By on July 11, 2006

B469522.jpg“The older I get, the better I was.”  Those of you who were in high school before Neil Armstrong baby-stepped for mankind know what I’m talking about.  Time has a remarkable way of enhancing our memories of days gone by.  More specifically, we tend to idolize automobiles whose once questionable joys have been filtered and sanitized by the mists of time.  Occasionally we need a good old whack from the reality stick to jar the truth loose from the cobwebs of our cloudy minds.  I got mine today.

Eons ago, I owned an MG-B.  I purchased the English roadster for a song from an airman who had to get rid of it in a hurry.  That car was a great toy.  I enjoyed the wind-in-your-face sensation of fresh air motoring.  The tonneau cover could unzip just on the driver’s side, allowing me to drive the rorty ragtop al fresco during the north Texas winter, without freezing to death.  I used the electric overdrive switch on the top of the shifter (in conjunction with 3rd and 4th gears) to create a poor man’s six-speed.  I tinkered with the engine on weekends, nurturing plans to rebuild the car from the ground up when time and money allowed.  Needless to say, circumstance eventually forced me to trade my dreams for cash– and all the wonderful memories of good times spent with my MG-B.

Today, I stumbled upon an MG-B roadster, the first one I’ve seen in years.  It was parked along the street, wearing the same colors as my old ride (brownish-orange with brown seats and door panels).  Whoever owned the classic Brit obviously loved it; she was in decent condition, without apparent rust or decay.  I smiled as I looked it over, thinking about how much I enjoyed my MG, and regretted selling it.

Then I noticed was how tiny it was.  Mine wasn’t that small was it?  How did I ever manage to fold up my six-foot-three-inch frame and wedge my fat ass into that puny driver’s seat?  And how did I get my size 14 feet to operate those miniscule pedals one at a time?  Why in the world did I ever want to get out on the highway in something that small, open to all the elements, looking semis and SUV’s and mondo-sized 4×4 pickups squarely in the hubcaps as they whizzed past at 70 miles per hour?  

I stepped back and took another look at the MG-B.  It sported the same ugly black rubber bumpers as mine.  It looked like it was standing on tiptoes. [MG’s answer to US bumper standards: replace their beautiful trademark grille and chrome bumper with that hideous rubber thing, and then jack-up the suspension an inch or so.] How in the world did I ever get the car around corners at any rate of speed without rolling it?  And those awful stamped steel wheels.  Mine had the beautiful wire wheels that most people associate with classic MG’s, didn’t it?  No… wait… it had the same wheels as this one.  But mine were rusting.

And that color!  How could I ever be seen in public driving something that hideous?  They called it “Bracken.”  “Brackish” would have been more like it.  It was the same murky color as a mud puddle full of Georgia clay.  I couldn’t believe anyone with a modicum of taste would cover a car with such a putrid shade.

The memories came flooding back.  I drove it with the top down because the canvas cover was so fiendishly complicated I didn’t want to try putting it up.  The few times I made the effort, I could hardly duck my head low enough to get in.  Once there, I couldn’t see anything through a tiny slit of a windshield that was nearasdammit at ground level.  I used the overdrive as often as I did because the MG-B got atrocious gas mileage.  And it was slow.  A contemporary Cobalt or Corolla would easily outrun and out corner this high-performance English thoroughbred.  It was noisy.  It leaked copious amounts of oil (the main reason I tinkered with the engine on weekends).  Of course, back then, I couldn’t have cared less.  I was young and the MG-B was a genuine sports car.  That was all that really mattered. 

The owner came out: a college kid. As he drove off, I wondered why anyone with an education would willingly sacrifice safety, comfort, speed, handling and reliability for Anglophile street cred.  No doubt he loves his MG-B, though, and the attention it attracts.  And I’m sure some 20 or so years from now he’ll think back fondly on his MG and regret getting rid of it– regardless of the trouble it gives him now.  Live and learn.

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21 Comments on “The Older I Get…...”


  • avatar
    dean

    Great editorial! Brings back memories of my first car, although I certainly recollect every one of its warts, and suffer no illusions about how capable it was. That was only 18 years ago, though. Give me another 10 and maybe it wasn’t a beat up ’72 Chevelle anymore…

  • avatar
    MX5bob

    Once in a while I’ll see a really nicely restored VW Beetle. Of course the one I owned in 1975 was 8 years old and the motor blew up. Then I rebuilt the motor, great edcuation that was, and that engine threw a rod. Still, there’s something about People’s Car that’s attractive.

    After a few moments of reverie, I’m reminded about what the common rental version in Mexico is like, spartan and devoid of anything modern except for 64-bit starter interrupt to keep it from being stolen. Then there’s the nasty habit of the seats tearing lose from the floor in an accident, shitty brakes, plodding steering, questionable handling and anemic power.

    Sure, all of that can be cured through modifications, but why bother? For less than a clean ’60s Beetle goes for in SoCal you can buy a cleaner and far safer, faster and more capable Miata or MR2 or even an Impreza 2.5 RS.

    Bob Beamesderfer

  • avatar
    Glenn

    I have two similar stories. When my buddy and I were teens, he was really, really into VW Beetles. Simply put – it was economics. Or rather, lack of cash. In northwestern Michigan in the mid-1970′s, 1960′s VW Beetles were “a dime a dozen.”

    I had lots of fond memories of the “good old days” we spent tinkering (because the consarnat things kept blowing up….) and once about 15 years ago at my brother-in-laws wedding, someone needed a car moving. Could I move it? Sure. Keys. Oh, my. A 1970′s VW Beetle in its orange glory (?!)

    Oh my gosh, was it awful.

    Then about 10 years ago, my wife had a colleague who needed a car driven to a mechanics (uh oh, that doesn’t sound good) and would I do it? It was a Pontiac 1000 (merely a “badge-engineered” Chevette). Well, this was the first new car I’d bought in 1984 when we were only married for a few years and the car in which we used to drive up the Rocky mountains west of Canon City, Colorado to enjoy “weekend days” on the old narrow-guage railways and tunnels. Yeah, it was a mule of a car, but never broke and went places I couldn’t have taken a bigger car. I sure had some fond memories of that little car….

    Then I drove the car (about 10 years after I’d gotten rid of my own) and wow, was it ever a total POS compared to modern cars!

    Yeah, give me my Prius any day, thanks. Most amazing car on planet earth.

    At least until I get my hands on a new 2011 Honda FCX fuel cell car…

  • avatar

    I love the look of cars from the ’50s and first half of the ’60s, and I photograph them all the time (check out my website, motorlegends.com). Every now and then people ask me if I want to own one. No!!! — for all the reasons outlined above. I started shooting them because it was a lot cheaper than owning them with none of the headache.

  • avatar

    Wow. That does bring back the memories. Of leaky t-tops, burned-up starters, pocket-emptying gas refills, running with no headlights at midnight, and teeth-cracking suspension.

    But also of delightful young-girl squeals from the passenger seat, chilly September wind from the open top, hours with my dad replacing crappy OEM parts, and rooting around the couch cushions for cruising money.

    Oh to be 19 again.

    Thanks.

  • avatar

    Ha you don’t have to be out of your 20s to have that feeling. I’m only 21 and my mind loves to exaggerate the memories of a 1996 Saab 900 turbo that i had in high school. Despite the fact that I have records of it being in the shop constantly, costing my father an arm and a leg, I miss that Swedish quirkiness and the amazing speed that thing had (for a high school kid). Good stuff.

  • avatar
    BarryO

    Thanks so much for the MG B memories. My first car was an MG Midget, bright red, $100. It had a cracked axle, but for the money, what the hey…learned a lot about mechanics, and junk yards, getting parts, etc.

    You couldn’t ride the clutch in traffic, because it would slowly engage on its own, fluid leak or something. I also had a spare muffler in the trunk – no spare tire but a spare muffler, because with only about maybe 4″ of clearance, I was knocking it off the exhaust pipe on a weekly basis. I felt exposed and endangered on a regular basis, but it was more fun than the legal limit at the time.

    I came home one weekend from college and my beloved Midget was gone. Asked dad where the car was, and he sold it to one of his bus driver buddies. For $100. Forged my name on the title. Why? He said he got sick of listening to mom yell at him that ‘that friggin’ kid is gonna get killed if you don’t do something’ every time I left the house. I hugged him for doing the right thing. But what memories…

  • avatar
    buzzliteyear

    While I agree with the article and recognize that today’s cars are *vastly* superior to those of 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago, I’m going to be a bit contrarian and offer some defense to these old machines.

    —Older cars had more diverse (and some would argue superior) styling. It’s difficult to make a fashion statement with a modern car when it looks just like 20 other different makes/models. Don’t underestimate how powerful this need is in the car-owning public.

    —Older cars were less reliable, but if something broke, it was usually much easier (and cheaper) to fix it. A “tune-up” usually consisted of a new set of ignition points, which you could install with a single screwdriver, set the dwell using a matchbook, and set the timing by “ear”.
    Nowadays, when your radio can turn on the “Check Engine” light and lock your transmission into second gear (True story: e-mail me if you want details), you need access to a factory scan tool and a huge database of service information.

    —(Some) older cars had aspects that were noteworthy, especially compared to their contemporary competition. For example, MGs had excellent steering (quick, accurate, full of feedback) that was *far* superior to the American cars of its day, and might still compare well today. Similarly, my family owned some late-60s/early-70s Mercedes-Benz sedans with top-notch brakes. In contrast, the ’76 AMC Gremlin we owned had *awful* brakes, as did the ’86 S-10 Blazer my Mom drove.

    —Never underestimate the power of “character” and the human need for storytelling. Lousy old cars had ‘character’ and made for great stories. I have two dogs, a beagle and a mutt. The mutt is a *wonderful* dog, yet once you explain that he’s wonderful, you’re done. By contrast, my beagle could fill a biography with stories about her 3 knee surgeries, her multiple escape attempts, her chocolate-devouring episodes, her early fear of cats, her odd sleeping habits, her Machiavellian approach to asserting dominance over other dogs, etc., etc. Hence, when we’re separated (My ex-wife houses them and I visit from time to time), I miss the beagle more than the mutt. Similarly, a 2007 Toyota Camry is a *fabulous* car, but you’re unlike to tell your grandchildren about it.

    Buzz L.

  • avatar
    DaveClark

    I owned a Triumph TR3 in those halcyon days of the pre-seat belt era when it was your right to be thrown from your car. The car was a certifiable POS. And I could live to be 150 years old and I ain’t going nostalgic for that electrical basket case. I would never drive outside a 10 mile radius, because that was the limit of imposing on friendships to come rescue me from mechanical misery. I learned how to hitchhike with this car.

    I did like palming the pavement courtesy of those low slung doors. But the side curtains (removable windows) were an abysmal creation. Taking pity on the hapless thing, I rewired it. Things were in electrical harmony at that point, so the POS decided it was high time for it to have carburetion problems. I once had to patch a leaky su (or solex?) carb by cutting the rubber floor mat to serve as a fuel gasket.

    I’ve owned 30+ plus cars, and it was fun when it ran, but ownership of the TR3 instilled massive appreciation for RELIABILITY. I do smile when I see one, but I never follow one on the roadway –it’s like following a truck with unsecured cargo, ready to become an obstacle.

  • avatar
    TechBob

    Maybe I was lucky, but I don’t think I’d regret getting my hands back on my red ’69 Lotus Elan S3. I bought it from a GI who needed to get rid of it (kept popping out of 2nd – nut on cluster gear came loose…). I got my first baptism when I drained the transmission fluid out and it looked like liquid brass! Second baptism was crawling through wrecking yards counting teeth on Cortina transmission gears through inspection plates until I found one that matched…

    OK, so it broke some. Well, a lot. Fine – so I had to repair or replace everything on it but the differential. But when it was working – OMG! It was light & faster than hell & and handled like a go cart. The Miata doesn’t even come CLOSE to the driving experience of an Elan. There was even enough room for my 6′ 3″ frame – though I did have to take off my shoes to drive it (wide feet).

    True, it may have been unreliable – but that was the challenge; to improve it! I replaced the string that pulled the power windows up and down with fine, high-strength aircraft cables. I fabricated replacement flexible hydraulic lines for the clutch with SS reinforced Teflon (after they ruptured a few times).

    It taught me resourcefulness (did you know it’s interior door handles came from an MGB and tail lights from a Jag?) and problem solving (did you know fiberglass cars need an easily corrodible ground path to EVERY electrical item on the car?) and patience (the only way to adjust the valves was to purchase an entire set of shims from the dealer, guess, torque down the camshafts, rinse, repeat…)

    I sat in the car and cried the day the new owner came to pick it up – and still gaze longingly and some of my slides of the car. I do admit a little trepidation about driving a sub-2,000 lb. fiberglass tub in these days of XXX-UV’s – but I don’t think I’d hesitate too long …

  • avatar
    744

    As an owner of a 79 MGB I have to agree with Mr. Williams that the top is a hassle and the visibility poor when it is up for anyone taller than 5′ 4″. But I respectfully disagree otherwise.

    Too often these cars, and the others similar too them, are besmirched by memories of what were, in our youth and in truth, 3rd hand poorly maintained beaters. Anyone can/could work on these cars, and pretty much anyone did–whether they knew what they were doing or not. That is not the fault of the breed.

    Now if you want a crappy car, take the 1979 Mustang that I foolishly bought new. May it rot in peace.

  • avatar
    Frank Williams

    Here’s an interesting turn of events, as reported in the Detroit News:

    China carmaker to build in U.S.

    Nanjing Auto plans to manufacture newly designed MG TF Coupe in Oklahoma in 2008.

    The story is at:

    http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060712/AUTO01/607120418/1148

  • avatar
    nweaver

    My uncle used to be a big british car nut, having a Triumph from new and using his MGB as his daily driver until around 1998.

    At that time, he bought a new Miata, and never, EVER looked back.

  • avatar
    MX5bob

    There’s no doubt that you don’t learn to work on a car if you own something reliable. Rebuilding the VW motor was a great educational experience, even if my mother didn’t think so at the time. Guess the solvent smell from my bedroom was a bit much, but it was the dead of Chicago winter and that was the cleanest, best lighted place to work.

    The Miata is wonderful update to the classic British sports car, an homage to the Elan. But modern safety standards make it heavier than any of Mr. Chapman’s products.

  • avatar
    dolo54

    It’s a shame that most new cars don’t come close to the styling of many old cars. However new cars are vastly superior in reliability. I think one editorial here mentioned ‘car cold wars’ where everybody in the US is getting bigger and bigger vehicles so they don’t feel like they will get crushed by the next person’s suv. Now I drive a little car and it’s low to the ground. I live in nyc, so I don’t want a big car. I get a lot of parking spots that bigger cars can’t fit into and I really enjoy the go-cart feel of my car. However it is very annoying that I can never see past the truck that’s in front of me. I’m not a huge suv hater, but I do feel like you should have a good reason to get one (really an outdoorsman, have a construction job, at least 3 kids, etc.) Otherwise it’s just a waste.

  • avatar

    I have no nostalgia toward the old MGs, but I did test a 1973(ish) MG last year. My father was thinking of buying one for nostalgic purposes.

    Let’s just say that I could not find one redeeming quality about it to make me recommend the purchase. I was comparing this to my beater 1990 Civic Si. The MG’s vague handling, awful interface, mushy everything (brakes, steering) cranky acceleration, and a variety of other factors made me wonder why anyone would be nostalgic.

    Thus, we nixed that purchase…all but the quirky looks are lost on generation X (I am in my late 20s).

    I wonder if I will get nostalgic for rebuilding my Civic’s distributor in 30 years?

  • avatar
    Caffiend

    When I was 16, I helped my step mom buy a new 82 Trans-Am. 165 hp, seemed like gobs at the time. At least it sounded really good. She only had it for a few years, and sold it to a guy who shipped them to Japan.

    I only drove it a handful of times. With the 85 mph limit on the speedo, I can only guess what my speed record was at the time. I’d guess 130 or so. Smoked the breaks bringing it to a stop. Just after the stop was pretty regular speed trap, and there was a cop waiting. That would have been hard to explain. But at 16, it was incredibly fun.

    Unrelatedly, my step mom did rip up my driver’s license and throw it in my face for some infraction when I was 16. The few times I did get pulled over after that, cops where generally cool after hearing the details. More effective than a year of groundings. I can laugh about it now, but at the time I couldn’t.

  • avatar
    FunkyD

    In my own youth, I owned a 1972 Nova and I really learned to wrench on tit, and it’s carried over to this day.

    Funny thing about the Nova, it was marketed as a “compact” but compared to the then-contemporary late 80s & early 90s cars, it was quite big. I converted the 307 V8 to a Q-Jet carb and that helped with performance (still only about 150 net ponies), but it still delivered 17 MPG regardless of the situation. I had it painted dark green, and it looked sharp. Truth is, new Honda Accords will outrun the old Mean Green Machine!

    As with any Nova, handling was approximate, of course, and neither Eagle GTs nor gas-charged shocks helped much. I sure learned coutersteer in that car, too :-)

    Fast forward to the present, new GTO, a little smaller inside and out. 400 net ponies, near-Corvette handling and braking, and almost 24 highway MPG. Probably puts out 5% of the smog (the Nova was the last year model before EGR), and a blast to drive.

    I appreciate the classics, but long live the modern musclecar!

  • avatar
    gbh

    Styling is intensely personal preference. Since I was a kid in the early 70′s I’d have rather taken a bullet than a ’55 Chevy with Cragars on it.

    The older I get, the more I’d rather die than drive anything done by Boyd…
    “Hi, I’d like some automotive vanilla pablum for $150K, whaddya have?”

    Blecch.

    Sure, it might be kinda fun to have a Hemi ‘Cuda, but hardly something that makes me excited. There’s 20 more at the local auto show, just like yours. Snoresville.

    A Pantera, GT40, Muira – having driven them all, POSs to be sure. But at least they don’t look like some white-trash-cheese-dog Harley Earl insipid, err, inspired design. Oh yeah, and they performed much better too.

    One of the cars I bought when a teen was an X1/9. Got me way more play cruisin’ Main Street than the wahoos in their chrome-wheeled Montes. The bonus was I got to watch a few of them stuff it hard trying to keep up with my “little furrin’ POS” on winding country roads. Loads of fun. The only person in town who could beat me on the road was this girl with a 914-6. If only I had had the funds for a turbo…

    The new crop is light-years better than the old. Sure, we all wax nostalgic, but who in their right mind wants a car with points, leaf springs, and a carb?

    • 0 avatar
      2ronnies1cup

      I can relate to the X1/9 memories. Most common question I got when I owned one was “What is it?” – It got so my stock reply was “Well, when it grows up it wants to be a Ferrari”

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    My first car, bought as an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy at the age of 22, was a 1952 MG-TD. It was a fun little car to drive, when it was up to running. But I’d bought it with trust, from a Lt. Commander at the air base where I was stationed; and he’d sold it to me with a blown head-gasket. (He did offer to buy it back, when a retired Machinist’s Mate Chief Petty Officer, who also raced MGs in the 1950s, told me of the head gasket. The officer acted shocked, telling me “There’s nothing wrong with that car,” shaming me into keeping it. Hey, I was gullible as most young car buffs are.) I had it for a year and it almost broke me, financially. I do remember it had an amazing ability to corner well. I liked it because it reminded me, looking at its exterior, of some of the better American roadsters – think the model “A” or “B” – of the 1930s. But in retrospect, it really was a shitbox.
    How Ken Miles got those same chassis to do the things he did with the old “Flying Shingle” amazes me, when I read about that special and others he built, based on MG-T series cars.


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