By on August 19, 2012


One would think that with all the head scratching, added expense and needless difficulty involved, anyone who persisted in their own repair and maintenance efforts (professional or otherwise) on such flawed contraptions —which I will continue to document in this series on my experiences with automobiles British— must be running as low on vital fluids as the vehicles themselves typically were!

But we’re not talking about the repeating of the same procedure and expecting a different result, in this case. The experienced British Car  mechanic understood that the oil leaks would persist, the electrics would continue to be perform intermittently and the driveability would literally change with the weather. To expect otherwise WOULD have been a sign of insanity!

Those who would consider such expectations to be rather negative— and a good reason not to “stay the course”, as it were—were really missing the point of these vehicles. The “point” was intrinsically and unequivocally linked to actually OPERATING the machine. The slogan “Drivers Wanted” hadn’t exactly been coined yet, but it was something fully understood by any desiring association with these anti-appliances. INCLUDING the mechanic!

When it came to the driving experience—whether in the form of a road test, vehicle transfer logistics, or just running a customer back to their home or office—time has not diminished the impact these vehicles have made on me. Few modern automobiles even come close to what really amounts to a very unique phenomenon.

Firstly, all of these creations truly had distinctive personalities, even such relatively plebian examples as the Morris Minor or Austin America. These personalities were no mere accident, and were crafted through everything from basic exterior and interior styling, to the powerplant and drivetrain choice, exhaust system employed, and materials and running gear used.

It’s something that really needs no translation, which is undoubtedly why generations of car enthusiasts continue to appreciate them, making them now sought after collector vehicles (with an accompanying escalation in price).

But back in the days before they attained to such status, they were generally viewed, on some level as fun, stylish and affordable automotive statements; to which there was really no alternative.

I enjoyed driving them all, for their own special reasons. I’m listing some of my favorites below.

The Triumph Spitfire—which arguably looked to be the epitome of the small-displacement sports car—with its race-inspired reverse-opening front cowl, and well-balanced styling proportions, had this “flexible flyer” dynamic when brought up to speed on any road surface that wasn’t billiard-table smooth. Some would have considered that a serious flaw, but it gave the car its own distinct feel. If you didn’t like that, there were plenty of other choices.

How about the Triumph TR6, for instance? It had this sort of bulldog dynamic working: snappy inline-six with this very firm clutch that sported a light-switch engagement “takeup”, equally firm suspension and quick steering, and a lot less “frame” flex.

Then there were the MG sports cars. I just loved the way the MGB worked. I felt the “ergo’s” were just about perfect for my thin six-foot frame. The car felt very well integrated, for a convertible, and the sound and feel of the power delivery from the twin SU carb-fed larger displacement pushrod four-cylinder seemed very well matched to the whole general ride dynamic.

One of my favorite roadsters was the Austin Healy 100-6, mainly because it was relatively smooth and refined for a car of that class, and it had this wonderful inline-six tuned exhaust note, accompanied by an equally wonderful gearbox whine.

Of course, at the top of the heap was the Jaguar E-Type. Everything just WORKED for that machine! Ridiculously gorgeous styling, a true aviation-style “cockpit”, a drivetrain that was truly “magic”, whether powered by the inline-six or the V-12 (which, when equipped with manual transmission, had a sound that was just ADDICTIVE!), and great brakes and suspension, which contributed to the feeling that you were exempt from the physical laws governing fellow motorists.

Then there were the sedans—or more correctly “saloons”—of which, the Jag’s impressed me most. Those 3.8 and 4.2 “Mark’s” had this interior aroma that was just incredible! The combination of wool, leather, wood and a little bit of good ol’ H20 from the “calibrated” glass and door seal seepage made the driving experience something like being in a mobile English Antiquities Museum.

And then the XJ series had this ride that was absolutely unflappable.

The way the engineers isolated the beautifully designed suspension system from the chassis created a combination that really had no equal for quite a long time!

All of these cars possessed qualities that made measured performance and statistical capabilities irrelevant. With a few exceptions (like the E-type Jag), it really didn’t matter that they weren’t the fastest or best handling cars in the history of the automobile. The driving experience was this EVENT that was just perfect the way it was. When all was working as intended, you had the feeling that you weren’t just driving—you were MOTORING!

“Motoring” didn’t—and still doesn’t—require additional refinement to improve the experience, any more than refining a Horse would help with the experience of horseback riding. It’s good just as it is. Which is why the impact of the driving experience I’ve enjoyed with these cars hasn’t diminished. Which has made all of the head scratching, added expense and needless difficulty associated with working on the things worthwhile indeed!

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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18 Comments on “Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: My Formative Years Wrenching on British Steel. Or: How I Learned to Never Underestimate the Power of a Real Road Test Experience...”

  • avatar

    There’s this funny memory trick that these cars play on you. I remember the day I got my XJS and drove it back home listening alternately to to the V12 kicking down and to Carmina Burana and Flight of the Valkyries, which Jaguar had included on a tape as “selected music to enhance the motoring experience”. Even though the car broke down that same afternoon and left me stranded at a Goodwill store, I still remember the noise and the music and feeling like I was barreling down the back roads of South Carolina in a Spitfire a lot more strongly than I remember scratching my head and wondering why it wouldn’t start again.

  • avatar

    Before I bought my 71 MGBGT, my previous Volvo 240 and Civic hatchback were perfect examples of well made automotive competence. Then one day after driving the Honda from Texas to San Diego I fell in love with the sky blue chrome bumper BGT parked across the street from where I was staying, it was just plain beautiful.

    When I got back to the lone star state I just happened to be browsing through the classifieds and saw an ad for a 71 GT and went to check it out. Previous owner had done all the mechanical work on it and had a stack of receipts as thick as a phone book. I went to take a test drive, sat in the seat, looked upon the Smiths gauges, felt the big 3 spoke wheel and reached over and the gear shifter felt like it was exactly where it needed to be for me from that seat that felt like it was mere inches from the road. This car just fit just right. When she started up I was mesmerized by that beautiful burble at idle and the instant response and roar when I tapped the gas. No doubt, I was in love.

    On the test drive I was amazed by the throttle response and punchy power from the HS4’s and that ancient engine. I’d never felt such feedback through a steering wheel before with it’s tight ratio and I could actually feel the surface I was driving on like I could run over braille and read it. Did take a moment to get used to the non vacuum assisted brakes though but I came to appreciate their quirky charm too. I even loved the rough ride and the zippy handling. I had never felt like I was a part of a car before, this was what a car and driver relationship was meant to be.

    I know exactly what you mean about old British cars.

  • avatar

    Years ago, while in college, I got into a drag race one night in my Dad’s Jag 3.4 Saloon. The opponent? A Rolls. I won. Unfortunately, the Jag ate a fan belt in the process and I had to put in the spare in a dark parking lot. I hadn’t yet learned the trick of laying the belt carefully across the generator pulley and touching the big button on the starter relay to kick the engine a quarter turn that popped the belt into the groove without all that grunting and straining with a jack handle. There was a more successful street race not long after that one, on Lakeshore Drive, involving a 1955 Olds full of yahoos. They inquired if the Jag was quick — I said, “it’s only a six…” They took off with a roar, while I proceeded more gently, having noticed a Chicago cop in the mix behind us. I don’t know if the Olds crew got tagged, since they were hidden behind the clouds of black smoke and orange flame resulting from an apparent thrown rod in their V-8. Great memories from the pre YouTube era.

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      Love the stories! Maybe sometime I’ll relate the cross-Los Angeles freeway drive I did in a ’72 MG Midget (not during rush-hour, without overdrive transmission!). Pretty “busy” experience!

  • avatar
    el scotto

    If only lift mileage was added to the road mileage of these cars.

  • avatar

    I read this post just after getting back from running around in my ’72 MGB, and this post sums up the appeal of these cars nicely. Thanks for posting this!

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      You’re welcome! At this point, for many readers, the stories we’re relating here are probably as close as they’re going to get to an actual first-hand experience. Hopefully we can inspire some to get a hold of one of these gems and enjoy it like the creators intended!

  • avatar

    Love the first pic, really sums up the car.

  • avatar

    They may not be the most reliable, but nothing approaches a British car (or motorcycle). They are the true knowledge that there is more to car ownership than frequency of repair and cost per mile.

  • avatar

    As the current caretaker of a 1965 E-type, I cannot agree more. I’m happy to beat my head against it mechanically to enjoy those wonderful moments on the road, listening to Sir William’s Sixth Symphony at full volume.

  • avatar
    Jeff Semenak

    My dad owned a red Sunbeam Alpine. Refined compared to other British sport cars of the 1960’s. I think the show intro to ‘Get Smart’ got him into it.

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      Yeah, the Alpine was pretty well-balanced. Can’t say the same for the Tiger–although the 260 cu. in. model was a little easier to manage than later larger displacement and/or modified examples. Maybe I’ll relate the story of an old friend and customer’s supercharged 302 equipped unit. Talk about “a handful”!!

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    Dad owned a ’75 Range Rover for a few years. Other than the overheating and non-starting issues (points on these were hopeless), both solved with an electric fan and a Motorcraft electronic ignition, the thing was lovely.

    Smooth suspension, locking center diff, big glass to see all around and that look. Then there were those nice hood mounted mirrors.

    I still love how those things look, and hopefully will be able to own one someday, headaches and all.

  • avatar

    For all the Lucas Prince of Darknesssssss jokes out there, British steel was at least predictable. When the Malaise Era of increasing displacement to offset power-sucking modifications hit, these things became sh!t.

  • avatar
    Robert Gordon

    In case anyone was wondering about the lady and the car she is driving, it is ‘The Queen of Brooklands’ Mrs Kaye Petre.

    The car in question is also rather interesting, it’s a racing version of the Austin Seven with a DOHC 750cc screamer. It nearly claimed her life at Brooklands in 1937. Here is a precis of it from Autocar…

  • avatar

    One doesn’t own a British machine, more like adopts it as part of their soul. The very idea of not working on it constantly seems far fetched since repairs are part of the ownership experience and provide good stories to tell.

  • avatar

    Thanx for this spot on article .

    I’ve had a few LBC’s over the years and have settled in on my trusty , unrestored 1959 Austin Metropolitan Fixed Head Sports Coupe , it has a very few basic up grades on it’s original tiny 1500 C.C. engine and handles far better than anyone expects .

    It’s also a terrific daily driver & commuter , I log over 800 miles every week in it , the 35 MPG’s is nice too .


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