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

Maggie In Line
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

Me Dad Maggie
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. What a beautiful little car. I loved reading this because it articulated a feeling I routinely feel about my Beetle. Obviously a Beetle is no MG in almost any respect, but when you said sometimes you just stand in the garage and look at the curve of the hood… Man, I get that. It makes it all worth it. Excellent read.

    1. I don’t know about that. I’m not a Beetle fan but I can see why people would be. Different strokes for different folks. Same as the difference between a sports car vs muscle car or Hinger vs Maryann. It may not be you cuppa but you accept it may be another person’s.

  3. MGBs may be flawed cars, but man, do they have soul. I had a ’77 about a decade ago and I really miss that thing.
    And it’s not necessarily the prior owners fault the old cam went flat. MGBs from the BL era are notorious for having camshafts that weren’t hardened properly and wear out prematurely.

  4. I completely understand, I’m afflicted with Mini/MINI-itis. I currently own three classics and one 2009 Clubman S that I ordered new. I do not agree that Lucas wiring is fragile or prone to letting out the smoke – any more than the same era wiring from any other country/mfr, including the good ol USA.

    I’ve driven my classics all over the states, and have absolutely no fear of jumping in one tomorrow and heading across the country – but it did take some money and lots of wrenching to get them to that point. Once there, I do not see repeat failures…..

    My “new” MINI (which now has north of 100K on it) has been equally reliable – once I got a few kinks sorted. This era of MINI has the famous self destructing timing chain, however once replaced under warranty it has been trouble free. Other than that it’s only been oil changes, tires brake pads and a new thermostat assembly.

    If you take care of them, they’re as reliable or more so as any other car of that era. Remember, when they were new, they were daily drivers, used on long trips and for a lot of people their only car. The worst thing you can do is not drive them, the best thing you can do is use it.

  5. Good article. I love little British cars.

    Not because of their unreliability, or even their looks.

    No, I like them because they make excellent platforms for engine swaps and EV conversions. I’m all for restomodding them into something with Toyota reliability, especially if it keeps a non-concurs example away from the crusher.

    I own a frankenstein of a 1969 Triumph GT6 MkII body on a MkIII chassis, that was purchased in 2005. It has been converted to electric with a Prestolite MTC4001 series-wound DC motor, Soliton 1 controller, and a 208V 100AH pack of CALB CA100FI batteries. It is much faster than stock. Even though it makes similar peak torque and horsepower compared to the original inline 6 that came out of it, it makes that torque at 0 rpm, and makes its peak power at a higher RPM than the stock GT6. I could always turn the maximum amps up by reprogramming the controller, but I’d rather not break things. Theoretically, as it is, this setup should be good for 0-60 mph < 7 seconds, 150 miles range, and a top speed of ~130 mph. I have not tested that, as the car isn't even legal yet.

    I have a GM wiring harness, but I don't have everything working quite yet.

    I also have some custom body panels that will be installed to reduce wind resistance. The car already has a tiny frontal area, so reducing its drag by 1/3 could compliment that really nicely. Imagine doing 140 mph on 120 horsepower! If the ADU1B LeMans replica built by Jigsaw racing is any indication, the potential is certainly there. I spoke with Mark of Jigsaw Racing and he claimed that the ADU1B replica could hit 137 mph on the Mulsanne Straight with only 111 horsepower! So the potential to increase top speed is there.

    In its future is likely a used Tesla drive system and a pack of 21700 batteries from a salvaged Model 3. I want to delete the transmission and stock differential and remove everything from the car that is unreliable. A Tesla drive system would also allow me to make it into a mid-engine car.

    Of course, it's getting a roll cage.

    The idea is to have a track car that is usable as a daily driver and is inexpensive to operate and maintain, and which achieves excellent efficiency in order to maximize range and reduce the amount of batteries needed.

    I may end up with a finished project that has lost weight versus running the stock gasoline engine, but can still get 200+ miles range on the highway, when driven sanely. With a Tesla drive system, it would theoretically be capable of running sub-11 second 1/4 miles, if I can get sufficient traction, although the drive system that is currently in it would be more likely to get somewhere into the upper 14s or low 15s. I'm not going to be using performance tires, as I value low rolling resistance, which is going to limit acceleration.

  6. Looks like my dad’s. Gold over bronze GT with what he calls a ‘snotty’ cam. Paid about the same IIRC. At 86 he’s too old to limbo into it anymore so it sits in the garage. And it’s got a current drain somewhere that kills the battery because of course it does.

  7. You don’t scare me I own two Moggies.
    A ’59 Tourer and a ’68 Traveller.
    The Tourer currently resides on a rollover jig but being an American Import it’s as rust free as you’ll ever get.
    The Traveller I imported from England and is a fine example of the “Buy low spend high” maxim. Almost sufficiently sorted to drive regularly but today, for example, it’s 100 degrees with a “feels like” of 110 so even if it was rarin’ to go I wouldn’t go out in anything without AC.
    As for local clubs – it’s a General British group to which I belong but have not participated as of yet.

  8. “Spend enough time and energy on a car, and it’s yours in a way no selling price can ever match.” – I feel I am getting ever closer to this with my MINI. Yes, it’s just a new-era BMW MINI. But after 6 years, two cross-country roadtrips, and the amount of time spent researching about and modifying it, I find it harder and harder to calculate a replacement being a better investment than just keeping it healthy.

  9. Great article. My dad has had a 1960 MGA for almost 30 years. That’s a big reason I bought a 1979 MGB. It’s been fun to learn to work on, and it gave me the knowledge to help him with the A. My oldest son, me, and my Dad all worked together last summer to pull the engine and replace the clutch. It was great to spend time together with 3 generations on the MGA.

    1. Will add to my own comment since it won’t let me edit, while I understand replacing the old wiring harness, particularly if it was monkeyed around with and spliced up, the old Lucas wiring isn’t as bad as made out to be. Clean up the bullet connectors and grounds and they work pretty well.

    1. And a proper padded dashboard as well. It’s missing on this car. Seen this a lot over the years, where a post ’68 MGB or Midget has had its badly cracked dash removed and the instruments directly added after covering with vinyl or a piece of wood.

        1. It’s your car, do what you like with it! An old car like that will always have more issues than you have time and money to restore to exact concours-level perfection even if that’s what you wanted, unless you are wealthy and retired. As long as it makes you happy to look at and happy to drive, it’s fulfilling its purpose.

  10. Damn man. Great piece!
    You almost made me cry. I didn’t, but..
    Even worse than crying, I’m now contemplating old British roadster ownership. That’s many years worth of crying to come.

    I simply don’t have the driveway space to keep up with how great the writing is here at the Autopian.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. Thanks everyone! To clarify: the primary reason for the change to the Painless/GM wiring harness was for added capacity and proper fusing/relaying. Four slow-blow fuses that handle most, but not all, of the electrical load on the car just didn’t seem sufficient. Now I’ve got relays for the headlights, fog lights, and horn, and a separate circuit and fuse for pretty much everything. And the lights don’t dim when I come to a stop anymore.

    Nearly all of the original Lucas components are still there and work fine, including the 35 amp alternator. I do have a Delco 67 amp one sitting in a box waiting for me to get around to making a mounting bracket for it, but the original does fine for now. And I switched it back to a Lucas ignition coil from the Mallory coil that was in it; the Lucas coil doesn’t require a ballast resistor, and the car seems happier without it.

  19. When I was a tyke my uncle had a white TR6 that he’d just bought new. My father took me for a spin in it; it was the first time I’d heard of a clutch. I was hooked. I bought a ‘74 emerald green one in 2002 and spent nearly 20 years with it and kind of regret selling it. I find the unreliability claims for LBCs to be kind of overstated (and a little tiresome). They’re like any other old car; they need routine maintenance and sometimes things wear out or break.

  20. Very pretty lines, and a lovely color. I can see why you love it, even aside from the family connection. My Miata is a sort of spiritual descendent of your MGB—either perfected or watered down, depending on your point of view—and I have a lot of the same feelings for it. I still treasure the picture I took when I had the entire dash out to replace a faulty airbag module (which sits right under the windshield for my year, and always goes bad, and will cause you to fail your annual safety inspection if you live somewhere where such things are required) with the steering column dropped and wires everywhere and everything just absolutely gutted. Getting all that put back together, and firing up the car, and seeing the air bag light come on—and then *turn off again six seconds later*—was a great feeling.

    I also have a stainless exhaust, for exactly the same reason—the old one rusted out and fell off.

    1. I had a Miata for eight years before the MG. Drove it daily for two. It’s definitely the spiritual descendent of the British and Italian roadsters, and for me, acted as training wheels (or a gateway drug). Still have massive love and respect for the Miata.

  21. Your wonderful piece, Mark, might have had more than a passing influence. As I write this I am 13 months and 7 days from retirement. I’m trying to figure out what I should get to wrench on when I have more time. I want something that takes up less space than the full-sized Chevrolets I was once into. There’s the Honda 750-four I’ve always wanted since 1976. I passed on a Cooper Mini that “needed work” for $5k, after too much research told me “never buy a Mini.” The guy eventually sold it for $3,800 and I fear I may have missed an opportunity. So your article makes me think that a MG may be in my future. Your experience tells me that, as long as they are not your sole mode of transportation, an MG can be a fun car and provides plenty of opportunity to use the metric wrenches. So, I think the search begins. Thank you!

    1. Go to JHPS.com. the car is a wonder. Quirky British design, a 903 Lotus motor. Tons of support. But more power and more fun. Also nice working example can be had a little cheaper. And you probably never get an MG over 100mph and feel like it’s only 60mph.

    2. Oh no, what have I done…?

      Just kidding. They’re tremendously fun to drive, not hard to work on at all (once you learn to speak their language), well worth the effort. The best advice I can give is look for the most rust-free one you can find; everything else can be replaced. (Actually, the whole body shell can be replaced; there’s a company in England making reproductions, but they aren’t cheap obviously.)

      And here’s a thought: if you liked the Mini idea, but wanted an MG, you could always look for an 1100 or 1300. Some Mini DNA, a BMC A-series engine, and bucketfuls of charm, all wrapped in a small FWD saloon package.

  22. Beautiful story, and car as well.
    I’ve never been afflicted with British-car-itis, but I do have a favorite British car joke:
    Q: Why aren’t there any British computer companies?
    A: Because they’ve never been able to figure out how to make a computer leak oil.

    1. We’ve *had* plenty of computer companies, but like practically every British car company, they’ve all gone bankrupt.
      (Oh, except the Raspberry Pi folks, they’re doing great).

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