Along about mid-August, I approached a nearby neighbor about the possibility of using her extra garage to store one of my vehicles. She was very agreeable to the idea, so the following week Nigel, our ’59 Jaguar, made its way to its new home down the street.
Nigel’s transfer created an empty space in our own garage. Of course nature abhors a vacuum, so I dutifully set about arranging for a new occupant for that beckoning space! Many years ago, I had owned an old MG TD roadster and had found those old British cars held some allure for me.
I’m not sure whether it is the smell of rotting leather, deteriorating horsehair, burning oil, or melting insulation that draws me to these anachronistic mechanisms like a moth to the flame, but after a good bit of reflection, it occurred to me that an MGA roadster might be the perfect addition to the collection.
I contacted the local MG club, and was put in touch with Eric Schenk, a UT professor and owner of a well-seasoned MGA, who was kind enough to offer to let me take a test drive in his. Thanks to this, I was able to determine that I could squeeze my 6’2″ frame into the tiny cockpit.
I spent a good bit of time searching for the nearest thing to a perfectly restored MGA I could find. Finally, “Cedric” appeared as a for-sale listing on eBay. I placed a bid literally 10 seconds prior to closing, and managed to procure the purchase at exactly the seller’s minimum reserve price.
Cedric was located in Costa Mesa, CA. I got several bids for enclosed shipping back to Austin, but since I had to fly out to inspect the car prior to sealing the deal (learned the hard way to NEVER buy a car based on pictures and description alone, but that’s another story), I finally decided to make the whole thing an adventure and drive the little beast back, across the Arizona desert, at the height of summer!
Before I get into the trip though, I should say a little about the MGA. This great roadster was designed and first built in Britain by the Morris Garage company (hence the brand MG) in 1955, and continued with the same model through 1962.
I do still vividly remember visiting an MG dealership in San Angelo back in the early ’60s, and being totally smitten with the showroom new model they had on the floor. I guess it has taken almost 50 years for me to turn that interest into ownership! By 1955 Detroit standards, the MG had some advanced features: rack and pinion steering (more about that later), wire wheels, and a 4-speed manual transmission.
Other than those features, and equipped with one of the most curvaceous car bodies ever designed, the remainder of the car was economical simplicity at its best. A radio was rare; air conditioning non-existent; the folding top rudimentary at best; there are no door handles (just a pull-cord accessed on the inside of the door); no roll-up windows (side “curtains” were provided with rigid, sliding plexiglass windows, were provided which quickly bolted on the top of the door in an emergency). The simple, 4-cylinder engine of just 1500 ccs produced a whopping 78 horsepower, but has plenty of power to propel this 1800 lb wonder down the road at a steady 80 mph or more.
MG produced almost 100,000 of the MGAs (albeit many in right-hand steering configuration for the home market). This seems like a lot until one realizes that some 2 MILLION 1955 Chevrolets were built! Of course, the dreaded rust monster has reduced a significant number of these beautiful machines back to that great car junkyard in the sky.
OUR car, “Cedric”, is a 1959 model, last year of the 1500cc engine model prior to introduction of the 1600 MGA. Styling of the newer version was slightly different, and, as is usually the case, not, in my opinion, as attractive as the original model we now own.
Cedric is a virtual one-owner car, the original owner having possession until about a year ago, at which time the current owner acquired possession but never actually registered it. The mileage shown is about 82,000, which I deem to be original. The car is just beautiful. Virtually everything on the car has been recently replaced… upholstery, brakes, wire wheels, all chrome, all rubber, upgraded halogen headlights, new gas tank, fuel pump.. suspension components and brake lines… the list goes on and on. Every gage and switch on the car functions as new.
Cedric was offered for sale by long-time car enthusiast and dealer (mostly Alfa Romeos) Michael Long, owner of “Fast Cars of California”. When I arrived at LAX, Michael’s wife graciously picked me up and transported me to the small dealership, where Michael had the car all shined up and ready to go, along with a full tank of gas.
Within a couple of hours, I was loaded up and headed down Interstate 5 toward San Diego, accompanied by a small bag of tools and a couple of changes of shorts and shirts. I had drawn my destination via Mapquest, and found that the default suggested route would have taken me through east Orange County, over the grade toward Palm Springs, and on to Phoenix.
My experience with British cars has taught me that they ALL tend to overheat with the slightest provocation. Wary of getting caught in L.A. freeway traffic and overheating, I did some tinkering with the navigation, and found I could drive straight south down the coast toward San Diego, then shoot out I-8 to Tucson, to intersect I-10 all the way home. Additional distance, only 8 out of a total trip of some 1,300 miles. Here is the route I ultimately settled on:
Well, it wasn’t more than 20 minutes down the road toward San Diego, in very temperate conditions (85 degrees or less), that I starting seeing the coolant temperature begin to climb. As I pressed on, the temperature continued climbing, until it reached an indicated 212. I started looking for the next exit, and was already in the exit lane when it seemed that the temperature increases had stopped, and the temperature seemed to level out right at 212! In an online treatise I had read by a MGA expert, he opined that these cars won’t boil over until 230 degrees, and that they can be run all day at anything less than that. Armed with that tidbit, I boldly pressed on, and, sure enough, I never saw a higher temperature than 212 for the entire trip!
Nevertheless, I reconsidered my original plans, which had been to charge ahead (from my 2:00 PM Costa Mesa departure) and brave the mountains at night, to try to make it to Tucson. I became concerned that the inevitable stop-and-go rush hour traffic around San Diego might be the last straw for this little jewel. Additionally, since my own day had begun at 5:00 AM and 2 time zones away, it just made sense to tie up for the night at an intermediate location. I found a little motel in Oceanside, just 45 minutes north of San Diego, checked in, had an early dinner and early turn-in.
Next morning, well, that’s a 2:30 AM morning, I was up, alert, and on the road toward San Diego and beyond.
This would be a good time to discuss the driving characteristics of Cedric.. The rack and pinion steering on this car results in the most precise and immediate steering I have ever encountered on a car. There is absolutely NO spare movement in the entire steering linkage. Turn the steering wheel a mere 1/4″ and you’re heading for the side of the road! In fact, the steering is sooo sensitive I almost did myself in at one point: Iwas daydreaming, not watching my rear mirror, and had strayed slightly to one edge of my lane when a much faster car blasted by me on the right. Spooked, I instinctively grabbed at the wheel, which darn near put me off the road and fishtailing through a few oscillations before I regained control. Afterwards, I developed a healthier relationship with that wheel!
The transmission, likewise, requires minimal movement to shift from gear to gear. There is no syncromesh in first gear (as designed by the factory) so you don’t downshift to first until you are at a dead standstill. Fortunately, second gear has enough grunt that there is no real reason to ever need first EXCEPT from a standstill.
With the top up, entering an MGA can be a daunting experience. I quickly learned the best approach to be going in head first, putting your knees on the seat, and swiveling around. Once inside, there is actually a surprising amount of head room and leg room, with one huge exception: The throttle pedal is postioned so far aft in the floor that the right leg (at my height) winds up being at a fixed and immovable 90 degree angle, with the only physical place for the knee being wedged between the steering wheel rim and the “branding iron” that the Brits call a gear shift lever. Yes, that metal lever can reach tortuous temperatures on a long drive (Christmas wish: leather sock for that metal rod!):
Amazingly, as uncomfortable as it looks, I found my body took kindly to this yoga-like position, and it worked well for me throughout the entire 1,300 mile trip!
The little engine seems to be very happy buzzing along at a good 80-85 mph, turning well over 4,000RPMs. It is smooth as silk, as is the suspension and steering. No vibration, shimmy, or tendency to pull away from the target. The exhaust note, which gives a nice little bark at lower speeds and during gear change, is surprisingly non-intrusive at speed (or is it just that the wind noise masks any other sound around?).
Driving through the desert in an open (truly open) car assaults all the senses. Many of the roadside plants at night display an iridescense that is eerie. The stars in man-made-light-deprived desert country are unbelievably bright and numerous. And the smells of the desert change from mile to mile. Sometimes eliciting the fragrance of cactus flowers, other times essence of petroleum, not unlike the familiar burning oil that all British cars are famous for (wait a minute, that smell IS British-car burning oil!)
Along about 4:00 AM on that first morning, I learned that there is a definite truth to the old axiom “it is always coldest just before dawn”. Open windows, shorts, and a short sleeve shirt finally did a toll on me, and I had to say “uncle” and pull into a roadside park. First I dug out a second short sleeve shirt to supplement the original, and continued on my way.
Not long after, I deemed the two short sleeve shirts were still not adequate to protect a long-time Hawaii resident from the cold desert air, so I pulled into the next mega-gas station, and bought the only long sleeve shirt in the store (I’m now the proud owner of my own “route 66” logo shirt). That helped a good bit, but at over 4,000 feet elevation, it’s just damned cold out there in the desert!
As a last resort, I bit the bullet, pulled over once again, and dug out the never-used side window inserts (they still had the protective paper on the plexiglass).. With no patience for pulling the paper off, I slapped these babies on, paper and all, leaving me totally blind except for directly ahead and behind.
This really helped in the comfort department. However, I soon discovered a couple of negative by-products of side-curtain usage: The now-restricted airflow out of the cockpit rendered the marginal heater completely useless. Additionally, the pressurized cockpit caused the top to inflate slightly, which pulled up the center of the top bow at the windshield, allowing a nice, bracing cold blast of air right between the windshield frame and the top.
A nice added feature of the “top ventilation” is that this little opening served to scoop up every flying critter encountered on the road (of which there were legions). When daylight finally arrived, I found myself driving the only mobile entomological cockpit collection on Interstate 10. The cockpit was littered with hundreds of little dead bodies!
Now, mornings in the desert.. ah, desert mornings. There is nothing to compare with experiencing that first hint of daylight on the road, eminating from the oh so distant horizon. That initial transition from total darkness to the first glimmer of light is like the ultimate promise of the renewal of life! It is even nicer when driving almost directly toward the growing light so each changing nuance can be observed first-hand. At first there is just the slightest softening of darkness along the distant horizon, unmarred by terrain or trees. Before long, the deepest violet color starts to appear, followed, eventually and slowly, by virtually every color of the rainbow.. purple, magenta, mauve, peach, orange, yellow chartreuse, until finally the full morning unfolds like the petals of an early morning blooming flower.
Once the sun comes up, it is then amazing how quickly the desert environment can turn from near-artic to the gates of hell! Temperatures begin rising at an alarming rate. And likewise, true British car that he is, Cedric’s coolant temperature seems to want to keep pace. From a nice 185-190 at night, the needle starts its inevitable rise in the sun to stabilize right around 212. I found that minor changes in driving speed could have a big effect on coolant temperature (you could almost use the temp. gage as a rudimentary speedometer.. 70 mph, 195 degrees, 75 mph, 205 degrees, 80 mph, 212 degrees)! I also found that an incline in roadway required a speed/power reduction to keep temperatures in check.
Armed with this newfound knowledge, I was able to successfully manage temperatures during the reasonable part of the day. However, by 10:00-10:30, with outside ambient temperatures pegging 100 or more, Cedric became less and less willing to press on. It was thus that my daily routine was established… up at 2:00-2:30 AM, drive straight through until 10:00 AM or so, then check in for the day, get a good early night’s sleep for the next leg!
It was in this way that I made great progress toward home. Passing through El Paso signalled a return to home-state Texas, and made me feel like I was nearing home, until I conferred with the portable GPS I had on board, to learn that I was pretty much exactly HALF-WAY home from San Diego.. Yikes!
Nevertheless, I was enjoying the trip, the drives through the desert night air, and was feeling very bullish about my purchase, the reliability of the car, and optimistic of successfully reaching my destination without incident.
Unfortunately, fate reared its ugly head just some 120 miles/2 hours from home, in the little town of Junction, where I had turned off for a brief stretch break. As I prepared to continue on the final leg, I depressed the clutch, and something just didn’t feel right. It was then I realized the clutch had become inoperative. It was stuck in a permanently disengaged mode. I hopped out, and saw a huge puddle of Cedrics innards growing on the pavement. Damn!
Bottom line, turned out the clutch release bearing had worn itself out, and disintegrated, rendering the car immobile, and spilling all the clutch hydraulic fluid. My only option was a VERY expensive and humiliating tow truck ride home. In spite of it all, I managed to arrive back in Dripping mid-day on Saturday, Sept 6, after departing from Costa Mesa on the preceding Wednesday.
I’ve wasted no time removing the engine (about 3 hours total time for the task!), required for replacement of the inexpensive broken part, and expect to have our new baby back on the road and in tip-top shape within a day or so after I receive the replacement parts.
The culprit turned out to be a completely worn down clutch release mechanism:
The car was immobilized for some 8-10 days as we waited for parts from the supplier. Then, thanks to help from my friend Doug Chambers, we got the engine reinstalled in less than 2 hours time, and the following day Cedric was back on the road.
That very next weekend we entered “Cedric” in the Austin All British Car Show and won First Place! We also took Nigel, our MK IX Jaguar (also a 1959)
and won another First Place in class, winning out over a car that allegedly had undergone a $200,000 restoration!
Thus signals the end of one saga and the beginning of another!