By Dominic Ruffalo
When I was growing up, both of my grandpas instilled in me a love of classic cars. Outings with either of them often included attending local cruise nights and car shows. I learned from them at a young age to identify makes and models of vintage automobiles. I was hooked. One day I would have a classic of my own.
The past several years have been chaotic. I moved away from where I grew up and, just as I was getting settled with a new job and life, the pandemic hit. The experience of this uncertainty unnerved me as I’m sure it did others. I missed activities that I took for granted, car shows in particular.
I am hesitant to admit it, but I did not start out as a British car enthusiast. I often walked by them at car shows thinking they seemed small, almost unsafe, even comical at times. How wrong I was. My friend Doug set me straight and introducing them to me. He conveniently lived down the street from where I grew up and has an extensive collection of English cars.
I wanted a unique car, ideally a stick shift convertible, and black. Definitely black. While casually searching for cars on Facebook Marketplace one night I came upon a car that I had never seen or heard of before. For sale: 1962 Triumph TR4. I was immediately taken with its presence and design. To top it off it was a black convertible! I needed to see the car in person as soon as possible.
I played hooky from work the next day and arranged to meet the seller outside of Dayton, Ohio, several hours from where I live. When I got to the gentleman’s home the car was sitting outside. It looked better in person! The car had been mechanically restored by Macy’s Garage with a rebuilt motor, transmission, brakes and new trunk and floor pans. We took the car out for a spin, and I was absolutely hooked! From the sound of the wet liner four, to the interior, gauge cluster, and banjo steering wheel—I had to buy it!
We made a deal and I arranged for the car to be trucked back to my home. Still in a state of euphoria from the purchase, I invited my buddy Sam to join me on its very first spin out in the countryside—the old Lincoln Highway to be precise. I wanted to open it up! Somewhere between Indiana and Ohio I was on cloud nine, driving down the highway too fast, almost as if I was finally managing to outrun the pandemic.
I slowed down a bit as we entered the decaying remnants of a small town. The sound of the motor misfiring brought me back down to earth. I pulled over and opened the bonnet. Nothing seemed out of ordinary until I turned the key and only heard the whine of the starter without the motor firing. Maybe it was a fluke. I preceded to crank on the key again. Nothing. Shoot. The euphoric buzz was rapidly wearing off. I tried again hoping not to be stranded on the wrong side of nowhere in rural Ohio. One more time… It fired up! The car was running poorly at best, belching black smoke from the exhaust like a locomotive, with me cursing behind the wheel hoping I could get back home. Every time I reached a stop sign the car wanted to die. Luckily, I was in the middle of nowhere, so with a watchful eye towards any oncoming traffic, I proceeded to blow half a dozen stop signs on the way home.
I got a few blocks from home and was unfortunately foiled by the turning of a stale green light. The car promptly died in the intersection. Oncoming drivers drove slowly around us stopping to turn, point and look. A nice FedEx driver helped Sam and I push the car out of the intersection. As if on cue a squad car pulled up alongside us.
At this point Sam is laughing at the whole situation, and I am mad at myself thinking that I bought a lemon! To top it off, here I am, probably about to get a citation for blowing half a dozen stop signs in my mad dash to get this heep out of Ohio. The window lowers and I am greeted by the friendly voice of a policewoman, “Nice car! Are you guys okay?”
The officer seemed to find humor and interest in the situation, staying with us longer than what’s required. I will admit that the brief thought crossed my mind of trying to ask her out when this ordeal was over. This was fleeting of course upon seeing a wedding band. I turned my attention back to my poor dead Triumph and trying to get through to anyone from AAA to tow the car the few blocks back home. While waiting on the phone I thought I would try the key just one more time.
By some absolute fluke she started! I asked the policewoman if she could escort the car back home since I would be unable to stop without the engine dying again. She agreed, turned on her lights, and off we went!
I didn’t want to look at the car once I got it home and in my garage. My curiosity eventually got the better of me. I opened the gas cap and was greeted with the smell of ether. Was my problem as simple as rotten gas? I siphoned out several gallons of straw-colored gas and sediment. Then I blew out the car’s fuel lines, cleaned its fuel pump, and partially disassembled and cleaned the jets and bowls of the dual SU carburetors. Satisfied with my progress, I tried again to reawaken the sleeping four-cylinder engine… Nothing. On to spark! I pulled one of the engines plugs, grounded it to the block, cranked over the engine and looked for spark… Nada. I turned my attention to the distributor. Removing the cap, I found a short and a burned-up condenser. Eureka! The previous owner gifted me a box of spare parts and conveniently a new set of points were inside along with a Lucas gapping tool. If this didn’t work, I was at a loss. I installed the points, crossed my fingers, and turned the key hoping that third time’s a charm… The motor awakened! I took it around the block, bought a can of seafoam, and filled the tank with it and ethanol-free boat gas hoping I could dilute the residual material left in the gas tank.
I thought that it would be wise after my adventure to get the car checked out thoroughly by my mechanic. After rebuilding and tuning the SUs, tackling a minor electric issue, and replacing its engine and transmission mounts, the car was given a clean bill of health. Just in the nick of time before the car show season ended.
All in all, I have no regrets buying my TR4. While I am still a newbie convert to the British automobile world, I’m enjoying the experience of owning one. There is nothing like cruising country roads with the top down after a long day of work. I hope to own my TR4 for many years to come.