Jeffrey Calero bought the rusty old Pontiac GTO convertible in 2005 with $13,000, intending to restore it to muscle-bound glory between deployments with the 1st Battalion 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne) of the National Guard.
He'd spent hours as a boy in Queens Village building models of cars like it. He'd learned basic repairs watching his dad work on the family car. He'd talked of designing cars in Detroit, an interest that led to a degree in mechanical engineering and a job at Manhattan architectural firm. He'd found fellowship in the Long Island GTO Club, largely composed of skilled amateurs who met to trade tips about maintenance and rebuilds and show off the results.
Calero, however, never finished the rebuild. He was 34 when he was killed on patrol in Afghanistan in 2007, a captain with numerous awards and decorations, who was posthumously promoted to major.
"He never quite got it the way he wanted it," said Calero's dad, Raymond, in a recent interview at the family home. "He never got a chance to do it."
But now, in the sprawling Deer Park garage of a car refurbishing company called Paul's Rods and Restos, a crew of professionals has nearly completed the job Jeffrey Calero started, with plans to show off the finished vehicle in a show Sept. 15.
"We've been messing with this car for five years," said shop owner Paul DiMauro, who learned of Calero's story at a GTO Club event in 2008 and decided he would do the rebuild for free. "We weren't going to rush to appease anybody."
DiMauro's crew has replaced or refurbished every piece of metal on the car, fitting in what would normally be $100,000 to $110,000 worth of work around their paying jobs. GTO Club members have raised money for parts; some suppliers have donated them or offered steep discounts.
DiMauro, 49, thinks he knows what Calero intended for the car. "He was making it more about performance," DiMaruo said. "He wasn't staying stock. He'd updated with headers, dual exhaust, an updated ignition system and carburetor."
DiMauro's professional eye can see in those updates a picture of the man who made them. "He wasn't a really flashy guy. . . . He was a man trying to take what he had and try to make it work within his budget," DiMauro said. "He did the best he could to enhance what he had."
DiMauro hopes that when his crew is done with the car, it will not just commemorate a good man, but also "showcase what he represented for our country."
Raymond Calero, of course, would much rather have his son back. He has been living alone in the family's Queens house in recent years. Roselle Calero, Jeffrey's mother, died in 2009, and the family dog died a year later.
Jeffrey was the youngest of four, "the baby," Raymond Calero said. "I wish I could turn the clock back."
There are things the elder Calero, 71, said he wishes he could tell his son now. He wishes he hadn't worked so hard and had spent more time with his son. He wishes Jeffrey had taken his advice to leave the military.
"I'm proud of his efforts, but losing a child is incredible," said Raymond Calero, a former production supervisor for Domino Sugar. "It never rubs off."
He is sure that the car is something his son would have wanted.
"If he were alive, he would have loved it," Raymond Calero said.
The car will likely go to one of Jeffrey's sisters, Joyce Crespo, of Westbury. "To me, a car is just a means to get around," Raymond Calero said.