By on March 15, 2008

mgb1963.jpgFor 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.

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29 Comments on “Non-Zen and the Art of MGB Maintenance...”

  • avatar
    Bill Wade

    Brilliant! The understatements employed concerning this masterpiece of English motoring excellence brought a smile to my face.

    Yes, I owned an MGB. An interesting and unique experience. This prepared me for my graduation to the pinnacle of British motorcraft, the Daimler SP250.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Pssst, hey buddy, wanna buy a can of genyouwine Lucas smoke?

  • avatar

    Bravo. Well written. I’ve had the pleasure of growing up around many of my dad’s friends with old Jags, Minis and MGBs. While dad was (and is) a muscle car guy, he always appreciated the purity of formula found in the little two seaters.

    I certainly remember my first ride in a character filled, properly smoking, Lucas-electrified MGB as a youth. Thanks for the 800 word jaunt down memory lane.

  • avatar

    I’m more of a Triumph man, (1 TR4A, 2 TR6s) but have quite a bit of experience in a B roadster and a GT. What I always remember about the MGB was the unique engine resonance that let you know when one was coming (or going.) It wasn’t just the exhaust; somehow the carb air intakes “hooted” in that special MGB way.
    The B lost all cred from the ’75 model year on. The rubber bumper editions. One puny carb. Jacked-up suspension (so the bumpers could meet federal bumper height requirements.) If you want one, find a chrome bumper model with overdrive.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Thank you Brendan. You dredged up a rusty bucketful of MGB memories, and spared me having to write about them.

  • avatar

    Why couldn’t the British make a decent computer?

    They couldn’t figure out how to make it drip oil.

    — I’m a Long-time-ago TR-4 owner.

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz

    This is a truly wonderful piece Brendan. Well done.

  • avatar

    never had the ‘pleasure’ of mgb ownership, but i have more than a feeling that my almost-always-troubleprone ’66 4.2 litre e-type jaguar coupe was an adequate substitute.

    great story. excellent writing. very enjoyable read. please submit more.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Well said.

  • avatar

    On the “hardcore” scale of classic car ownership, British roadster has to be up there, right below the Trabant crowd.

  • avatar

    My parents met due to a red MG A roadster, therefore I owe my very existence to some blokes from Morris Garages in Abingdon.

    My father bought a new MG B in 67 or so… I still remember the day he brought it home, despite being only 4 at the time.

    Like the author, I learned all my colorful language as I ‘assisted” him in a restoration of a 1950 MG TD when I was a lad of 9 or so.

    His retirement project was the pinnacle of British Roadsterdom: a Series 1 E-type Jaguar, which as a family heirloom passed into my care in 2003. I am doing my best to pass on the “car guy” gene to my two sons through this car of their grandfather’s. There is no more demanding yet rewarding car ownership experience as a classic British sports car. It tests you and rewards you in equal measure. It is not so outrageously expensive as say, an Italian mistress from Maranello, but it sure beats every cheap bit of frumpery from Detroit.


  • avatar

    I think what we have here is a person with superb word skills, an acute sense of humour, and the ability to convey a story delivering the maximum enjoyment to the readers.

    Very well done!

  • avatar

    Poor old Lucas have a lot of bad press, mostly undeserved. Their stuff was no more unreliable than the American stuff from Delco-Remy and an order of magnitude better than the Italian stuff from Marelli. They were however very innovative.

    Admittedly they lost the plot badly in the 70’s which is probably where most of their bad rep comes from.

  • avatar

    I owned an MG-B. I recall saying that the reason I had to trade it in on was because I could not keep up with it any longer. I believe my words were, “As soon as I fix something at one end of the car, something else breaks at the other end of the car.” I sure did like that exhaust note, though.

  • avatar

    Enjoyed your writing and am hoisting a warm beer to you.


  • avatar
    The Highwayman

    Nice job on the article, it brings back many fond memories to all of us who have owned a piece of British automotive engineering.

    Mine was a 1968 MGB-GT bought in 1976 for $700. I knew nothing of how to fix a car, but I was willing to learn and the MGB was more than willing to teach. One day I was cruising down the road going around 50 mph, when I saw a tire bouncing down the road next to me, I realized that it was mine when the grinding noise of the brake rotors hiting the pavement awoke me from the trance like state I was in, watching the bouncing wheel and wondering who was throwing tires down the street. Replacing the wheel knock off hub spline and a complete brake job was my education in twisting the wrenches that time.

    I appreciated the Morris Garage engineering genius when I found out that the breather hole for the diaphragm fuel pump was in the topmost part of the housing so that no moisture could escape. This rendered the pump useless, freezing the diaphragm in very cold weather. Of course this had to happen 5 miles from the nearest house on a country road at 2:00am when it was -5 degrees.

    I sold my rust bucket GT in 1979 for $400 and bought a soulless but reliable RX-7. To this day I miss the MG, but not the Mazda.

  • avatar

    There was a time when I wanted a MG coupe with a V8 under the hood. A simple quintessential sports car with a big engine. But I got over that urge… I’ve moved on to bigger, more costly and far more involved pains in the arse.

    Every other day I walk outside, get into my plane Jane A4 Avant and embark on my morning commute. The car performs this task every day just as it has for years without fuss or any indication that the car would rather sit this one out. Before I got into re-purposing my A4 sedan, I really never had an appreciation of just how nice it is to have a car that starts every time and gets me to my desired destination in safety without any undue or desired excitement rooted in a jeopardized arrival. I believe that today most people have little if any time invested in their car, and they have no reservations about that. Today a simple reading of the owner’s manual is asking a lot of people. Ignorance is bliss… it really is. I don’t know when to say when and as a result… well keep reading.

    By direct contrast I have my former daily driver turned toy/track car A4 quattro 2.0 20v turbo sedan. I can’t particularly blame the car for not being a team player all the time as I’ve given it an OBD II lobotomy and grafted into place more mechanical muscle than the quattro gmbh folks saw fit to grant the RS4 but without 500lbs of extra weight to lug around. Upgraded brake, suspension… that stuff too. It goes, it turns, it stops but it also took a huge investment of time and money to get the car close to where I wanted it to be. This too is an ongoing project with no foreseeable conclusion, simply elevated goals with ever more impractical solutions.

    While the MG may require periodic adjustments to the carburettors in order to stay in shape. The homebrew tinkerer of today has newer more high-tech toys. So many toys that it makes one appreciate the simplicity of a car like the MG, even if it doesn’t accelerate like like a tree frog leaps. I can coax more than 200hp per liter from my engine, but it doesn’t come easy.

    Today’s tinker drops some considerable coin on electronic toys tat are a way more involved than a trusty old carb. I run stand alone engine management which is my way of pretending like I have any sort of clue how to tune an engine. Thousands of dollars spent on the ability to control the engine. While one could street tune a car… any real fine tuning requires a four wheel drive dyno and the associated $125-200/hr fees just to rent the rollers add in 60-100/hr for a tuner.

    While the MG may be tuned by ear and nose I have data logging capabilities which generate huge sums of information which requires processing and analysis to derive any sort of meaningful conclusion. With more sensors, gauges and costs than an MG I attentively must monitor my wide band air/fuel ratios, turbo boost pressure and oil pressure. I’ve not even added the on board chassis data acquisition capabilities which will record output from accelerometers, brake light switch, throttle position etc. All so I can analyze and improve my driving on the track.

    All of that so I can park my sedan >90% of the time and drive it a few days a year on private road course pavement. I also got tired of the automatic gearbox in my A4 Avant. I’ll be swapping that and all of the associated parts out for a manual gearbox and associated parts within a months time. I prefer to build the car I want rather than buying a car I like just enough to own. I suppose this means I’d be likely to buy an old car like an Alfa Romeo or an MG rather than buying a miata… Yikes is there a pharmaceutical company working on a pill for this yet?

  • avatar

    ‘I couldn’t help feeling alive; perhaps even going so far as to shout, “I don’t want to die!”’

    Great line! I really enjoyed reading this article!

  • avatar

    I have two 1963 MGBs, and they really are great cars, and not all that unreliable as these things go. They’re cars for people who enjoy tinkering as well as driving.

    I also have an E-Type and sundry other British detritus, too. I enjoy the hell out of it and there are far many more days driving something like a new Audi or Lexus where I would wish for an MGB than the other way around.

  • avatar

    Everyone who can speed time a car and knows how a Uni-Syn works will hoist one to your ingenuity with the spoken word.

  • avatar

    I had a cheapo 1974 Triumph Spitfire. Bought for almost nothing, did some basic tune-up/repeairs and drove it for a couple years. Not break downs. Its not all doom and gloom for the Brits. They are quite simple and reliable machines if the grounds are keep clean and upkeep done. Still miss that car.

  • avatar

    From the time I began driving (1982) to recent history, being an Italian car guy I pooh-poohed British cars as being hopelessly antiquated and unreliable. Yeah, and I drove Fiats. Having fought endless battles with Russian steel in those cars and fragile trim bits for 23 years, I wanted a new challenge. I sold the last Fiat and bought a Mini, complete with drum brakes and single carb A series engine. As the Brits say, it’s simply brilliant. An amazing bit of design, particularly considering it debuted in 1959. It is unquestionably the most fun car I have ever owned. A good thing, as the build quality is pathetic, the steel worse than even my Fiats and the fluids a ceaseless battle to contain within the car’s housings. With just occasional care, though, it does always start, go and stop as a car should. I’m now thinking a Spridget would be a nice companion for it. The damn things are like M&Ms…you can’t stop wanting more.

  • avatar

    I wanted one but could not fit my 6’3″ frame into one, that saved me from a lot of grief

  • avatar
    Phil Ressler

    My first decade of car ownership was spent in Triumphs and MGs. Each was the only car I owned at the time, in places with winter and plenty of other foul weather, which amused or alarmed everyone else who feared to follow. Given the maintenance requirements, I especially loved my Triumph Spitfires for their simplicity of disassembly and the wide-open access to the engine bay when the front-hinged clamshell was open. I could change the oil without getting under the car. Altogether, I drove my British iron a collective quarter of a million miles without being stranded.

    Which is not the same as saying I never had to make a roadside repair. All such interruptions to my transit were brief, however, and successfully overcome. Trouble in transit wasn’t for me the vexing curse of British motoring that I was led to expect. My particular recurring penance was the uncanny failure of pinion and stub axle seals in deepest sub-zero winter, when no amount of insulation between me and the concrete floor of an unheated garage — when I had a garage at all — slowed thermal drainage of my body’s caloric content into the planet and arctic atmosphere around me.

    You could either deride the construction techniques evident in these cars as quaint and crude, or admire them as craft. Door hinges crafted from bits of steel tubing hand-welded to a flange suggested something less than the repeatability of, say, Ford’s River Rouge plant.

    In the mid-1970s, British Leyland adopted electronic ignition in a bid to improve emissions and reliability. In the Triumph Spitfire, the system’s designers chose to mount the transistor pack directly on the distributor. This gave the car the entertaining trait of spontaneous engine shut-down at speed. Engine heat migrated directly into the transistor ignition module, with erratic loss of spark resulting. It might happen at 70mph in the left lane of the Massachusetts Turnpike or at 0mph idling on Boston’s Tobin Bridge at rush hour. Or you might find yourself involuntarily drifting down an off-ramp on a moonless night into the cracked-glass crumble that was Newark circa 1980. Fortunately, all you had to do was wait 10 minutes for the ignition module to cool, and the trusty iron-block mill fired right up. You’d be on your way, sometimes literally just in the nick of time. You just couldn’t be sure for how long.

    BL made good on that miscalculation, however, with warranty replacement of the ignition modules with revised epoxied packs mounted to the firewall.

    By 1984, parts availability was no longer instant and responsibilities argued for a little more practicality. That year, I completed a migration to the anvil reliability of American cars begun in 1982, with which I’ve been trouble-free ever since.

    Insofar as my Trumphs and MGs unfailingly carried me to my intended destination on the same day as planned, I regarded them as reliable, which couldn’t be said for the allegedly sexier Fiats some of my friends and siblings chose. Early in British Leyland ownership I discovered the key to Anglo-motive reliability. After an early series of recurring fuel pump and generator failures, I simply packed spares behind the seats. Those parts never failed again. Clockwork routine maintenance and good tires took care of the rest. I still miss those cars, and it’s fair to say that despite having had vastly more power in many cars since, none have been more fun.


  • avatar

    What an absolute pleasure to read!

    Though I’ve never owned or experienced a MGB, reading your article makes me feel like I did. I’ve long had maniacal dreams of getting a project car and devoting untold money and time fixing it up, making it mine, but my wife firmly squashes such fantastic notions. Though she is beginning to come around now which is promising.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read an article here at TTAC that’s positive and pleasurable to enjoy as a petrolhead. It`s that rare glimpse into the souls of us enthusiasts everywhere. Enough of the doom and gloom articles, even if it is the truth. Actually I remember a series RF did on Jalopnik some time ago where he wrote about classic cars you must drive/experience in your life. Wonderful series. If you have time RF, bring it back.

    Again, thanks for the great read Brendan!

  • avatar

    Dad had a TC that I never saw move under its own power. I however won several imaginary races behind the wheel.I have not seen that car for 35 years but I can still remember how it smelled.

    As a “deal” I purchased a 1969 GT for $650.00. On the drive home it change lanes on the gas. Those leaf springs were almost falling out. After discovering the smoke was caused by a large hole in the number 3 piston, I set about rebuilding the engine with my good friend John. Added an overdrive box, chrome wires, and nice leather interior. Several times I had to coax the fuel pump back to life with the knock-off hammer. The worst was when the “rebuilt” distributor I installed gave up. There was so much play it was breaking the tip off the rotor.

    I sold that car to purchase a 1985 XJ6 and regretted it ever since.

    Today I am happy to say that I am British free automotively, well except for the fact that I make my living selling British spares…

  • avatar

    Excellent writing, much enjoyed.

    “Aha!” cried Dad with barely-disguised glee, “The carburetors must need adjustment.”

    This made me laugh, great stuff.

  • avatar

    Now that’s FUNNY!!! Well done!

  • avatar

    I sold my rust bucket GT in 1979 for $400 and bought a soulless but reliable RX-7. To this day I miss the MG, but not the Mazda.

    Anthropologists need to compare the love that people have for these, um… difficult cars with the love some people have for difficult members of the opposite sex. I love cars like Mr. McAleer’s father’s old MGB, as long as I don’t have to take care of them. I’d much rather own a Miata.

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