By on August 11, 2012

“We don’t need mechanics…we need MAGICIANS!”

In a heavy accent loaded with London grit, that was the response of the proprietor of the local—and at that point in time, quite vital—independent British Car garage, when I approached him to inquire as to whether he was in the market for hired help.

Not even twenty years of age, with a whopping one-year’s worth of experience servicing used cars for a BMC/Jaguar/Toyota dealership, just up the Pacific Coast Highway, I was still in the process of formulating an opinion as to what it took to make a success of wrenching (or should I call that “spannering?”) on things British.

I hadn’t yet appreciated the truthfulness of the point he was making; but I detected a seriousness veiled by his Shakespearean theatrics.

After less than another year, though, I fully understood “The Crux”: British repair shops had the virtually impossible mission of rendering as reliable transportation—in a vastly different set of circumstances than in their country of origin—basically flawed vehicles with an equally flawed support infrastructure.

Although there have probably been many BOOKS written on this very subject, I think I could throw my “hat in the ring” without being completely redundant. There is just so much material to work with —the people involved and the cars themselves, not to mention our specific locality— that, although there is certainly a common thread, there have to be many valid and interesting points-of-view on the subject, including mine.

Due to the nature of our format, I’ll only be able to relate a couple of noteworthy experiences in this entry that tend to prove my point.

The first involves the actual hand tools needed to work on these cars.

The fasteners and plugs used were neither Metric, nor SAE, but of a design that may have predated either, or at least were developed at a concurrent time: WHITWORTH.

All I knew, in my fledgling days of working on autos for pay, was that most of my paychecks were going towards the purchase of hand tools; and NOW, besides needing a proper set of BOTH Metric and SAE wrenches and sockets, I was going to have to purchase a THIRD SET of the British-Size-In-Between!!

Many things have been said in jest about Lucas Electrics, and if not absolutely true-to-the-letter, are certainly true in spirit. I have seen problems with creations from the so-called “Prince of Darkness” that I have not seen ANYWHERE else!

Take, for example the “78 MGB that had to be pushed off the Delivery Truck and rolled onto the New Car Lot at the dealership I was then employed by. That in itself was not completely uncommon, even for one of the Toyota models, which were becoming known for reliability by that time. Typically a battery recharge or the addition of a little more gasoline would clear up such a problem.

But THIS was something “Other”, so a few of us underlings got the privilege of pushing the “B” into my tech neighbor’s work bay.

By definition, he was considered a PDI (Pre-delivery Inspection) tech; but PDI on British Cars often involved CONSIDERABLY more technical “chops” than those needed for Toyota PDI.

In proof of this, within a couple of days, he had determined that it would not be cost effective to repair the existing Main Wiring Harness, and he had the old one removed for replacement. Of course, when the new one arrived and was installed, the best that could be said about IT was that it was going to actually BE cost effective to repair! About a week later, all was sorted, and the brand-spanking-new “B” was ready for sale!

Another feature of these late-‘70’s British Leyland products was their electronic ignition systems.

Apparently not wanting to spoil their reputation for unreliability, Lucas managed to produce a distributor-mounted “amplifier” (module) that couldn’t seem to outlast a set of points found on the old-style distributor. Replacement units didn’t seem to last any longer, so eventually the repair procedure —and we’re talking about the dealer’s repair procedure— was to replace the entire electronic distributor with an earlier-style contact points model!

When Lucas finally decided to get into the Electronic Fuel Injection arena, they teamed up with Robert Bosch—maker of really good electrics and electronics found on European vehicles down to this day. Unfortunately, due to the hyphenation issue created from this union (Lucas-Bosch) the resulting systems proved to be only half-good.

One of my memorable discoveries—and there were many—was the design of the conduit tube connecting the Airflow Meter to the Throttle Body on some models, including the TR7. It was constructed of what appeared to be a glorified form of “Tar Tape” (used to wrap wiring harnesses on early-model vehicles), wrapped around a thin-wire coil structure. Of course, the Tar Tape would deteriorate in short order, resulting in acceleration “flat-spots” initially—and eventually and engine that would not run at all. Since the replacement units were expensive, of the same design, and often unavailable (due to popular demand), I got good at rewrapping the tube with fresh Tar Tape.

Then there was the hydraulics these cars were equipped with.

I can say that I got a LOT of experience rebuilding clutch and brake Master Cylinders, wheel cylinders, and calipers (this was when “rebuilding” such units was not legally objectionable). No matter how good a job I—or anyone else—did, they’d be leaking within a year or two, and I’d get to do it all over again. Sure, it was job security, but of a temporary nature, as such levels of “routine maintenance” were becoming a thing of the past on vehicles of Other Manufacture.

Were only scratching the surface, as it were, with these stories. If there’s a demand, I’ll be happy to provide more.

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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43 Comments on “Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: My Formative Years Wrenching on British Steel, Or: How Whitworth, Lucas, Girling and Other General B.S. (British Standard) Set Me On a Skewed—And Stimulating—Career Path...”

  • avatar

    After 20+ years of playing with Italian cars, I succumbed to the allure of British Standard and picked up a ‘real’ Mini. I describe it to people as “an ingenious design horribly executed”. The quality of the pieces it is assembled from are terrible. I can’t leave it outdoors for more than a day or it starts to rust. If it sits too long, the starter is disinterested in engaging. And, of course, it leaks oil. Delightful as a toy, but would be a horror as daily transport.

  • avatar

    in the 1960s I had a good friend whose father ran an independent shop that focused on british cars and I would from time to time help him out with his chores (sweep up) after school.
    In addition to being a master class in scatological vocabulary building and arcane invective I learned much that would stand me in good staid come my 16th birthday in 1964 and I had to maintain my own first car: a 1948 CJ 2A Jeep.

    A few things stand out in my memory the first being a 20 lb sledge hammer in the corner referred to as “the Jaguar tool ” also a rewiring job on an XKE with engine fire damage where the color code on some of the wiring would change in mid run…

    My favorite was an old MG that was owned by a retired pilot that had an access hole behind the seat so that a flap of carpet could be lifted and a length of metal rod poked through to give a “Percussive repair” by smartly rapping the balky electric fuel pump back into action,,, without having to stop and pull over to the side of the road… the shop in question made similar modifications to quite a few customer cars.

  • avatar

    More, please!

  • avatar

    I got a good laugh out of the show “Wheeler Dealers” when the British crew picked up a late 1980s Corvette and talked about the electronics being American, so they are “Quirky and problematic”…while the Vette of that era was no poster child for reliability, to baseline it to things British and to call it unreliable was quite a joke.

    More, please!!

  • avatar

    As someone who has restored a half-dozen British cars over the years, I feel your pain. It’s one thing to do this as a hobby as I do – I can’t imagine having to do it as a job, especially back in the days before the internet making it possible to order anything you need and get it overnight if you are willing to pay the price.

    I found your comments on Lucas electronic distributors particularly interesting for personal reasons. One of my current cars is a 1977 Triumph Spitfire with well over 100,000 miles, and it is still equipped with its original electronic distributor that works great. Must have been made mid-morning on a Wednesday

    I also own a set of Whitworth wrenches – my 1959 Rover P5 uses a mixture of all three thread standards, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Even more amusing is my friend’s MG-TD, which has bolts that have metric threads but Whitworth sizes for the flats (the result of buying a French engine design and adapting it so it could be serviced in England with English tools).

    As you suspected, Whitworth as a standard predates the other two, having been developed by Sir Joseph Whitworth, the famous (at least to historians of technology) English precision machine tool manufacturer and promulgated in 1841. Prior to this, each company set their own standard – each English railway company had its own internal thread standard, for example.

    The differences between Whitworth and its contemporary standard, American Unified Coarse, are illustrative of the differences between British and American machine shop practices of the time. Whitworth chose the pitch of his standard, 55 degrees, by averaging the pitch used by the different English machine shops. He also specified that the tops of the threads be rounded.

    In contrast, AUC threads have a pitch of 60 degrees, much easier to measure, and have flat tops to the threads, significantly easier to machine. This reflects the higher cost and relative shortage of skilled labor in the USA – a thread that was simpler to make saved money.

    Functionally, the two types of thread systems work equally well, and are very close in size – just don’t try to interchange them or you’ll screw up the threads. And, as those who have watched Pixar’s movie Cars 2, knowing how to distinguish whether a car has Whitworth threads is vital to figuring out who the villain is.

    The important question is whether your Whitworth tools were made by that high-end English company King Dick – from what I understand they are the Snap-On of the English tool world.

    • 0 avatar

      “buying a french engine design and adapting it”?!?!?

      No, MG never used any french-designed engines. The post-war T series used the XPAG/XPEG series of motors that were designed (by Claude Bailey) and built from the ground up in England, and were not based on any French design (or any other continental one, for that matter.)
      “Nuffield mad metric” (the fasteners with metric threads and imperial heads) did come about from a tenuous French connection, but it has bugger all to do with the motors themselves. It came about from using motor-building machine tools from an old Hotchkiss engine plant (French-owned, but located in England; specifically, Hotchkiss of Gosford Street, Coventry, renamed to “Morris engines” in 1935). Hence, metric threads. French machine tools? Sorta. French engine? Not at all.

      P.S. It gets worse–the metric threads used by MG, are NOT the metric thread standard in widespread use today!

      • 0 avatar

        Well, that’s what I get for trusting Wikipedia – you’ll want to edit this page, since it gives the impression that the engine design was French:

    • 0 avatar

      Over 100k miles on original electronics? With luck like that you should have bought a lottery ticket. About the same odds.

      • 0 avatar

        Well, there is the saying that Lucas invented the three position switch for headlights: dim, flicker, and off.

        Actually, I’ve found the British cars I’ve owned to be pretty reliable electrically, as long as you clean and tighten all connections and ground wires.

      • 0 avatar

        A friend of mine who likes Jaguars (some of his exploits are here: once remarked to me that he wouldn’t say that Lucas actually invented darkness, they merely perfected it.

  • avatar

    My grandfather, and great grandfather worked at a silk mill that ran pretty much entirely English-made equipment (right down to the water wheel that powered it.)

    I still have all of their tool boxes, full of Whitworth tools from the Victorian era, waiting for the say I’m dumb enough to buy an MG B.

  • avatar

    I’d be fascinated to read some more. I do tend to believe that these old British products are fascinating and terrific designs, but with the worst execution possible. It’s sad – so many had so much potential…..

  • avatar

    Loved the post, Phil. Because I was then driving a Renault Caravelle in college, I begged a job at the local Renault dealership to learn more about the inner workings of these cars and support my nascent car habit. To my chagrin, I discovered at 60,000 miles that the Renault’s transaxle really did not like the British Rallye “style” of driving I’d adopted, so the differential spider gave up the ghost. Replacing the transaxle with a later model having the modern convenience of an all-synchro transmission proved to be a faint training ground for the clutch replacement in the MG-B which replaced the Renault. The primitive mechanicals of the MG-B were belied by the fact that the front of the car had to be disassembled in order to remove the engine as the means to replace the clutch and collapsed pressure plate on the “B”. These were nonetheless notable signposts along the way to the modern car and I’m happy to have participated.

  • avatar

    1959 TR3 Ex-Owner here that often got car to start by tapping on electrical system parts in the ignition circuits.

    Q: Why do the British drink warm beer?
    A: They have Lucas refrigerators.

  • avatar

    Phil, I really enjoy what you have to say. Please write more.

    To the editors, you are slacking on your job. Everyone gets edited, and it is no reflection on their contribution if you take a chainsaw to it and knock out “extra quotes”, fix spelling errors, and turn ALL CAPS into bold. You do Phil’s excellent topics a disservice by not cleaning them up for publication.

  • avatar

    I stupidly agreed to help a neighbor remove the front fenders from his ’59 TR3 so a shop could pound out the dents and cut out and replace the rusted-out spots. Nearly every bolt holding those fenders on the body was a different size. We were told by an old-timer that when an assembler ran out of bolts of one size, he’d reach into another bin with a different size, and if all the bins were running low, he’d dump them all together into one bin.

  • avatar

    More please. As a mechanic, I want to feel as if I’ve worked on these cars without actually having to do it.

    I imagine the quality of the base materials had a lot to do with the trauma of owning/working on one of these beasts, especially the early rubber and plastic. It’s rare to see a brake MC fail, since it’s such a simple part. I would imagine rubber pistons unable to cope with brake fluid for any amount of time to be behind this.

    • 0 avatar

      One factor folks have told me about is the incompatibility of American DOT 3 brake fluid with the natural rubber used as seals in older English cars. With the change in seal materials my understanding is that this is not an issue these days.

      • 0 avatar
        Unlimited Headroom

        History does repeat its self, Mark. I am presently in the throws of replacing the clutch master and slave seals on my TR6 after rebuilding the system 4-5 years ago. I did a similar job in 1978 after doing a brake job on a Marina (don’t ask why…please) after only a couple of months. I, too, thought that the N.A. DOT3 vs BL DOT3 problem has been solved but alas I am proven wrong.
        So the next big question is what mfg of DOT3 do I use?
        I love my LBC (little British car)and it’s fixable follies without being an Electronic Engineer.
        Phil, please pound out more BL stories as it is nice to read about the history of these cars in the Colonies.

  • avatar

    Good stuff. Keep it coming.

  • avatar

    Sounds like the bodges required to keep British cars going deserve a series all of its own. Please tell us more.

  • avatar

    My own “favorite” British electricals experience was the time I was driving my ’59 Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite and the engine simply went dead while I was crossing a four lane at a light. Drifting to a stop on the other side I raised the bonnet and wiggled a few wires. This was in the dark and I could see that there were small sparks when I wiggled the hot wire to the coil. The connection was tight but wiggling the wire broke the contact resistance that had spontaneously developed in real time.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    +2 on this article actually becoming a series…keep on coming with more!

    A friend of my father’s was into British motorcycles…you know, Norton, BSA, Triumph. At the time (late 60s) they were still superior to the Kawasaki, Honda or Yamaha that everyone else rode, but he had to work on them absolutely every single weekend.

    As a youngster, I was fascinated at the extensive tool shop he had to own, just to properly maintain his bikes.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    While the Americans tend to laugh at english engineering,do not forget that whitworth was the inventor of standard thread sizing . Before that it was every man for himself with no set rules .
    Also, the mini and it’s sisters ,while it needed a firm hand to keep the manitenance under control was several decades ahead of anything coming out of detroit and only the japanese could see the sense in it’s concept. Who builds more cars today?
    As for electrics…who needed colour coding? what would want to know? is 12 volts coming to the end of the wire where the lights or what ever ? bad connection? fix it. No need to know what colour was there.
    I guess a lot had to do with pitiful training standards in place where only truly talanted mechanics would ever make a living and the rest stuck to the other less profitable stuff.

    • 0 avatar

      “As for electrics…who needed colour coding? what would want to know? is 12 volts coming to the end of the wire where the lights or what ever ? bad connection? fix it. No need to know what colour was there.”

      I really really really really re-heal-ly hope this is sarcasm.

      • 0 avatar

        Color coding is overrated the best way to do it is how it is done on MD and HD trucks, the circuit number is printed on the wire. With that you can both follow the wire and look the circuit number up in the book and tell what it is quickly and easily. With color coding there is no master circuit number list since nowadays many colors are used over and over again.

      • 0 avatar

        Old VW’s and maybe all German cars had consistent terminal numbers and color coding.

        I worked on more Italian than British or French cars. Horror stories about each. The strangest Whitworth encounter was on an early Datsun, with a British-made automatic transmission.

    • 0 avatar

      Ford engineers in England tore apart a Mini they purchased soon after the car came out – they could not understand how it could be sold so cheaply. After analysis based on what they knew about manufacturing costs of each part, they found that the Mini was being at a loss. From what I’ve read, BMC had such poor financial systems that they didn’t know they were losing money on the car. Not to mention the Mini was engineered to encourage rust – well, not intentionally, but that was the result.

      In any case, the Mini was a technological dead end. It was actually Simca that pioneered the modern standard for front wheel drive – transverse engine and separate transmission with unequal half shafts. The rubber cone suspension of the original Mini was also a dead end – the later hydrogas suspension was somewhat influential on later designs, but the MacPherson strut is the actual winner for inexpensive cars. The Mini was not ahead of its time, just different from other cars of its period.

      • 0 avatar

        Sorry, Mark, but I have to disagree about the Mini not being ahead of its time. World’s first transverse FWD car, rack and pinion steering, 4 wheel independent suspension, and more rear seat knee room than the Rolls Royce Ghost in ’59 when production started… all in an overall length of exactly 120″.

        That being said, it was after all British, so it was plagued by oil leaks, electrical problems, and rust just like all of the others. However its ingenious design and iconic character carried it to a production run of over 40 Years and 5 million units. Undeniably the most iconic and popular of all British cars.

        I also grew up fixing/ restoring British sports cars, and as a result continue to do so as an adult. My first car was a TR4A that I bought from the original owner in 1987, and I still own it today. I drove that car through College, and actually had very few problems: The fuel guage didn’t work, so I routinely ran out of fuel, Occasionally the tail lamps and dash lights would go out (learned to clean the contatcts that held the fuse to fix on the side of the road at night) and the fuel filter glass bowl had to occasionally be emptied of its rust.

        Would love to hear more from Phil on this topic!

    • 0 avatar

      Who builds more cars today? Not the British. Considering the number of ‘positive earth’ cars foisted on the public by the Brits, 12 volts coming to the end of the wire where the lights are or whatever seems to indicate a short and not much else. People care about the lack of color coding and order in British wiring because they had to work on the wiring in the first place. I don’t know anything about the wiring methodology of my three Hondas, except that electricity goes where it is needed.

  • avatar

    Can we guess as to why these cars are so bad. Is it the bean counters– can the engineers be that that bad?

  • avatar

    Thanks for the article, and keep more coming. As the former victim, er, owner of a Triumph Spitfire I can identify with the uniqueness of British cars.
    The best advice I’ve heard from any collector is “Learn how to laugh. It covers the tears and sounds better than the cussing you want to do.”

  • avatar

    I’m an ex-Rover 2000 owner, and I feel your pain. I won’t add more complaints about the car, which I have already bitched about enough times on this forum.

  • avatar

    But what about BA (British Association ) small spanners sizes 0BA to 8BA used mostly in British ignition systems up until the mid 70s.

    Still got a set of those, I occasionally leave them out to confuse my American friends.

  • avatar
    big al

    Used to read a new magazine(at the time) that featured English bikes and cars. It went strictly to English cars after a few months but by that time I had quit reading it after a technical article on Norton Commandoes informed me how much smoother then the average Japanese 4 their Isolastic mounting system made them,AND,boy they outdid themselves here,how the early model Commandoes with drum brakes could be adjusted to stop just as well as disks. Words failed me I don’t know if I was just laughing after reading this or working my way to a minor nervous breakdown…..I read a while ago,and I can’t remember who said it,but with English bikes(cars too)you can get them to run perfectly ONCE.After that you spend the rest of your life trying to recreate that fleeting moment……Besides the 2 Nortons I also had several Morris Minor’s whist I was younger.I remember my Dad turning to me and saying “They didn’t export these damned things,they deported them”.

  • avatar

    It’s interesting that you included an ad for Lucas bicycle lights. Years ago I found a nice prewar Raleigh bicycle at an estate sale. I was going to buy it when a friend pointed out that it was Whitworth standard. Up until then, I’d never heard of such a thing. Since I didn’t want to spend money on a new wrench set, I passed.

    It’s my understanding that the English maintained the Whitworth standard long after everyone else had gone to metric because they were paranoid about protecting their markets. Schemes like that almost never work (Betamax for example).

    BTW, when I was a boy, a neighbor owned a BSA motorcycle. I asked him what BSA stood for and he replied, “Bastard stopped, again.”

  • avatar

    I’m amazed that anyone, let alone a shop owner would think that Whitworth tools were necessary for 1970s era British cars. Whitworth was pretty much phased out following the MG “T” series ara in the mid 1950s. The vast majority of threads became the same as the American NC and NF series. Of course the people who want to sell you expensive and unecessary tools have a slightly different take on this…

  • avatar

    Usual rant about Lucas, when really, the blame should be put squarely on the shoulders of people like BMC, Triumph, Rover and Standard. Rootes didn’t seem too bad, and Ford and GM in the UK had no problems to speak of.

    Lax standards, nobody in engineering charge except for flighty types like Issigonis at BMC. I mean, c’mon, the distributor for the Mini and 1100/1300 was right behind the grille where it stopped the rain from hitting the engine!

    When I went to England in 1969 for an extended stay, there were cars stopped at the side of the road after every rain storm. ALL of them were BMC models, most the above two models. Then someone had a brainwave and a rubber covering was put over the distributor. Fine in the rain, but bad in humid weather for condensation and the usual result.

    You can go to Curbside Classics where there is a reasonable article on Lucas. The author says the Lucas stuff itself was well made, but that didn’t stop people using it in dumbass fashion.

    Whitworth threads? See TR4 above.

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