PALO ALTO, Calif. - Ronald Leung thought he would never see his beloved 1956 Ford Thunderbird again after it was stolen from his auto-repair shop in downtown Palo Alto in 1976. But the 59-year-old car aficionado will soon be reunited with the classic car he treasured as a young man after police called Thursday and told him the T-bird had been found in Southern California.

"I was very shocked," said Leung, a retired sheriff's deputy who runs a car-rental business in Milpitas. "After 31 years, I thought that car was long-gone history, like the Roman Empire."

The California Highway Patrol recovered the collectible — still in excellent condition — after a Ventura County woman tried to register it after buying the car on eBay from an Ohio seller. She contacted the CHP because the vehicle identification number listed on the car's title didn't exist in the California Department of Motor Vehicles registry.

CHP Officer Christopher Throgmorton located the true VIN and ran it through a CHP database that identified it as a stolen car from Palo Alto. Leung plans to fly to Southern California to pick it up next week.

"It's in really good condition," Throgmorton said. "It looks like somebody had it refurbished. It's been restored."

Since the Thunderbird disappeared, Leung fathered two kids and retired from a two-decade career in law enforcement. He had bought the collectible in 1974 for about $1,500 and carefully restored it.

"I belong to a car club, and every time I look at a Thunderbird, I go, 'Oh, I had one of those!'" he said. "I have one son who's 30 and a daughter who's 26. It's unbelievable, that car is older in theft than they are in age.";_ylt=Av3l8OD9ZeGeFWmjMROiU4 ssQE4F