|The MGA With An Attitude
Temporary Distractions - Wasting a few years
When there is enough determination combined with the attitude, then you can almost always get where you want to go, regardless of detours and distractions. The road didn't look terribly long, and there was a small light at the end of the tunnel from the beginning. Remember the trust fund that was paying the school expenses? That wasn't going to make me rich, but there would be some money available when I turned 21, so savings was not a high priority in the meantime.
Whatever small amount in the bank at the time was effectively drained to cover a few gold rings and a (very) moderate November wedding, so we were definitely starting off on a shoestring. I still had the hatchet shift gas station job for about $60/week net, one check per month was making the car payment, and fortunately the high maintenance "cheap" car was under warrantee. It didn't help that I got Mono in mid winter, spent a week in the hospital and missed three weeks of work, but in the end that just delayed one car payment by a few weeks. I had booked a couple of night classes at the college and was scheduled for graduation. The baby doctor wanted to be paid before delivery, and that ate up a month's pay, but in spite of all that there was a little money in the bank by late Spring. On delivery day in late May it wasn't too hard to slip the hospital $100 and tell them to wait just one month for the rest. A recruiter showed up on campus, took a liking to my good grades, and offered me a job in the "big city". Yes we had to move, but under the circumstances that was a no-brainer, just delay work start by two weeks as bouncy baby Teresa came into our lives right on schedule on May 25th. You know the story, so you figure it out.
In the Summer of '70 financial things were suddenly looking perky again (or at least pleasantly tolerable). We had a decent one-bedroom apartment (lots nicer than what we were used to) in Glen Ellyn, just west of Chicago, even though my rent just jumped from $55 to $155. About that time someone decided the gas war should end (and we should never see another one), and the $.26 gas that was $.19 during the gas was suddenly about $.33 per gallon. All the bills were paid with nearly $4,000 in the bank from the trust fund, and there was about $500/month (after taxes) from my new job as Engineering Associate at Western Electric. We all know the reasonable thing to do would have been to buy a new car, one that wouldn't keep eating up my time and attention, but that just didn't seem like the sporting way to do things. That little red MGA we left behind the year before was never far from mind and kept tugging on my collar like a small devil sitting on my shoulder. "Remember me? Hey, over here!"
I was groveling through the classifieds for a few weeks, but all the MGA cars in the Chicago area seemed to be cancer cases from the road salt and/or non-functional derelicts. What a difference a year makes. I guess they really were unappreciated orphans, and it looked like I may have already seen the last of the good ones. One particularly rusty MGA got me to thinking about the Jamaican body shell again. The sales brochure said the body would fit on a variety of chassis, including a big Healey. What the hey! If I was starting from scratch, why not start with a three liter Healey chassis? But there were precious few of those, also mostly rusted, and they didn't have the same sort of heavy steel frame found on the MGA. On the flip side of the same Fiberfab brochure was another kit car model, the Valkarie. That was a knock off of the Ford GT40 with mid engine V8. It would come with a tubular steel frame, the mostly finished fiberglass body and some interior trim parts, and instructions for assembly using commonly available hardware parts. Well, if I was starting from scratch anyway, .... Oh what a tangled web, but by prudently exercising tunnel vision we can sometimes make strange choices. Soon I had rented half of a small two car garage just two blocks from the apartment, and my brother's big Mercury hauled a tandem axle U-haul trailer to Cincinnati to procure "the kit", and the project was under way.
When I took the back seat out of the Austin America there was a surprisingly large space inside. A few trips to local bone yards soon retrieved the trans-axle and suspension parts from a '66 Corvair, a Corvette steering box and radiator, a small Healey steering column and Lucas wiper drive system, a pair of Ford Mustang doors for the hardware, Ford LTD front door glass, VW Beetle window regulators, Corvair headlights and windscreen glass, Mustang fastback rear glass, Pontiac GTO front parking lights, and Opal GT tail lights. A speed shop provided a new set of Steward Warner dash instruments and American Mag aluminum wheels, and some new wide belted Polyglass tires looked like the true business bit. I rented a small van once to retrieve a 300 HP 327 V8 engine from a '67 Chevelle Super Sport, and add another $40 to swap the "small" Carter 4-bbl carburetor for a nifty HUGE Quadrajet carb and intake manifold. Exhaust headers were fabricated from speed shop flanges and custom bent tubing, 4 to 1 collectors and reducers, and add a pair of fat but short oval mufflers. Mind you this stuff wasn't particularly cheap, eventually getting close to the cost of a new Corvette in those days, but given a summer (or two) to bolt it all together in spare time it was beginning to look pretty impressive. Of course it was not nearly as easy as the thin assembly book made it look, but with a lot of creativity and innovation it was actually happening.
As interesting as this was, it was not all of life. The job had considerable overtime hours, which was a considerable distraction. Somewhere along the line, about 1972, I had acquired a snub nose '63 Ford Falcon window van, which was basically a big box on wheels with lots of interior volume (in spite of the engine being halfway in the cargo space), very useful, very simple, very reliable after I rebult the engine and kingpins (and a real pig to drive). By summer of '73 we decided it was time to buy a (moderately cheap starter) house, and the lemonized Austin America finally went away (no tears shed). The $24,000 mortgage scared the hell out of me, but the 25 year time payments made the principal and interest just a few dollars more than the increasing apartment rent, just about $171 per month. One part of this move was definitely driven by the right priorities, so the little house in Warrenville had a nice 2-1/2 car garage 30 feet deep with enough space in the back for a workshop. This quickly got full insulation, 220 wiring a workbench and a space heater. The new house was solid but somewhat neglected, so there went a whole year of spare time scraping and painting and generally "fixing up". For a daily four wheel appliance that shouldn't require any of my free time, I finally bought a new Mustang II Ghia V6 in December '73 (nobody said an appliance has to be boring). The following summer get the wife up to speed on a stick shift and get her a drivers license, after which it's her car and my van. (Bummer). But she was quite enamored with her new found freedom, generally happy and frieldly too, so the following year we have another bouncing baby girl, Honey (don't ask about the name).
But I did finally get back to finish the project car, at least as far as being driveable and in primer paint. Being anxious to get the hot car on the road for a "test" run (or two), I called my insurance agent. Of course he had never heard of this car model, so he needed a full description. Uh, okay. 300 horsepower, 1700 pounds, all fiberglass body, no bumpers, and the driver was not quite 25 yet. (Insert long pause). He said, "Try Comet Casualty, and if that doesn't work, Lloyds of London will (probably) insure anything". Oops. .... The next day there was an ad in the paper, and a few weeks later the car quietly went away on a tow bar. I gotta tell you, there's not much of a market for kit cars, not even new sporty ones all ready to drive. The $2200 final sale price was about a third of cost, not counting labor, but at least the shop space was empty again.
Back to the papers to see what was available in fun wheels. I had a test drive in a really nice Fiat 850 Spider, cute and well mannered in spite of being a bit tail heavy, but too slow for my taste. I actually had a well used Fiat 124 Spyder for a couple months. That was fun enough, but I ultimately decided it was impossible to stop serious oil leaks from the engine for more than a day at a time, and the slightly sloppy gearbox had a habit of trying to use two gears at once and locking in neutral, so that went away without fanfare. The Falcon van was getting a little long in the tooth (rusty). I was still being creative and wanting to haul some building materials occasionally, so in mid 76 the van gave way to a 74 Datsun Lil Hustler truck. Well it was barely a truck, but it did have uprated springs and a 1700 pound load capacity. Aside from being a little stiff riding it drove more like a small car and even made a decent commuter vehicle. That was fortunate, because by fall I had gone a bit over the edge and made a strange career move, giving up the moderately boring but solid job at Western Electric to try out contract engineering for a temp agency. That left me commuting some long distances and not knowing where I would be working from month to month. The new job was interesting enough and paid quite well, but the Lil Hustler suddently took on 25,000 miles in one year and decided it needed a valve job. Maybe it wasn't such a good commuter car, but the wife actually liked it for putzing around town, so I got the Mustang back. How about that? The next assignment was 75 miles from home six days a week, which wouldn't have been so bad, except the "oil crisis" was all the news, interstate speed limits dropped to 55, and gas was suddenly up to $.59 per gallon. But the new career was paying well, so all was still right with the world.
Then one day a good friend and neighbor across the street noticed that little devil fellow sitting on my shoulder, still tugging on my collar, and mentioned that he had recently bought a Medium Metallic Blue MGA with steel disk wheels on a passing whim, and it sure could use a new home for about $800. Oh gawd, you almost needed a shovel to pick my melted remains off the driveway. I didn't have a chance. It was like the heavens had opened up with bright lights and music. The MG wouldn't start that day, but little did I care. We pushed it across the street into my garage, and REAL life seemed to jump right back on track, a mere 7-1/2 years after the red one with wire wheels was pushed into someone else's garage. After the kit car experience, this looked like cake walk, and in the summer of '77 life was showing promises of open road and freedom again (after a little touch up work or course).