Iowan Gary Martin holds a steel gear in his hand and strokes it almost lovingly. ''It's for the 1907 Jewel,'' he says. ''We're restoring it for our sophomore project.''
The gear is part of the Jewel's inoperative transmission and has been machined from a piece of steel. The rest of the car has been stripped down to bare bones and is being rebuilt piece by piece. It's the oldest car yet attempted in McPherson College's eight-year-old degree program in auto restoration technology, the only such program in the nation.
The program began when G. H. (Smoky) Billue, a McPherson, Kan., businessman, bought an old-car collection in nearby Hesston. Mr. Billue wanted to do something for the school, and he asked the administration to come up with an idea. The college suggested automobile restoration. Mr. Billue agreed, and in 1975 a curriculum was set up in the industrial education department.
Since then the goal has been teaching the reconstruction of about three cars a year: a Model T Ford during an intensive 25-day ''interterm'' between the fall and spring semesters, a Model T or Model A Ford during the freshman year, and a more complex automobile, such as a Rolls-Royce or Pierce Arrow, to be done by advanced students.
''We begin with the old Fords,'' says auto-restoration instructor T. James Willems, ''because they're easy to find and relatively simple.'' In the two years required for an associate degree, freshmen completely disassemble, clean, and reassemble a car, down to the last screw and bolt.
The more complex car that sophomores must restore calls for research and often the fabrication of parts. Usually there are only a few reproduction parts available for one-of-a-kind antiques and classic cars, and sometimes there are none at all, so students have to learn to make them from scratch. That's why they spend so much time learning how to use woodworking tools, metal lathes, auto-machine-shop equipment, and auto body and trim tools. The students also study small-business management, accounting, English composition, and automobile history.
Most of the teaching is done in the auto shops, where the students spend 25 hours a week from 8:30 in the morning till 5 in the afternoon. Also, they punch in and out on a time clock as they leave and return from other classes.
The two-year course calls for 63 to 64 credit hours and costs about $5,800 a year. Dr. John Pannabecker, head of the department, urges some students to complete another two years of college for a four-year degree, and many do.
Marc Belec of Middletown, Ohio, is one of them. His goal is a business of his own. ''I read about the school in Old Cars Weekly,'' Marc says, ''and I enrolled in the fall of 1981. Now I'm a junior in the business school. As soon as I complete that, I'll go to law school and then open a restoration shop in Ohio or California.''
Rory Nansel of Waverly, Neb., is another. ''I decided to go into the four-year program after I talked with my accounting professor,'' he says. ''If it turns out that restoration isn't my niche, I can use what I learned in the business program.''
Of those who continue, about half get a bachelor of science degree in business, while the others go into industrial education. The school does not claim to turn out skilled craftsmen.
''Our purpose,'' says mechanics instructor Dennis Stichter, ''is to furnish the restoration shops with somebody who knows something about restoration. When a guy leaves here he is ready to work directly with the professional as an apprentice.''
As Kevin O'Malley of Wahoo, Neb., puts it: ''It's the kind of work I enjoy. I think that if I do it well, I'll be able to do as much of it as I want to.''