Coffee-Table Books, Burned Wiring, and Mediocre Pizza: Thoughts On British Car Ownership

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The starting procedure for my 1971 MGB GT is as follows: Pull out the choke handle and give it a quarter-twist to the left to lock it in place. Insert the key and turn it to “Run,” but not “Start.” Flip the chrome toggle switch I installed that activates the old points-type SU fuel pump and listen as it fills up the fuel line: puckapuckapuckapuckapuck-puck-puck….puck……puck. Make sure the gearlever is in neutral, then turn the key to Start. It usually catches after five or six revolutions. If it’s warm out, you can twist the choke handle back to horizontal and slide it in almost right away; if it’s cold, give it a minute or two. The engine will settle into a nice loping grumble at around 800 RPM. Don’t try to read the factory Smiths tach in the dash; it has never worked. The $20 eBay tach attached to the steering column works just fine, however.

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Interior is a work in progress; almost everything works

The idle has a little lope to it because the engine is equipped with a “Fast Road Cam,” giving it more valve lift and duration than stock— just enough to move the horsepower and torque curves up a touch. It has this camshaft because a previous owner either set the valve lash wrong or used the wrong oil or both, and destroyed the original cam and lifters. “It needed replacing anyway” is as good an excuse to add go-fast parts as any. The car has a full stainless-steel exhaust system, including a tubular header, for the same reason. Yes, it’s loud. But good loud.

Other parts have been replaced as needed — the entire wiring harness, for one. Everything you ever heard about Lucas electrical systems is true. Add in fifty years of splices, half-ass repairs, and corrosion, and the only real solution is to rip it all out and start over again. It’s not stock, either. I used a GM-style “universal” wiring harness with eleven fuses. The stock MGB fusebox has four.

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There’s plenty of rust that you don’t see. A “twenty-footer” if there ever was one.

Out on the road, the noise from the fancy stainless steel exhaust is ripping fabric set to a syncopated staccato beat. It’s not the smooth full-throated song of its Italian twin-cam contemporaries. British engines are “undersquare,” with cylinder bores smaller than their strokes, owing to a quirk in British tax law a century ago. Taxable horsepower was calculated using only the bore diameter, not the total displacement, so automakers built engines with small pistons that traveled a long way in order to keep the taxes down and the displacement, and therefore actual horsepower, up. The statute was changed in 1947, but old habits die hard. The result is a torquey engine that doesn’t like to rev; it’s happy at 4,000 RPM, but runs out of breath around 6,000.

But the handling! After World War II, the British turned their old airfields into race tracks, and set to work building sports cars, and learning how to make a car go around a corner as fast as possible. My MGB has a set of Spax adjustable tube shocks in place of the original lever-action shocks; they were installed by a previous owner, and help the car take corners with authority.

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Mom, getting out of Dad’s MGA, sometime in the mid-Sixties

The Car Was A Problem On Day One

I wanted an MGB GT since I was a kid. My dad is an MG fan from way back; he drove a red ’61 MGA in college. He courted my mom in it. In a way, I owe my very existence to Cecil Kimber’s little sports car company. Dad never bought another MG, but there were plenty of models and posters and books around. One book in particular stood out: MG, The Book Of The Car, a glossy coffee-table volume written by Anders Ditlev Clausager. Clausager was the archivist at the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, and his books are considered the definitive works on British cars. I didn’t know that when I was six; I just knew I loved the photos, and fixated on the MGB GTs.

My car spent its first 43 years in Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. I am its fourth owner. I bought it from a young woman who shipped it to the mainland when she moved here, intending to fix it up and drive it, which never happened. You hear that story a lot with little British cars: I’m gonna fix it up, someday.

I handed her $2,300 cash after a drive around the block and a very cursory inspection, and headed home. It broke down, of course. A combination of a failed engine mount and a slightly bent fan blade caused the fan to carve a neat crescent-moon shape into the lower half of the radiator, spraying coolant everywhere and ending my first trip six miles in. While my wife went to find us lunch and I waited for the tow truck, a young boy watched me from across the street, staring wide-eyed at my sleek little broken sports car as it oozed vital fluids onto the gravel shoulder. I fear that the experience may have inadvertently turned the boy into a future British car lover, and for that I am truly sorry. [Editor’s Note: Sounds like it was more likely to have kept him away from British cars. I rally hope you didn’t turn this kid into a sensible Corolla driver. -DT]. 

Being The Youngest Guy In The British Car Club

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At the Portland All-British Field Meet, September 2021

 

On the second Friday of the month, the parking lot of Stark Street Pizza in southeast Portland gets a lot more interesting, and acquires a few new oil stains. Inside, in a side room stuffed with Little League baseball trophies and drag racing memorabilia, the Columbia Gorge MG Club holds its monthly meeting. The pizza is only so-so, but the conversation is delightful. My wife and I are, at age 49, just about the youngest members of the club. They treated us like kids at first, and then I came second in a British car trivia contest at a club picnic, and they understood that I know what I’m talking about.

The club organizes monthly drives, but I have yet to join them on one. My MGB has taken several years to whip into any semblance of reliability, and it’s only within the past year that I feel confident taking it more than about 20 miles from home. In September, we gather with a few hundred other British car fanatics at the All-British Field Meet, held on the grounds of Portland International Raceway. I have missed two Field Meets in the six years that I have owned my MG: in 2018, my wife and I were on the way when a mounting bolt fell out of the left front brake caliper, causing the left front wheel to lock up every time I touched the brakes. I turned around and limped the car back home. And in 2020, the event was canceled, of course, along with everything else.

I’ll Never Part Ways With It

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Dad and me, out for a drive. I offered to let him take the wheel, but two knee replacements make a clutch hard for him.

 

I’ll probably never sell this car. I have too much invested in it, not in terms of money, though there is quite a bit of that as well (mostly my dad’s, since he insisted on helping me with repair costs), but in terms of the time amd effort spent on it. I’ve crawled around under it and taken huge chunks of it apart and I know it inside and out. My fingerprints are all over the engine internals. I’ve bled on it, and I’ve spent time standing in the garage just looking at it, the long curve of the hood (sorry, bonnet), the elegant line of that Pininfarina-styled roof (unchanged from the original 1964 prototype), the wooden gearshift knob that I won at a club raffle. Spend enough time and energy on a car, and it’s yours in a way no selling price can ever match.

This car has a name, by the way: Maggie May. Like the woman in the song, she’s older than I am, and takes advantage of my affection. And, if you have got someplace to go… Maggie may get you there.

You don’t scare me. I own a British car.

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55 Responses

  1. Damnit Mark, you’re the one to finally pull me.out of lurker-dom.

    I too, know the pain and joy of the LBC. Letting the magic smoke out of the wires makes for a bad day, but driving the darned thing makes up for it.

  2. I write articles on interesting local cars and owners for the local newspaper. One of the first was about someone I know with a ’77 MGB. It’s only his second but he’s owned MGs since the 1960s. He bought the ’77 new because he heard they were going to stop selling them in the U.S. Few car enthusiasts have more entertaining stories than MG owners and few are more loyal despite the challenges ownership presents. At the end of the interview he let me take it for a drive. I owned an NB Miata and currently own an ND. Driving the MG was not the same experience – not even close. Yeah, it’s about soul. I wouldn’t have the patience to own an MG but I understand now why some people do.

  3. Great write!
    Just a couple of years ago I bought back the MGB GT that my dad owned for a short period of time when I was 12. He gave my older sister her driving lessons in it and when she’d had enough I would often ask to be let behind the wheel so it is quite possibly the first “real car” I ever drove.

  4. We just recently got a 76 MGB, my fiance’ stopped at a house to look at a couch, went around back looking for the owners and saw it peaking from a barn out back. Finally found the owners and asked about the car, was put up in early 2000 because it wouldn’t stay running. Well she talked her way Inti buying it….couch $800 1976 MGB $650 lol! And kinda true barn find, literally hadn’t moved an inch from the day it was out up. She frantically called me and told me to come with the car hauler I was like did you break down? NO she exclaimed! I bought a car!
    .. Lord my eyes rolled right out my butthole….this woman ( she’s just as much a gear head as me and brings more car shit home than I do). So we go push it out and survey it…pretty damn solid with a ratty interior. Load it up and get it to the shop and heavy wash and vacuum and she looks decent. Spent the next day tinkering and got it to run, sound like it didn’t miss a day, has a few aftermarket engine goodies too! Finally got around to pulling the tank and finding the culprit…. It was 3 inches deep in mud! Either a asshole kid liked filling the tank full of dirt or hell idk… But the lines were solid, so currently waiting on tank got new pumps filters and a slew of other things but she can’t wait to zip around in it! I dig these cars too! Love the GTs fir sure!

  5. I just got plates for my new-to-me ’78 MGB roadster last Wednesday. It has the old chrome bumpers, twin SU carbs, and cold air intakes sticking out of the hood. The wiring has been spliced and modified dozens of times so I am sure it will take a while to sort out. For example, the ignition broke twice, so a simple on/off key and push button start were added to the dash. Sunday evening, I took it for its first ‘long’ trip of about 30 miles. On the way back, the speedometer stopped working (cable came out?) and I realized that the high beams switch is not working. A quick look at some forums, and it seems to be a common problem with an easy fix. At 37, I would be considered an infant at any British car club.

  6. Thanks for a very nice article. A bit off-topic, but is it possible to buy T-shirts with that “You don’t scare me…” image on them? I have a 1952 MG TD, which as it happens has been very reliable (touch wood). But if you are used to modern cars then then just driving around in it can be quite a frightening experience once you hit about 30mph, never mind the potential for it to conk out: no seatbelts, no power-assisted brakes, a non-collapsing steering column right in front of your chest, a body made of old wood and a metal roughly like tin, and suicide doors that seem likely to spring open every time you go over a pothole. I feel that I need that motto somewhere on my person.

    1. I submitted it to Blipshift ages ago, but they said it was “too negative.” I should try somewhere else. I want it on a shirt, too.

      I meant to make a “Straight Outta Abingdon” one too, but never got around to it…

    2. It’s actually really easy to get a shirt printed up with pretty much anything you lake on it. Google “custom t-shirt”, and you’ll almost certainly have your pick of a half-dozen sites, at least.

  7. Yup. I am in full agreement. The one thing that really hit home was the age of car club folks. I’m just a little older than you, and I also am, by 15-20 years, the youngest in gatherings of “the club.”
    What that means is that I am really not interested in a social gathering at a restaurant to discuss minutiae and arcana of little British cars. I also don’t necessarily want to go on a drive with a group and have lunch in a small town. What I do want to do is attend shows in public places where kids will be to try to pass the torch of “car person” along. I can have that car-lore discussion with the guy who bought one new AND let an 8 year old kid sit in my car, grab the wheel, and make vroom vroom noises. I can clean the ice cream stains up later, the world is a better place for the opportunity.

  8. I had a ’66 MGB-GT. Loved that thing despite all of its quirks… actually because all of its quirks. It had a few unique and distinguishing characteristics. First, it was positive ground and back then it only had an AM radio. As a result, I had to first install a little inverter thingy to which I connected my FM converter. Now the positive ground wasn’t powered by a single 12v battery but rather two 6v batteries. And then finally, those gorgeous wire wheels were removed by a lead faced hammer that you smacked the center piece with to remove. A 100% unique experience. Oh, and the non-power steering had an enormous steering wheel.

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