The MGA With An Attitude
What, Another one? - Attitude MK3

It didn't take long to find another MGA. You might ask, what's a good match for a fellow on a budget with handy hands and a good running MGA with a smashed body shell? How about a generally worn out MGA with a nice solid body shell? And so it was to be.

The MG dealer was doing well and had just moved a few miles down the street into a brand new building with large show room, huge shop facilities, and a few acres of extra space out back. They were now selling TRs and Healeys Jags as well as MGs. The extra space out back was a good place to park a few derelict trade-ins and some parts cars. My old silver car with the front smashed was even sitting there, by now mostly stripped. I heard they had sold the engine for $100 and were crowing about all the clear profit they were making pedaling off smaller parts piecemeal.

A couple spaces over was another MGA, a '57 looking complete but somewhat tatty. It was original MG Red, the darker red typical of the 1500 cars, except for one new rear fender in primer black (and the tail light in the boot). The frame was straight and solid and the body was generally rust free, all the dash instruments were there, and surprisingly everything seemed to work. Otherwise the car was looking sort of "used up", so to speak. The seats were different, thick and well padded but kind of flat, probably out of an MGA Coupe, and all black interior. It started and ran (barely), at least long enough for a test drive to verify that the clutch and gearbox and brakes were okay. The engine was smoking some and had a bad rod knock. It had 4 bald tires, 5 bolt on steel wheels, and a torn up rag top. But the longer I looked the more it appeared that anything missing from this car was still in good condition on the blue one that I was driving. So for just half of book value, a mere $200, the deal was done.

Being there was a couple weeks of summer break left, I had enough time to work on the cars. I drove the blue car 20 miles out to my folks farm, then got a ride back with my mom to get the red car. That second trip out was a bit of a nail biter not being sure the badly knocking engine would make the 20 miles, but we took it easy, and it did. I borrowed the "truck shed", three sides of corrugated steel on a pole building with open front and dirt floor, but the roof was strong enough to hold a cable jack to lift an engine. The daily logistics were interesting. I could do so much work each day, but at the end off every day at least one of the cars had to be drivable so I could get back to town. I figured to swap engines and fix the ratty engine up a little in the process. So the engine came out of the red car first, cleaned up some (scrape off gobs of old grease), head and pan off and remove some bearing caps and the pistons for inspection. The crankshaft was just a little rough on one rod journal, but looked okay otherwise, and I wasn't planning on driving it much, so leave well enough alone. I dropped the head off at a nearby tractor shop for a check up and a valve touch up if necessary then took the blue car back to the MG dealer in time to order up a new set of piston rings, rod bearings, gaskets and seals. Not bad for just having found the car in the morning.

The second day, after sleeping in late, it struck my fancy to swap some parts to put the wire wheels on the "new" car. What looked easy turned out to be just a little tricky. I pulled a rear axle half shaft out of each car and tried to swap the easy way, but no go. The wire wheel axle was a but shorter, apparently to accommodate the long splined hubs, and the longer steel wheel half shafts wouldn't go all the way into the wire wheel axle housing. Live and learn. So I slobbered some Liquid Wrench on the U-bolts and proceeded to R&R the entire rear axle on both cars, which worked out okay and was all done in one day. It was just a little eye catching to drive the blue car back to town that night with wire wheels on the front and steel wheels on the back.

The next day was reserved for the front wheel swap. Here I thought just swap the hubs and brake drums, but something was a bit different with the steering arms or the knuckles (bearing spindles), so I ended up breaking the tie rod ends loose to swap the swivel pins and links as well, virtually everything except for the shock absorber and lower A-arm. In the next century we might expect to destroy and replace some badly worn parts in the process, but in '69 these cars were not all that old yet and still in pretty good mechanical condition. So that also came out okay, and that evening the blue car was sporting four steel wheels and bald tires, while the red car now had the nice wire wheels.

On the fourth day I got an early start, picked up the engine parts at the dealer, a little shy of $20 there, then stopped at the tractor shop to pick up the head. Fortunately the head was in pretty good shape, so it only got a little valve lapping and a new set of valve seals (whatever those were), and $4 was enough for that minor service (a little different out in the sticks). It didn't take long to install rings, pistons, rod bearings, and slap the cylinder head and pan back on the engine. Since the engine ran okay before (except for the knock), I intentionally didn't even look at the camshaft and tappets, and the engine was back together by lunch time.

The next step would be to install one engine (either one) in the opposite car, which meant the good engine had to come out of the blue car. Well, it was still daylight savings time, and barely after lunch time, so I got gutsy and made the commitment to have the engine out and one engine back in for a drivable car before dark. Taking things apart is generally easier and quicker than putting things back together, and this was no exception. The engine came out of the blue car so easy, less than two hours even. In the process of scraping off some dirt and cleaning it up a little I noticed and big "1600" cast on the side of the engine block. Well that answered the long standing question about why the car was always a little quicker than other 1500's. Sweet huh?.

So now I was getting hyped and decided to go for the gold, get this good 1600 engine into the "new" red car with the wire wheels. It was somewhat more time consuming than removal, but nothing too difficult. I just had to finish up the final connections with a drop light in late evening, but it was done, and red was on the road for the evening run back to town while blue was to spend the night in the shed. Yeehaa! Having transplanted half the suspension and the engine, this car suddenly acted more blue than red. Hey, the radio even worked better in this one! After a brisk test run down the gravel road I noticed one of the batteries had hopped up a little cockeyed in the carrier, not having any hold down clamps. But there was plenty #9 fencing wire on the farm, so ten minutes work with the fence pliers fixed that problem, and the batteries weren't going anywhere (not even with dynamite).

On the morning of the fifth day I stopped by Turn Style again and picked up a spray can of black vinyl dye for under a dollar (sort of like plastic paint I guess). I was not at all sure how well it would work, but it seemed worth a try. I also picked up a Wagner Power Painter for about $12. That was an electric vibratory spray gun with no air supply required. Also visit the auto paint supply shop for a pint of red paint, something fairly close to MG Red. The black fender turned red within the hour, not a perfect match to original MG Red, but close enough to stave off the fee for a pro job. The next few hours were spent swapping seats between the two cars, and in the process spray the blue ones black for the red car. Sharp! Now I could snuggle down in the red roadster without catching bugs on my forehead, and I didn't feel so much like sliding out the side door on fast corners. It also didn't take long to drill holes and transfer the seat belts.

The rest of the day was spent dropping the slightly refreshed 1500 engine into the blue car. The only thing significant there was that the clutch slipped on the first test run. I don't even remember why I had the pressure plate removed from the flywheel or what was amiss, some young and innocent oversight I suppose. By then I was tired and more than a little miffed, and that engine was out and back into the car again in barely two hours, short of the manifolds, carbs and exhaust system. Practice makes perfect I guess, or at least faster. But everything on both cars was back together by nightfall, old blue was parked on the side, and new red was taking me home for the second night running.

First thing the next morning I placed an ad in the city newspaper to sell the blue car. It wasn't easy making it sound good. "1958 MGA Roadster, blue with black interior". Uh, what next? "New rings and bearings in the engine, recent brake and suspension service, everything works". Hmmmm, not too much of a stretch. "Needs some body work on the rear. Best offer within one week. Call Barney at xxx-xxxx". The next day I hitched a ride with a friend to pick up the blue car and bring it into town to park back at the fateful curb where it had been hit several weeks earlier. Man, I gotta tell you, it wasn't getting any better to look at, now with steel wheels, bald tires and tattered seats, and especially sitting next to the nice red one. But at least the engine was quiet (as long as it didn't eat the rod bearing again), and the little bit of remaining smoke might be explained away with the receipt for the piston rings, which of course were so new they hadn't had time to seat yet (yeah, sure).

I got just two nibbles on the sale. The first guy told me he had the dealer down to $100 on the red car before I bought it (bummer), and promptly gave me a pat on the back for my noble work to revive it (at least that felt better). Then he offered me $100 for the blue one, gave me his card, and told me to call him if it wasn't sold by the weekend. Cool. A few days later a couple of high school kids stopped by to look at it. After some time considering the buggered up back end they thought it must be salvageable with a dent puller and some bondo (maybe a school shop project), and I told them where they could get a good rear bumper and tail lights from a certain silver car at the dealer. They asked how much I wanted for it, so I lied a little and told them I had a standing offer of $150 if it wasn't sold by Saturday. Would I take $160? Well, check back on Saturday and see if it's still here. Six AM sharp on Saturday morning the phone was ringing, and the car was gone within the hour. I was almost feeling sorry for the kids, but it was cheap enough, and maybe they would get some good out of the project, learning to paste things back together. I was sort of relieved when I never heard from them again. At least I didn't go broke trading cars. $375 from insurance, $200 out for the new car, less than $100 in expenses and some good personal time in the shop, $160 in from sale of the old car. There is something to be said for sweat equity. I think that week's effort paid better than being a mechanic at the dealer.

With a few days left of summer break, I had time to pull that new vinyl top out of the closet and install it on the red roadster. That took just about two hours and came out really nice on the first try. I didn't need to replace the wooden front bow for this car,
Woodstock - August 15-17, 1969

so I took the one I had made by hand to the dealer parts counter and told them to give it to the next person to ask for one. I had a faint idea who that might be. By this time the guy behind the counter was getting to know me as more than a casual acquaintance. He said, "Barney, your nuts. I swear you'll still be driving an MG when you're 30". Yeah? So? I don't get it? It was only a year since I bought the first one. I'm sure he was joking, but little did he know how right he might be. Then there was this little anti-war demonstration and rock concert in a place called Woodstock. With gas selling for less than $0.20 per gallon in the last great gas war, I thought it might make a good break-in run for the new red car. Damn, some things just go well together. (See next page).

A few weeks later the MG dealer was doing a free tech inspection day for MGs, sponsored by the factory. I don't know if they were trying to drum up sales for new cars, or maybe business for the service shop, but it seemed like a good opportunity to get a professional opinion on the condition of my car. The service guys went over my car from bumper to bumper, checking everything for two hours. Go figure. They spun the wheels with a power machine to check for straightness and wheel balance, and checked wheel alignment. They checked all of the electrical functions and headlight alignment, seat anchors and seat belts, battery condition, and power draw of the starter motor. While pressure testing the cooling system I heard the comment, "These hoses ain't gonna leak. He Permatexed 'em all". There was a compression test and checks of valve clearance, ignition timing, vacuum advance and mechanical advance in the distributor. In the end there were two marginal comments on the check list. "RR tire needs replacement". Well there was a large boot inside covering a small slit in the sidewall, but I wasn't going to toss a perfectly good tire on that count. The other item was "Inadequate battery hold downs." Oh yeah? Go ahead and give the batteries a good kick. I wanna see you guys bust a foot. That #9 wire is tougher than a normal corner bar and J-bolts.

Then there was a short road test, which did finally turn up something significant. The mechanic driving thought the brakes were a little weak. Shucks, I dunno. These are the same brakes that I was driving on the blue car for eight months, and now on this car for a month. Waddaya mean weak? Well, it's a nice solid pedal, just doesn't seem to stop quite quick enough. Hand brake works too. So he pointed it down a steep hill at about 10 MPH and stood hard on the pedal to lock up the brakes, then set the hand brake and got out for a look. Sure enough, two black skid marks for the front tires, and no marks for the rear tires. Back to the shop, jack up the rear, stand on the brakes, and the rear tires could be turned by hand. Go figure. Now that explains why the blue car never seemed to stop so well. "You need new rear wheel cylinders". Oh yeah? Wanna bet? That's my money you're talking about.

But I did hit the parts counter and spend $1.60 for two slave cylinder repacking kits. Then there was another quick trip to the shed on the farm, jack up the rear and disassemble the brakes. Between alternating heavy pedal pressure and a some pounding on the little pistons with a heavy hammer and a big punch, the pistons finally broke loose and came out of the cylinders. Stick some long strips of emery paper on a wooden dowel and run it in there with some oil and a power drill for a few minutes, and you can wipe years of corrosion out of an aluminum cylinder. Fresh rubber seals and a quick bleeding with new brake fluid, and the car was back on the road with vigor, and now it didn't have to slow down quite so early for the turns on the twisty roads. Yeehaa!

Time flies, and sometimes even faster than you expect. One night in late September the phone rang, and the voice was that favorite girl Debbie I'd been hanging around with for the last three years, but who hadn't been speaking to me for the past two months (yeah, lots of long stories missing here). "Hi honey". Yes? "We gotta get married". Uh, what do you mean, we? Well, I'm a nice fellow, and part of attitude is understanding and long term dedication, and I did love that little gal. The question about who's the father never came up. We made arrangements to be married on Thanksgiving day, eight weeks later. Well, why fiddle around after making a decision, and of course it was as good an excuse as any for staging a quick wedding. The day before the wedding the MGA was traded in on a new 69 Austin America. Yeah, so quit the jokes about three mistakes on one day. I am inclined to agree that letting that red MG go was one of the toughest things I ever did in my life. And man, that Austin did turn out to be a real lemon, second highest recall record in the history of the auto industry (right behind the TR7). But if we're still hitched 30 years later, who's to argue about the wedding?

There were a few days of negotiation with the dealer leading up to the trade. So much for the price of the new car, so much for trade in allowance for the old one. The dealer mechanic helped out a little. "Hey, we just checked that car out a few weeks ago, and it's in tip top shape. And he has a hard top too". There was some procrastination on my part as well. Then on Tuesday afternoon the clutch in the MG started to make funny rattling noises, accompanied by a slight vibration in the clutch pedal. Considering the chilly weather, and some snow on the ground, and diminishing time before the wedding, I called the dealer to tell them I wanted to do the trade. Get the radio installed, and yes, we'll be in to pick it up tomorrow morning.

On the way home that evening the clutch made a few rather annoying "clinkity click" noises, and then went quiet. I pressed the clutch pedal to the floor, but it wouldn't release. Hmmmm. Well, no time left to worry about such things now. And don't touch it again, or the piston could blow out of the slave cylinder and lose all the brake fluid. A crafty farm kind who knew how to drive a 47 Ford truck with the crash box transmission wouldn't have any trouble driving the MG with no clutch. Slip it into neutral to stop. Shut off the engine, stick it into 1st gear, press the throttle a little, and pull the starter to get going again. The synchronizers made it particularly easy to shift up to higher gears, just lift off the throttle, shove the lever moderately hard in the right direction, and when the engine slowed down enough it would go into the next gear. Piece of cake.

The next morning I drug out the hardtop and put it on the car, then drove the clutchless MG out to the farm to pick up Mom. I wasn't 21 yet, and there was a time payment loan involved, so someone had to sign the paperwork. We finally came chugging into the dealer's parking lot, kill the engine, slip it into reverse, pull the starter, back it up to the side wall of the building in plain view a few spaces from the door, and kill the ignition. We went inside, signed some papers, and were waiting a few minutes for the secretary to type out the "License Applied For" sticker to paste in the window of the new car. About that time the salesman walked by and asked for the key to the MG, big grin on his face, gonna take it for a little spin. While I was handing him the key I nonchalantly mentioned that he should be careful with the clutch. Why? No, it doesn't grab, just doesn't work very well. He shrugged, and out he went. A minute later he was back, walked right past me without any notice, and went into the manager's office. Mumble, mumble, mumble. "What? He did WHAT? YOU LET HIM DO THAT TO YOU? GET OUT OF MY FACE, I DON'T WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN TODAY!!! AND GO TELL THE MECHANIC TO FIX THE DAMN THING!" As we were leaving in the new car, the shop guys were pushing the MG into the garage, and we all smiled and waved. I still get a little grin any time I think about that scene, but I'll always miss that red MGA.

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