Welcome back to Shitbox Showdown! Today we’re in Richmond, Virginia looking at two British cars that run and drive, but still need a little help. Normally, before we got started, we’d have to look at Friday’s results, but there was no poll on Friday. There wasn’t much consensus, either. If it were my choice, I’d make the Chevy my daily driver, set up the Nissan Cube for rallycross (why not?), and give the already-half-dead Mustang a Viking funeral. But that’s just me.
Moving on: British cars are the butt of a lot of jokes. Their Lucas electrical systems bear the brunt, but their propensity to leak oil is also good joke fodder. Neither one is entirely unfair, but neither are British cars hopelessly unreliable as is so often insinuated. If you stay on top of the maintenance, and are handy with a spanner, these cars can be as reliable as any other old vehicle. More or less.
Both of today’s choices are running and driving already. Neither one is ready for a cross-country journey, but as we’ve discussed before, step one is being able to get in and turn the key and make the car go, and these are already there. You just have to keep them that way, and track down and fix a few problems. Let’s take a look.
Engine/drivetrain: 3.9 liter overhead valve V8, four-speed automatic, full-time 4WD
Location: Richmond, VA
Odometer reading: 138,000 miles
Runs/drives? Yes, but “smelled hot” last time it was driven
The Land Rover Discovery is becoming a well-known car around the halls of the Autopian offices, thanks to the exploits of our young weekend warrior Rob Spiteri. Rob recently sold his Series II Discovery, but still claims to have Land Rover fever. And frankly, I can’t blame him; the Discovery is a cool truck. It has a great chunky utilitarian look, luxurious interior appointments, and the same drivetrain as the legendary Range Rover. They’re well-made, incredibly capable off-road vehicles that have survived some absurd challenges. So how did they end up with such a poor reputation here in the US?
I have a theory: They’re bored. Land Rovers are used to slogging through jungles, fording rivers, climbing mountains, getting winched up trees, that sort of thing. Americans buy them and… drive them to the mall. Or the country club. Or – God help us – Rodeo Drive. The poor trucks occasionally commit suicide just to break up the monotony.
This Series I Discovery was purchased to be a first car for a sixteen-year-old. Things started out well, but after a few drives the new owner noticed a “hot” smell emanating from it, got worried, and parked it. From the sounds of it, it hasn’t turned a wheel since. The seller knows nothing about cars, and can’t find a local shop willing to work on it, so they’re getting out while the getting is good. Discoverys are prone to overheating, and the aluminum Rover V8 is not very tolerant of high heat, so it sounds like they did the right thing. Of course, a hot smell could be indicative of an oil leak, possibly valve cover gaskets leaking onto the exhaust, so that’s something to check as well.
It looks good, with only a few bruises and some faded plastic outside, and some wear and popped seams on the seats. The aftermarket fog lights and roof rack are nice touches. To me, this Landy sounds like it just needs a patient and knowledgeable owner to nurse it back to health, and then go put that four-wheel-drive system to good use somewhere.
[Editor’s Note: Those orange things on the back seem to be a pair of magnetic boxes, to hold small amounts of chowder or fuses or something – JT]
Engine/drivetrain: 1275 cc overhead valve inline 4, four-speed manual, RWD
Location: Mechanicsville, VA
Odometer reading: 63,000 miles
Runs/drives: Runs great, but rear main oil seal leaks
Looking for an older, more traditional British car experience? Look no further than this 1968 Austin-Healey Sprite MkIV. This final iteration of Britain’s tiny sports car features a 1275 cubic centimeter variant of the BMC A-series four-cylinder and the same squared-off wide-eyed front end first seen in 1962 on the MkII Sprite. It’s not as relentlessly cute as the original “bugeye” (or “frogeye” on its home turf) design, but it’s still adorable. And if you’re familiar with the MG Midget, no, you’re not seeing things; this is the same car, from 1962 up until the Austin-Healey nameplate went away in 1971. This era of Sprite and Midget has become collectively known by the portmanteau “Spridget.”
This Sprite looks to be in good shape, with no signs of serious rust. Spridgets, like MGBs, are a unibody design, and as such, rust in the wrong places can be fatal. This car looks solid, but you would be wise to take a close look underneath, and lift up the carpets, too. The paint is only OK, and the seller acknowledges that. It looks like it might be an older poor-quality respray, so a magnet to check for Bondo (there’s bound to be some) isn’t a bad idea either.
The seller says the little A-series engine runs great, and has had a lot of work done. The only mechanical problem is a leaking rear main oil seal. British cars of this era still used “rope” seals for the crankshaft, and after fifty-five years you can’t expect them to hold up. Modern rubber seal kits are available, but of course you have to pull the gearbox and flywheel to get to it.
But it wouldn’t be a proper British roadster if it didn’t need something. You have to be willing to get your hands dirty if you’re going to drive a car like this. (How do you tell the British car guy at the pub? He’s the one who has to wash his hands before peeing…) But again, in the right hands, this little car could be an absolute gem. The final line of the ad says, “This is not a daily driver.” And I agree; at least, not with that attitude, it isn’t.
If you want something consistently reliable, get a Toyota. But you’ll be missing out on decades of tradition, massive amounts of charm, miles and miles of fun drives, and the satisfaction that comes from knowing a vehicle inside and out. You’ve got two flavors to choose from – a rough and ready SUV with a soft side, or a tiny fun roadster that feels much faster than it is. Which will it be?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)