Friday, April 13, 2012

British cars and motorcycles and why we love them

Royal Enfield authority Chris Overton recently shared a story he found "on a mechanic and the reasons and emotions for working on old vehicles."

Headlined "The Meticulous Mechanic and His Ward of English Patients," by Peter Cheney of The Globe and Mail in Toronto, it's a familiar tale.

"Nigel" (not his real name) works on old British cars, Jaguars especially, because he appreciates their beauty along with their flaws. Nigel's real name can not be revealed because the last thing he wants is more customers with broken British cars to fix.

"Unfortunately, things rarely go well when you delve into the rear cavities of an aging Jaguar," Cheney writes. Still, when he visits Nigel's shop, "I am always reminded of what I learned about Plato back in university — that physical things are merely representations of universal ideas we carry with us."

By this he means the universal appeal of an XK-E, for instance. Even Enzo Ferrari called the XK-E "the most beautiful car ever made," Cheney writes.

An XK-E has never been in my budget (perhaps fortunately). But in 1971, as a college student, I decided that a $400 MGA with 114,000 miles on the clock was in my budget.

I was wrong, and it eventually cost me the grocery money but, in the meantime my MGA earned its keep. It carried my roommate and me from Chicago to Los Angeles for Winter break. I removed the head in my parents' driveway and had it rebuilt. Sadly, the reassembled car was no faster. The guy at the shop that tuned it for me mumbled something about that being a shame, as I paid his bill.

Me and my MGA in the driveway of my parents' house, 1971.
We put four six-packs of Coors (not available east of the Mississippi in those days) in the driver's foot well, and headed back to Chicago. In Texas the motor began to stumble. I found the MG dealership in Oklahoma City and pleaded for help. My MGA was assigned to a long-haired young man and spent some time in a service bay.

After awhile I went for a test drive with the mechanic. I drove. The car was no better.

"I'll fix it after lunch," he said. "These MGAs are nice cars. I have a couple at home." He roared off for lunch in an old (even then) MGB painted flat black.

After lunch he spent more time with my car. He might have said something about the distributor. When it was time for another test drive, he took the wheel.

Transformation! My plodding MGA roared up the hills behind the dealership, reaching rpm it had never seen in my hands. The mechanic drove masterfully, the transmission (no synchro on first) obeying his every movement.

My spirits soared along with the rpm as we hit the road again. My wonderful sports car stayed wonderful — all the way to Tulsa. Then it started to stumble again. When we could stand it no longer I got out a flashlight and screwdriver and, by the side of the road pulled off the distributor cap and tightened the points at some random setting.

The stumbling stopped, and so did the joy. We plodded on to Chicago where, after the wiring under the dash caught fire a second time, I sold the MGA for $125.

I've never lost my appreciation for British vehicles of those days. And I'll never forget the young mechanic who helped me experience, for 100 miles, how magnificent it was to own one. I never got his name. I'm sure it wasn't "Nigel."

1 comment:

  1. That MG looks remarkably good. You look pretty much the same. You may have sold the car, but you'll always have the experience of having owned and driven it. That puts you one up on most of us. Good for you!


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