By on December 1, 2007

The pop rivets on the crudely fabricated rocker panels were a dead giveaway: tell-tales of ill health under the distraction of a box fresh $29.95 Earl Scheib paint job. I noticed the rivets as soon as the smarmy soon-to-be seller of the ’57 MGA pulled into the driveway. But I was 15, and not the intended victim. That would be my older brother, who was utterly blinded by lust as the late-summer sun sparkled on the curvaceous roadster. He was 19, and about to enter that unique form of parallel hell endemic to the ownership of a clapped-out rusty English car. His only consolation: unlike most self-inflicted drives to auto-hell, his would at least be fairly quick, and a one-way trip.

My nagging doubts about the rocker panels were instantly forgotten during my first ride. Sitting inches above the pavement, elbows hanging out over the low-cut doors, the warm evening air assaulting my head from all directions, I was intoxicated. And since I didn’t own the fragile roadster, there was no hangover… for me.

In its prime, the MGA’s 1500cc engine had made all of 72hp. For England in the mid nineteen-fifties, that might have been sufficient.  By the late sixties in the US, the tired MG was anything but fast. But the cacophony of loose valves, rattling main bearings and howling drive-line components overlaid with the “vintage roadster coefficient” made any speed seem at least three times faster. Which was just as well, what with its balding el-cheapo tires and drum brakes that oozed their vital fluid as copiously as St. Francis’ stigmata.

The big Jaeger speedometer did nothing to dispel the sensation of speed; its spastic pulsations were indecipherable above forty-five. Who cared? Most MG’s had never been fast cars. They just felt that way– until 1968, when smog controls choked off even the illusion of speed.

The key to enjoying the elderly MGA’s still-precise steering and other remaining talents: getting lost on north Baltimore County’s winding rural roads. On these near-perfect facsimiles of narrow English country roads, the roadster made its origins and preferences perfectly clear.

Joyriding was its métier, as well as mine. More than once, I surreptitiously took the roadster out for a spin during my pre-license driving era (sorry about that, bro, I just couldn’t resist). Driving the MGA released an adrenalin-heavy hormonal cocktail, as I worried about getting caught and/or whether or not the old heap would make it home.

My brother’s daily commute to college was the MG’s ostensible mission, and the rationale used to talk my father into financing the acquisition. Needless to say, post-purchase, practically every major system of the roadster failed in rapid succession: the notorious “Prince of Darkness” Lucas electrics, those leaky brakes, the anachronistic lever shocks, the perpetually unsynchronized Skinners Union carburetors. The left front fender went MIA after a frat party. It’s a good thing my brother’s buddy drove a boring but dead-reliable Chevy sedan.

Despite being out of action for weeks at a time that first winter, the pop-riveted rocker panels crudely fabricated from hardware store sheet metal began to disintegrate. This opened-up an ever-widening gap between the floor boards and the doors. It was handy for discrete refuse disposal, but not so pleasant in the rain (as if an MG roadster could ever be so). Army surplus blankets were literally pressed into service to keep out the precipitation.

At least the clattering, worn-out engine obligingly held on a few months longer, when income from a summer job and warm weather made an engine transplant from a Nash Metropolitan feasible (it used the same BMC B-series engine). And a bright red front fender acquired through unconventional means restored the body to a vague semblance of wholeness– even though it clashed with the Kermit-the-frog green paint job. In 1969, the car looked almost fashionable.

That summer’s endless greasy and sweaty labors only temporarily forestalled the MG’s suicidal tendencies. Within months, the transplanted Metropolitan engine gave up the ghost, perhaps a form of organ rejection. The MG sat forlorn in the driveway leaking bodily fluids until my father called a wrecker, sealing its final fate.

And since he was called upon to finance its replacement, something more practical was in order. My brother settled on a three-year old ’66 VW Beetle, still in the prime of its life. The Volks was the antithesis of the MGA in every respect except speed. It gave faultless, economical service for years to come.

Now you might think that I would have learned to stay away from old MG’s, watching my brother and his ever leakier barchetta inexorably founder in a sea of brake fluid, oil and gas. And I did, for a good ten years. But youthful memory is short. I eventually succumbed to MG fever. But that’s another story.

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18 Comments on “Autobiography: MGA...”


  • avatar
    turbosaab

    Great to have you back, Paul. Nothing goes better with the Saturday morning cup of coffee than one of your stories.

  • avatar
    murphysamber

    You’re Back!!! Grab the beers and dogs, boys (and girl or two). Paul is spinnin’ yarns by the campfire again.

  • avatar

    A wise man once said: “There is great joy to be found driving slow cars fast.” Nothing satisfies that joy like an MG. I owe my very existence to a red MG A roadster. It is what brought my parents together, two polar opposites that found ONE bit of attraction, that curvaceous Abingdon body. Whenever I think of my parent’s respective families (Irish catholics from Fall River Mass, and Scots Southern Baptists from Rural east Texas) I scratch my head in wonderment that Mom & Dad ever met, and could ever have fallen in love. It HAD to be the MG.

    My father has been a life-long “car guy”, a genetic deficiency I inherited as the sole male heir. He has always had interesting machines, and a near unbroken string of open-topped English ones scattered through life. A little black chrome bumpered B is the one I remember from my early childhood, purchased after the first-year Mustang literally crumbled in a pile of rust in our driveway in the winter on 1966. My dad sold it to “some kid” (like Paul’s brother) for $150, and on a fine spring day drove home in an MG B. I can not recall the fate of the B but when I was 9 years old in 1972 we went to Wisconsin and came home in a 1950 MG TD. Man was that car fun… until the engine blew. My father then undertook a complete restoration, with parts scattered all over our garage and basement, and every table in our house covered in catalogs from Moss Motors and MG Mitten.

    My father is an all-thumbs mechanic and was really out of his element. The job took over two years to complete and put a huge strain on my parent’s marriage. I learned all my bad words while “helping” him reassemble that car.

    Ironically that MG TD vanished into storage the year I turned 16. Go figure.

    Whilst I was working overseas in the UK a decade or so ago, my father called me all excited… he had found a clapped out, but mostly rust-free E-type Jaguar that he was going to restore as his retirement project. Having saved up quite a bit of money over his lifetime, sanity prevailed and it became a “checkbook restoration” as I’m sure he would still be reassembling it today, while also being divorced! The car became a huge bonding experience for the two of us as we ran countless vintage rallies, including the 1999 Cannonball Classic in the Jaguar. What a ton of fun.

    Tragedy stuck in 2001 when a hurricane flooded the car in a parking garage. Agreed-value insurance paid for a second restoration, but the shop that did the first job completely botched it the second time and went way over budget as well. This time my mom laid down the law, “me or the Jag”… my father called me to deliver the bad news, and in a momentary lapse of reason, my wife suggested I buy the car to save their marriage.

    I bought it, sunk way too much money into addressing all the monumental bodges the “famous restorer**” inflicted upon it, and have been driving the wheels off it ever since… with my father, and just as importantly, with my sons.

    Funny how it all goes in circles.

    –chuck
    http://chuck.goolsbee.org

    (** If you ever need to know who NOT to send your vintage Jaguar to for work, contact me via my website.)

  • avatar
    dean

    Nicely written. It feels like reading a Peter Egan piece. (That’s a compliment, in case anyone is tempted to misread my intent.)

  • avatar
    willbodine

    Wow, that does bring me back. I nursed an almost as bad-off TR4 through my high school years in the late 60s. And have relapsed with 2 even worse TR6s in my adulthood. There must be a 12 Step group somewhere for folks such as we

  • avatar
    ZCline

    Great story as always Paul, glad to see you writing again.

    My first new car was a british-style roadster … a 1997 Miata! It was also pretty slow, but handled and looked great. I remember driving around, just cruising through new jersey as i often did when gas was cheap and the sun was out. I pulled up next to a guy in an old MGA, or it might have been a triumph of some sort. I was amazed at how small it was, even compared to my car! We waved and he shouted over “It must be great to own one of those things that never breaks down”. Mazda really got that one right …

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Psst, hey buddy, wanna buy a can of genuwine Lucas smoke? The MGA was a beyoottifull auto, but wotta heap.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    Great story. There must be something wrong with me, because your story along with loving stories of the hell a couple of coworkers went through in their youth with MG’s makes me want to buy one. Go figure.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    Chuckgoolsbee:

    Ironically that MG TD vanished into storage the year I turned 16. Go figure.

    Reminds me of a mechanic I was talking to. I saw a Corvette Stingray sitting in his garage and started talking to him about it. I asked him when he thought he would be done restoring it, and he replied, “When my son leaves home.”

  • avatar
    Strippo

    My first new car was a british-style roadster … a 1997 Miata! It was also pretty slow, but handled and looked great. I remember driving around, just cruising through new jersey as i often did when gas was cheap and the sun was out. I pulled up next to a guy in an old MGA, or it might have been a triumph of some sort. I was amazed at how small it was, even compared to my car! We waved and he shouted over “It must be great to own one of those things that never breaks down”. Mazda really got that one right.

    By design, the first Miata had to be a “good Corolla”.

    http://forum.miata.net/vb/showthread.php?p=769333

    I bought mine almost exactly 13 years ago and it has been getting me where I need to go ever since, with no major repairs. The only mistake they made with the first gen Miata is overbuilding it. Absent a major accident, I can’t imagine replacing it with a new one. The new ones are truly impressive, but my base ’94 has both character and accumulated sentimental value that the new car just can’t match.

    I’m an atypical buyer, obviously, so would that the Detroit 2.8 had such problems.

  • avatar

    What a great piece, thanks for sharing Paul!

  • avatar
    NickR

    I will add my voice to the chorus of those who appreciated this article. I am descended from a British roadster. Shortly before my parents met, my father had an XK120. One of his friends from that era still has one, sitting under a dustcover for 40 years. Next came a red MGA, which stayed with the family a little longer. My sister arrived, then me, and it was time for something more practical…an Austin Healey 3000 (It is all relative. It had jumper seats.) This was the vehicle I was brought home from hospital in. I still have the picture. Bright red, with black interior and white piping. Sitting in that car, the sound, the smell of the unadulterated exhaust, are the strongest memories I have of childhood. At some point, one too many things went wrong, and it was sold for what was even then a pittance. Sad thing is the car was 90% of the way to being finished when it was sold. The car still shows up at local shows in the hands of the man who bought it back in ’74. It shows well. Lesson: never sell a car in anger.

    About ten years ago I was driving through a rural part of the Ontario, quite lost, having taken to the backroads on the way to a friends country place. I came to a crossroads and behind some bushes I could see an abandoned garage. In one of the bays, half covered by plywood and swallow dung, was the front end of a white Healey 3000. It had clearly been sitting there for many years. Late for dinner, I made a mental note of its location and hurried on.

    I never could find it again which from a financial perspective is probably just as well. Or maybe it was never really there.

  • avatar
    1996MEdition

    I owned a ’74 Midget and my Dad had a ’72 at the same time. I drove the car for ~6 years in college and absolutely loved it. Carried two screwdrivers and an adjustable wrench in the cardboard glove box. That’s all I needed to keep it running…at least enough to get it back to my parent’s house. Had to change points every year, burned up throw out bearings constantly. Me and my Dad got so we could pull the engine and change the throw out bearing in about 3-4hours. Also learned to dry shift due to the failed bearings. Never once got the carbs synced. The car was great for driving winding roads and handled well, albeit at slow speeds. Drove for 6 winters with no problems…it just plowed through snow like it was nothing.

    I loved this car and would not have traded the experience for anything. I learned to repair cars, do body work, etc from owning this car. The 2 Midgets brought me and my Dad closer together as we shared the experiences we had. He passed away this summer, I still have the picture of both of us sitting in our cars, waving at the camera.

    I bought a 96 Miata new and still own it. It is the closest handling car I have found to the Midget. The only drawback is that it is too reliable. Half the fun of the Midgets was not knowing if you were going to make it to your destination.

  • avatar

    Chuckgoolsbee,

    That first photo of the day car is gorgeous, and I’m sure the key to its identity is the shape of the missing grill.

  • avatar
    shortthrowsixspeed

    Paul, Chuckgoolsby . . . thanks for sharing the great stories.

    alas, my parents met over the more reliable beetle (’69 version). as for me, my first car was an ’88 CRX with no real issues besides needing to replace the CV boots every 15K miles. But seriously, these kinds of stories would make wonderful marketing tools for our more unreliable domestic brands. i can see it now: “get close to your kids again, but them a ____ (insert your favorite 2.8-produced lemon here).”

  • avatar
    mrnatural

    Nice memories, bro! But dad never shelled out a cent for that car. I had to sell my precious ham radio gear to scrape together the $300 it cost me. However, he did bribe me into letting it go by contributing towards that ’66 Beetle. And all it needed by that time was a head gasket on that Metropolitan engine since I neglected to re-torque after the rebuild. I learned a lot about cars with that MGA, I think the only major component I didn’t have to work on was the transmission. I remember one girl having to share her scanty side of the car with the exhaust pipe and muffler after they fell victim to a speed bump at her college. And the whacks with a big wrench I had to give the electric fuel pump at times to keep it ticking…

  • avatar
    Logdog

    I am not sure if this fits in but…

    My first drive in a sports car was in a MGA. Brand new as a gift from my girlfriends father when she graduated from high school in 1957. It was great fun tooling around with the top down. Have some really great memories. Not fast but we did not care.

    When she moved on I had to have a fun car and found a 1957 XK140 MC in 1959 being sold by a guy who had just been drafted. $1,500 at the time. It would qualify for one of the poor handling, braking awards but it was, at that time, my joy. I never did put the top up, just drove faster when it rained and wore a hat.

    From there I went to a Porsche 356B super which I owned until I got married. I was going through a set of tires in less than six months so that is an indication of how much fun I had driving it.

    And then bought a Volvo station wagon. Oh well.

  • avatar
    jguerra

    Hi Paul great history, I´m a little more young than you I born in 1970 and now I have 37, but something change my life when my father had a Autin Healey Sprite when I had 8 years I really enjoy the weekends riding with my father. 8 years ago I restore my first MGA, (lovely car), and the car was really well restore, I decide to sell the car when my son born 6 years ago, for a guy who put the car in Hamptons, NY. This year I end my 2 news MGA restoration, the MGA turns a Hobbie for me in the wekeends ( Im a Dentist) I dont sure about what part I enjoy more the restore process or drive the car, but anyway, I have planning to restore more MGA´s and looking for people who enjoy my restorations, and take care of that. please if you can see the video that I post in Youtube.
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=tDOzhas_y3Q
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=Ny88QHG-PuI
    If you cn´t open try to search on youtube by MGA cars in the search bar and find MGA black and White restoration are 2 videos, enjoy it.


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