A tale of MGTC auction action by Ron Hollander
Ron is a proud member of the MG Car Club—Long Island Centre (NY). This story originally appeared in the club’s superb monthly magazine, Skidmarks.
You have to understand about my new TC: It is the car I always wanted. By “always” I’m talking an easy 52 years, maybe longer. Certainly back to college. And that means back to the red, 1953 TD I bought for $550 around 1962. About the same time an old girlfriend gave me a paperback copy of Don Stanford’s The Red Car with that great, color painting of the red number 4 TC, its windshield folded flat, churning dust past the finish line in front of the town market (yet what was that bumper without over-riders doing on the front of the car?).
Don’t misunderstand: The TD was great. I spent a good part of college polishing it needlessly in front of the girls’ dorms at Brandeis, driving it round and round campus of course with the top and windshield down while the school cops eyed me evilly. It was only nine years old, and it was my everyday car. I drove it from New York to Boston on I-95. From New York to Norfolk for my first reporting job, crossing the Chesapeake on the ferry before the Bay Bridge-Tunnel was opened. All over town as I covered fires and cops and the courts. I did have a heater installed, but its porous windscreens and thrumming top—to say nothing of its Spartan upholstery—did little to endear it to my dates. My very best drive was back to New York on the twisting Blue Ridge Parkway wearing a ski mask to keep my long hair out of my eyes, windshield down, passing lumbering Cadillacs and Buicks with impunity on the curves…just like the Red Car.
But it was no TC.
Oh, those 19-inch wire wheels. Those narrow, high-arched fenders. The long, rakish, cut-to-the-chase lines unconfined by any bumpers. When my TD arrived in my Rockville Centre driveway—a yellow-and-black, prancing Ferrari horse North American Racing Team decal on the left-hand driver’s side—my mother looked out the front door and said, “It’s just like those little cars you used to make.” She meant Revell’s plastic 1:32 Highway Pioneers series including a yellow Stutz Bearcat, my favorite. (The best part about building them was heating the ends of the axles with a cigarette lighter after the wheels were on and flattening the axles to make a hub cap.) But it was really the TC that epitomized the models she meant.
So my car life has been a quest for those 19-inch wheels. Let others pine for Ferraris and Maseratis, for aerodynamic Lamborghinis and James Bond Aston Martins. (Though I admit the Jaguar XK-120 and 140’s swooping fenders—actually a sensuous profile of the TC—work their siren call). I want those (unstandable), two-strip running boards; the double-clutch first; and the gas tank that needs a yard stick for measurements (I used a green, plant-support stick with my TD and only ran out once). Maybe “quest” is not the right word because it implies a search for something hard to find, and surely with 10,000 production cars made from 1945 to 1949 and 1,820 exported here, the TC was not a rarity. But sometimes the quest is internal rather than external; could I see myself actually owning this sacred object, the focus of my automotive desires? Once I had sold my TD because having moved back to Manhattan I could not keep parking it on the street overnight (though for a while I actually did until I realized people were having dates in it), I was MG-less. I did get a new, red, Camaro convertible with white upholstery and a hopped-up rear end to tool around the city as a reporter for The Post, but there was no past, no history to it. Maybe sometimes we have to grow into something. The TC remained unchanged. It served as a steady beacon, like Daisy’s green light at the end of her dock, by which Gatsby could measure his progress. Not to exaggerate, but like Gatsby, it was I who had to move toward the car.
My progress was slow but never faltered, with many distinct markers. Some years ago, just out of the blue, I went to the New York Auto Show. I cared little for the over-chromed, indistinguishable, envelope-bodied Detroit and European iron. But at the entrance there was a display of classic cars by a local dealer. I was surprised at how seemingly reasonable they were. Considering another of my hobbies, I thought, “I could sell some of my Lionel trains and buy a TC.” But I wasn’t ready. Fifteen years ago I drove up to M&G Vintage Auto in Tuxedo, NY. They had five TC’s for sale, most under $20,000. But all I came away with was the price sheet, which I still have.
On Halloween a few years ago, to my daughter’s disgust, I brought our trick-or-treating to a dead halt when I saw a red TC parked on the street. Wham, forget about the candy! While she chafed, I took pictures and almost followed it home. I found out where the guy lived, and would go by to talk to him. When he wasn’t home, I’d drive by to look at its shape under its cover, for he had no garage. I started haunting the Greenwich, CT. Concours every June. There was always a TC. I’d beg the people to let me sit in it, and make that same patient daughter take my picture. I even went to the Bonhams auction at the concours. There was a gorgeous, yellow, Tickford –far beyond my budget. I opened a savings account with my tax refunds and other checks. It paid nothing, but at least the money was set aside. Last year I subscribed to Sports Car Market, and started clipping the TC ads and auction results, putting them on my bulletin board. I was getting close.
And then, in May, the Bonhams catalog arrived for the June 1 auction. On page 53, lot 314, there it was: “1947 MG TC. Concours restoration complete only 10 [really 20] years ago. Single owner since 1989.” It gleamed black with red upholstery and red radiator slats. The dash was walnut. The engine compartment was light green with the proper silver, MG, twin-inlet manifold.
The sales estimate was $28,000 – $34,000. And then the beckoning words: “WITHOUT RESERVE.”
My moment was at hand.
Seeing page 53 in the Bonhams June 1 auction catalog with the black and red 1947 TC preening in an early spring field made the car real and obtainable in a way it had never been before. I scrutinized the description: Acquired by the vendor [that’s auctionese for the seller] in 1989…complete restoration by New England Classic MG between 1992 and 1994…new tub made in England…new crankshaft, balanced pistons, redone transmission, refurbished rear end…Tompkins steering kit.
There was more: Earned an AACA First Junior in Hershey…New England MG T Register Award…about 2,200 miles…replete with service and restoration records. And then the sales pitch, which I hardly needed: “A rare opportunity to acquire a fine example of MG’s ever popular TC, certain to provide the new owner [read “me’] with many enjoyable moments at the wheel.” Sold! Suddenly it all seemed so simple: Go to the auction with my little savings book figuratively in hand; don’t be too timid to raise my paddle; hope that it won’t go more than the high 20s (adding on 10 percent buyer’s premium); worry about getting it back to Rocky Point later.
Only thing, it was black not red like my 53 TD, and more importantly, like the legendary, “gallant little (car)” in Don Stanford’s seminal, 1954 juvenile novel about a TC, “The Red Car.” I must have read that 254-page novel easily 30 times, crying more and more each time so I have to be careful not to drip tears on the pages. I think I cry over the boy, Hap Adams’s, determination to rescue the smashed TC which he loves. Over the gruff yet tenderly avuncular help from Frenchy, the mechanic. Over the Phoenix-like rise of the 48 TC which the insurance company views as junk. But most of all I know without a moment’s hesitation that I’m crying over Hap’s having his father behind him even in the face of the town’s disapproval; over his supporting his son even if he thinks the TC is an impractical indulgence for a ranch family. Yet could I really not get the car because it was the wrong color? Don’t be ridiculous! Repaint it if it’s that important.
But wait. If I really am going to bid on it, shouldn’t I know what else is out there? Of course, try eBay which I never go on and have no idea of how to use. I do find a red and tan 1949 EXU (for export). Looks great in the photos (but everything does). $28,500; that’s reasonable. But how am I going to check out a car in Southern California? I find a 1946 that’s “just in” from Southern California. A nice tan with red upholstery. But the info is suspicious: Says one of only 1,600 produced, when I know 10,000 were made. And it’s in St. Louis, and they’re asking $46,900. Forget it. Sports Car Market reports that a red one withdrawn from auction at $31,000 should realistically bring $38,500. That’s depressing. I come closest to considering yet another red one (has everyone read the same book?) from The Stable Ltd. in New Jersey. 1949. Ironically came from Easthampton. Listed at $35,900, but owner, Tom Rossiter, quickly drops to $32,000 in a conversation. He calls it a “solid driver” in #3 condition. But he also says it has never been fully restored like Bonhams’. (More than a month later it’s still for sale at the original price.)
What to do? The auction is in three days. I think I need a wider network, so I look on the internet under MG TC. There are three entries for the metro area: Long Island Classic Cars (a dealer who never responds); MG Car Club of North Jersey (they answer very nicely but don’t know of anything for sale); and the MG Car Club—Long Island Centre. I write to webmaster Pete Hoffman: “After plotting and saving for years, I am in the very—currently—active market to buy a TC…I had a 53 TD while in college, but sold it regretfully when I moved to the city. I have since haunted shows and concours. (I have no mechanical ability, but great love for the car.)” He replies almost immediately and kindly says he’ll ask the board if anyone knows of a TC for sale. Equally important, he puts me in touch with Dave Blackwell whom he assures me is a superb TC mechanic who is rebuilding his own, supercharged car. I have a great sense of relief; I am no longer alone in this quest and now have a brain trust to which I can turn.
On Saturday morning, the day before the Greenwich auction, I move my savings to my checking account. I get a letter of credit from TD Bank (too bad it’s not TC Bank) for Bonhams. As I drive over the Throgs Neck bridge to preview the car, I know I’m ready. But nervous. I’ve read (or at least looked at the pictures of) a lot of books on the T series which I’ve collected as a substitute for an actual car. But despite this, I really know almost nothing about the car. Oh, I have a pretty good idea of what it should look like, what’s authentic (no bumpers; no mirrors on fenders; no chromed radiator slats; no chromed tank straps; starting crank; MG dual carb manifold; “MG” on spare wheel hub; etc.). But mechanically? Forget it. I know I won’t even be able to start it (against fire regulations), let alone drive it. And even if I could, what to look for?
I’m in Bonhams’s auction tent for less than a minute when I spot it off to the right, next to a green TD and then a red TF, and dwarfed by a magnificent 1910 brass-era Stoddard-Dayton. As people sometimes say who meet after only having seen each other on online dating sites, “You look even better than your picture.” The black gleams in the subdued tent lighting. The chrome pops without any pitting. The doors hang perfectly from the wood frame, and clunk closed with a solid thunk. The burled walnut dash (definitely not original) looks like a $100,000 Jag. The painted silver spokes (again original, but chrome ones could twist my arm) have no tarnish. The fenders are solid and have the proper ridge around the under edge. The red, Naugahyde upholstery doesn’t have a tear or a smudge.
I’m thrilled, but still doubting my credentials to assess the car, when one of the off-duty concours judges wanders by. Guy Towle of Briar Cliff Manor has a 49 TC in the show tomorrow, and generously goes over “mine” with me. He nods approvingly at the strange but authentic silvery green of the engine compartment. Notes that the low engine number on the side of the tool box, 3624, matches the one on the octagonal brass plate on the engine. He crawls underneath and raps the wood frame. His verdict? “This is really a good car, as clean as they come. It’s a beautiful driver.”
I can’t believe it. It’s right here in front of me, and with no reserve. But what about that red one in Jersey at the dealer’s? Rossiter says I can come out and drive it to my heart’s content, bring a mechanic, and of course there’s no buyer’s premium. What to do? I call Pete and Dave. They’re unanimous: Take the Bonhams; it’s already been restored. The work is done. Dave , who knows to the dollar what the work will cost, is clear: Pay whatever you’re able to for it.
I go to sleep almost sure that by tomorrow I’ll own a 1947 MG TC.
The night before the Bonhams auction in Greenwich, I send pictures of “my” 1947 TC to Pete and Dave, my brain trust, and to a few other friends. There is a three-quarter view with those gorgeous fenders; a rear view with the tan cover tucked in smartly; the front with the chrome and red radiator; and the cockpit where I already see myself sitting behind the four-spoked, silver-and-black MG wheel. The subject line of the email: “Hold me in your prayers for tomorrow.”
Sunday is beautiful, perfect concours weather. On the hour-and-a-half drive in my Sienna mini-van, I have a strange confidence; I know I will get the car. There are rational reasons: There weren’t that many lookers at the preview the day before. (One jazzily blond woman with oversize sunglasses on her head and a much, much older man scared me when she said, “Oh, so you’re the competition,” but she didn’t know a TC from an XKE.) I figure the far more drivable TD and the TF will get most of the bids. I know the TC is considered a little challenging and “primitive” for many people.
But beyond these sensible explanations, I just feel it’s fated. It’s already my car. All I’m doing now is going to pick it up.
I’m there at 11 for the 12:30 car auction. That’s fine. As I tell my journalism students, get there early and use the bathroom. I had registered yesterday, and have my paddle, 252, tucked into the catalog. The car is lot 314 with the first auto lot being 301, so it will come up early. The auction tent has been rearranged with white, folding chairs set up where the TC was. Now it’s outside, sparkling in the sun. They’ve raised the top to protect the upholstery. Damn, it looks good! I stand possessively by it, directing evil rays at anyone who lingers too long.
I take a seat about a quarter of the way back. I want the auctioneer to see me, but I don’t want to be on top of him. They’re auctioning the automobilia first, so I just watch the flow of things, sort of get in the rhythm. I’ve bid at Bonhams model sailing ship and train auctions before on Madison Avenue, and I remind myself not to be timid about raising my paddle. (I still kick myself over a beautiful, green and gold, French steam locomotive that I let go because a phone bidder raised my bid by $50.)
The catalog estimate on the car is $28-34,000, but that’s immaterial because—all importantly—there’s no reserve. So the top bid on the floor will get it. I’m prepared to go to $34,000 (plus 10 percent buyer’s premium), but really hope I don’t have to. Rupert Banner, the smooth British auctioneer (aren’t they all?) calls up the lot. A sunny, three-quarter view of the car flashes on a large screen at the front. Banner gives some predictable patter about the TC being the car that began the American sports car craze. Then he starts at $15,000. That would be nice, I think. I wait. Someone standing to my left bids the 15. A second bid a little behind me: 16. Okay, I’m up: 17.
My attention is fully on Banner. He now knows I’m a player, so he looks toward me. The bidding progresses by $1,000. There are only three of us bidding, and quickly we’re in the low 20s. I simply top whatever the last number is. The bidding stalls. I’m thrilled. Anything in this range is a bargain. Banner drops the increments to $500. There is another round or two, and then it stops with mine at 26. Silence. Banner looks to the guy to my left: Nothing. Behind me: Nothing.
“No other bids?” he asks. He looks at me and actually smiles. “Someone’s going to get a very nice buy.”
He waits another few seconds. I don’t care. I know I’ll just beat whatever the new bid is. I think he says, “All done, then? Going at $26,000…,” and he strikes the lectern with the wooden block in his hand (there is no hammer).
I am in a daze. I want to leap to my feet, thrust my fist into the air, and shout, “Yes!” Though I’ve written “$26,000” in my catalog, I ask the couple next to me, “Did I bid 26?” They laugh and nod.
I can’t sit still, so while Banner goes on to the Ferrari Mondial Cabriolet next in the catalog, I go to the sales desk. I want to make this real and write the check. Adding Bonhams’s 10 percent and New York sales tax, it comes to $31,066.75. That leaves me some in my savings for repairs—which, it turns out, I’m going to need. I make arrangements with Passport Transport to ship the car in their covered trailer. They say it will cost $750. “It’s not California Chrome, just an MG,” I try, but the price remains.
The auction’s droning on, but not for me. I stand outside the tent clutching the receipt and the proforma which breaks down the payment. I have to share this. “I got it!” I blurt into my cell phone to my sweetie, Judith, waiting in Rocky Point. “I got it!” is the same message I leave on my friends’ Ernie’s and Peter’s voicemail.
I go out to the car. People are ogling it. Possessively, I open the right-hand suicide door and ease myself in butt-first.
“Is that yours?” a woman asks.
“Yes, it is,” I say for the first time.
I thank her, and then hand-print a sign on the yellow pad I brought for notes. I tuck it under the ludicrously small, seven-inch wiper: “Sold! Plz Keep Out!!”
It’s 8 a.m., and I’m pacing our long, curved driveway, waiting for the trailer from Passport Transport. Turns out that outbidding for the TC four days ago was only the beginning. There’s the delivery. Waiting on the title from Bonhams. Getting vintage insurance. Of course, getting mva title registration as well. Then historic plates. And somewhere along the way I’ve got to get gas (medium-grade because it’s tuned for stage two), and venture onto 25A with the right-hand drive, left-hand shift, non-synchro first, no turn signals nor emergency flashers, only one driver’s side convex rearview mirror, no rack-and-pinion steering, no independent front suspension, stand-on-‘em drum brakes, a swooping 37-foot turning radius…oh, and no gas gauge if I ever go that far.
When Passport called to confirm the delivery, the driver asked, “Are you the MG or the Jaguar?” Ha. I was only momentarily tempted to answer “Jaguar,” remembering the sinuous 1952 XK 120SE in BRG with tan upholstery that went for $94,000, about $16,000 below mid-estimate. But the TC was my dream car (with the 120 right up there), and now I awaited its debut in Rocky Point.
The van was huge, far too big for the driveway. My TC was on the bottom, with the 120 on a rack above it. The driver expertly opened the choke, adjusted the idle to fast, pulled the starter, and it came to life. It was the first time I had heard it. It may sound silly, but I thought, “Wow, it actually runs!” He backed the car off and asked if I wanted to drive it up to the garage. I was too nervous, envisioning an embarrassing, first-gear stutter up the drive, so I let him bring it in. The car filled the garage with a wonderful smell of gasoline, oil, and—incongruously—moth balls that the previous owner in New Hampshire had used to protect the rugs and upholstery. Even after I removed the balls, the odor lingered, and now the combination is my favorite perfume. Most nights before going to bed I at least poke my head into the garage and take a deep breath, if I do not actually run my hand (gently, so as not to leave fingerprints) along the newly waxed fender.
After it was delivered, the car got no farther than back and forth on the driveway for 10 days. But I sat in it incessantly. Even at 6-2, I wasn’t too cramped. So what if the Brooklands black rim, 17-inch steering wheel caressed my thighs and came within a foot of my chest? Or that I had to wear my thinnest, smallest-soled shoes not to press the gas and brake together? Or that the temperature gauge that was added under the dash hit my left knee? Or that my right elbow had to be kept against my ribs? These were inconsequential compared to sitting in my own TC.
There were legitimate reasons for the delay in getting it going, few of which I had anticipated in my excitement. I could do nothing without the title, and that had to come by FedEx from Bonhams. They kindly accelerated its delivery, probably to get this fanatical new car owner off their backs. Then who knew that Geico had special “collector vehicle” insurance through a related company? Depending on the model, the car generally had to be over 25 years old, garaged, and not used for business, commuting or even errands. Cost: $429, valuing the car at $40,000. Registration was another conundrum, choosing between regular; vintage (using an actual 1947 plate—wherever you might get that); historical (says “historical” on the plate); and of course personalized. I chose historical, and called Albany prepared with a list of alternative plates limited to eight letters, numbers and spaces. My first choice seemed obvious to me, MGTC1947, but I figured that had to be taken. Then came MG-TC 47; MGTC 47; MG 1947; TC 1947. To my surprise, MGTC1947 was free. Huh? Did that mean that in the entire state of New York, no one else had a 47 TC? Impossible. More likely, they’d chosen to put JUDYS MG or ITSA MG or 1250CCS or something else on their plate.
I sent pictures to everyone I knew including ex-wives; a friend I taught with in Beijing 20 years ago; a classmate at Brandeis in 1963; a colleague at my university whom I didn’t know had any interest in cars. I rolled the car in first out on the driveway and invited Peter and Dave and friends from the MG Club, while it left the first of many oil spots on our new asphalt. The consensus: It was beautiful, and I’d gotten a great deal. The one thing I didn’t do was get it on the road.
The delays were all real, but there was another reason: I was nervous. The tires that I had wanted for so many years looked so thin (4.50-19), I worried they’d give no traction or wobble or be hard to control. (Turns out for such narrow tires with so little road contact and thus not much stopping area they require a lot of muscle to turn, and I’m glad of the large steering wheel.) Four-on-the-floor was something I hadn’t used since my left-hand-drive, right-hand-shift 53 TD. In fact I don’t think I’d used a clutch since then. (Turns out the gate is very clear and concise, the clutch firm, the throw nice and short, and I don’t think I’ve missed a shift.)
I worried, could I see traffic behind me with that one, side mirror? Would other drivers get my hand signals for turns? Would it stop in time with those primitive brakes?
As with many things, all my worries were for naught. Finally I took it out, and it was so much FUN! What a feeling of wind in my hair, the sun on me, knowing I was driving something so beautiful. Doing 30 in third felt like 50, which I think is the idea. Felt so professional just driving by the tach and practically ignoring the speedometer way over by the passenger, anyway. The roads around Sound Beach are small and twisting, hilly and shady, and I felt like I was in England! At the almost-blind curves I sounded my simple, push-button horn, downshifted smoothly to second, and carried through. “Frenchy” Lascelle from the novel, The Red Car, couldn’t have done better.
I quickly saw what driving the TC would be like. Before I’d even reached 25A, someone honked and shouted, “Great drive.” At the gas station, the owner shyly asked if he could take pictures. A young couple chewed my ear about their uncle’s MG-something. People waved.
The best, though, were two, crew-cut, still slightly pimply guys pulling alongside in a noisy muscle car. “What the hell is that?” one asked admiringly, hanging out the window and oogling the car from its rakish, wire-spoked spare on the back of the gas tank to the red slats in
the chrome radiator. I explained, and he nodded approvingly.
I knew it was only the beginning.