Alma Vela let out a sigh when she saw an electric blue vintage car sitting in the Falls Church High School garage.
“I wish this was my car,” said the senior, a student in the school’s automotive technology program, turning to teacher Mike Blondin. “I guess there’s no chance I could buy it?”
Blondin shook his head with a laugh. This reaction was exactly what he hoped the Shelby Cobra would bring to his students: a reinvigorated excitement for his program.
The 1965 Shelby Cobra kit car was given to the county by an anonymous donor. That means the car came to the owner in parts and had to be assembled, according to Blondin. Still, with its twin white stripes running down the middle and chrome accents, the car maintains its vintage appeal.
The Cobra is worth $45,000, according to Chad Maclin, the manager of the county school system’s trade and industrial education programs, including the 13 automotive technology programs at high schools around the county.
While vehicle donations are not a rarity, seldom do schools receive one of this caliber. So the Cobra has been making the rounds of county schools since its donation in October, arriving at Falls Church this week.
On Tuesday, four students in Blondin’s highest-level class began working through a rigorous inspection of the car.
Other students in the class worked on cars in other parts of the large garage, among them a rusty Durango, a beat-up Jeep and an old Volvo. None quite held the cache of the Cobra, which pulled most students over for a brief chance to observe and admire.
“Looking at this car, it helps them get excited again about working with cars,” Blondin said. “Everyone can tell that this has a different look than a modern car, but for my students, it’s the inside as well that offers a whole new experience.”
Blondin has worked as the automotive technology teacher at Falls Church for 14 years. But this is not his only experience with the Fairfax County automotive technology program — he took classes himself as a student at South Lakes High School, which he graduated from in 1985.
The county’s trade programs started more than 40 years ago, but in the 1990s they started to decline, according to Maclin. However, in recent years they’ve seen a healthy rebound, and now every automotive technology program in the county operates at near-full capacity. At Falls Church, Blondin’s classes all started the year with waiting lists.
Not only does the program provide a useful career skill, according to Maclin, it also provides a chance for students to put their learning from core subjects into a real-world context.
“Automotive technology is really a practical physics lab, a hands-on mathematics classroom,” Maclin said. “It really gives students the chance to see concepts working directly.”
As Vela checked the tires, she noted that this hands-on experience directly led her to her desired career path.
“Since middle school, I know I loved math, so I kind of got the idea for engineering,” Vela said. “But in this class I fell in love with cars. Seeing how everything works together, I knew that this was what I wanted.”
Vela has been accepted into the mechanical engineering program at Virginia Tech starting next fall and hopes to find a career designing cars.
To feed the voracious appetite of automotive technology students for cars, the county is perpetually looking for donations.
“We haven’t turned down a car yet,” Maclin said. “They all have some sort of teaching that can be done with them.”
All donated cars are put through an extensive checklist to determine their road-worthiness. Most cars end up as teaching tools, but about 25 percent are brought back up to full working order by students. Once these cars are in tip-top shape, they are auctioned off by the county through Public Surplus, an auction website that sells equipment from government organizations.
About 70 percent of the sale price goes toward the cost of parts needed for repairs, according to Maclin. The rest goes toward the program’s license and certifications, scholarships for automotive technology students pursuing further education, and a general fund for competitions, field trips and other academic expenses.
While the Cobra came in perfect working order, though, the school system does not plan on giving this one up any time soon.