|The MGA With An Attitude
How It Started - Attitude MK1
From the beginning it was all about freedom. I was 19 and a farm kid commuting to junior college in Moline, Illinois. The station wagon and the car expenses were covered by my parents. The school expenses were covered by a trust fund. I didn't even mind the 30 minute commute, but the extra few hours of farm work each evening were cutting into homework time, and social time was nearly nil (more important of course). It was time to bail out, so before sophomore year in August 1968 I moved into town and got a "room" ($11/week) near the college. I could do without powered wheels for a while, but it would be tough walking or commuting on a bicycle in the winter time, so it was car shopping time. Aside from the books under my arm and the clothes on my back, my entire net worth was summed up in one bank account with $1200, and I wasn't going to spend it all on a car. Well, maybe half of it, if I had to.
I wasn't too particular about an expensive car or any status symbol, just needing functional wheels that wouldn't eat me alive in repair bills. But I must have had some sense of style, and even then I seemed to prefer small to large. I remember that the 55-57 T-Bird cars were way out of my price range, must have been going for $1200-$1500 at the time. I never had a thought about a Corvette, probably just not my style, no overwhelming need for muscle power or status. A 57 Chevy might occasionally be had for $700-$1000, but I didn't see any in the local classifieds at the time. I was sort of taken by a Mercedes 190SL, but sticker shock took care of that idea. I was more than a little shy about a Porsche 356, not knowing anything about German engineering, and being somewhat intimidated about the price of repairs. There was a 56 MGA advertised, but I had never seen one and didn't know exactly what it was. I remember a MG TD a friend had in high school, rather antiquated looking even then, but it was some fun to drive, and it might be simple enough to be reliable enough for a college kid. So I made the call and went to look at this unknown entity.
What a strange little car at first sight. The MGA didn't look much like the TD I remembered, no spare tire on the back, no running boards, no tall grille or open front fenders. In fact it didn't seem to have anything at all on it that wasn't required to make it go down the road. Not even side windows or door handles. That was quickly explained away with the sliding side curtains and inside cable pull to open the door. The door pockets seemed like a good idea for storage space in a small car. I slid inside and nearly sat on the floor, which was a bit of a surprise. The low slung seats had me tucked in with my head and maybe half a shoulder above the door so I could hardly see over the dash, and I had to put the seat full forward to reach the pedals. Being a diminutive fellow in those days, about 5-4 and 125 pounds or so, this seemed like plenty of interior space, considering how small the car was on the outside. So far so good, and it was time for a test drive.
Being a farm kid I was used to machinery in general, so no big deal with the manual drum brakes and the non-syncro first gear. Heck, I had learned to drive on farm tractors, and a '47 Ford truck with 4-speed crash box transmission, so this was pretty slick by comparison. The suspension and steering were crisp, and there was immediately some appeal to a street legal go cart that might go 90 MPH, even if it was a little slow getting off the line. And it wasn't like I needed to carry much in the boot, as most of my worldly possessions fit under one arm. The lack of a back seat actually seemed like a good excuse for being out alone with a girl, and not needing to negotiate about leaving the friends behind. Well shucks, I was 19 you know.
The kid selling it got it for a high school graduation present, spent the summer cleaning it up and repainting it, gave the engine new rings, bearings, gaskets and a valve touch up. He also installed new carpeting and had the wire wheels tuned and repainted, and everything worked, including the AM radio with the squeaky little speaker in the bottom of the radio case. The car was 12 years old and nearly like new. I had no idea that the silver gray paint was not an original color, but it looked good. The rag top was in good condition, probably not original, and the side curtains with the sliding plastic panels looked like new. In retrospect I guess they were fairly new, as in those days it was traditional to toss out the original fixed side curtains and replace them with ones having sliding panels that could be opened for ventilation. He said there was a fiberglass hard top too. For less than half the cost of a small T-Bird and even less than a 57 Chevy, this seemed like it might fit the (tight budget) requirements just about right. So it was time to negotiate.
Well, I didn't know much about MGs in those days, and when the asking price started out near my price range I wasn't asking too many questions about the market value. The kid said he really liked the car, but his girl friend told him to "get rid of it". I'm not at all sure I would have had the same reaction (hee hee hee), but what the heck, any incentive to sell could be good for negotiations. He claimed to have $850 tied up in it, but would sell it for a little less. Being a practical bloke I told him $600 was my upper limit, take it or leave it, and I was indeed willing to walk away if I had to. I was almost surprised when he accepted the offer (probably paid too much for it), but happy to get the car regardless. A new MGB would sell for less than the $3200 sticker price, a new Datsun 240Z was stickered at $3400, and a good used MGB could be had for $800-$1500. I was to find out later that the "old" MGA had a book value of only $400, presumably sort of orphans that no one wanted. But at the time ignorance was bliss, and this was one really sweet little MG in great running condition. So the deal was done, and I took possession of my very first car with the black hardtop strapped in place for the drive-away. Promptly lay out $4 for the title, $4 for a half year license, $70 for liability insurance (ouch), and $2 to fill the fuel tank at 17.9 cents per gallon (during the gas war). First thing at home was to haul the hardtop up stairs and stash it in the back corner of "the room". You know that hardtop was so bulky and inconvenient that it never did make it back onto the car.
A couple days later the car was reluctant to start on a cool morning. After a helpful hand for a push start I took to parking it heading down hill for a rolling start, and made an appointment with the local MG dealer for a tune up. When I pulled it into the little two bay shop the first thing the mechanic said was, "That doesn't sound right". Uh, waddaya mean? I don't hear anything. "That's what I mean, it doesn't sound right. Shut it off". Then he opened the bonnet, removed the top cover, and proceeded to adjust the valve rocker arms. He told me they were all adjusted to zero clearance, plus another quarter turn, like you might do with hydraulic lifters. But these were solid lifters, so the valves weren't closing all the way, and the compression was pretty bad. I saw him stick a little metal blade under the tip of the rocker arm while adjusting the screw, then locked each one down tight and replaced the cover. He said, "Start it up", and I did.
Wow! It fired right off instantly on the first pull of the "S" knob, but was immediately rattling, something like eight little sewing machines under the valve cover. The guy leaned back with a big grin on his face and said, "Yeah, now it sounds like an MG". Who was I to argue? After a few more minutes under the bonnet he said he had reconnected the choke cable so it should start okay in the cool mornings, set the timing and fuel mixture, and I owed him $10 for the tune up. After the first trip around the block I gotta tell you, that may be the best $10 I ever spent. Yahoo, boy did that thing zip! The skinny bias ply tires didn't even bother me, as that was sort of common fare then, and pretty much what I was used to driving on.
Man, it would go a long way on the $2 worth of gas, at least 250 miles even with a heavy foot. An oil filter was about $1.50, and re-refined oil was $.25 per quart, so I didn't mind changing it every 2000 or 3000 miles, and all was well with the world. Warm evenings in late summer were all cruising nights (after the school work was finished of course), and many a cruising night was destined to finish after sunrise.
One of my favorite tricks was to take it hill hopping on familiar gravel road near the farm, in broad daylight of course. There were short steep hills with sharp crests. Sit on top of the first one and you see at least a mile across a few more hill tops to the next intersection, and not a cloud of dust in site, so no traffic. Taking it right down the center of the road, and at about 40 MPH I could just get the car airborn over the hiltops. A few MPH faster, and the landing spot would be half way down the far slope, nice and gentle like a ski jump. The suspension might almost bottom out, and the center ridge on the road might kick some gravel up on the frame, but this was jolly good fun. I'm guessing this may have something to do with the round cross tube at the front of the floor having a generous flat spot on the bottom side.
A few days later I was noticing a little "clunk" in the front end when I stepped on the brake, and another little "clunk" when I released the brake after stopping. It didn't seem like much, but better safe than sorry, so I pulled into the first service station I found, practically on the next corner as they were bound to be in those days. Easy up on the hoist, and Whoa Nellie! The left lower a-arm pivot shaft was missing two mounting bolts, another nut was half unscrewed, and the forth hanging on by just a thread or two. Good thing I stopped there. The wrench jock scrounged up a couple more 5/16" bolts and a few hex nuts, and in about ten minutes the suspension was pronounced healthy again. $2 please, thank you. No, thank YOU sir! You know, I was beginning to wonder about the kid who had worked on this car all summer, and what other little problems might be lurking about.
Less than two weeks after buying the car was time for the first "road trip". I was off to the Minnesota State Fair, and along the way to visit friend in Mankato, MN, well over 400 miles each way. The trip was going swimmingly well, except the car was using up a quart of oil every 50 miles or so. Not a big deal as long as the stuff was cheap and I kept pouring it in when needed (even though the oil was costing nearly as much as the gasoline by the mile). Got to visit the friend, got to spend a couple days at the fair okay, and was well on the way home. Then still about 100 miles out in Iowa something went "Dingity ding ding ding ding", and the power went away, so I killed the ignition and pulled off at the side of the road. After that the engine cranked very hard and slow, and shortly wouldn't turn at all, so it was time for "the hook".
I had the car towed a few miles to the nearest town, wired my home bank for some additional cash, then had the car towed another 25 miles to the nearest MG dealer, still 90 miles from home. It was Monday. The dealer agreed to remove the head and oil pan for a look inside, maybe on Wednesday. Figure about $50 for that work to find out what was wrong, and then no promise less than $500 on what it might cost to fix, depending on what had happened inside. A little disheartened, I spent $4.50 for a bus ticket home, but had some time to think about it.
I called the shop late Wednesday, but nothing done yet, maybe by Friday. I called again at mid day Friday, and still nothing done. So I had a little chat with my land lady and made arrangements to put the car up on blocks in the side yard for a few days. That was not an easy argument under the circumstances, but she did finally agree. The next tab was a bill for $70 for a Saturday towing job to get the car "home".
The small tool kit that came with the car was hardly adequate for engine disassembly work, so I walked a few miles to Sears and bought a Craftsman 1/2" drive socket set (farm kid used to larger tools) with a ratchet handle, medium, length extension and a u-joint, all of which I still have today. Even at 19 I knew the value of good tools. I pulled the oil pan first and found a few bits of broken piston skirt. Then removed the cylinder head and found a broken exhaust valve that had beaten up the piston and caused a bunch of little dings in the valve seat, but nothing else serious. I wondered for a moment where the DPO kid had maybe found "cheap" valves, but no matter now.
Hoist the cylinder head onto my shoulder and walk a few miles to the engine shop, picking up a pair of valves at the MG dealer (nearby) along the way. Also pick up a new piston with rings on the way back, $12 when the dealer had to break a $40 set, a head gasket set, pan gasket and some oil. Return home to install the new piston and put the pan back on. Two days later return to the engine shop to pick up the head, carry that back to the car for reinstallation, top it off with water and oil, and it was running again. The actual repair cost was not such a bad bite, $24 for tools, $20 for a valve job, $20 for parts. The important lesson here was that when it comes to economic survival, you can learn to do some things yourself. I wasn't into ale in those days, but a cold Coke and a pat on the back went a long way for a feel good day.
Incidentally, I also found and fixed the cause of the serious oil loss. There was a small rock caught between the engine block and the connector nut on the tachometer cable, so the nut didn't tighten down and oil was being lost around the tach cable connection. Out of curiosity, I went to see the guy who sold me the car, and asked him if he knew about the oil loss problem. He did, and this may have been a primary reason why he was selling the car. When I told him how easy it was to fix he turned a few shades of green, but I felt better and could hardly suppress a grin.
In the weeks to follow life was very good indeed. I moved into a two room furnished apartment, optimistic description for an eat-in kitchen (at least there was a stove and fridge) with sloping ceiling at the roofline and a 10x10 room with a cupola window and Murphy bed in one wall, all utilities paid (heat, water, electricity and cooking gas included), and share the bath across the hall, for $50 monthly rent, which coincidentlaly was going to be covered by the trust fund. I did have to pay for the phone though, $5 per nonth with 25 mile radius free calling, so I never got a long distance bill. The move happened in a single trip with the MG, with the school books tucked behind the seats, and the rest of my worldly possessions in the passeneger seat, and I didn't even open the boot. The hard top also got another ride in the process, ultimately having to drag it up two flights of stairs around a tight corner half way up, and stash it in one end of the kitchen, taking up about a quarter of the room and blocking one cabinet door.
I got a part time job, 12 hours a week at $1.60/hr minumum, wages pushing broom at a plating shop. That was just about enough (after withholding taxes) to cover a small food bill and gas for the car (now that the engine oil bill was smaller). A few dollars were allowed for weekend roller skating and some more low budget cruising, which was enough to keep the girls happy. Yes, plural. Funny how that works out when you're young with an MG. I stopped for a red light once, and some young girl on the sidewalk started yelling "Hey, I wanna ride in that car"! I smiled and waved, would have been happy to oblige, but I was nearly late for class. Hmmmm. Come to think of it, that should have been a really stupid decision, but somehow I thought college was important at the time.
Then one fateful night, just two months after buying the car, I was headed home about 1:00 AM when a drunk made a left turn in front of me at a green light intersection, and I T-boned a Plymouth Fury at about 40 MPH. What a shot! It caved in the whole side of the Fury about a foot between the wheels. It also shortened the front of the MG at least a foot and a half with the radiator smashed and water all over the ground. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt, just a few bumps and bruises, but then I was walking and taking buses for a couple of months until the other guy's insurance company begrudgingly coughed up a check. In the end it was enough money to cover a small medical bill, a few days off of work, towing and storage fees, bus fare, and $400 for the book value of the MG. I was a little concerned about that last point, until it was explained to me that there should be any number of decent MGA cars available for that price. And there were a few available at that price, so that legal idea of being "made whole" was not so bad after all. And life goes on.
For sure the mostly pleasant experiences of those two months with that first MGA were to have a long lasting effect on my life. After all, it's tough to beat success and pleasant memories, and freedom!