The Boy Racer. My love affair with British Cars probably began when I was a young lad of about ten. I still remember a stamp book full of classic cars of all marques and fixating on a Jag XK120 and an MGA Twin Cam. I must have stared at those images for hours, imagining myself careening around the twisting roads. I was fascinated by a book describing the adventures of a young man who restored a little red T Series MG and raced it. I made a deal with my parents that if I did well as a freshman at UNH they would help me purchase a used sports car. That summer we went to the used car lots. I fell in love with a dark green 1954 TF with 30,000 miles but the $1400 price was out of my league and I wound up purchasing a 1958 TR-3 for half that price. It was a beater as they say, but it was also a self-taught course in “Auto Mechanics 101. Even at the young age of 19 I referred to my TR as my “boy racer.” I busted speed limits all over southern NH “racing” any other car that resembled a sports car. Whenever I would take the trip home to Alstead from Durham I would see if I could hit the magic ton (100 MPH) on the newly opened I-89. When the car would no longer do it, I bought a wrecked TR-3 B and transplanted the 100 HP motor and 4 speed synchro. The big enemy at the time was the lowly MGA. I could always take those pitiful MGA’s. I drove my TR for almost three years, summer and winter. I learned a lot about fixing British Cars, but the TR was getting pretty tired and pretty banged up too. Kids may think they are racers, but they really are not very good drivers!
Impressions: the TR-3 was a tough, rough riding car with a huge turning circle and a fair amount of scuttle shake, but it could haul and it could take a lot of abuse.
Lost Forever. In the summer of 1967, while working a summer job in Springfield, MA I chanced upon a 1966 British Racing Green Austin Healey 3000 Mk III. When I lifted the bonnet and saw that straight 6 with the Castrol sticker on the valve cover, I transferred the $2400 in my bank account and became the proud owner of one of the most seductive of all of the British cars. With 12,000 miles on the odometer it looked new and it smelled new. Many people wait a lifetime to get their hands on a Healey and I had one by the time I was 21. It was my baby and I gave it all the love and care that a young man could bestow on a car. I became a more responsible driver overnight. But alas, one afternoon just before graduation from college a year later I could not find the car in the student parking lot. Confusion turned to panic as I realized my baby was gone. I never found out what happened to her. If I still had the serial number I wonder if I could find her listed in a Healey registry by some proud owner unaware of her origins.
Impressions: the Healey was a sweet ride, snug and warm and much more waterproof than the TR, with tons of power, but it never felt quite as racy. The hood is the best of all the British Cars I have owned, easy to open and close and quite tight fitting. The exhaust note from the Healey is unmatched, though it is a challenge to keep the exhaust system on the car. British racing green looked real good on a Healey, though for some reason you don’t see many painted that color today. Switching the electric overdrive back to normal, and then dropping into third and flooring it was the ultimate Healey thrill.
My Flower Girl. Even back in the 60’s it wasn’t all that easy to find another nice Healey so I had to settle for a 1963 MGB. This little car was a cute little thing, a lot more feminine than the TR or Healey. I took to putting vinyl self stick daisies on each ding and pit. It was my flower power car. I wish I had a picture. The little four banger did not have the power of the Healey or the TR, but it got me where I wanted to go, including a quick two-day trip to Texas. By 1970 this four-season driver was already showing the effects of the tin worm and a couple winter road fender benders. I must say that I kind of miss driving my little sports cars in the winter; the driving season is a lot longer when you don’t take the car off the road for 6 months.
Impressions: The MGB was the most comfortable and best handling of the three, and maybe the most comfortable of all the British Cars I have owned. The take down hood was a real pain to erect. I never had the impression that the car was as tough as my TR or Healey.
Chicks Dig It. In the fall of 1970, I saw an add for a 1967 Healey 3000 and I jumped at the chance to purchase this 20,000 mile Old English White beauty for $2000. Those were the days, my friends. I wish I had stocked up on those $2000 Healey’s. It wasn’t hard to get to know this car, as it was pretty much identical to my earlier Healey. It was my only car, and I fitted it with a rack to hold a Sailfish sailboat. That must have been a sight! I thought nothing of another 2-day trip to Texas, though I fitted the car with a hand throttle to give my legs a break during those 20-hour days on the road. Two years of summer and winter driving and I got to thinking that I might want to own this car for a long time, and the best way to make that happen would be to get a daily driver and “save” the Healey for those top down days it was meant for. So a Volvo 140 Wagon joined the stable and the Healey spent the winters in a garage at my parent’s home. This Healey is pretty much original, with the original engine and interior. Sometime in the 1990’s I stripped it to bare metal and gave it a new paintjob and had the bumpers re-chromed.
Impressions: What else can I say about the Healey. How about “the chicks really dig it.” My wife still says she married me because of the Healey!
A Hiatus from Sports Cars. We all know what happens to young people when they get married and start to raise a family. How many times have we hear someone say: “I had a (Healey, MG, TR) when I was younger, but I had to sell it because of family.” Well, I didn’t drive my Healey all that much over the next decade and a half, but I treasured it and my wife would not hear of selling it even when we had other pressing priorities.
Three Carbs is Better Than Two. Flash forward to the early 1990’s. My business partner Dan liked my Healey so much that he purchased a black 1962 Tri-Carb. This Healey had the scars of 30 years of abuse. The inner sills were gone and the bottoms of the fenders were pretty much constructed from about an inch of bondo applied over rusty metal. The interior and paint were rough but the engine and tranny had been freshly rebuilt. I once said to Dan, “If you ever want to sell the car let me know.” Well, Dan needed to put an addition onto his house, and one day when I got to work I found a set of Healey keys on my desk. After actually looking at what I had just parted with $7000 for, I had a sinking feeling that this may not have been a good move.
If the TR had been my introduction to “Mechanics 101,” the Healy was my introduction to “Bodywork 101.” I wasn’t really aware of “frame off restorations” or other restoration techniques so I just took a sawzall and removed the lower foot of the front and rear fenders and welded on patch panels with an oxy-acetylene torch without removing the fenders. While this sounds like a crazy way to approach bodywork, it actually came out rather perfectly, and the original fit of the fenders was not disturbed. I welded in new sills and rocker panels. While most people seem to prefer MIG or TIG welding set-ups, I like gas torches because I can see what I am doing. I repainted the entire car using Dupont Centari acrylic enamel, and gave it new red interior panels, carpets, and leather seats. I laid on my back under the car and wire brushed the entire frame and underside and sprayed it with black undercoating. I treated it to new hubs and 72 spoke wire wheels. Then I got to work putting an addition on my garage to house my fleet of two Healey’s.
Impressions: A Healey is a Healey, and I love my BJ-8 MK III like a first child, but I prefer the BT-7 MK II as a driver. I like the interior better with its leather as opposed to vinyl seats, and I like the look of the polished aluminum trim around the cockpit. I also like the tonneau cover better. But most of all I like the Tri-Carb set up. Yes, I know it doesn’t make as much power as the BJ-8 engine but it doesn’t matter because “Tri-Carb” is cool to say and they look great when you lift the bonnet. And forget that nonsense about being hard to tune – I have had no trouble tuning, the choke works much better than the BJ-8 choke setup, the car starts more easily and it runs like a top. In my opinion the Healey growl is even better with the BT-7 because it doesn’t have the rear resonators. I will admit that both my Healey’s, while super on the interstate, do suffer from a lot of scuttle shake on the bumpy roads around here.
Fast and Furious. A couple of years after finishing the Healy I was my son’s soccer practice when I spied a maroon 1976 TR-6. I told the owner that I was interested in finding a car like the TR-6 to use as driver. He asked me if I wanted to buy his. I transferred another $5000 and was time warped back to the old “boy racer” days. The TR-6 was a fairly modern sports car with those still classic lines. This particular car had had a recent transplant of a low mileage 1973 engine so I did not have to contend with the awful emissions control stuff that basically ruined the last of the real British Sports cars. It was structurally in great shape but it did need a new front and rear fender on the driver’s side, and of course a Centari enamel respray. I also gave it a new interior. Now I had a great all weather driver.
Baby Blue. At some point I guess that a love affair can become an obsession. That happened to me near the end of the century when I spied a very forlorn MGA MK II at a local car dealer’s shop. The frame was almost completely rusted in half in the middle, but I was told that the engine was the original engine and that it ran fine the last time it was on the road. While my wife had been very understanding to this point, she was beginning to question my sanity. “Why do you want another car when you hardly ever drive the ones you have,” she correctly observed. “Objects of Art,” said I. “ Some people collect paintings, I collect cars … you don’t have to drive them to love them.” That was a good line that others so obsessed might wish to consider. It is also true. An even $1000 changed hands and I became a collector.
In case anyone might be thinking that I get a real good deal on cars, let me quickly dispel that notion. I get into the projects cheap, but they are anything but inexpensive to complete. (I keep all the receipts but have never had the courage to total them up!) This MGA was a case in point. It was to be my first “frame off” restoration. If you haven’t done it before, quite astounding the amount of rust falls off the car when it is removed from the frame. This frame was beyond repair, so I doubled my investment by shelling out another $1000 for a like new frame someone had salted away in their garage. I sandblasted each part of the car down to bare metal. Each of the fenders was a complete disaster and needed patch panels. I took the fenders to an “expert” and spent more on them than I paid for the car. I got to watch him pound out the dents with a hammer and it didn’t look all that hard to do. I guess I was auditing “Metalworking 101”. Of course the inner sills, the lower part of the inner cowl, the trunk floor and the bodywork behind the trunk all needed to have rusty metal cut out and replaced with patches. I did all the welding using my trusty oxy-acetylene torches. I really like gas welding. I would have to say my favorite part of restoring a car is cutting out rusty metal and welding in patch pieces. I make most of the other patch pieces with a bench vise and a hammer.
After completing all the bodywork the little MGA was restored to its original Iris Blue. I again used my old friend Dupont Centari. I should say that by the late 1990’s acrylic enamel was a pretty obsolete paint. Dupont sells it as a cheap paint for trucks and buses. Most car restorers that I spoke with told me it was stupid to use this paint and highly recommended the modern base with clear coat paints. But I like this paint. First of all, I try to paint outdoors whenever possible to avoid the fumes. Bugs seem to like to land on fresh paint, along with other airborne stuff. With my “spray and sand” method I can sand or buff out imperfections easily. Plus, I can paint the parts one by one as I complete them. My paint jobs do not have the deep wet look of a modern urethane, but they are satin smooth and are more true to the original paint jobs in my opinion. It is also very easy to repair little dings.
Following the paint job, I put in a new wiring harness and new brake lines, rebuilt the suspension and brakes, and wire brushed the engine and painted it MG red. I took the tranny to David Clark (Sportscar Services, Westminster, VT) for a rebuild. It was the only thing I didn’t want to tackle myself. Then I put the tub back on the new frame, and began the very frustrating task of fitting the fenders and doors. It makes one wonder how the heck they ever got these parts lined up in the first place. The car was finished with a new interior, a re-chromed windscreen frame, and repro chrome bumpers and grille. The original instruments were fortunately in good shape. Finally it was time to hit the road.
Impressions. The car fired right up and the engine ran smoothly. I started up the steep hill at the end of my driveway and I wondered if the car would make it. After driving the Healeys and the TR-6 this MGA was as wimpy and underpowered as I had imagined they were in my now distant youth when I blew them away with my TR-3. It was a pretty car, but it had no zing. I put the car in the garage with the rest of my collection and did not drive it again for several years.
Princess of Darkness. My obsession continued when I spotted a 1978 MGB rubber bumper car in a field a couple of miles from my house. I drove by this car every day on my way to work, trying to drive a crazy idea out of my twisted mine. I told my wife that I could get this one cheap. I know when I say things like this that I am lying to her and I am lying to myself. They never wind up cheap. Only $900 dollars out of the bank and I was towing this car home on the end of a thick rope. It turned out that the undercarriage was in relatively good shape. The inner sills needed a little patching and it needed one new rocker panel and the front part of the driver’s side floor but that is pretty good for an MGB. One front fender was rusted around the headlight area so I bought a badly dented but basically new fender for $50 bucks with the intention of cutting off the front part and welding it onto my fender. I could not afford to take this to the “expert.” Just for the heck of it I took a hammer to the dents and discovered that it was quite simple to pound the fender back into shape so I used it to replace the damaged fender and gained new confidence in Metalworking that would come in handy later. I welded a patch panel on the bottom of the other front fender and welded in doglegs on the rear fenders. I stripped the car to bare metal, primed it, and painted it with Brooklands Green Centari.
The car was treated to a new interior and I detailed the engine compartment as best I could without removing the engine. I did a valve job on the head. A previous owner had removed the emissions control systems and the car had been fitted with a Weber carb. That was as good thing. After struggling to figure out the wiring the car started right up and ran smoothly.
Impressions. The later MGB’s are a little disappointing in terms of performance. The car has a higher geared rear end and is heavier than the early B so it is not as responsive, at least as I remember it. The body has also been raised about an inch compared to the older versions. While it steers and handles pleasantly and is a kick to drive on twisty roads, it is a bit on the wimpy side for a sports car. But what I really dislike about this car is the electrical system. There seems always to be some loose connection to the lights or the ignition systems, or something else. There are relays in the ignition and starter circuits. The electric fans are terrible. The switches are poorly made and not very durable. I feel like ripping it all out and putting in a pre-emissions MGB harness and a modern electric fan. I think Miss B would also benefit from a Moss Supercharger. Strangely, the hood of this car is more difficult to erect than the hood on my 67 Healey. While is a pretty car to have in my collection, I seldom choose to drive it, partly because I am never sure when it is going to let me down.
All For Show. Now most people would think I would be about done with this car thing. And I should have been, but I came upon an opportunity to purchase a basket case MGA. Why, if I didn’t like to drive my beautiful Iris Blue Mk II would I want to buy a 1959 and go through all that sandblasting and sanding and painting and struggling to put little tiny nuts on little tiny bolts while lying on my back under the car or the dash? Well, here is the answer. Every year I try to go to the local Westminster VT car show and enter one of my cars. There is one class for Foreign Sports Cars and I have never won first place except in the TR-6 when it was raining and only 6 cars showed up. Otherwise the Jag XK-120 always wins. One of the older fellows that ran the show always told me I needed a RED car to win. So, I decided to build a red car to win the Foreign Sports Car category at the Westminster Car Show. No, I am not making this up. Yes, I guess I am addicted.
I was willing to part with $4500 for this one because the body was in remarkably good shape. It did need new inner sills and rockers and patches on the bottom of the fenders, but the trunk floor was great and the frame and door pillars were in good shape. It was a disk brake wire wheel car and that was nice. Unfortunately it was missing a lot of parts, like the engine for example. But it came with some extra parts too. It became my Ebay car. I pretty much did all the same things as I did when restoring the 1962 MGA, but I had the added excitement of buying and selling parts on EBay. I “won” a short block MGB three main bearing engine for $100 (and paid $200 for a college kit to drive it up from Virginia). I sent the engine out to be bored to 40 thousands over resulting in an 1845 cc displacement. I bought a video on Ebay for rebuilding the B engine and proceeded with a complete rebuild, my first. We can call that “Engine Rebuilding 101.” I had the tranny rebuilt by Dave Clark. I sandblasted the frame and all the parts. As usual, bondo disguised many past accidents and the usual rust in all four fenders. But with I tackled the dents with a hammer and the rust with new panels and my trusty torch. I broke with my tradition of painting all my cars their original color and turned this once black car into a bright Chariot Red. (You’ve got to love those names.) The car got a new wiring, brakes and suspension rebuild. The tub went back on the rebuilt chassis. Then there was the now familiar struggle to fit the fenders and doors. I purchased an original brass grille on Ebay and had it re-chromed, along with the windscreen. Figure $1000 to get a grille and a windscreen re-chromed nowadays. I reupholstered the seats with leather kits from Scarborough Faire and fitted the car with new interior panels and carpets. Oh, and I splurged for a set of 72 spoke chrome Dayton wire wheels complete with Vredestine 185 70R 15’s.
I fired it up and it just purred from the get go. And when I tackled the steep hill at the end of the driveway it went up effortlessly. With the 1845 cc engine putting out about 95 HP and a lower geared rear end than the MK II, this car had some get up and go. The next spring we took our new red beauty up to the Westminster Car Show and by golly we got that first place trophy (OK, the XK 120 wasn’t there, but it still felt good).
Impressions. I absolutely love my MGA. I love the way it looks. It is so simple and unadorned and curvaceous. Pretty from any angle. The seats are very well padded and nice and high so I don’t have to sit on the floor anymore. I like the way it drives and handles more than any of the other British Cars I have ever driven. Yes folks, that includes the Healey’s. In my humble opinion the MGA has just about perfect handling characteristics, honest and true to the turn of the wheel. Even better, it is by far and away the best car to drive on the bumpy back roads that I drive on. The massive frame construction and bracing at the A pillar almost completely eliminates scuttle shake. I would rank the way it handles bumpy roads right up there with my rear wheel drive Volvo 960 sedan (which is by far and away the best regular car I have ever owned). It is only fair to mention the downsides: the top the most difficult to erect of all the British cars that I have owned and leaks the most, there is no storage space behind the seats or in the boot, and the engine is buzzy at Interstate speeds.
Second Impression of the 1962 MGA MK II. Ok, so it sat in the garage for 5 years because I thought is was wimpy. Got to get over this obsession with power. After driving the 59 version I though I should give it another try. It may not have the same power, but it has the same sweet ride. Driving down a curvy road, looking over that long gracefully Iris Blue bonnet, surrounded by a matching blue sky of a fresh spring day, with the soft note of the exhaust, well, it doesn’t get any better than that. When we go out for a summer evening soft serve it is our Baby Blue that we take. It is our little putt putt. It is the car that people pause to look at when they walk down the sidewalk. It is the car that folks come up to us and say wistfully “I had an MGA way back when.” I am not a boy racer anymore. Maybe the TR-3 was tougher, and the Big Healeys are more powerful, and the TR-6 is a manly brute, but the MGA’s are the sweetest ride in all the world to me. My 59 A is my show car and my 62 A is my favorite driver (except when the Healey BT-7 is my favorite driver!)
Supercharged. I have realized that I am getting to an age where it is time to drive more and build less. The insurance premiums are starting to become significant, and just getting them registered and inspected is quite the ordeal. Actually, just getting them running each spring can take a couple of days. (One day on MGB wiring issues each year.) But there was one little thing lurking in the warped mind. I had seen the ads for the Moss Supercharger from time to time. Like “Tri-carb”, the word “Supercharger” has a good ring to it. Back when I was that young “boy racer” I had lusted for a Judson. I used to buy my parts from JC Whitney and I saw those ads for Judson Superchargers: "Supercharge, get 50% more power or something like that, $250." I didn't really believe the ads, but I wanted a Judson. Unfortunately, the cost was a third of the price of what my car was worth at the time. However, shortly after completing my MGA, I found a bare Supercharger on Ebay and impulsively purchased it. It did not come with an intake manifold or the special MGA oiler valve cover and was pretty much useless as such. I was thinking that somewhere in the world must be the parts that belonged with my Judson and three months later they appeared on Ebay. It turns out they had been purchased by two different buyers at an auction. I bid a "Queen's ransom" but “won” these rare and precious parts. George Folchi, the Judson rebuilder guru in Connecticut, did a fantastic job rebuilding the unit and making the missing pulleys. I polished all the aluminum to a mirror finish, did the installation and rebuilt the Holley glass bowl carb. I was actually surprised when the car started on the first pull of the starter knob.
Impressions. When you stomp on the throttle the manifold pressure goes to about 6 psi boost and there is a Healey like kick in the seat of the pants. I would say that I would not have wanted to tangle with this A back in the TR “boy racer” days! The car drives and handles superbly, and is very responsive, but most of all it satisfies a longing from my bygone youth! And it looks cool too.
Caretakers. I have almost finished writing this little article and I think I am almost done restoring these wonderful British Cars. I think part of my obsession is that I enjoy saving them, like some people like saving buildings. Perhaps we are all caretakers, saving these great cars for future generations.
Postscript. The better part of another decade has passed since I wrote the above piece. I "built" one more MGA from a basket case, a 1957. The car was a disaster when I got it in that the previous owner had had the body sandblasted in a way which badly warped many of the panels. This car was a struggle but came out looking nice in the end. I got involved in a new hobby, RC planes, which I still enjoy.
The 62 MGA and the Healey BT-7 tri carb are the only cars I usually drive and sadly not often enough.
I have driven the 59 MGA with the Judson a few times, and took it to a few car shows where it was well received.
But it is hard to start and bogs down in traffic. I am never sure I will make it home. This winter I removed the supercharger and put the carbs back on. I am hoping to drive it more.
I have made a determined effort to get all of my cars in shape and perhaps sell a few.