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article number 113
article date 03-20-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Tom Payne’s Restored 1930’s, Philo Illinois Auto Shop
by Stu Moment

Many of us fulfill a passion in our life. Growing up, Tom Payne loved cars. It was the 1960’s and American V8 powered cars gave power and a sound that fed our dreams. When looking for a shop to preserve and restore old cars, Tom not only fulfilled this passion but preserved local, Philo Illinois history as well. In addition, the shop he restored was in his own childhood memories.

After the restoration was finished, Tom began posting hundreds of photos and descriptions of the project on a forum. At the time of this writing you can find the forum with a web search “restored 1930’s auto shop”. The forum is on garagejournal.com. When this article was written there were 231 pages of postings to his forum.

Shop History

In the 1930’s, just south of Philo (now in Philo), Virgil Johnson ran a blacksmith/welding shop. In the way that most of us referred to our elders at the time, Tom referred to Virgil Johnson as Mr. Johnson during the entire interview … so we will refer to him that way.

Mr. Johnsons blacksmith anvil. Tom hit it with the sledge hammer so I could hear the quality sustained ringing.

In its early years of “Johnson’s Welding and Repair”, local farmers relied on Mr. Johnson for inexpensive repairs and solutions. He’d repair or fabricate replacement parts for their equipment cheaply. He kept many farmers going when they couldn’t afford repairs (or new parts) at a dealer. The Johnson family would often mention that he never charged enough for his work. Still, the family got by.

One of Mr. Johnson’s sons was gifted in car repairs. Focus of shop slowly shifted from welding and repair to automotive repair. In the late 1950’s, 1960’s and early 1970’s it was primarily an auto repair shop. One of Tom’s friends was another son of Mr. Johnson. As a kid, Tom would ride down to the shop and do what kids do, having fun … scrounging around. As an adult, these memories would come back in focus.

Tom and one of Mr. Johnson’s sons made this “go cart” from parts found in and around the shop. It has an English Ford 4 cylinder engine and running gear. They managed to get it up to 75 mph and drove it all around the area country roads and in winter across the frozen fields. It was the late 1960’s and they didn’t have their driver’s licenses yet.

After Mr. Johnson passed away, the shop was used less and less and eventually became abandoned. Over time the shop became derelict. Eventually Mr. Johnson’s wife and son’s decided to sell the shop and the whole 5 acre grounds, including a house, to their old acquaintance, Tom. It was the fall of 2005.

Shop as it appeared before restoration.

Tom wasted no time in beginning restoration. Even before the deal closed he and his wife began to clean up the grounds.

By winter 2005, serious work started. He, his son and Bill Jones worked constantly. Tom saw too many projects start then fade, and was resolved to get the restoration complete before he moved any cars or other projects into the facility.

It was a little rough that first year ... no heat. Within about a year they had the inside mostly done. Tom mentioned that a shop is more simple than a home (Yeah, right, except they had to excavate to repair the lift). By the end of two years the grounds were cleaned up … scrap metal taken away … 58 tons of steel and 282 tires … Also loads of brush and timber.

During restoration Tom would focus and the shop’s ‘Rotary Lift’ lift , Rotary being the manufacture’s name. Rotary Lift, originally in Memphis Tennessee, started manufacturing hydraulic lifts in 1925. Rotary Lift still exists and is now in Madison, Indiana. Tom in conjunction with the Rotary Lift people, determined that his lift was made in late 1928. The Rotary Lift people also think that Tom’s lift may be the oldest still in operation.

In December 2007 the restoration was done and his 1966 Chevy II moved in.

Tour the Restoration

Lets look at some of the photos taken during restoration.

December 2005 … Restoration begins.
Inside were treasures … though a bit dirty and disorganized.
More treasures.
Rotary Lift hydraulic jack was excavated and repaired.
Rotary Lift hydraulic jack was reinstalled.
New front of shop.
Restoration is done so Tom’s 1966 Chevy II moves in.
Not all junk was cleaned up. This is art! Tom says that this gives new meaning to “3 on the tree”.

Tour the Shop

Let’s tour the shop.

On the outside front of the shop, this tire inflator greets visitors.
Mr. Johnson’s original welder.
Original vice which was on his welding bench. Hammers, drifts and a heavy duty c-clamp adorn the bench.
Tom shows us a picture of Mr. Johnson’s 1949 Jeep Pickup. Tom bought and restored a1948 Jeep Pickup, now painted as the original.
This sign was outside on the original building. The sign is restored. Tom says, “This is still Mr. Johnson’s shop. I’m just the caretaker of it.”
Old sign and bulk oil dispensing bottles reside on a modern tool box. While the shop restoration honors the original spirit of the shop, so does a modern continuation of its purpose.
Of course some equipment serves only old cars. This Sun 600 Distributor Tester is functional. Tube circuits were updated to modern electronics. It was made in 1958.
Sun Performance Analyzer.
These bulk oil tanks are in the same spot as where they were when the shop operated. Tom pulls up a dipstick from the tank. The shop owner can tell when he is getting low on a certain weight of oil. Oil jar sits securely on a lipped pad.
More signs for restoration.
Original steel table is cleaned up and preserved. It obviously gets much use today.
Band saw and 30 ton hydraulic press.
This metal lathe was Tom’s Dad’s. It is not the original one from the shop but it’s identical to it.
Diner seats and table give a place to sit and socialize. This is the outside wall of first generation of the shop. The 1930’s original shop was 24 x 24 feet. This addition was put on in 1958. Tom tricks us by having the window made out of a mirror rather than glass … threw me for a loop. Glad I’m not a bird in any case.
Late 1930’s, early 1940’s 4 ton Walker Roll-A-Car hydraulic floor jacks. Tom restored one of them. The other still has its original paint.
Tom is a 1960’s GM V-8 guy but obviously this Rambler caught his affection anyway. He says it’s capable of 25 miles per gallon … 3 on the tree, let up in top gear and it automatically goes into overdrive.
This picture of an engine stand built by Mr. Johnson does not do it justice. Behind the plate is a swivel mount which uses old engine push-rods for needs bearings. Mr. Johnson was a “use what’s around” innovator.
The Rotary Lift control, designed in 1928, is basically a electric motor driving a hydraulic pump. The back half is a fluid reservoir. Tom demonstrated its operation.
Of course the shop has its late 1950’s bottled pop machine. It’s rigged so it doesn’t take any money. Tom found a distributor of bottled pop in nearby Homer Illinois.
Some of us remember the driveway bell from the days of full service stations. When you drove across an air line the bell rang. Tom describes its operation: Driving across the line compresses the air in the line … which moves a diaphragm … which closes electrical points … which energizes a transformer … which rings the bell.


Combining a passion with restoring local memories takes skill. Tom Payne developed his love of cars when he was young.

This go kart was identical to Tom’s first one made out at Johnson’s welding. It was found at the shop.
Side view of go cart. Mr. Johnson used a jig to make dozens of these carts. Tom would love to find an old original one if any readers in the area know where one might be located.
Tom is an aircraft mechanic, a Boeing 767 pilot … and a drag racer. He races his 1966 Chevy II in Pure Stock/Factory Stock muscle car drag racing. It has its stock L79 small block 327 Chevy engine.

Thanks Tom for sharing your story with us. You’re devotion will inspire many of us to search for an ideal combination of utility and history preservation.

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