by Andy Corra
I was a child-of-the-sixties, middle-class suburban white kid. A study in a particular culture of the period, with a first generation, Second World War father, small New England town mom, two older brothers and a dachshund named “Frau.” I was reared in a stick-framed neighborhood, like the many rapidly filling former farmland around Richmond, Virginia, with a Catholic School upbringing, complete with Philip Morris field trips. I have vivid memories of perching on the passenger side door armrest of Mom’s 1964 Ford Falcon with its rocket thruster tail lights, candy cigarette in mouth. I could identify most any car in the side mirror from grill and headlights alone.
I especially liked the oddball cars of the day—VW Bugs and Ghias, Opel GTs and Datsun Zs. Muscle cars always turned my head. Basically, anything that growled and left rubber on the pavement was cool. But oh those British Sports Cars! The convertibles with curves, hood bumps, and a distinctive braaaap from the tailpipes. These hooked me into a life-long affinity for the garage engineering, inefficiency, excess and art represented in that pinnacle of car culture.
I bought my first car at fifteen. With brothers off to college, I had moved west with my divorced mom and was working at a Texaco down the street (where I’d lied about my age for the job). A white 1965 Buick Special, 231 V6 aluminum block, three-on-the-tree, came into the shop with a $300 for sale sign. I handed over a month’s worth of pay. I kept it at the gas station so Mom wouldn’t be wise to it, but by my second speeding ticket, she was squarely in the know! Fast as it was, something about the bench seat, the automatic transmission, the infantilization of “Mom’s Car,” pulled my eyes east, across the Atlantic, to those sexy British four-bangers. When my best friend’s older brother Dale got a TR3, followed by my friend Scott scoring a perfect looking red TR4, the hook was set. I began trolling the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News classifieds for a Brit of my own.
It was a damp fall evening, soon after the fall-back time change, with the first of winter in the air but not quite cold enough for snow, feel, when Dale, Scott and I pulled up to a Washington Park bungalow. Parked in front was a flat grey 1964 TR4 with a black race stripe. I fell in love! I thought the woman who opened the door was old (probably 45), but kinda hot. She was all business. “$500. Had the car since new. Have to travel into the mountains for work and it isn’t a good snow car.” (Maybe for an old lady, I smirked.) “Will you take $400?” I asked in my best impression of a hard bargainer. “Five-hundred.” “Can I take it for a drive?” “Nope, not insured. You can start it up and listen to it, though.” Maybe it was the way I held my jacket over the front of my pants—ala, “can’t come up to the blackboard to answer that question right now, Mrs Blakenship”—or perhaps simply the open mouth and glaze of eyes, but in hindsight, I now think that woman could smell the lust. She knew what that growl-purr of an engine would do to me.
I was an empty vessel of lessons not yet learned: don’t purchase a car on a wet, dark street where you can’t crawl around and give her a good once over; don’t hand over grease-stained cash without at least a drive around the block; never be a sixteen-year-old boy with $500 in your pocket, a Cougar assessing your manliness, and a TR4 with a racing stripe on the line. I went home with that car. Well, not actually my home, as it couldn’t make it quite that far. Dale and Scott’s house was closer. I limped my new love, with slipping clutch, strong gas smell mixed with a burning electric wire odor (never a good combo), and brakes needing much coaxing to catch, to an abrupt curb stop in front of their house. And there she sat for weeks and weeks. I doted and cajoled. Showered her with affection. Gave her my skinned knuckles and weekly paychecks from Texaco. She was indifferent. I just couldn’t get her to love me back. Couldn’t even drive to
The transmission went out and in three times before we diagnosed an oversized Jensen Healy clutch bearing causing the slip. Wires were chased and wrapped in fresh electrical tape. Carburetors were removed, cleaned, rebuilt. Wood and carpet were laid over gaping floor holes, and sheet metal screws affixed rusting rocker panels. The puzzle of brake springs and clips, and the patterns of pumping and bleeding, were learned with caustic fluid running into my armpits. And, just as my toolbox was beginning to fill with mix-matched sockets, vice-grips, and crescents, so too was the art and science of wrenching beginning to occupy that corner of the brain where such mechanical skills reside. Like riding a bike, the pinch of hex-nut held in the “V” of fingers of one hand, with the underhand reach and outward elbow twist of bolt in the other, are skills that endure even when long dormant.
While it was an awkward young love—the bumbling of naive hands, the fear of committing to a long journey—that sad, grey TR (given the name Trudy) was a fine and patient femme fatale. I made a lot of mistakes and wasted a lot of money. I got angry and stormed away more than once, only to return with a can of starter fluid in hand to make my apologies and beg her for a simple spin around the block. She resisted my amour mightily. Smug and sorry, parked in suburbia. But my patience and loving caresses with plier and WD-40 eventually paid off. She coughed to life with that Lauren Bacall, deep voiced growl, edged away from the curb, clutch catching surely, exhaling a cloud of Virginia Slim-like smoke from her lungs.
Nothing was more satisfying than me and Trudy sliding bias-plys around the fresh streets of the eastern edges of an expanding, booming, Denver of the late seventies. You never forget your first true love. She colors your perceptions and approach to life. Trudy, with her cracked, black racing stripe, forged a strut in my soul that still supports a swiveling head when similar old girls pass by today.
She went through several iterations. As our relationship grew, I began to see fault in her idiosyncrasies. She was a smoker. Even being raised in Virginia, land of tobacco prosperity, my new western home had me seeking a more healthy lifestyle. I endured several sudden smoke-filled cockpit episodes that left me stranded on roadsides with legs splayed out a door and torso wedged under the dashboard separating melted wires. More embarrassing was the blue cloud she left whenever we partook in spirited accelerations, which was most of the time. This led to the first of several amicable separations. I separated her powerplant and trusted it to my friend, Paul, who would rebuild that cast tractor heart as his senior shop project.
The $900 parts bill was staggering. I became accustomed to bumming rides or jogging from point A to B when under five or so miles. I’d guess those three years of full TR immersion meant I had a running vehicle about 40% of the time. I learned to live with permanently blackened fingertips and the derision of my girlfriend’s father—“you touch my daughter with those hands?”
I learned to work hard—pumping gas after school and throwing pizzas till late in the evenings—to fund my paramour. But nevermind, I was convinced that she was worth the investment. The thrill of doubling signed corner speeds up Clear Creek Canyon outweighed any other reciprocity concerns I might have had. I was willing to pay.
The fresh engine contrasted with the old girl’s sagging body, which led to my seeking a less rusty replacement. I found a really nice looking red ’65 that had been smacked in the front end, with welds and crinkles under the hood, but fine looking outside. Fine from twenty feet away, at least. I swapped all the mechanical bits from Trudy into this new redhead to create TrudyToo, so that she remained, at heart, Trudy. The final push of this transformation came in a Herculean 48-hour wrenching session, with about four hours sleep, in my friend Brendan’s garage. Brendan, Scott and I had a California road trip planned as a senior graduation gift to ourselves. This gave me five days to wrench, pack, and drive. With the stamina of youth, and lots of coffee (and perhaps more) I made it! The Cali tour did nothing if not seal my fate as a lifelong junkie of tight cars and twisty roads.
TrudyToo saw me through summer, fall, and winter following graduation, and my driving-to-wrenching ratio was rising as my gal’s reliability was inching up alongside my abilities as a mechanic.
On one of my runs between Scott’s and my house, I found a trove of British Classics behind an older home, off a dirt road, in a rural island that was being fast eroded by the growing suburbia of Denver. Heralds, TRs and Healeys decorated the field—some beyond fixing, some serviceable, one shiny Healey 3000 MkIII. A very straight and rust-free looking TR250 shell caught my eye. I passed this house several times that week before working up the moxie to knock on the door. Dan, the crusty looking, slightly tweaked, Vietnam Vet with a bad case of eczema opened the door and turned out to be next in my line of mentors. While Dan did little to quell my thirst for the party lifestyle, he taught me a deeper appreciation for old British cars, and the art of coaxing them back onto the road. My plan was to build a TR250, with the 4-Banger guts of my trusty Trudy, into a hybrid that would see me through the college years. They were my best laid plans.
I wrenched in that dusty field, filled with burrs and tumbleweed, under the hot August sun, winds, and thunderstorms, with, once again, a hard deadline to finish. My last project was to install an oil cooler on the rebuilt engine. It was well broken in and running great. The kit I received came complete with hoses, nuts, and studs. As I was putting the first bolt through the plate that bolted to the engine block, it got tough to turn with about an eighth of an inch proud. I had it in my head that the kit producers surely had the correct length bolts in the kit, plus, I was young, dumb and inpatient so I continued with force until… SNAP! I broke the bolt off in the block. I knew about easy-outs and figured Dan would be impressed when I solved this dilemma without taking his counsel. I jogged up to the nearby hardware store and returned with a small extraction kit and some rudimentary instructions from the guy at the counter. The long and short of it is: I broke off the easy-out in the screw, ended up taking the block to a machine shop where they were able to tap some threads at an angle in the block. But, as I learned later, they breached the outer block with a pinhole that blew oil whenever the car was running.
I forged ahead, staying on schedule, and loaded Trudy250 with all my worldly possessions. I would never live with that light of a load again. I fled the nest for college, life on my own, plunging into pseudo-adulthood.
My last drive in Trudy was that 175 miles from eastern Denver to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. I recall working to keep a Broncos football game tuned into my Kenwood stereo, and stopping for oil three times. By the time I pulled up in front my new dorm, the back of Trudy was coated slick. I parked her in a remote corner of the dirt parking lot, covered her with the parachute cloth car cover my girlfriend had made, and there she sat for a cold and lonely winter. Neglected, abandoned, scorned, as my life headed in another direction. One that had no time or money to attend to a prim British girl.
Once you’ve owned an old classic, learned to wrench on and limp them from repair to repair, they never truly leave your soul. Work, adventures, career, family all filled the next decades. Then I lucked into a Sunbeam Tiger in the mid-90s and got her on the road in 2015. And I just recently acquired a beautiful survivor of a TR4A, parked since 1986, rust free and original. The frame-off restoration I’ve started is light years different than wrenching in a dirt lot. I have more patience, a far better workspace, more money, and no deadlines on this restoration. And I’m every bit as enamored with this old girl as I was with Trudy.
What I’m finding in this later-in-life resto project are the same joys I discovered at 16; the same satisfaction of loosening that hard-to-reach nut; the same pride in thinking through and solving how the hell to put back together what I failed to take a picture of when taking apart; the same pleasure of thinking through the details and seeing the timeless art in these old British beauties. MM