It was yellow, badly painted with orange-peel effect and some spots with paint so thick it was still soft. The black interior with red trim was faded and cracked, the driver’s seat broken down in the middle like a 40 year old recliner in front of a rabbit-eared TV. There was a large steering wheel to accommodate the lack of power steering on a car that was front-heavy with its engine derived from a farm tractor. Made in the late 50’s and not well kept, it came to me in 1966 when I had all the optimism a teenager could muster for its future. The “please take this thing off my hands”bargain price should have been a clue.
Seated down in the well of the driver’s seat, rear end only a few inches off the floor, legs stretched out as far as they could go to reach the tiny pedals, a stubby shift lever fell readily to hand so that one could muscle the four-speed transmission out of its non-synchromesh first gear and row the car through its paces.
Behind the driver, a legacy of some previous owner, was a crudely welded U-shaped roll bar, held in its floor sockets with pins allowing it to be removed so that the top could be erected. And that was the correct term, since the top went up more like a complicated camping tent than what we now think of as a convertible car. In inclement weather I more often relied on the tonneau cover, half zipped to cover the passenger seat since the top leaked from every seam and joint anyway and the plastic windows were so nearly opaque as to be unusable.
It ran sporadically, a common characteristic of British machines of certain age. Among various other maladies it often required me to get out in the rain to lie down beside the car and reach back under to deal with the electric fuel pump that hung down from the frame where it could receive the maximum number of environmental insults. I learned to field-strip the pump quickly and then to rebuild it in the garage, testing its little contacts by seeing what sparked when I touched what with a battery lead, not thinking of course that the thing was usually full of gasoline when in operation. That pump’s failures cost me at least two second dates when the young ladies were not amused to be sitting on the side of the road in the rain in the leaking MG while I dealt with getting it running again, then got back in the car dripping wet and dirty.
I loved it.
Sitting in that broken down driver’s seat, looking out over that long hood, left hand on the huge wheel, right hand on the nub of a shifter, listening to the growl of the four-cylinder engine and the whine of the transmission I was Stirling Moss flying down a hedgerow-lined twisting British backroad (except for the good looks, phenomenal talent and British backroad parts).
Among the lessons I learned from that car, patience, mechanical skills and self-reliance, came the dangers of hubris.
I read of a Gymkhana race that would take place on a Sunday morning at a Sears parking lot in a nearby town (stores used to be closed on Sundays back in those days) and determined I would take my Moss-inspired dreams of driving skill for a proper competition. The fact that I had only the barest idea of what such an endeavor would involve was no impediment.
So on the appointed Sunday I left my home in the early dawn light and drove to Huntington, West Virginia. I was wearing what I assumed was the proper driving clothes for this mission, a t-shirt, old cutoff cotton jean shorts and tennis shoes, probably without socks. I did have my motorcycle helmet in the seat beside me and the roll bar ensconced behind….what else could one need?
I got to the parking lot entrance early and there to collect the entry fee (which I hadn’t thought about, but fortunately had brought some lunch money) was a beautiful girl, perhaps only a bit older than my age of not-quite -yet 18, standing behind a makeshift stand, smiling broadly. Male ego fully intact, I was ready to impress her.
I came to a stop at her place and flung open the long door of the MGA and leaped out of the car….at which point the metal projection on the doorframe caught the edge of my cotton shorts and ripped them off my body. The girl’s expression changed from welcoming to shocked disbelief as suddenly I stood there in my t-shirt and underwear, my shorts now ripped in half and hanging off my ankles.
Time stands still in such moments, so it was in what seemed like extreme slow-motion that I jumped back in the car, slammed it in gear, never mind the non-synchro, and u-turned out of the lot.
She is a septuagenarian grandmother now, still laughing as she tells that story to the young ones.
The drive back to Ashland took a lot longer than it seemed going the other way and I did drive more carefully than my usual custom since the thought of standing on the shoulder explaining to a police officer why I was driving in my undies seemed almost, but not quite, as embarrassing as what I had just done.
The MG saved me from further such episodes by cracking its head not long after, sending long plumes of white steam out behind the car as it tried quite unsuccessfully to combust the coolant that was now leaking in. I sold it at a junk price to another teenager whose ambition to restore it and love it forever mirrored my own of just a few months before.
I did warn him about the door.