|Weekend Run To Brooklyn
1700 miles in 36 hours, almost. (1996)
Five years had passed since that first SCCA autocross event, and a lot was happening. The MGA with an attitude had been running autocross on race tires for nearly three full seasons, and this was so far the busiest travel year of all. There had been about two dozen SCCA autocross events in five or six different SCCA regions, nearly as many SCCA Time-Speed-Distance road rallies, a few thousand miles run laying out rallies for two different SCCA regions, several club meetings each month, and a variety of events with the local MG club. By year's end it would add up to more than 21,000 miles for the MGA (not including another 10,000+ club miles on the Mazda RX7), and only three of those events were more than 150 miles from home. This particular weekend in early November was about to rattle a few nerves.
The internet was nicely coming of age, and I had connected with an e-mail account the summer before, sort of by necessity. SCCA had changed some rules, and my Road Rally Safety Steward license was revoked pending updated training. E-mail turned out the be a convenient means for coordinating several things between various people in widely disparate locations in a short period of time. Getting on the net led to finding the mgs e-mail list where several hundred MG enthusiasts were bouncing messages around, 50 to 100 messages daily sometimes. Then one day in late October a message came from Brooklyn, New York, mentioning the first ever gymkhana (autocross) for the Eastern New York MGA Club to be held on Long Island the first Saturday in November. Shucks, the MGA with an attitude could hardly pass on an event like that, and the word spread like wildfire, "Barney is coming to Brooklyn?". Seems like I was a celebrity in certain circles, thanks to the internet, and the gig was on.
A light weekend bag was packed, the trailer carrying the race tires was hitched to the trusty steed, and I hit the road at 6:00 pm Friday evening heading east on the interstates. There was moderate to heavy rain throughout most of the night, but we pressed on regardless generally keeping up with whatever was traveling in the fast lane. With 14 hours travel time, one hour change in time zone, and a few fuel stops, the 840 miles traveled took me across the Varrezanno Narrows Bridge (commonly known as the Brooklyn Bridge) to Floyd Bennett Field on Long Island, arriving at 9:00 am. One hour early, just a couple other people there setting up the autocross course, so plenty of time to jack the car, install the sticky tires, and slap on the magic magnetic numbers. I'm not sure any of that was necessary for this event, but what the heck, people were expecting it.
The rain had stopped and the sun was out, so the rag top went down, and some bloke came by to offer up a local club T-shirt. Of course I collect such things, and I generally come equally prepared, so I reached for the travel bag which contained a nice SCCA Solo II trophy shirt which I was going to offer in exchange. What the heck? The duffle bag now weighed about 20 pounds, being saturated with water from the passenger side floor area of the MGA, so I guess the car had a little leak somewhere. No problem, just pull out the trophy shirt, wring the water out of it, and make the exchange.
More MGs and more people were arriving by then. One lady from the local club notice the curious MGA with Antique Vehicle plates from Illinois, and come over to ask a few questions. "Where you from?" Chicago. "Did you come here just for this event?" Yup. "How long have you been on the road?" Since six last night. "You drove all night to get here?" Yup. After a little pause, "Where's your trailer?" Right over there, the little black one. "No, I mean the car trailer and the tow vehicle." That is the trailer, it carries the race tires, and this is the tow vehicle. After a slightly longer pause, "You race the tow vehicle?" Yup. "What do you do if you break something?" I fix it and drive home. That was enough to send her scurrying off to tell her friends about this "nut with the old MGA" maybe about to make a fool of himself among all these newer MGs.
Skipping a lot of trivial fun details, the MGA with an attitude was doing 36 second laps while the next quickest car, an MGB with a "somewhat warmed over" engine was doing 40 second laps. Considering that the race tires generally make about 7% improvement in lap time, I suppose I might have won even if I was running on street tires. But it was all just for a jolly good show anyway, and time to put the mags and stickies back in the trailer. About noonish we knocked off the play time and retired to a local seafood restaurant for lunch where I was awarded honors of sorts and had more jolly good times. Then about 2:00 pm when the party was breaking up it was time to head home, just point it west and cruise.
Everything was going well for several hours, until I crossed the Ohio state line well after dark and stopped to pick up the punch card at the entry to Ohio toll road. Just past the toll booth the ignition light came on full bright (loss of generator output), and it was also starting to snow a little, so the lights were on and the heater and wipers were running. Oh, oh. How far to the next oasis? Well it wasn't too bad, about 40 miles I guess. The battery was well down, the lights were dimming noticeably and the wipers were getting slow, but I made to the oasis and checked in at the cash booth at the fuel pumps. The lady was nice enough to summon the manager, who in turn was nice enough to bring out the keys to the service garage (which was otherwise closed at that time of night) so I could get inside for a little light and heat and put a battery charger on the car (still outside) while I worked on it.
Two wires and three bolts, and the generator was off in a few minutes. Sitting on the floor inside the shop I pulled the tail plate off of the generator to reveal worn out brushes. Now I usually carry a spare set of brushes in the tool kit, but as fate would have it just a few days before I had installed the spare set of brushes in someone else's generator in a time of need, and I didn't have another replacement set (yet). On further inspection I noticed there was a little bit left of the worst worn carbon brush, so I found a #10 hex nut in the tool box, drop the nut in behind the brush and set the spring arm in behind it to press the brush against the commutator. In a few more minutes the generator was back together, on the car and working again. By that time the battery was charged up enough to start the car, so put the stuff away, lock up the garage, return the keys, thank the folks for they're assistance, and get back on the road.
By then the snow was accumulating so make mushy tracks a few inches deep. The trailer has a narrower track than the MG, so there was some additional drag there, and I was doing well to keep it up to 45 MPH, but at least it was moving steadily in the right direction, for a while anyway. About five miles down the road the engine sputtered and quit, and I moved off onto the shoulder to see what was amiss. Within a few minutes a State Police car had pulled up behind and switched on the bright blue flasher lights, and the cop strolled up to see what was happening. His big flashlight was better than my little one, so things went a little better. Disconnect fuel line at the carbs, switch on, plenty of fuel gushing out, switch off, reconnect the fuel line, and figure it's an ignition problem. Check the points, opening and closing okay, put the dizzy cap back on and crank the engine over. Immediately there were bright sparks flying across the top of the ignition coil. This was worse than just wet or a loose rubber boot. The moderately new Lucas Sport Coil apparently had a crack in the high tension tower. Bummer. Time to go sit in the police car and warm up a bit.
The cop said. "I have to call a tow truck to get your car off the road. Someone could hit it here in the dark, or the snow plow might hit it." A radio call returns a message that there are lots of cars in the ditches, and the service trucks are all booked up for the next four hours. Sorry, no tow available. "Maybe we can get a couple big rubber barrier barrels out here to protect your car." Another radio call return message that all service trucks are still busy, sorry but no delivery for the next four hours. Cop wanting to get on about his duties says, "You be okay here in your car for another four hours?" Well, with no engine there's no heat, so I guess not.
Now think about this. I restored this car, I could probably reassemble it blindfolded, and I'm a smart ass engineer. So the quickest way to get this car out of here should be for me to just fix it and drive it away. Cop looks skeptical, but not going anywhere, so what's to lose? "What do you need to fix it?". A new ignition coil would be nice. "What kind of coil?" Oh, that's easy. Any old 12 volt coil for use without a ballast resistor, like Ford for instance. Radio call returns message that local garage would not have a coil in stock, and local parts store is closed until 9:00 am, so no coil available. "So now what?" Okay, at least the cop has the right idea, to keep pecking at me.
Maybe some kind of dielectric material to seal up the crack in the coil tower, like silicone gasket sealer for instance. "You got any of that with you?" Well, no, but it's the sort of thing that the local service shop should have on hand. Radio call returns message that local service shop manager has gone home for the night, and won't be back until 9:00 am. "Anything else?"
Maybe black electrical tape. "You got that with you?" Uh, yeah, maybe. I sometimes carry a roll of black tape in the door pocket to seal up the front lip on the rag top when it rains. Checking in the door pocket I don't find electrical tape, but I do find a roll of fiberglass strapping tape that I use to attach the rally computer to the dash. You know, it looks like dielectric to me. So I proceed to tape up the HT tower on ignition coil as best I can using fiberglass tape in the cold and wet. Several turns of tape around the small end, plug the HT wire in, and give it a crank. Sparks all over the place, and no go. The cop was mumbling something about gimme a new car every few years and I'll be happy. But I don't give up that easy.
So I proceed to wrap the coil up lengthwise, placing the fiberglass tape down between the HT tower and the small primary terminals. Give it another crank, notice a little less sparking and one little pop out of the engine. More mumbling from the cop, something about being stuck here all night. Oh, ye of little faith. Hang in there another minute. I wrap more tape over the coil, now going in all directions, making the thing look like mummy. One more crank and it sputters a little with no visible arcing. Cop mutters "No go, huh?" Not to worry says me, as I close the bonnet and get into the MG. Press the throttle a little, pull the starter, and the engine fires right up. Thank you kind sir, and I drive off leaving the cop standing there with his jaw hanging down. Having lost only another hour or so, I'm thinking I might still make the Sunday noon rally in Champaign. Am I optimistic or what?
Then the lights were bright, the car was getting warmer by the minute, the mush on the road was thinning out some, and forward progress was picking up the pace. A few hours later I paid the toll on the way out of Ohio and picked up a card for the Indiana Toll Road. Another hour and I was approaching South Bend when guess what? There was a little rattle noise from the generator and the ignition light came on again. After a few moments of mental calculation I figure I don't need the generator any more. It quit snowing, sky and road are clear, kill the heater, no wipers, switch headlights to low beam and turn down the dash lights to conserve battery power. Only two hours from home, I will stop at the last tollway oasis about 30 miles down the road and wait another hour for daylight. Then I can run only the fuel pump and ignition coil, no lights, and I can drive home on the power remaining in the battery.
You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. Not two miles after passing up the South Bend exit it started to snow again, and the windscreen started to accumulate the white stuff outside and fog over inside. Bummer. Try the wipers, but those barely move and want to get stuck in the raised position which would drain the battery, so kill the wipers and push the arms down by hand to the park position. Also leave the heater off, headlights on low beam, and dim the dash lights. As the road gets mushier progress gets slower, time keeps pacing on, and the headlights get dimmer. Next move is to pull in close behind a semi truck so I can follow his tail lights, then kill the headlights to save the battery to power the ignition and fuel pump. That goes okay, just a little slow. Occasionally another truck comes up behind, flashes headlights a couple of times, and then passes on by. I could imagine the conversation on the truckers' CB radios. "Hey good buddy! You got any idea what's following you? No? You won't believe this." By then I was following so close I could have tossed a grappling hook on his tail for a tow (if I had one).
I did finally make it to the oasis, just 90 miles form home. Pulling off to the exit ramp I tried the headlights for a second, but that instantly killed the ignition. Oops, dang the battery was really about dead. Quick douse the headlights, and it runs again. At least try the parking lights, but that made the ignition sputter a little, and no light at all seen from the dash lamps, so forget that and kill the parking lights too. Boy, this really needed a battery charger. When I pulled up to the gas pumps the engine was still running, and I didn't want to shut it off. Hey buddy! Where's the service garage? The guy pointed and said, "See that 7-11 store over there? That used to be the service shop before they closed it about a year ago." OOPS! Some days you eat bear, and some days the bear eats you. This was looking up to be one of those days. Okay, so pull up in front of McDonalds, kill the engine, and go have some breakfast.
Only 90 minutes form home, but no service shop, no battery charger, and no motorist wanting to stick around long enough to have their alternator charge my battery half way top get me home. Well, not too far away, so call home, wake the wife, put up my cheeriest attitude with a smile and try, "Hi honey. You're not doing anything important today are you? How about bringing me the spare generator from the shelf in the garage, and the jumper cables?" You know that only works so many times, and this wasn't looking to be one of those times. After 45 minutes of begging and groveling I was considering calling a taxi to pick up a new battery from the nearest town, but honey bunch sweetie pie darling finally succumbed to the coaxing and agreed to cooperate. There were a few more hours of delay, but the lifeline finally arrived. Ten minutes of jumpers charging the battery while I installed the spare generator, and we were on our way home. The planned 36 hour trip to Brooklyn had turned into about 42 hours, and I did miss the noon rally in Champaign, but that wasn't quite the end of the story.
The next day or two brought out some of my trip notes on the mgs e-mail list, followed by some other folks relating things about long trips in little British cars. Then some bloke in Anchorage, Alaska, with screen name "arcticmg" had the audacity to call my weekend trip to Brooklyn "small potatoes". He mentioned that a couple years earlier some people from the New England MG-T Register had assembled a group of the vintage MGs in the northeast, and had driven the things to Alaska and back. I suppose it was by some drawn out schedule on mostly paved roads with cushy motels every night, but still a notable trip. Then the bloke asked if I might consider taking my MGA to Alaska for a visit. At the time there were only two states in the union I hadn't been through, and I really was meaning to get up there some day, so why not? MGs were made to drive. Anyone else want to go along? And that was soon to lead to Brit Run to the Sun - Alaska '97.
See you on the high road.
1958 MGA with an attitude (and lots more miles available in them thar wheels)