JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. - The idea was to finish work on the car so it could be driven out of the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Auto Skills Center to his next duty station. That was the plan, anyway, that National Guard Soldier Staff Sgt. Jose Gonzalez had in mind when he began restoring a 1975 Toyota Celica after purchasing the non-functioning coupe last November.

Alas, the day before Independence Day, a truck arrived to tow the inert vehicle to Gonzalez's family home in Massachusetts while he heads back to Florida with his Florida National Guard unit. It was always the contingency plan. Gonzales had finally run out the clock.

Gonzalez had always wanted a vintage Celica, and had nearly given up looking for that particular model when he happened upon one for sale on craigslist. He bought the car for $2,800, even though the Blue Book value listed it at half that price. "When it was brand new, it sold for $4,000," he said. "I've probably already put another $2,800 into it with parts."

In addition to replacing parts to get the car running again, Gonzalez has been customizing the vehicle to deter would-be thieves who specialize in nabbing vintage cars. The steering wheel is removable, the stereo is ensconced in the Celica's glove compartment and a switch under front seat padding disconnects the ignition.

"Nothing's foolproof, of course. It's about slowing thieves down," Gonzalez said. "If they see it, they'll go for it."

Gonzalez has painted the original tan leather-upholstered seats black and is resetting the engine block because the vehicle has a non-standard engine that didn't come with the American version of the Japanese car.

Once he gets the car running again, he said he'll probably disassemble it so he can repaint it. It's a time-consuming process, he admits, "but a labor of love."

Gonzalez grew up the son of a mechanic in Massachusetts and said he's always been mechanically-inclined. Still, he said he's gotten a lot of good advice from other auto enthusiasts in the shop, citing mechanic and shop steward Milton Hawthorne as being particularly helpful.

"Milton is the master mechanic," Gonzalez said. "I haven't asked him a question yet he can't answer."