A year and a half ago, Julie Moore of Fremont, Calif., sent her beat-up 1962 Plymouth Valiant to this tiny Virginia town 60 miles west of Washington.
Then, the mechanics of White Post Restorations unscrewed every nut and bolt, pulled off each dented fender and pitted swag of chrome, and removed every single mechanical component, from shock absorber to piston, windshield wiper to window winder.
And then, after replacing or refurbishing every last part, they put it back together again.
The gleaming blue-and-white Valiant will soon be reunited with its owner, looking as good as it did when it left the Plymouth factory about 40 years ago.
"She wouldn't trade it for the biggest Rolls-Royce in the world," said Billy Thompson, owner of White Post Restoration.
"Not a chance," Moore said by phone from California. "I love that car." But if she were somehow to acquire the biggest Rolls-Royce in the world, White Post could make it showroom fresh, too . What Thompson's father started in 1940 as an auto repair shop for his rural neighbors is now a renowned restoration facility, drawing customers from around the world.
There are about two dozen cars at White Post at any time in various stages of restoration, a process that typically takes one to two years. The current crop ranges from a 1928 Model A Ford to a 1974 BMW 2002.
The clean and spacious workshops where White Post's 20 employees toil look like rooms in an antique store, albeit one that rings with the braaap of air guns and the scree-tick, scree-tick, scree-tick of socket wrenches.
Painted glass orbs that once topped old-fashioned gasoline pumps sit on shelves. Gumball machines and fortune-telling drugstore scales flank doors. Walls are adorned with old license plates and metal signs advertising spark plugs.
The carcasses of classic Buicks, Fords, Jaguars and Triumphs sit here and there. Dozens of small paper bags rest on shelves near each car, as if a group of second-graders had stashed their lunches during a field trip. Thompson, 64, reaches for a bag. Written on it in black marker is a cryptic "13.6R." According to a group classification system Thompson invented, that means it holds sheet metal screws from the car's right fender.
"If you don't number and bag them, you'll spend hours looking for them," Thompson said.
Like the Clarke County town's other claim to fame -- the French-style inn and restaurant L'Auberge Provencal -- White Post is not for the faint of wallet. Customers must leave a deposit of $20,000 before the first wrench is turned. "We work up to that and then bill them $75 an hour for everything that we do," said Thompson. "That way, we're allowed to do good work." The final cost depends on the extreme to which the mechanics must go to resurrect the car.
Thompson said customers have included Elizabeth Taylor (a '32 Ford restored as a gift for then-husband Sen. John W. Warner) and the Emir of Bahrain (a '51 Lincoln Cosmopolitan he bought on eBay).
But not all of White Post's clients are so well-heeled. James Roebuck's 1948 Mercury town sedan will be finished this summer, six years after it arrived at White Post.
"They did it as I could afford it," said the Census Bureau statistician from Woodbridge. "I'd save up some money and say, 'Start in on it.' . . . To do it right, and to do it well, is an extremely expensive proposition."
Roebuck, 46, estimates that he will have spent more than $100,000 at White Post. The restored car -- a gorgeous metallic green, pontoon-fendered, four-door sedan dubbed "Bartholomew" -- is probably worth about $15,000, he said. He bought it in 1996 for $3,500.
For his money, Roebuck has bought a phenomenal level of detail. An in-house archive guides restorers in the proper application of things like "inspector marks," tiny dabs of paint applied to nuts and cotter pins in the factory as the cars moved along the assembly line. Because the world's rarest cars have handmade bodies, restorers painstakingly re-create any asymmetrical irregularities.
Repairing cars that span the automotive technology timeline requires tools not found at the corner gas station. Metalworker Thaeton Ogle, 28, has mastered two machines that would look familiar to the men who built the cars he is helping restore. One is a Pettingell hammer, used for stretching and shrinking sheet metal. Thompson bought the eight-foot-tall contraption from an Auburn Automobile Company worker who carted it home after the factory closed in 1937.
The other is called an English wheel, two curved cast-iron arms that meet in a pair of thick metal disks that roll against one another. It puts curves into sheet metal, reproducing the sensuous body lines of cars like the 1963 Mercedes-Benz 190SL that sits, chassis-less, in Ogle's shop.
Rust is the relentless enemy of old cars. It's Ogle's job to snip away decaying steel and fabricate replacements. To collectors of vintage automobiles, there are few things worse than Bondo, the putty that shade-tree mechanics use to fill holes in a rusty car. Framed on one wall of his shop is a collage Ogle created, a still life of the ugly if ingenuous things he has pulled from car bodies: cardboard and Bondo; chicken wire and Bondo; a soda can, flattened out, riveted in -- then slathered with Bondo. Ogle said he's sanded down car bodies only to have an unused disposable diaper and rubber flip-flops tumble out. "We don't do that here."
The opportunity to work with interesting cars is what attracted White Post's workers. Like Ogle, John Viviani, 31, learned his trade at McPherson College, a school in Kansas that offers degrees in automotive restoration.
"I didn't want to be a mechanic and work at a Ford dealership repairing Tauruses all day," Viviani said. Instead, he is consumed with rebuilding the 400-horsepower Chrysler Hemi engine from a Cunningham, a limited-production race car built in 1952 by wealthy driver Briggs Cunningham.
Thompson said that his shop's customers have gotten younger over the years, with as many 30- to 50-year-olds as 50- to 70-year-olds using his services.
Billy's son, W.R., said the cars are getting younger, too. "We used to do old classics, from the '20s and '30s," said W.R. Thompson. "Now, most are from the '50s, '60s and even into the '70s. I know I'm getting older when we're doing cars I can remember."
Each car is driven for 100 miles before it is returned to the owner with a one-year guarantee. As W.R. Thompson shifts Julie Moore's Plymouth Valiant into park after a 15-minute shakedown spin on White Post's country roads, he announces his verdict: "I think we'll send this baby home."