By on August 27, 2012

In my last entry, I tried to convey the wonderfulness that was, and is part and parcel to the British Car driving experience, which I was able to enjoy through my “wrenching connections”. For me, if I had to describe this experience in one word, it would have to be “unique”; and when it comes to motorized transport, unique is ALWAYS worth doing at least once.

The experiences I related in the last entry, as far as I’m concerned, are worth doing often and on as regular a basis as possible. In this entry, on the other hand, I’m going to relate some British Car driving experiences that define the darker side of the term.

Much as an ultimately uncomfortable, painful, or downright disastrous experience endured in the search of a Unique Significant Other, such encounters with autos British become indelibly etched into the memory banks. While the passage of time has not reduced the desire to avoid physical repetition of these experiences, it certainly hasn’t diminished their recall worthiness.

“Unique” tends to behave that way.

The first recount involves a late ‘70’s bisection of Los Angeles County, using the then-uncluttered mid-day freeway routes available—in a ’72 MG Midget.

This example had just had its non-overdrive transmission overhauled, and I was giving it a long-distance road test in connection with a cross-town dealer transfer.

All it took was the distance required to achieve appropriate freeway-velocity (at that moment, about 75 mph) to realize that the little Midge was not at all in its element.

Everything seemed like it was working against the both of us.

Even with the seat adjusted all of the way at the back of its travel, my chest was still way too close to the rather largish three-spoke steering wheel, promoting an “elbows out” driving style. This was exacerbated by the fact that there was nowhere comfortable for me to place my left elbow—the door being too close and the bolster too high.

The steering wheel itself was mounted within what seemed to be less than six inches from the dashboard, which was about on the same plane with the windshield, which was so narrow that engineers were required to use THREE very short wiper blades in an effort to clear the majority of the viewing area in the event of precipitation. So, it could have been worse…it could have been RAINING!

Cruising with the flow of traffic, the little one-liter engine was working at about 85% capacity, and spinning at somewhere near 4,500 rpm—not that far south of redline, and very doubtful that it actually had the power to reach that threshold.

Add that clapped-out powertrain dynamic to the overall dimensions of the car, inside and out, and I felt more vulnerable than I ever had in or on ANY motorized conveyance, before or since.

I must have driven the little guy, in reality, only about 30 miles in each direction, but it felt like I’d been in a real adventure by the time the round trip had been completed.

Roald Amundsen, famous South Pole expeditionist once said something to the effect that one has an “adventure” when one fails to prepare. The little MG—and by extension, I—was certainly unprepared for the high-speed freeway cruising experience!

While the Sunbeam Alpine was a quite enjoyable sports car, mainly due to its balance, its Mr. Hyde counterpart, the Tiger, having lost such balance in the name of straight-line performance, was much less enjoyable. You did indeed feel like you had the proverbial TIGER by the tail when behind the wheel of one of these units—especially when equipped with one of the larger displacement and more powerful engine options later offered.

I was impressed into service to design and install a custom dual exhaust system on a friend’s Tiger. Not content with just having a Tiger by the tail, this friend had gone to the trouble of pegging the “Extreme-O-Meter” by doing some additional performance modifications.

He had installed a 5.0 later-model Mustang engine equipped with OVERDRIVEN Paxton Supercharger. As if just the stock H.O. blue oval 302 mill wasn’t plenty for this skinny-tired, under-braked, short wheelbase little “sports car”, he was running about 10 to 12 p.s.i. intake boost, which—with the overdriven blower—was achieved well before the engine reached 2000 rpm!

Even in a straight line, the car was unmanageable; the rear tires breaking loose in a smoke-enveloped wheel-hopping tirade at the slightest provocation.

Not wanting to be intimidated by such behavior, I decided to take it on a relatively short section of twisty road in the general vicinity of my shop. Much to my lack-of-surprise, it was even less manageable in the corners than in a straight line—even light years worse than the standard model Tiger!

Not my idea of a good time.

One year, while making a banzai run up US 1 to the Monterey Historic Auto Weekend, I rounded a corner and encountered a British Racing Green Tiger upside-down on the inside shoulder of the road. The driver appeared O.K., and was conversing with another motorist that happened on the scene before I did. The car was equipped with a proper roll hoop behind the seats. No doubt, he was an experienced Tiger pilot.

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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10 Comments on “Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: My Formative Years Wrenching on British Steel – Road Romps Reserved for Riveting Recall, Not Righteous Repetition...”


  • avatar
    multicam

    My experience with British roadsters is limited to sitting in a non-functioning MG that my neighbors kept around. That’s probably enough nostalgia for me.

    Side note- longest TTAC article title ever?

  • avatar
    tkel

    In the mid-1960s I met a factory-sponsored SCCA Sunbeam driver. He loved racing the Alpine, but they insisted he run a Tiger. He hated it, and was not shy about saying so.

  • avatar
    Oelmotor

    I have one word…Lucas.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    British cars certainly were cute and had their merits, but I’m happy I never had the desire to own one. I’m a large-car lover – and a 1972 Chevy Nova was gargantuan to any British sports cars!

    I noted in other posts that I had access to my first air force room mate’s 1958 MGA, which I drove around base a few times – that was intimidating enough at 25 mph! It always felt as if it would conk out any second and I’d be pushing it back to our barracks parking lot. How my roomie took this thing to Reno/Lake Tahoe on a regular basis confounded me then and now. I-80 out of Grass Valley over Donner Pass ain’t no picnic and must’ve been terror in the MG!

    Sorry, I’m just not that adventurous, then and less so now…

    Still, those sports cars had their appeal and had a cool factor all their own, as well as their Italian cousins.

  • avatar
    Ex Radio Operator

    In the spring of 1963 I took a roadtrip in my 1962 MGA. From Houston through Big Bend Park in west Texas, into northern Mexico, then to San Angelo, Texas to visit relatives. Most of the trip was on sparsely traveled roads so most of the trip was done at 80 MPH or higher. The only memorable incident was when I topped a hill east of Alpine and came across a travel trailer that had been blown over in a high cross wind. Believe it or not Granny had been riding in said trailer when it went over. Incredibly all she got was some bumps and bruises. That trailer and Granny were scattered over at least 50 yards of roadside. Her karma was strong that day.

    On my trip home I left San Angelo at Noon and pulled into my Parents driveway at 6pm. That’s about 400 miles. Average speed, 66+ MPH. Not bad for a little car that’s being disparaged constantly. I loved that car and now drive a ’91 BRG Miata. I had to give up the MG when I got drafted later that year and the friend I sold it to totalled it. Gone but not forgotten. Maybe I was lucky because the only thing wrong with that car was a bad kingpin. That was it. No electrical problems and everything stayed screwed on. Great little car.

  • avatar
    millmech

    I recall reading that, during development of the Tiger, that they had a habit of ripping out the rear wheel centers.
    Someone had already tried the V8 into Alpine, but it Shelby to move the engine back & restore some balance. There are supposed to be rubber plugs on the firewall to remove/replace the rear spark[ing] plugs.

  • avatar
    Charliej

    On a Tiger, the right rear plug was replaced through a hole in the firewall behind the glove box. English cars were a big part of my early driving experience. Slantback Anglias, original Minis, Morris Minors, Mg 1100’s, Austin Americas. Original Minis were great fun, 38 horsepower meant flat out every where when driving. If you have never seen an original Mini, the doors were one thickness of sheet metal. Total empty weight was around 1400 pounds. Not safe in an accident, but so nimble that it took talent to crash. Every owner had a piece of broom handle to whack the SU fuel pump when it stopped working. One whack was usually enough to go for another two or three weeks before the points stuck again. Owning British cars helped to make me a competent mechanic by age 25. Young people today don’t have the chance to develop their skills on the cheap cars of my youth. Of course, todays cars do not require much wrenching.

  • avatar
    Bill Wade

    I had a Sunbeam Tiger Mark II. Lot’s of fun in a straight line, deathtrap in the turns. 13″ tires with the worst brakes this side of the Russian GAZ made for interesting times running around the Bay Area.

  • avatar
    Robert Gordon

    “Cruising with the flow of traffic, the little one-liter engine was working at about 85% capacity”

    Did you swap the engine or something? MkIII Midgets were 1275cc, Only MkIs were 1 litre


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