For some people, climbing into a car, starting it on the first try and driving off with reasonable confidence in actually arriving somewhere is as sacrilegious as getting communion wafers out of a vending machine. These zealots (let’s call them Tinkerers) regard motoring as a religious experience filled with arcane ritual, unfathomable mystery and fervent prayer (or at least frequent blasphemy). To members of The Church of The British Sports Car, there are few better altars than the MGB upon which to sacrifice one’s time and money. But perhaps MGB ownership is not so much automotive-hair-shirt-wearing as it is Guy Fawkes emulation: brilliant plan, ‘orrible execution.
The MGB arrived in 1962 with lightweight unibody construction propelled by literally dozens of horsepowers. It did zero to sixty miles per hour in roughly eleven seconds. It could pull a respectable 9/10ths-of-a-G on the skid pad. And the MGB would hit a top speed of 100mph “without fuss” (early evidence of journalistic pandering).
The MGB’s ever-so-British styling was simple and appealing: long hood, short deck, two seats and a drop-top; keep ‘er low to the ground and add lashings of chrome. Compared to the lead-bottomed behemoths of the time, the ‘B was a frothy delight. My Dad bought a used one. He cheated death when a gravel truck ran a red light and smacked the MGB.
Our bent MGB spent several decades in a bramble-covered barn on a corner of a neighbor’s property while several generations of rodents ate the upholstery. (Marinating a car in a medley of rust, dust and time is an important step in creating a classic/relic.) Dad would periodically check in to see how things were getting on. There was much standing around with arms folded and grand plans that never materialized. It wasn’t until the neighbor decided to knock down the barn that my father was forced to come and shift the corpse.
While the MGB was hauled off to the rack for some chiropractic frame-straightening, Dad cleaned out the garage and tried to find all the errant components of his socket set. I soon learned that automobile restoration is not so much a project with a definite ending point as it is an ongoing process, like self-improvement or, more accurately, continental drift. What other possible reason could there have been for investing several days in painting each engine component a different colour of rust-proof Tremclad?
I seemed to be primarily involved in shining the trouble light on what was, invariably, the wrong bolt. And yet what an education I was receiving! Not in the inner workings of the combustion engine, nor the basics of tool use; I learned the language of automotive repair.
Being of Irish extraction, my father was blessed with the knack for inventive cursing. My young ears soaked-up his best material. To this day, I find no salve as soothing to a crushed fingernail as the ability to earn oneself a few extra years in purgatory with an ingenious epithet.
As the years passed, and perhaps despite my father’s best efforts, the MGB drew nearer completion. And then that fateful day arrived. There was nothing left to do except fire it up. Which couldn’t be done.
“Aha!” cried Dad with barely-disguised glee, “The carburetors must need adjustment.”
Out came the wrenches. There was some last-minute choke-cable difficulty. And then the indignant spluttering gave way to a muffled roar. And that was just Dad. Still, when the bluish smoke had cleared, there she stood: a gleaming, candy-apple red Lazarus, purring as she would have done brand-new in 1967. Then she stalled.
Eventually we got her running rather lumpily. After several test-circuits, my father decided to reward all my hours of semi-incompetent grease-monkey-ism by letting me get a feel for late ‘60s motoring, UK-style.
Grasping the yacht-sized, somewhat floppy Bakelite wheel, I felt a twinge of unease. I soon discovered that the brakes favoured the Neville Chamberlain approach to forward velocity: they preferred appeasement over action. To avoid becoming a tree-ornament, constant forward planning was required. Still, with the wind in my hair, careening around a blind bend with the narrow tires squealing, I couldn’t help feeling alive; perhaps even going so far as to shout, “I don’t want to die!”
The MGB sleeps in a shed (where else?) waiting for the sunny morning when Dad will begin the pre-flight preparations necessary for taking an autumn blast through the leaves. Wherever he parks it, it will mark its territory with scattered oil patches, like an elderly and incontinent dog.
Should it unexpectedly rain, Dad will find its convertible roof as pointlessly complicated and time-consuming to assemble as the Millennium dome. My mother will need to have the phone nearby if/when an emergency SOS comes through. As for me, I’m off down the pub. On the bus.