One of the most rewarding and enjoyable projects I’ve done was completing the restoration and assembly of a 1957 MGA sports car. I had been in love with the car since I first saw a picture in a book when I was in my twenties, but it was never the case that I had money at the same time that there was one available to purchase. Finally the planets aligned and I found one a couple hours from home; the owner had started a restoration but ran out of time and money when a divorce hit. I borrowed a neighbour’s trailer, brought the various pieces home, and put everything in the garage.
The previous owner had had the body work done, with a gorgeous Old English White paint job. The motor had been rebuilt, but not installed. Rolling chassis. And boxes and boxes of parts. Now the problem with a job like this is that the repair/restoration manual will normally say that the procedure for assembly is the opposite or disassembly, on the assumption that the same person was doing both. But I hadn’t participated in the disassembly so had no idea how things went back together. Most of it I could figure out, and I’m fairly mechanically adept, but for other parts I had to get some help and advice, which I found in the local car club.
Rule number one when starting any new project or hobby: Always get yourself connected to a local club. That’s where you’ll find the expertise you need, someone to guide you through a project. And in the case of a project such as this, usually the guys are itching for a new project of their own but don’t have the money; they’ll take over yours if you’ll let them, as long as you’re paying the bills.
After a few months the car was on the road. What a gorgeous machine!
While it would take a few more months to get the interior finished, and seat belts installed (after a near serious incident of P. almost falling out when the door latch popped open while we were going around a corner), I began taking the car out for regular drives. The car went through its second (known to me) divorce, and moved with me to California. There my favorite drive was Rt. 17 over the mountain between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz, a narrow twisty highway with too much traffic but a blast to drive. The car was a bit underpowered and with barely adequate brakes, at least by modern standards, but this was, after all, a then-forty year old car. But the handling was superb, and the look… well, gorgeous.
P. and I went on a couple of long weekend trips, including one with another local car club through some northern California coastal towns including Fort Bragg and Mendocino, and to other scenic locations up and down the coast. Central and northern California are wonderful locations for little British cars (or LBCs, as they’re sometime called); generally good weather, twisty roads, and lots of scenery. LBCs are quite popular there, as evidenced by the annual British car show in Palo Alto every September, which we went to several times; a wonderful collection of everything British, from the mundane to the exotic.
In addition to the look of the car, the thing I appreciated most was that this was a car that I could work on: none of the modern computerized, electronic stuff that requires special equipment and training to work on. While using 1950’s technology didn’t produce much efficiency (the little lump of a 1500cc engine only got about 20 mpg and produced 68 horsepower), it was a car that a relatively unskilled enthusiast could work on. Not only was it possible, it was required, as the car had various idiosyncrasies that needed to be addressed on a regular basis.
But alas, not everything was perfect. Being the too-tall guy that I am, I had a lot of difficulty getting in and out of the car, which was obviously designed for someone about a foot shorter than I. I was driving with the steering wheel wedged firmly between my thighs, so I replaced it with a small wheel. I took some padding out of the driver’s seat back so I could move back to give me another inch of legroom, and tried to modify the seat rails so that the seat would slide further back. I took my shoes off to get another inch. But there was only so much I could do. I stopped short of some major body modifications, cutting into the body behind the seat so I could slide further back, because there was a major frame member there.
In the end, the car became spoils of the divorce. The ex was demanding more money for something or other, and that, combined with the legroom issue, brought me to the difficult decision of selling the car. I had about $12k invested in it ($5k original purchase price plus another $7k in purchases to complete the job), and ended up selling it for $8k. Now, fifteen years later, if I could find one I would end up paying about $20 to buy one again in that condition.
I miss that car, and wish I had it still, despite the legroom problems. I’ve kept my eye out for alternatives: the MGB has acceptable legroom, but I don’t like the later styling. The Jaguar XK140 from the same era would be a more-than-worthy replacement, but these are way out of my price range, usually in the $40-50k range. An Austin Healey would be nice as well, but also out of my price range and probably not a better fit.
Maybe someday I’ll find something, but as was the case when I first started this, finding the right car at the same time that I have money in my pocket…. and never the twain shall meet.