The Writing on the Firewall

by Kyal Long

April 2017, I was almost a year into my “big boy job” and wanted to get into a pre-1970s car. I knew if I didn’t do it now, I never would. Life changes quickly and other priorities would take center stage. I was looking for a car I could tinker on and take fun drives on the weekends. A car I wouldn’t freak out over if someone dinged the door, but also something unique. Beginning my search, I learned a lot. The first being I actually didn’t know anything about classic cars. Turns out they cost big money. I had to adjust my search parameters. I probably wasn’t going to get that Chevy Nomad, or an Eleanor
Ford Mustang.

Small German cars seemed to fit better for my budget. I checked out Karmann Ghias and Bugs for months. Meeting up at sellers’ houses, in shopping center parking lots, and car shows. Something about them never clicked though. It felt like I was forcing myself when my goal should be to buy an older car that I would be obsessed with. That, and these cars were neglected. I didn’t mind fixing mechanical problems, but I didn’t want to deal with bodywork. The cold reality was setting in that I might have to wait a few more years after all, and owning a classic car at 26 was just too ambitious.

My search turned into a half a year mission. Everyday I hopped onto classic car selling websites. Nothing, nothing, nothing… But then something! Cruising around Craigslist I spied a cool two-door roadster. From the pictures the paint was decent, the body looked straight, and the car was in a garage, so I was hopeful for minimal rust. I hadn’t considered a convertible, really, and this was in my budget, so why not have a look?

After work, I went to check out a little British car. When I got there, it was still sitting in the garage the pictures were taken in—that’s a good sign. I ran a magnet around the car and it stayed with the body the whole time—another good sign. There were wood screws where the hood pins would go—okay, a weird sign. Anyway, I asked if the seller if he could remove his screws and open the hood. The engine bay looked neglected, but also not neglected. There was gunk all over the block, but I saw an alternator instead of a generator, and the coil looked fairly new. Strangely, there was writing all over the firewall. When trying to trouble shoot the car’s wiring issue, the owner wrote on the firewall instead of on a piece of paper. His weirdness picked up speed in the interior.

It had marine carpeting. And missing panels. But brand new upholstered seats. A sort of jack-of-all-trades vibe was going on in there. Of course the car had other issues to address: It was missing a grille, it had a cracked windshield, the gauges didn’t move, and really nothing electrical worked except the ignition.

Shopping and meeting up with sellers I learned each one had this in common: they all believed they had the best car on the market for the price advertised. This seller, too, thought he had a gold mine.

It was like pulling teeth talking him into a test drive. Whether I drove, or he did, it didn’t matter to me. My brand new Mustang wasn’t capable of towing anything more than bags of groceries, so I knew if I wanted the car, I was going to need to be able to drive it home.

Finally, he agreed to start it up and take it out on the street. I pushed my luck and asked if I could drive, and boy will I never regret that ask. Shifting through the gears, whining out the engine, turning through his suburban streets and having the car go right where I pointed it, and stopping 30 feet after I actually wanted to—I was hooked on this little 1962 Austin-Healey Sprite. Who knew what else was wrong with it mechanically, but I knew I could drive it home—probably not very safely, but that was all part of the adventure. I bought the Sprite that evening, with all that it came with.

After a few months of ownership, the gears complained more, bleeding the brakes didn’t improve my ability to stop, and the wiring diagram made less sense the more I studied it. So I took the Sprite to a professional. Meeting the shop’s owner, I shared what I envisioned for my Sprite: fix the transmission, address the brakes, and clean up the wiring. Anything else that might be wrong with the car, I wasn’t aware of, so we settled on a timeline and a price.

I’d check in to see the progress. I was anxious to get this car back on the road. I waited weeks, then months, then more than a year. Everything was pulled from the car except the rear end, but it wasn’t in the shop anymore. It was sitting outside with a worn tarp over it. There wasn’t any momentum. So I spoke with my girlfriend’s dad and we made a decision to rent a U-Haul and tow the Sprite to a storage unit close to where I lived. And he offered to help me out, too.

The storage unit was going to be the repair shop. We were going to finish this car together. We started that same day by attacking the wiring. That was a challenge on many levels. There was a lot of looking at the wires, then looking at the book trying to understand the patterns of where certain colors went, wondering if we even had a full harness. I don’t have the best vision and my girlfriend’s dad is colored blind, so it was the blind leading the blind.

After a couple exciting and frustrating months, we got the wiring for the car all dialed in, and during that time I became friends, not only with the wiring diagram, but also with my girlfriend’s father. Spending hours together it became apparent how eerily similar we both were. I was not only extremely appreciative of his willingness to dedicate his weekends to helping me, but it was also really enjoyable getting to know the guy.

After the wiring we began tightening up the suspension and working on the brakes. There weren’t any problems with the engine prior to dropping off the car, so we gambled and set it aside. We thought about rebuilding the transmission, but ended up finding a sweet deal from a fellow on the East coast. We rebuilt the SU carbs, replaced the nautical carpet, found a local windshield shop for new glass, and tackled all those other little items that always take twice the amount of time you think they will.

In the free hours between a busy life, a year and six months later, we started to see a car. And by this time my girlfriend and I moved into a tiny little house with a garage, so the Sprite had a dedicated space. No longer were we driving to a storage unit on the weekends and working half out of it. I rented an engine crane, we dropped in the transmission and engine, wrapped up a couple engine bay needs, and began trying to fire it up. We still didn’t know if anything might have happened to the engine between when I dropped of the car and now, but after a couple tinkers and adjusting the fuel line so the gas was actually going toward the engine, the Sprite fired right up and was running on all four cylinders. I have the videos of the first time starting it, driving it up and down the alleyway, and of us constantly switching seats so we both could drive.

I knew virtually nothing about wrenching, but now I have a solid foundation that was created out of the kindness of my now father-in-law. He took a frustrating experience and created one of the most memorable ones. Restoring my Sprite with him was the best thing I could have done. No amount of money could ever buy those experiences and for that, in a weird turn of events, I now have one of the best relationships with my father-in-law. Coming from a home where I never met my dad, I was finally able to experience a father/son project and relationship 28 years later. MM



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