by Rob Corn
We all do things that make our lives more complicated. Life is difficult enough without expensive, time-consuming projects that raise the blood pressure—and yet, here I go again.
For the tenth time in my life, I bought another sports car from the country of England. I stepped into that long line of non-mechanically-minded idiots who feel as if they can restore a 50-year-old car armed with a shop manual and hours of YouTube videos. I truly believe that the experience is going to be one of sweet enjoyment (dare I say bliss?), shushing the little voice in the back of my head telling me I should know better.
The truth is, there is something intoxicating about the smell of oil and leather, and the occasional wire smoke that takes me back to an earlier time and place. For me, it started late one evening in 1969 when a friend drove up in his well used British Racing Green TR3 and offered me a ride. It was a life changing experience for a seventeen-year-old who had learned to drive in a Rambler station wagon.
Speeding down a small two-lane road with the top down, four gears to choose from, and the glorious feeling of flying; I knew I had found one of the loves of my life.
In the following 50 years, I owned, or was owned by, several MGB GTs, a TR3, a Bugeye Sprite, and a Jaguar XKE. There was the occasional dalliance when I would leave the land of my forefathers and try out a Volvo P1800, or some other more reliable sports car, but they never offered the sense of expectation of what might happen when you turned the key.
At the ripe age of 68, I heard the siren’s call again. Forgetting all that I know to be true, I believe this time will be different.
One of my dearest friends, and a lover of all cars made in Germany, always found my love of British cars amusing, and he was more than happy to help me find another product from Morris Garages. He not only found the car for me, he also spotted me the money so it wouldn’t get away. He even took it to his friend’s garage to have the car “gone-through.” And, as if that wasn’t enough, he trailered the car for six hours across the state of Tennessee to give me a fighting chance of getting it home.
We met at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Johnson City. Keys, hugs, and memories were exchanged. I had not seen Fred in several years even though we chat on the phone quite often. We had plenty to talk about, but I was standing there with the keys in my hand and all I could think about was putting them to good use.
This is the beauty of a life-long friendship. Fred knew there would be time to catch up later. He was not going to torture me.
I jumped in the driver’s seat only to feel that last remaining life escape from the foam and webbing of the fifty-year-old seat. I was unfazed and not discouraged because I now owned my first MGB roadster. For an old guy, I was giddy.
I turned the key and the car fired up instantly. The old Brit ran as smoothly as any car I had ever owned. I headed up the mountains into North Carolina on tires that were slinging chunks of dry rotted rubber, but I didn’t care. It was spectacular. This 1970 MGB, in British Racing Green, was running strong and cool even as I headed up the mountains towards home to start life with the last MG I would ever own.
Having bought the car sight unseen, this was my first real opportunity to take stock of my new toy; I was impressed. There was very little rust. Nothing more than just a pinhole here and there. The paint, while not perfect, was very serviceable and a good “ten footer” as they say.
The first afternoon was spent cleaning and knocking off at least fifteen years of dust, dirt, and grease that had accumulated. Somewhere in the neighborhood of the distributor, a mouse had met his demise many years before, and with little ceremony and rubber gloves, the carcass was removed.
The fact remained that while the car looked good, the tires, which had gifted me a safe trip up the mountain, could offer me nothing more than one last trip to the tire store. Since I had no spare tire, jack, or lug wrench, new rubber would be the first order of business.
The next morning, I woke up with the anticipation of traveling the ribbons of asphalt draped across the North Carolina mountains. Pointing the car northward towards the small town of Newland, the wind blew unimpeded through the same area that my ponytail had occupied fifty years ago.
The mountains played along with my fantasy and provided me with a beautiful day with marshmallow clouds and an azure sky. With the undoing of two clasps and a single graceful movement, the top came down exposing me to the sky. I was the master of my universe.
I pulled into the local tire shop around 9:30am to the expected adulation of the small crowd of on-lookers. I was acknowledged as the owner of something quite special as I walked into the office and announced I had arrived for my tire appointment—and for a brief moment in time, I was the big fish in a small pond.
A mere two hours later, I had four new tires and even a new spare. I am not sure that I have ever owned a brand-new spare tire, but this was a special day and a special car. I cranked it up and pointed the little MG southward.
[Note of Caution: If you are a new MG owner, you may not want to read what follows.]
There was coughing, sputtering, and a stubborn refusal to ignite gas from the carburetors. I ended up stalled in the middle of the intersection at the one traffic light in town. This was not the exposure I was looking for as the local police showed up. I sat there with a temporary tag, no proof of insurance or a copy of my registration. My moment in the spotlight was starting to burn. The trip home would be on the back of a AAA tow truck with substantially less fanfare than when I had arrived.
I spent the evening convincing myself that there were no major problems with the car. There must be some simple solution. I optimistically approached the car the next morning with a plan of working through the ignition system. In a scientific and systematic approach, I would identify, and then eliminate the problem. The 1798cc engine used by MG in 1970 was a pretty basic affair. Like all combustion engines, all it needed was gas, air, and spark. How hard could it be?
I would ensure the carburetors were getting gas, then see that the carburetors were “breathing” correctly, and finally make sure that the spark plugs fired when the distributor told them to. Easy right? Several hours later the only thing I knew for sure was that not everything in life is simple.
I have a friend in town with a beautiful TR250. We had traveled far enough down the road to friendship that I had no hesitation in calling him to pick his brain. Three days later, we had swapped out the coil three times and changed the wiring countless number of times (Mechanic’s Note: There are only three wires, so the possibilities are not endless), but he was convinced that the problem lay with the coil and the message it should be sending to the spark plugs. We had a moment of excitement as the engine started, only to die when we asked any more of it than just idling. So, we swapped the wires from one terminal to the next in a mind-numbing circle.
And then my luck changed for the worse. I woke up Saturday morning with a full-blown kidney stone attack. While the pain was excruciating, I can attest the kidney stones did not hurt as much as getting a shock into my hand from the coil.
I had surgery on Tuesday. Due to poor physiological planning on my body’s part, and a previous commitment, that same week we headed out to visit our son in Alabama and our daughter in Texas (a mere 32-hour trip). I had to pee every 15 minutes due to the surgery and a strategically placed stent, so the trip took twice as long as it should have. However, this did give me time to daydream about being behind the wheel of my dream car and conquering any curve the Blue Ridge Mountains could put in my way.
After ten days of time with family, and stopping at every gas station in the Southeastern United States, we returned to the reality that we had a piece of yard art that refused to move under its own power. On the plus side, there were boxes stacked on the front porch full of English car parts. Within these boxes lay the answer to the puzzle I had been working on for weeks now. I just didn’t know which box.
It was time to bring this British time machine back to life. I had countless hours over the last ten days to rethink my approach to the resurrection of lovely “Rita”—as Marcee, my wife, had now named the car—and give it the road-worthiness it deserves. MM
(To be continued…)