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Thomas Payne's Automotive Shop - Thomas Payne And His Journey Into The Restoration Of Automotive Soul

Restoring A '30s Shop Resulted In More Than Just New Brick And Mortar.

By , Photography by Thomas Payne

Thomas Payne is the gearhead version of the Renaissance man. It was his goal to restore a '30s auto repair and welding shop that had long ago fallen into disrepair. The original owner, Virgil Johnson, ran the welding and repair shop for more than 50 years before his death. The children had moved away, althought Mrs. Johnson remained, and the five-acre property containing the shop, original family home, and multiple outbuildings was seriously overgrown. As a young man, Thomas had spent many long hours studying the old man's multilayered skills, motivating him to take on small mechanical projects, including a go-kart built in the Johnson shop. Years later, Thomas purchased the property and elected himself curator of this neglected museum, while allowing Mrs. Johnson to remain in her home before she passed away at 97 and after much of the work had been completed. Admittedly, Virgil was, as Thomas says, "organizationally challenged," the result of surviving the Depression era that drilled into that generation the belief that even the smallest scrap held value. Thomas' photos tell the physical story, and he was prescient enough to record the entire process from the weed-infested beginnings. Once the shop and grounds were rebuilt, he elected to share his accomplishments with the world on the Garage Journal.com website. That's where we stumbled across his forum post ("Restored 1930s Auto Shop" under the Garage Gallery heading), where a loyal following of garage-aholics has sustained the effort with 100-plus pages and more than half a million hits, attracting worldwide readers from more than 20 countries.

But this is far more than just a meandering thread documenting a cluttered shop that has undergone "an epic transformation." If that were all it was, the thread might have played out after a dozen pages. What is of far greater value is the undercurrent of a man's dedication to honoring and preserving the past combined with a Midwesterner's passion for sharing his good fortune with others. The sharing part might be simply small-town hospitality. Or perhaps this thread is just the digital summation of an undying faith in the tenet that hard work is its own reward. But all that still doesn't answer the question of what drives this full-time airline pilot to spend nearly every nonflying moment restoring some small part of his car guy Ponderosa. The payoff is how Thomas' adventure seems to motivate nearly everyone who falls into the trap of reading 100 pages of near perpetual motion.

We've attempted here to congeal a few of the most interesting portions of Thomas' archeological and restoration efforts into a cohesive story. But there are a couple of other gems you really should read on the website. If you don't come away from Thomas Payne's tribute to a '30s shop with the impetus to face-lift your own small workplace, consider hocking every tool you own in exchange for a renewed automotive soul. It will be worth it.

In the Beginning
Virgil originally built a two-car-garage shop near Philo, Illinois, sometime in the late '30s. Within a few years he added a Rotary center-post hydraulic lift alongside the original shop, which was later enclosed after the shop was lengthened. Virgil did a little of everything, including auto and radiator repair, welding, fabricating, go-karts, fixing auto radios, beekeeping, blacksmithing, and various other pursuits. After his death, and with no one maintaining the property, the cluttered five acres were soon overgrown. Thomas purchased the property in November 2005, complete with abandoned cars, tons of scrap metal, and a wilderness of jungle-like proportions.

Virgil
Somewhere in the middle of the shop thread, a reader made the following comment:

"Looking at the final product, I can picture the completion of a long day of work, tools scattered about, and a rugged figure of an older man with hands of leather pausing by the workbench to sip a Pepsi before heading into the house for dinner with his family. It's more than obvious to me that you built this place to share with that old man, should his spirit decide to drop in and look over your shoulder as you skin your knuckle on a part clamped in the vise, just as he had done so many times before."

Thomas then told the following story:

"You might have more insight into this than you realize . . . I'm just going to retell the facts as they occurred.

"The property consists of close to five acres, which I have cleaned up over the last few years. The backyard behind the family home was full of material and overgrown, as was the other acreage. I've yet to post those pictures, but I think everyone gets the idea of what it was like. I've been all over that yard by now, literary hundreds of times, clearing and cleaning. For the last couple of years, especially around the house, I've had it all cleaned up and looking very nice. I've got grass there now that has been mowed for the last two to three years. Last spring I was walking the property as I do several times a week to pick up mostly small tree branches in preparation for mowing. On my way back to the shop by way of the backyard I was about 30 feet from the back of the family house when I spotted what at first glance was a small piece on paper I had missed while doing my cleanup. As I got closer, this is what I found lying on top of the grass, face up and not down in the grass, but right on top of it. It was a name tag from one of Mr. Johnson's shirts."

The Cars
Something easily lost in the story about the shop's restoration is that this effort began so Thomas would have a place to work on his cars. You have to be a fully dedicated car guy to take on a project like this, so it's important to not skip over the cars. In addition to three 327-powered '64 SS Impalas (two of which are four-speeds) and a'62 SS, Thomas races an original '66 Chevy II L79, four-speed car as part of the Pure Stock Muscle Car Drag Races (PSMCDR) organization.

Thanks, Dad
The following Thomas-penned piece also appears in this thread.
"I've never really mentioned my own father, but now might be a good time. He, without a doubt, instilled in me an appreciation for 'old' and high quantity and when working to always do my best. Be it tools, machines, furniture, or houses. He was a great caretaker of anything old and taught me to respect whatever it may be. He was a perfectionist of the first rank. Although his day job was in academia, he was a true Renaissance man. A skilled cabinet maker, jeweler, leather craftier, metal worker, there was almost nothing he couldn't do and do it to a very, very high degree. That the shop turned out as well as it did is a tribute to him. He took great interest in the restoration project and followed it, even though by then he was in his later years. On occasion I would float an idea by him or ask his opinion about some aspect of it. He was able to walk through the shop one last time about 21/2 years into the restoration. The interior was all done by then. As I explained details and showed him around he nodded silently. Then, when we were all done, he turned to me and said 'You've really done it right. I want you to know how very proud I am of you.' There is no way that shop could exist as it does without his guidance and teaching throughout my life. He passed away about six months after that, age 89. I just feel I can't take all the credit here. Dad is the one who made me feel there is nothing I can't do and by his example, do it to the best of my ability."

Things I Learned from Thomas Payne's Garage Journal Thread
• The lost art of oil quenching surface treatment for old tools from ZRX61
• Where to find hours of 8mm beekeeping home movies
• The repair, care, and powdercoating of Rotary Lift hydraulic hoists
• I should open a powdercoating store next door to Thomas' shop
• A short history of the Diamond Calk Horseshoe Co. that built adjustable wrenches, eventually building tools for Snap-on
• All threads eventually lead back to a discussion about tools
• Always wear a respirator when working indoors around moldy cardboard and raccoon droppings to prevent nasty respiratory infections
• Wilton vises, tool-hoarding vices, and a recurring case of anvil envy
• Off-center electrical switch plates can cause extreme mental anguish in those who demand symmetry in their lives
• The definition of omphaloskeptic
• A flawed history of the monkey wrench
• There will be an "open thread" test given by Thomas' wife, Chris, covering the entire thread
• Don't leave even a faded, original repair sign out front of your shop unless you enjoy performing work for strangers at no charge
• Restoring old floor jacks offers some type of cathartic attraction to tool freaks
• The story behind the Al Jerrauld intake manifold
• Best of all, rediscovering the lost art of giving to total strangers, who then become friends and pay it forward to fellow gearheads

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