by Bruce Valley
The following is an excerpt from Bruce Valley’s book “Zen and the Art of Collecting Old Cars,” available on Amazon and in select bookstores.
Settling into our home on California’s Monterey peninsula, I felt certain that my British car collecting was concluded. British cars simply didn’t move me like they once did. But, as we all come to know in living our lives, sometimes things just happen. A few weeks later, I received a call from an old friend. He owned a Triumph TR3A sports car for many years, possibly from new. It was, effectively, one of his children. He was calling to ask if, as a friend, but also as a car guy, I would accompany him to “the scene of the crime.” His much-loved Triumph, a car he had commuted in for years, had been stolen several weeks earlier. It had just been found by the police, badly damaged, parked behind a local motel. My friend said he could not go to see the wrecked car alone.
I couldn’t refuse such an emotional request. An hour later, we checked in with the motel manager and walked to the rear of the building. I was glad I’d come along as we reached the Triumph. The sports car had been savaged. Evidence of mindless fury was everywhere. The battered TR sat in a circle of its own bits and pieces. Metal shards, broken glass, and various chrome parts lay scattered on the ground. The car’s windshield was smashed and had been ripped from the vehicle. Its convertible top was shredded, the support bows bent and tangled. The hood, trunk, front fenders, and both doors had been kicked in. The seats and door panels were torn, and the gauges’ glass faces were all cracked. The scene was stomach-wrenching for me. I could only imagine what my friend was feeling as he surveyed the carnage through tears.
Neither of us could grasp what possessed someone to steal a beautiful vintage automobile, then destroy it. We walked away without deciding what had to be done, the car’s owner numb from what he’d seen. It had only been a few months, he said, since he’d pulled and rebuilt its engine, using a chain fall and convenient oak tree in his back yard.
He stopped and turned to me. “I’d like you to have the car.” He said. “I know I can never take it back. And I couldn’t bear parting out what’s left of it.” Sensing his distraught state, I took a moment, then answered carefully. “I’m so sorry that this has happened to you. It’s a tragedy. But with two project cars in my garage, I’m really in no position to purchase another car.”
His pained look told me more than words could say. “I didn’t mean I’d sell the Triumph to you. I want to give you the car. The title is clear. Perhaps you could park it in your driveway, remove whatever can be sold, then send the remainder to the crusher. I don’t care. I just know I can’t do it myself, not after all our years together.” Then he added, “Please understand. You’ll be doing me a great favor and I’ll never forget it.
There was only one answer to such an emotional plea. The next day, I drove my Volvo wagon to the rear of the motel, filled it with broken Triumph pieces, then backed the car close to the TR’s nose. A rope was attached to the car’s tow ring. With a sympathetic neighbor driving the Volvo in first gear, I put an old pillow down over the glass shards on the front seat, climbed in, shifted the transmission to neutral, and released the hand brake. The caravan crawled the three miles to our driveway, where the TR3 sat for several weeks, as I thought out the unwelcome process of stripping and parting out the car.
It was a quiet Sunday morning as I went up the driveway to retrieve the morning paper. Walking back, I paused, looking at the crumpled vehicle with new eyes. Would this little Triumph want another chance at life? I debated with myself. Before breaking the car apart, why not invest a few hours, clean up the mess, and find out if it could be brought back, thereby cancelling its date with the crusher? By the following weekend, several evenings of effort after dinner had wrought significant change. The interior, filled with glass and metal fragments, was swept out and vacuumed. Broken items were gathered on my workbench, their part numbers listed. The seats and door panels were removed for further cleaning and eventual recovering. The pushed-in hood and trunk, doors and fenders, were made of quality sheet metal. All were returned to their original shape using a rubber-headed hammer. It became obvious that those who caused the damage had concentrated their energies on the sheet metal and interior. The engine, transmission, rear end, tires, wheels, brakes, steering, and suspension were all in good order. Lacking a key, I hot-wired the ignition. The motor fired up. Its sound signaled that the exhaust and muffler were not damaged.
The next afternoon I took a victory lap around the neighborhood, sitting on six pieces of seasoned red oak firewood piled together, and covered with two old patio chair cushions. The TR3A all but snorted its approval rounding the final turn into our driveway. Having proven her will to live, she was covered with a tarpaulin to protect her from rain. The comeback had begun.
Much work remained to resurrect the Triumph and get her back on the road, reliable and safe. It would take most of the winter to complete the work and reassembly. I sold one of the project cars to make room in the garage. By this point, our list of replacement items was complete. Several suppliers could provide almost any item needed. I found Moss Motors to be especially helpful and leaned heavily on them to replace items destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
Content that I had the basic supply system in place, I gave thought to the possibility of using supplemental labor to augment the few hours each week I had available to work on the car. Ultimately, I “hired” our two teenage daughters, Noelle and Christine, believing that, though they were unlikely to enjoy the grinding, pounding, patient work required, they wouldn’t object to doing so for pay. I also thought that their participation in the restoration work, and in seeing a car taken apart and reassembled, would stand them in good stead later, putting them in that rare class of adult females who could deal knowledgeably with automotive maintenance and repairs, as was later proven the case.
On a clipboard, I listed various tasks I believed within the girls’ competence, given instruction and some supervision. On another clipboard was a labor record. Each girl recorded hours worked on given dates and on specific tasks.
In this way, fenders were removed, the replacement interior was installed, and many new parts found their way onto the car.
By spring, a dashing dark blue TR3A, with lighter blue interior and black vinyl top, sat in the driveway. A young attorney responded to our newspaper ad and agreed to purchase the car at the listed price. With a certified check in hand, and the Triumph gone to its new home, I sat down with our daughters to determine their earnings. In accordance with our agreement, all costs of the project were subtracted from the proceeds. What remained was divided between the girls in proportion to the hours each had recorded working on the car.
I often recall how close the Triumph roadster came to being taken apart, crushed into a small steel block, and having its tough little automotive soul extinguished. Having helped her avoid that fate, I now imagine her enjoying the winding back roads of coastal northern California and no longer call to mind her sad appearance as she sat, forlorn and in pieces, behind that motel. MM
February 11, 2023 @ 12:11 pm Ralph Perry
What a great story! I especially liked the way Mr. Valley involved his daughters in the project.
I think there’s also a valuable lesson to be learned here as well. The fact that the car was stolen suggests that the car was in running condition when it was vandalized, and this was confirmed later in the story. Although the appearance was appalling, the actual damage was therefore superficial and relatively easy to fix. The same is often true of cars that have been in low-impact accidents. These can often make for great restoration projects.