by Scott Macdonald
If one turns the clock back to the city and school of Berkeley in 1969, it was a very tumultuous and crazy year with the Vietnam War and People’s Park.
My brother Clyde and I were both glad to be wrapping up our terms at the University of California, and were itching to escape.
Clyde was short on wheels. Three years prior he went off to Hawaii for VISTA (Domestic Peace Corps) and told me to take care of his ’57 Chevrolet two-door, named Fred. Well sometimes things happen, and it retrospect, maybe that was not Clyde’s best idea. I needed the money, didn’t have a place to park it, and so I sold it.
But we had options. I purchased my 1960 MGA 1600 in the summer of 1966 for $1000 that I saved up after high school as a go-fer at an automotive repair shop. The other alternative was another MGA, a 1957 1500, which I had rescued from the junkyard. Clyde had been driving the 1500. He kept telling me it was a Piece of Dung. (Just as a clarification, much later I found out why it had so little power. The centrifugal advance
So we loaded up the 1600!
That in itself is a major accomplishment. The trunk, which did include a spare tire and tools (always), will haul little else. A shoe box, maybe. We had a luggage rack, and the MG had quite a lot of space behind the seats, even with the top down (always). I have to believe we traveled quite light.
We started off from Berkeley, drove through Walnut Creek, passing by Mt Diablo and onto Highway 4 to Stockton. At Copperopolis, we turned right and up the Big Oak Flat Road, over the 6000 ft. pass, and down into Yosemite Valley. By then we noticed the right rear tire was grabbing, locking up with light braking. A quick removal of the wheel and the brake drum indicated a leaking differential oil seal and oil saturated brake shoes. Once that was cleaned up (never thought to check the differential’s oil level), we parked and set off on a hike: Upper Yosemite Falls.
On that trip I learned there are two ways to get to the falls. One is a goat climb uphill on a three-foot wide trail for about three hours up and an hour coming down. We thought we would be back for lunch. The other way is the way we went. We started about a quarter mile to the east of the Lower Falls, and followed a trail we thought would eventually connect with the goat trail. Nope. We realized our mistake when the only way to continue up the “trail” was to use the ropes someone had so graciously left behind. We were on the wrong side of the falls!
You might think the smart thing to do would be to go back down and take the goat trail. No, no, no! Macdonalds never, ever say they are wrong and admit defeat. Carry on and complete the mission, trooper. We barely had any food. I injured my hand and had to rip my undershirt to wrap it up. When we got to the top, all we could see were peaks and valleys. Go west young men and you shall reach the Promised Land, in this case, Yosemite River as it goes over the edge.
Well, not taking the goat trail took us a little longer. We started at 8am, and got back at dusk at 9pm. Tired, sore, hungry, thirsty, etc.
The next morning we drove back up out of the valley to the top of the world and Tuolumne Meadows. There the MGA had one of its best moments. At 10,000 ft. elevation, cars are down on power and their carburetors can be miss-adjusted. The MGA was purring right along and once passed a Porsche 911 that was struggling at the high altitude!
Across the Sierra Nevadas to Lee Vining at SR395, and a big right
SR395 is a great road, with the towering Sierra Nevadas to the west and flat plains to the east.
On the way to Death Valley, we stopped for the night at a county park. While I was setting up camp, I got hit on my head with something. Of course I blamed my older brother for antagonizing me. He said he didn’t. I’d heard that before. But then it happened again.
So I stepped away and observed. Turns out an angry, nesting owl was living in the tree above us and the No Trespassing sign was up. We moved our campsite and all was well.
We pulled into Death Valley. Not too much to see in the summer, nice mountains and cactus, but too late in the season for wildflowers. There’s no escaping the sun and I got light headed while driving. We put the top up for the first time on the trip.
So back out to SR395 and heading south. Middle of nowhere. Without a working temperature gauge, I noticed the car was overheating. How could I tell? The oil pressure was starting to read low. We stopped at a pullout, rummaged through the garbage can and collected old milk cartons. Filled them from a nearby stream, and stored them in the passenger seat foot well. Drive four or five miles, stop, refill the radiator to replenish the leaking water pump, and repeat.
In Bakersfield we found an auto parts store and asked for a water pump for a 1960 MGA. The clerk asked, “Do you want the kit or the rebuilt?” We were surprised that they had more than just parts for Fords and Chevys. I looked at Clyde and figured we would splurge on the rebuilt. We installed it in the parking lot, and enjoyed an uneventful drive back to Berkeley.
I have always, or almost always, had a sports car in the garage. Did it always run? No. The passion started with one MGA, then a Bugeye Sprite with dreams of turning it into a SCCA race car, then another MGA for parts—but then I got that second MGA running. Later, I was caretaker of an Austin-Healey 3000 MkIII for a friend who went to work in Saudi Arabia, but it burned up in my garage. That was followed by an Alfa Spider, then a Porsche Targa, then a yellow supercharged Miata, and then another Bugeye Sprite in parts.
After I fully restored the Sprite, I decided to stretch myself and learn how to do body work and paint, something I had never done. So I bought a TR6 on eBay. I will never do that again. This thing had sat in a swamp rusting away until the PO covered it in body putty, painted it and sold it to me. So I bought another TR6, and took body work classes at the local junior college.
I finished the TR6, taking about 18 months to complete. And then a year and a half ago, a friend had a TR4A that had a bad motor, but was otherwise a show car. So I bought it, rebuilt the engine, and am now driving it. As you can plainly see, British oil runs through my veins. MM