Li’l Red Rides Again

Back in 1970 I passed up a chance at an MGB GT, and I had wanted one ever since. In my most recent years of retirement I pressed my wife for permission to buy a driver, or to find a fixer-upper that I could work on. I am not without some hands-on experience—in 1963 I scrounged up a 1954 Triumph TR2, or I should say boxes and tin cans full of parts, and a ratty body with most of the engine out, and restored a fast little beauty, and eventually sold in for $350. My wife however, managed to hold me off, as wives often are known to do, but in the late summer of 2012 I ran across an eBay sale ad for a 1957 MGA roadster just a suburb away from our home in the Minneapolis area. This appealed to me for a variety of reasons, in addition to being close to home. I had graduated from high school in 1957, and anything turned out that year had to be magical, right? We drove over to look at it, and we were both sunk. Forty-some odd years of wanting the GT went right out the window when we saw the little red jobbie, and all hope was lost. I suspect that deep down inside I am a roadster person, and suddenly, so was my wife.

My first foray into British motoring.

My first foray into British motoring.

Someone had led the owner to believe his roadster was worth more than it was, so he had a high reserve that I knew he would never get. He was the second owner of the car, had owned it for 43 years, but had not treated her particularly well. The deal we made was that if he didn’t sell the car in his eBay auction, I would give him $500 more than his highest bid. On Labor Day 2012 we proudly drove her home, immediately christened her Li’l Red, and at age 74 I was stepping into the void of a major Brit car restore. Blimey!

She had been kept running well, but after a poor repaint in 1980 had been mostly languishing in his small garage with fewer than 1,000 miles of running per year. The speedo showed a little over 35,000, and the tires were dated 1981, but really, who knows? The only rust other than a fair amount of slight surface rust was the driver’s rocker panel. A new rocker panel had come with the deal (apparently the passenger side had already been replaced). Otherwise, the bones were good, as was the original wooden floor. It would have been hard for rust to start through all the accumulated grease and oil on the underside. The interior was trash, but the seller, intending at one point to restore the car, threw in a full Moss Motors carpet and leather seat kit. And so the fun began.

I originally intended to redo the inside and have the exterior straightened, where needed and painted, giving me a pretty little driver. I did not plan on tearing her apart—I was going to get under the fenders with my sand blaster, clean off the rust, and simply repaint. The driver’s door had ripples that spoke of kids taking their bicycles in and out of the garage over the years, so it now being winter, I took the door off as a representative sample and schlepped it to a body shop to get some idea as to what I was up against. The body man, well respected, set me straight, no pun intended. He said, in no uncertain terms, if I wanted a head-turning daily-driver, I had to take everything removable off the body and have the whole kit and kaboodle soda blasted, and then we’d talk. I know other LBJ owners will find this hard to believe, but the getting-carried-away syndrome was setting in, and while I couldn’t feel it yet, I was definitely being sucked in.

Step one was to get ahold of a Moss Motors catalog, which I did just in time to catch their big sale with a large percent discount and free shipping. Since I am a methodical and organized person one would think that I could put everything into one mass order and score big, but as all my subsequent orders attested to, this was not the case, but I did order enough brand new, shiny goodies to get a running start. I also found out that anyone selling used MG parts on eBay seems to think they are made of gold, but I found in selling off all the used, but serviceable stuff I was replacing, that reasonable prices added up to nice sales while the gold stuff languished. Pay attention to this, sellers!

Step two was to tear the little dude (or dudette) apart. Here I quickly found that an impact driver, a sawzall, and a good set of rethreading taps would be valuable tools to have. It might also be a good idea to have a nut cracker when you try to remove the bumpers as those nifty square carriages turn in the bumper hole too darn easily. Can anyone tell me why each fender bolt came out easily, except for the two most inaccessible ones in each fender? Or, how about all the door hinge screws quickly backing out except for one per hinge? Maybe I should conduct a tutorial on removing a broken tap from a door-post tapping plate, broken off too far in to slide the plate out of the slot put there for that purpose.

Turning the air around me blue with words I had learned from farmers near my childhood home, who taught me early on that everything works better when you talk to it (and they had words for every occasion). I also kept a roll of paper towels handy for soaking up blood, and before long I had a sizeable collection of large MG pieces scattered around my garage.

The interesting thing about almost all of these parts was that they were all painted red on one side, and covered by a thin layer of rust on the other side. Time to oil up the old sand blaster and buy a grinder. Now this is one dirty job, and soon everything in my garage had a dusty red patina, including me. And it was a long job, as it seemed the rust I removed during the day grew back at night. Eventually priming all the under-parts with metal-etching primer precluded anyone having to face this task in the future.

During the coldest weather I was able to re-do the seats, which, being some 55 years old, looked it. The new uninstalled leather seat covers that I had bought with the car were tan, but I wanted to do the car with black. I called Moss and asked if they could make any kind of exchange, even if I took considerably less than my tan covers had cost. Bless their little go-by-the-rules heart, they said no, because my covers, still current items, new in Moss boxes, had been bought too long ago. Okay, no big deal because by being reasonable on eBay I got a good price anyway. So Moss is forgiven, and all the other help they offered made up for their rules.

I visited my local foam store, bought what I needed for the cushions, organized my kitchen, and without shooting myself in the fingers with my power stapler, I ended up with gorgeous black with red piping seats. Wow! And the cockpit rails got themselves dressed up spiffy as well.

As spring began to approach, I was rushing to finish my share of the body work, and teaching myself how to do interesting things like installing split rivets in the rubber gaskets of my stone guards for the wheel wells, and grinding rust off the fender washers without grinding my fingers. I nearly made it, but I heal quickly. I also spent a lot of time polishing chrome, and got lucky here. The previous owner had painted the dash black (don’t ask) including all the gauge bezels and little thingys that hold the switches in place. Since the paint protected everything from years of aging, all I had to do was remove the paint to find perfect chrome. And, by the way, all the switches and gauges worked

Finally it was warm enough to cart her off to the soda blaster. I found a guy who had a shop about 20 miles away, gave me a good price, and threw in pick up and delivery. This is where I learned that no matter how far a surface was from any actual blasting, say the interior of the closed trunk, any earlier painting or priming had been a waste of time. This soda crap finds its miserable way into everything, and to this day I’m still vacuuming up the soda dust. The newly metallic looking car, with attendant pieces, was then delivered to the body shop. Judging from the smooth appearance of the insides of the fenders and body, I had assumed there would be no bondo except for a small fender bender on the right front. Wrong again. It seems that earlier in her life, Li’l Metallic (soon to be back to Red) had had some filling on a number of tiny dings and paint chips, all of which had to be refilled, but none were a big deal. And now, in spite of my trepidation in letting her out of my sight, the body shop went to work—the only part of the restore, along with the soda blasting, I didn’t do myself.

I had struck a deal with a body guy who asked me just what I was expecting. When I told him I wanted a head-turning daily-driver, he said, “Oh a two-footer.” I replied, “No, a two-incher.” As I had continued to be sucked deeper into a restore well beyond what I had originally considered, the thought was “why stop now, it’s only money,” and at this point, a three-week body job turned into a seven-week job, right before my eyes. Gotta love the body guys.

And so, one bright sunny August day, Li’l Red came home, or rather a tub on wheels and a garage full of pieces came home. They sure were pretty, though. At this point, no small amount of panic set in. I had disassembled this car some five months earlier, and now my tired old brain was expected to remember how to put it back together. I could feel the quicksand creeping up to my neck. But now, it was Moss Motors to the rescue. Thanks to the exploded diagrams in their catalog, I had a template for reassembly, so back together she went, and amazingly the parts fit, mostly, although I was obliged to come up with some words even my farmer friends didn’t know. I had taken the precaution of retapping the threads in all the welded and captive nuts, so the bolts went in a whole bunch easier than they had come out. I also chose to use stainless steel bolts in most applications so the next schmuck down the line who tries to rebuild her will have an easier time than I did.

1 2 3 4 5I also made a few minor, but sensible, modifications. Two come to mind: I felt that the turn signal indicator on the dash and the dash light switch were mixed up. Since I seldom drive at night I don’t often use the dash lights, but I do turn a lot, so I switched them. I now have the turn signal indicator right in front of my eyes where it should be. I also figured a way to toot the horn with the button in the center of the steering wheel, so I put a little clock in the horn button hole in the dash. And finally, I followed the usual recommendation to switch the fuel gauge and the temp/oil gauge.

I now had one major hurdle that was one of the most vexing of all.  As I had taken things apart, including removing the dash, I had carefully labeled all the wires with notes written on masking tape. By now nearly all of those little pieces of tape had disappeared, and most of the few that remained were illegible. Fortunately, as a retired contractor, I understood electricity and had all the necessary testing equipment, so I went at it. Touching two wires together to see if they spark also works, but it’s a good idea to have lots of spare fuses. Yeah, I know that a wiring diagram showing colored wires might work, but while my wires were in good shape, they seemed to have lost their color and were all your basic black.

I was now just about ready to roll, but sweet Li’l Red had one more curve to throw at me. After I closed the bonnet (hood, for most of us), I couldn’t get it to reopen, and the necessary parts to get at to fix this were behind the grill. Do you know how to remove the grill from the outside? I do, and after a week or so the scratches and bruises on my forearms were almost gone.

On a sunny September day I found I could also install a convertible top. The car had come with a tan top, and of course, I wanted black. The job went smoothly, and since I had some surgery scheduled for late September, I managed to salvage a whole, wonderful week of the summer driving season. But oh, what a wonderful little jewel I have waiting for me when May rolls around.

What about the engine, you ask? Dirty as it is, it starts like a dream, holds a minimum of 45 pounds oil pressure, stays at around 160 degrees per its thermostat, and holds 120 to 140 pounds compression. Sounds fine to me. The tranny also shifts smoothly, or as smoothly as it ever did. The next summer project is to figure out a way to degrease the underside, and to beautify the engine compartment. Remember, it’s an MG, the work will never be done.

By Fred Leverentz

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