Johnson, committee chairman and wife of GMU's president. "The windshield wipers were very difficult to cut . . . . You just can't get them that little."
At first, Johnson's idea to build a car was met with only mild enthusiasm by the other committee members. Last year, the women's group sewed a 10- by 12-foot quilt that sold for $30,000 at their annual arts benefit auction.
"When Joanne told us what we were going to do to raise money this year, I just about died," said arts group member Sue Rust.
But Johnson, who as a youngster tinkered with model cars and planes, had no second thoughts about the idea: "My attitude is we're all intelligent and highly educated people . . . . We can read directions and figure things out," she said.
So after some research in the do-it-yourself car market, Johnson's group bought its Corsair kit from Automotive Reflections in Williamsburg last June for $7,000.
She said by the time they finished buying extra parts for the car, including authentic wire wheels, tools, electrical equipment and other accessories, the price tag jumped to $13,000. The kit arrived with the car's body and chassis already attached to each other, an unwired motor installed in the rear and the headlights and signal lights in place.
It took four months to wire and complete the car, Johnson said, with an average of six women working at a time, three nights a week, from 7 to 10 p.m.
Bill Hall, a service manager at Ted Britt Ford, served as the group's technical adviser. He said he lectured the women on the intricacies of the vintage car and slowly coaxed them, circuit by circuit, into the role of auto mechanic.
Hall said it would have taken three or four days for a professional auto mechanic to assemble the car.
"The first thing I had the women do is install the charging system in the vehicle: the alternator, the voltage regulator, the battery and the starter," Hall said. "They made terminal ends and attached and installed the wires where necessary. It took about a two-week period to get the vehicle wired-up and started."
Rust said she enjoyed learning how to handle a drill and other tools.
"I went home and made a headboard for our bed," Rust said.
Rust said the women tackled each segment of the assembly with great attention to detail. "[The car] is so F. Scott Fitzgerald-ish. We were very gentle with it . . . it's like our baby."
Nina Swan, who took the car for its first road test last week, spent most of her work nights underneath the car's chassis wiring the high and low beams and the backup lights.
"At first it was kind of claustrophobic, but later we raised the front of the car so it wasn't sitting right on my chest," Swan said. "It was kind of frustrating at times . . . . You'd have to keep feeling around and feeling around for a certain plug and sometimes it would take 20 to 45 minutes to get to a certain point. But the reward was finding the right place."
Johnson said the group was "tickled" when the car started the first time. "People just didn't expect this of us. You should have seen the fellas when they came to the great unveiling," she said. "They were astonished."
Those on the committee not involved in the mechanics of the project kept busy needlepointing pine green floormats, a cover for the car's open rear compartment and a trunk lining.
Other customized features the women added to the car include a leather and needlework map case, a handcrafted keyholder and first aid and road safety kits. Johnson also wrote and illustrated the car's instruction manual.
The car will be raffled off at the committee's invitation-only reception Saturday at GMU's Patriot Center.
What will the group build next year? "There's a rumor going around we're going to build a plane," Johnson joked. "That's not true, but it will be something quite spectacular."