My first time driving was in my older brother’s first car, a red 1964 TR4. We had just finished a repair. My brother realized that somehow I understood mechanics better than he did. He saw that I wasn’t assisting him, but the other way round. I hadn’t caught on yet. I was 14 and he loved driving that TR4. Teaching me to drive was an easy decision for him. And so my driving began, as well as my addiction to working on Triumphs.
My brother owned more cars than I have owned suits. He changed cars like the weather. He owned four or five TR4s, depending on your definition of ‘car’. When I was 16, he owned a 1976 blue TR6 with red pin striping. That was my favorite and probably why I have owned a TR6 for the past decade. A TR6 attracts more attention now than when it was new and people often stop and talk about their ownership experiences. I have never personalized my vehicles. I have never defined their gender, or named them. I never wanted to own an ‘older’ car but that was about to change.
When Tim, a former Texas Triumph Register member living in Bay St Louis, Mississippi reached out for anyone to take his TR3 Katrina flood victim and restore it, I felt called. I knew the car had marinated under 20 feet of salt water and silt. I knew I’d have to touch and revive every centimeter. I did not, however, know much of anything about TR3s.
When I hauled a trailer to pick up the TR3 in 2006, I had never in fact driven one. And
when I accepted this challenge, There were seven years of dedicated work ahead of me before I would have my first drive.
The day the TR3 became mine it was British Racing Green with a red interior. I found the car
had been painted more than once, and more than one other color. I decided the car would be grey. Grey connotes age, and I wanted to celebrate that aspect. Or so I thought.
In the upcoming years while I worked on the frame, chassis and engine, everyone tried to dissuade my color choice. One
night my wife and I were looking at original Triumph colors and came across Primrose Yellow. She did not call it by its factory name and insisted it was “butter.” While I proceeded with body work, we looked for cars on the road that were a similar shade of yellow. It’s not bright. It is soft, but not dull. It took time to accept, but eventually I was won over. Finding the paint codes for a 50-year old color was not an easy task. I found someone with access to outdated, printed documentation and received the codes. The “y63-orchid yellow” was mixed and I remember the paint guy holding the stir stick above the can and casually commenting: “butter.” It was to become the name of my TR3.
I finished the body work after what seemed like an eternity. Butter had taken shape and she was no longer a separate body and chassis, but was becoming a car. After seven years of pushing parts in and out of the garage, she was assembled enough to be driven.
My wife, Prudence, grabbed the camera, as I backed down the driveway. It is funny how long the driveway can become. Butter made it all the way to the street, and then I drove all the way to the end of the street. I pressed forward through the intersection, and circled the cul-de-sac. Then I drove right past my own house and all the way to the other end of the street. As I circled around in another cul-de-sac, my heart raced as I watched the engine temperature hold at normal. As I shifted into second, I was mesmerized by the sounds, hearing noises I had only imagined. All the gauges were indicating completely different normal situations. As I pulled back into the safety of the garage, a small bead of sweat dripped off my brow. It was as nerve-racking as any virgin drive, even though everything went well.
The low sloping door lines along with the protruding headlights make the car delightful to look at. My TR6 never got this much attention, from me or anyone else. This car was designed to enjoy the driving experience, regardless of any safety implications. The doors are cut so low I can rest my hand flat on the road without leaning from the driver’s seat. I have to slouch down while driving for my elbow to rest on the padded door top. Had Ralph Nader driven a TR3 10 years before driving a Corvair, he might have cried out “unsafe at rest!” The car weighs just over a ton, produces about 100hp and the top of the windshield stands at 46″ with a wheelbase of 7’4″. It is a tiny car. The cockpit is so narrow it pays to choose your passenger wisely—you’re gonna get close! The TR3 came from the factory with disc brakes on the front and the expectation it could attain speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour—the first car with an under 2-liter engine to do so. In many ways it was ahead of its time.
All the way to Austin
A few weeks later, I was still imagining noises that were not there. I had a few hundred miles on Butter, and a few ‘issues’ had been resolved without requiring a tow truck. My confidence was gaining, but not quite there. We needed a decent run, of a decent distance, and so we set out for Austin.
Austin, Texas is about 200 miles from my home in Spring. My wife had to work there for a few days, and we have friends that can always use some help around the house. She left a little earlier in her car, while I had breakfast with the club guys and waited for traffic to die down. It was in the low 70s, sunny and perfect top-down weather. About an hour into the drive, and I found myself cruising along at 70mph. I glanced in the tiny rear view mirror, and saw myself smiling. I looked relaxed. A few miles later, and I knew I was relaxed. All the work was worth it. How could something this simple be so enjoyable? The ride back was even better—even though I noted several more issues to be resolved before I would consider a real “first drive.”
A trip back home
With 800 miles on her odometer, I re-aligned the front end, re-balanced the wheels, re-bled the brakes, re-packed the front wheel bearings, changed the oil, re-torqued the head, re-adjusted the valves, greased the front end, checked the diff fluid, installed a heater, double checked the voltage regulator settings, and made some side curtains. My Father was turning 90 and I wanted to be with him on his birthday. This would be Butter’s “first drive” across country to Pennsylvania in late October.
Prudence and I loaded Butter with as much as we could fit for an extended trip. Our first day was scheduled to be 12 and a half hours of driving, from Houston to Tennessee. A cold front was working its way south at about the same rate as we made our way north. We pulled into her brother’s driveway at about 1:00 am with temperatures in the 40s. The next day we drove another 10 and half hours to our hotel. Driving across Ohio and into West Virginia, I could see dark clouds above the mountains. Temperatures were dropping, and it was raining lightly. Eventually, I saw snow in the rain and started thinking about black ice, slush, and generally bad driving conditions ahead. I looked at Prudence in the passenger seat. She was wearing her heavy coat and gloves with a blanket on her lap. The heater was all the way up, so her feet were warm. Her noise cancelling head phones were holding her hat in place. Her scarf was wrapped around her face, with only her eyes exposed so she could play ‘Words With Friends’ on her phone. I bumped her and pointed at the snow. She peered through the misty rain until she saw the flurries and exclaimed, “How exciting!” At that moment, I knew she had the better attitude, and I needed to adopt it.
Our hotel in Pennsylvania is on the down side of a steep hill. Butter developed a habit of stalling when it got off a freeway, and continued the trend anytime the temperature was below 60. After I climbed the hill to the hotel and started the down side, the stalling trend continued. Without hesitation, I coasted down the hill, drifted into the lot, and glided into the first vacant parking spot. I turned off the lights, set the brake and switched off the ignition as if the car were still running. I looked at Prudence, and in unison we threw our hands in the air and exclaimed, “We made it.” It was 3:30 in the morning.
The next day we had a slight incident in the parking lot which eventually led me to understand that one of the float valves was sticking. We were able to spend most of my father’s 90th birthday with him. We visited with family for a few days, and then headed to Washington D.C. for a day with our daughter. Preparing to head home, Prudence suggested we stop in Bay St Louis so we could show Butter to the previous owner.
Stopping in Bay St Louis
The last time I was in Bay St Louis was one year after Katrina had done so much damage. The destruction and rebuilding was evident everywhere. I pulled in front of the house from where I towed away the flooded TR3—only now the house is a bed-and-breakfast. The caretaker was the only person around and he didn’t have a phone number or address for the person we were seeking. But he knew enough that with the help of Google, we found an address and headed across town. It was after 9pm and dark out, but eventually Tim answered the door. He was a little hesitant so I stepped back a little and said, “I’m Jerry and you gave me your TR3 a few years ago.” He looked a little confused, and pondered a few seconds before his face lit up. “Yes, I was wondering when you were going to bring it back to me. Wait a second, I will be right out!”
With the help of a flashlight, Tim looked over my car. His car. He told me he enjoyed the yearly pictorial updates I sent. He loved the Moss Motoring article I sent. He loved the color his TR3 had become. He loved the idea that the car had been saved. We looked under the hood and discussed the project in general. We discussed other club members. Tim stood at the edge of the driveway and watched as I started his car, and drove away in my car. He watched just as he had watched it being towed away on a trailer seven years ago.
Prudence and I drove 3,500 miles in 8 days across 10 states in a car older than us. Every single part of the 1959 TR3 had been disassembled, renewed and reinstalled. Every part had been tested in many ways, but this trip was a comprehensive test of it all. When I show up in a modern car (like a TR6), I have ‘arrived’, but when I show up in a TR3, I have once again ‘cheated death’ by embracing life. Nothing drives like a TR3.
We always remember our first drive.
By Jerry Gruss
To read the prequel to this story go to www.mossmotoring.com/bucket-list