by Kurt Matter
As I write this, it’s been over fifty years since my brother Mark was killed in Viet Nam. The flag from his casket sits on a shelf in my living room. When he died, we as a family mourned our loss and celebrated our memories, but I was additionally heartbroken that I had sold his car.
In 1969 Mark, bought a royal blue 1959 TR3 from a used car dealership in Portland, Oregon. What he really wanted was an early MGTD, but it was a nice-looking British sports car, so he was happy. He drove it home and, being a smart mechanic, soon had it running smooth. I shared his excitement and helped wherever I could.
We had some good times motoring around in a sports car in the spring and summer of 1969. I remember Mark proudly giving rides to all his nine(!) siblings. Then he got the letter. His draft number was #19. Mark’s options were limited, and he decided to enlist in the army before he got drafted. He hoped to complete his service as quick as possible, marry his girlfriend, and move on with life. He offered to sell his car to me.
So, in the late winter of 1970, I took out a 90-day loan for $400 and bought the TR3.
I was off at college at the University of Washington. I had fallen in love with my future wife, Joanie. We were 18-year-old freshmen and having the TR3 to drive around campus and, on one occasion, all the way out to the ocean, was a special time for us.
I was not then, or now, the mechanic Mark was. I needed a lot of help to keep the TR3 going. There was a sports car shop in Everett run by two brothers, as I recall. They helped me keep the TR3 going. I wish I could remember their actual name because they saved me and the TR3 many times. But in the early summer of 1970 the car loan plus interest came due. I did not have the money, so I sold the car to the brothers at the shop for $400. Unbeknownst to me, the brothers fixed the TR3, painted it a butt ugly yellow, and sold it.
Mark’s death and the angst of his fiancée pushed Joanie and I to decide that life was too short to put off doing things that make you happy. So, against the better judgment of most people, but with the okay from Joanie’s mom, Priscilla, I asked Joanie to marry me, and we started planning a wedding for the next spring.
As a habit fueled by sadness, I would read the newspaper’s car ads wishing we could afford to buy another TR3. One day I saw one listed with an asking price of $400. I convinced Joanie we should drive by the address. There was no car in the street or driveway, and no one answered the door, so we started to leave. But I decided to check the alley on our way out. Sure enough, there was a yellow TR3 sitting on blocks and smelling of leaking gas. Even though it was painted yellow, I knew immediately it was my brother’s car. I had to have it back. With some help I got it running and drove it to my parents’ house. I set up a plastic-sheet-enclosed paint booth in their garage/laundry room and did the job myself. It was important for it to be blue again.
As our May wedding was approaching, the only hang up was that Joanie’s mom wanted everything perfect for her daughter’s wedding, and to her this meant a chauffeured limo drive from the church to the reception. This was non-negotiable for me. We let her know we appreciated the offer, but the Triumph would usher us into the next stage of life.
We left on our honeymoon at Cannon Beach, Oregon, in a well decorated TR3. I think we only had to change plugs once on the trip. I would swap them out, and Joanie would clean one set as we drove along.
For the next two years we owned several VW Buses and Bugs in addition to the TR3. We used the TR3 for some trips and local errands, but less often and closer to home.
To this day it still surprises people to see me get out of or into the little TR3. At 6’7″ and 240 pounds it does not seem like I should fit. Truth be told, early on I moved the driver’s seat as far back as it can go, which required cutting out a part of the seat back to fit it along the dog house.
In the fall of 1972, I completed my days of college football at UW. And that winter I was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams. In March, Joanie and I were off to southern California to prepare for the upcoming professional season. We left the TR3 with my folks, enabling my dad to discover that he really enjoyed driving Mark’s car to work in Tacoma. But dad was less of a mechanic than me and the TR3 sat a lot. In August we headed back home in the Northwest again. I did not make the team.
The next year we had a rental house in north Seattle with a garage, and I was given another chance to try out for the Rams. I tinkered with the TR3 but could not get it running well enough to drive to LA. So once again I asked the brothers at the sports car shop for help. For some reason they took pity on me, and sold me an engine they had taken out of a wrecked TR3 for $75. I took it home, pulled the tired one out, stuffed the used one in, and left for LA in the morning. I made it to training camp. But once again, I did not make the team. I like to say I wasn’t good enough to beat out Merlin Olsen.
However, it was nice to have an open-top sports car to drive around in warm Southern California. We replaced the gas tank some time that summer. And then the starter went out. But that was not an issue because the motor had a hand crank. The crank was inserted through the radiator grill and into the engine. One good turn and the motor was running. Then the clutch went out. This meant I would crank to get it started, in neutral. Then Joanie would push until I could slam it in first gear, then she would jump in, and we were good until the next gas/food/beer stop. The upper gears shifted easily at the right speeds without a clutch. We drove all the way home to Washington with no clutch. The only tricky part was toll booths. We would coast on through and toss the money at the basket or the attendant. Additionally, we had all the regular fun of sitting on the side of the road with our greasy manual trying to get the plugs to spark, or tracking down other assorted coughs and sputters.
We drove the TR3 to Kettle Falls, in the fall of 1975, to a small orchard we had bought with my older brother, George. I was done with football, and we were going to be orchardists. The TR3 sat lonely and forgotten on blocks in the snow of winter and heat of summer, slowly rusting into the landscape.
Every now and then I would try to get the car running. Usually, I would hook a chain between whatever other car we had and the TR3 bumper. Joanie would drive the car and pull me out the driveway until we were pointed downhill or had enough speed to try to start it. She hated doing that and the car was not happy either. Finally, when the bumper ripped off, we quit.
Our daughters were born, and the orchard was full-time work. I built a workshop so finally the TR3 was saved from being out in the weather. I pleaded to work on the car and Joanie backed me up. So, when farming slowed in the winter, I put my attention on the Triumph. I had to find front fenders as mine had rusted away. It doesn’t take good vision to see the body work is done by me. It still shows how little I knew, but I enjoyed doing things for myself. Yes, there is bondo and fiberglass on the doors and fenders. One side floor pan that rusted away I repaired with a piece of steel that a friend gave me, “until I could afford a new one.” It’s still there!
Then I was at the mechanical part. I called around to see who could rebuild a TR3 motor in eastern Washington. No one I called said they could but told me to call Leonard Machine Shop in Spokane. Leonard said, yes, he could rebuild the engine, and called me ‘the guy with more money than brains.’ After months went by, he called and said the motor was ready. He was such a craftsman! He explained he was not happy with some of the original specs so he made new parts in the shop. I paid him and thanked him, and he said, “Good luck!” (Hadn’t I heard that before?) I still had to put it all back together with the help of friends.
Eventually the TR3 was painted, polished, and running well enough to take out on nice days. Everyone loves to see an old TR3 going down the road, top down, and with a happy couple enjoying the ride. MM