The MGA With An Attitude
The MGA ODYSSEY - Going WAY out

WEEK #3 - The Desert

Monday 6/26
This warm and sunny morning I'm sitting at the camp table finishing up last weeks notes when I hear a friendly voice nearby. "Is this your 1500? I got one just like it -- red too!" I spring to my feet with a pen in my hand, for before me stands an elderly man with a grin on his face from ear to ear, so I hold out my pen and say, "Please sign here." Dick Perry from San Diego, a man you all should know, says he personally put over 200,000 miles on an his '59 MGA 1500, mostly just driving to work and back, with an occasional hair raising sprint around a local abandoned air field. When his son needed wheels, the car went that way for about a year until the clutch went away. Since then it has been stored for four years. Once when moving it to different storage, he caught his wife with a tear in her eye, and they decided not to sell it. It turns out that he stole her away from an engagement to a Green Beret the first day he owned it, and they're all still hitched.

Well I think I have a fix for this problem, so I invite him in, and we take a little cruise around town in the MGA. By the time we return his grin has gotten even bigger. I think his ears have moved back a bit to make room! His wife is out with the camera, all smiles and giggles. We all think that the clutch will be fixed real soon. And before we leave they're pasting a stamp on an application for NAMGAR membership.

On that note we smile and wave and head for the Baja. The first order of business is to buy Mexican auto insurance at a roadside information booth. Typical agent! He can't figure how much the car is worth and refuses to sell collision or comprehensive insurance, so I settle for liability only at $8.95 for twenty-four hours. I'm also informed that insurance is much more expensive if purchased south of the border, should we decide to stay longer, and that a liability claim without it can definitely land us in a Mexican jail! It's absolutely true that most American auto insurance policies are void the second you cross into Mexico. There's a special exclusion in nearly every policy; just read the fine print.

With that necessary inconvenience aside we turn south again, prepared to deal with the border guards. The crossing going down is almost a smile and a wave after we tell the gate guard that we're U.S. citizens and we're just touring. He punches our license number into his computer, and we're gone.

The entrance into Tijuana is quite nice on first appearance, nice landscaping and flowers on the embankments, but that changes after the first few blocks. The first stop sign is a red octagon with "ALTO". Next stop sign seems to be yellow with "ALTO". The third one is square and faded and hard to tell what it says. The next one is just a piece of cardboard propped up on an old chair, and after that usually no more signs. We tour around Tijuana for an hour looking for any British car, finding none.

We then turn east up a small mountain to get a better view of the city and check out some little homes on the hill. Little is right -- also old, with no windows, doors or floors. Come to think of it, there's no street either, just a million dusty potholes with rocks mixed in, and a hill so steep that the little roadster has traction problems. There are a couple of dead hulks of burned our autos on the side, we meet a small four by four pickup bouncing down the hill and dusting us profusely, and three young boys are pushing their bikes up the hill and keeping up with us as we gently pick our way around the potholes. Ten minutes to make a few blocks up the hill, its raining giggles, snickers and outright belly laughs from the peanut gallery.

When we finally make a small plateau above everything about halfway up the mountain, we figure it's worth the trip. The view is great, we get some shots of the city, and the kids with the bikes are there; apparently no one else thinks it's worth the walk. Ten minutes more to get back down without breaking anything, and we find ourselves covered with dust. You can't tell what color the car is, what color the trailer is or what color we are either! This is going to take a lot of dusting off. I guess we won't do that again, but at least we got a nice picture of Tijuana.

Checking the map we decide to take the short cut west through the city rather than the main streets and expressway farther north. This is turning out to be a rather questionable move. There's lots of slow traffic and no form of control except a makeshift stop sign placed systematically on every second corner by the local citizenry. Most say "ALTO", some say nothing, some say other things I wouldn't care to repeat, and no two seem to be the same shape or color. It's political election time, so there are banners and posters all over the place, apparently for only one candidate. It takes forty-five minutes to clear through all this and find the west coast.

Heading south down the coast we find MEX-1, the local road, and MEX-1D, the tollway -- $1.35 every fifteen minutes or so. Their idea of an oasis along the road is a little strange to us. The restaurant is more of a convenience store in a well built shack with a window and a large open entrance. Hungry? The attendant wields a knife the size of a machete and saws off a couple slices of bread to make a sandwich to order deli style. I must admit the service is quite prompt and courteous, and a little persistence produces a couple of cold canned Cokes. Now either no one knows the exchange rate, pesos for dollars, or they're just trying to make it negotiable, so we just pay them a little extra in dollars, and everyone's happy.

We take a short tourist break at this interesting little temple type building. We're not too keen on who's eating whom in the graphics, but the wide variety of statuaries and monuments are very impressive. The big guy on the road holding all the heads and hands (below left) is a bit foreboding, but he seems to be marking a transition from the old to the new.

The expressway overlooks the coast and local road most of the way, and we see breath-taking views of the coast, somewhat rougher that the California hills, endowed with lava flows, sand dunes and vertical vistas thousands of feet high in some places. The winding road is following the contour of the mountains near the base, the trip is a pleasure and a breeze, and we make very good time. So we make another tourist stop to check out the lave sand beach and the breakers on the rocky cost line.

Oops, maybe we could have skipped that last picture.

Sixty miles down the coast we enter Ensenada, bouncing jauntily through the cobblestone streets at about ten mph, enjoying the local scenery and looking for a road south. Not having a local map and coming into one dead end street after another, we finally give up on the idea. It's just as well, as I probably am nuts enough to take the trip to Cabo San Lucas and back, about five days. Then we want to try the road east to the Gulf of California, but we can't find that road either, just a high mountain ridge that seems to go on forever both north and south. Boy, do we need better maps. Considering that the Baja 1000 is not our main mission on this trip, we decide some other time would be better.

With still a half tank of fuel left, I figure it's a good time to ease the MG into some of this Mexican petrol, while there's still some of the good stuff in the tank to reinforce it, as I have heard a few vehicles making quite a racket in the hills. A 50-50 mix should be a reasonable test of the car's constitution before forcing it completely onto a new diet. Here you have your choice of PEMEX, the federal brand, period. Since there's no competition, there's also no sense giving the public anything better than necessary. We can have regular leaded or regular unleaded, both of which are regular low octane "mouse oil". Actually the car runs rather well on the mix; it just doesn't want to stop when I shut it off. A word of advice: don't ever bring a high compression engine down here.

Taking the local road north along the ocean front we get stopped by provincial border guards at a checkpoint just outside of Ensenada. These are military types, boots, rifles and the works, nothing like the U.S. border guards. They seem to be looking for insurgents with hand grenades or something, but surely not for us. The guard says "Buenos dias." I say "Hello." He gets a puzzled look and motions to someone else. The next guard says "Where you from?" I say "Chicago." He says "Where's Chicago?" And right away I know we're in trouble. I say "It's in Illinois." The guy still has a blank look on his face and says "Where you come from?" So I say "Well we just came down from California." The guy looks up and down the road, noticing that we're headed north of course, and says "No, you just came from Ensenada. What you doing in Ensenada?" I say "We just got some gas in Ensenada...", and the guy promptly says "Oh no! Nobody comes from California to get gas in Ensenada! What you doing here?" Which gets us back to where we started, except he seems to be a little more ticked off by now. I suspect he's been having a bad day, but I'm not going to argue with a man with a gun while we're in a foreign country. Keeping my cool, I make note of the fact that I have my camera hanging from my neck and say "Well we're just tourists and come to visit. You have a really nice country here; we like the mountains, the sea shore and the ocean." That seems to do the trick. The guard gets a big grin on his face and says "Yea, it's a nice place. Go back and tell all your friends. Now get out of here!" He doesn't have to say that twice. We're gone!

We take the old road MEX-1 north along the coast, enjoying a leisurely pace and many photo-op's along the way. There's a roadside "shopping mall" with several adjoining lean-to's fully manned by the locals. There seem to be no customers, so we choose not to stop, not wanting to be over attended, if you get my drift. Then we get back onto MEX-1D just before Tijuana. I think we're somehow a little behind schedule, and we're expected in Phoenix tomorrow evening, so we just point it north and do our half hour in line at the U.S. border crossing. We note that we haven't seen another British car all day, although Jim Alcorn had assured us that there used to be some, because he bought up a large portion of Twin Cam parts inventory when a small shop down here was closing up a few years ago.

While we're awaiting our turn at the gate we see peddlers all over the place going from car to car hawking their wares. They're pushing anything you can imagine, especially hand made stuff. There's one guy with about twenty sombreros stacked on his head and a few more in hand, another loaded down with blankets over both arms, and a guy carrying so many vases that he can hardly walk. we probably would have bought a couple of sombreros, but there was just no space to stash them in the car or trailer. There are trinkets and gadgets and souvenirs galore, but in all the time we sat there I didn't see anyone buy anything. They must sell something occasionally. I can imagine some guy selling a vase for $25.00, and they all go out and party.

If you think there's a lot I'm not telling you about Mexico, you're right. Some other time Mexico has got to be a trip all by itself. Anybody got an MGA 4x4? And I can't believe we've only been six hours south of the border. Meanwhile, nothing special at the border gate, not even a check in the trailer! I'm surprised; maybe we just look too silly to be suspicious. They just check our license number with the computer again, and we're on our way.

Like night and day, we're back in California. Hit the expressways, swing around the south end of San Diego and head east on I-8. There's a campground at El Centro just 120 miles away, and we intend to make it before dark. We climb to over 4,000 feet in the mountains, enjoying the winding roads and barren rocky landscape constantly changing colors as we go. Then there's a long drop to burn the brakes off the big trucks, and a rather warm cruise in the desert at sea level, making us glad that the sun is about down tonight.

The desert sun going, going, and gone. - Campo, 1-mile, camping, but not for us.

We roll into this KOA in the desert at nine pm on a Monday night, thinking we'll have the whole place to ourselves. No tent sites left? I don't believe it. They put us on the lawn (which is a real premium here) in front of the camp store; at least they find us a picnic table. Then we find out why. In come two large bus loads of some church youth group, pulling tandem axle trailers loaded with camping gear and duffle bags. At least it's too dry for mosquitoes here, so I can catch up with my notes by lantern light while we wind down from an unusual day, wondering what tomorrow will bring.

Tuesday 6/27
Well, now I know all about "tomorrow", and maybe I wish I didn't. Man, it's hot out here! Far southern California and Arizona aren't too bad if we keep the car moving. Near zero humidity, 103 degrees F and full sun is the kind of weather that will make you sweat and keep you dry at the same time.

Now the car is pretty good about all this, as long as there's water in the cooling system. But even though the water gauge is still within the scale, the car picks this particular day to spring the head gasket and starts blowing only moderately hot water past the radiator cap. So we stop once or twice to add water, and pick up a pressure tester at NAPA in Gila Bend. Top off the radiator and apply the gauge; the pressure is steady as a rock with the engine idling. But a hard blip on the throttle jumps the gauge up two psi, and it stays there. Another blip produces another two psi, and it stays again. OK, we got a one way leak from a cylinder to the water jacket, but only under full throttle. So we take it a little easier on our way into Phoenix. I didn't want to mention this before, because it seemed trivial, but we've been adding a quart of water to top off the radiator each morning for weeks. Now I'm believing we had this problem before starting the trip. It was just hard to notice when we were only driving a few hundred miles a month.

When we blow by the Sun's Stadium we know we're in Phoenix, and things are looking better. We still get sand, rocks, cactus and heat, but also ceiling fans, friendly faces and parts stores. We meet Mac Spears, original Chairman of NAMGAR, and get a quick offer of use of his garage and tools for the morning. With a can of WD40 in one hand and a can of beer in the other, this guy knows how to take it easy. That's a beautiful cactus garden around his house, but for all the water he gives it you would be hard pressed to find a blade of grass here. All worries aside, the banter flies at random, and how did it get to be 11.00 pm? So we leave the gang in peace for the night. Just north of Phoenix we find a nice spot to sleep with the horse again, all screens lying dormant in the nonexistent breeze, figuring just another typical day with the MG, and we'll fix it up in the morning.

Wednesday 6/28
No trouble getting up this morning, as we get baked out of the tent early. Two phone calls and we find our new head gasket and a thermostat at Flint Foreign Auto Parts, featuring parking under what looks like a half acre awning. Now this head gasket's not exactly what I had in mind; one of those thin laminated copper things that's supposed to be blow proof, but I have my suspicions about how well it will conform to surface irregularities or a slightly warped head. None the less, it's what the place has so we settle and go. This should be a cinch.

Three hours later the MG is up and running again in Mac's garage, the pressure is up, and there's just one little water drop at the back corner of the head gasket. I add a small bottle of stop-leak and it does, instantly. I run it, pressure test it, re-torque it, run it more and test it again. Everything looks great, so we'll be off north to see the South Rim, and be back tomorrow evening for more friends.

The trip north from Phoenix to Flagstaff is a hard run: thirty miles flat through the heat of the desert and a hundred miles up hill, mostly six percent grades. The car is taking it well, mostly sixty in fourth. As we're gaining 6,000 feet of altitude, and the air is thinning out, and the carbs are getting richer, I drop it into third to take a few of the heavier grades at fifty. Just before we reach I-40 the car blows its cool again. It's hard to believe we over worked it; we've been running it just as hard for weeks now, and sometimes in hotter weather too. Now I'm not going to let a little thing like this spoil the plans, so we just add water, make for the KOA forty miles south of the South Rim, and enjoy the cooler climate. We know how to banish the worries: pitch it in the mountains, cook up some brats, and talk about the guys back home. The car will be fine in the cool air. And dig out the jackets for the first time in at least a week. What a pleasant little exercise.

Thursday 6/29
The sun bakes us out of the tent again at 6:30, so we whip up a little breakfast, pack the stuff, don jackets and jeans and head north. Thirty miles up hill goes easy, and $5.00 lighter we're through the gate heading for the South Rim, only eight miles away. Another half mile and the car blows its cool once more. A compression test shows blown head gasket between #2 and #3 and bubbles in the radiator. Low compression, 7,000 foot altitude, and a hot engine with vapor lock make it tough to start, so we turn it around, roll down the hill and fire it up. OK, so the little guy is finally going to set us back a day. No big deal, there's always tomorrow.

The nearest parts are in Flagstaff, and the shortcut through the hills is only seventy miles, seeming like sixty miles up hill and only ten down. The local import parts store has another thin copper gasket. I'm convinced that they only handle these things because they're cheap. I'm not giving up yet, but I buy it anyway, just in case I can't fine what I'm looking for.

On a personal recommendation we find a small shop around the corner just a half block away. It looks like a small abandoned service station with a two car garage and no sign. Inside there's a young oriental fellow with a smile and an MGA collecting dust in the corner, lots of dust. Other than that, the place is empty. Upon request, he lifts the deck lid of the MG and pulls out an engine gasket set, which is missing the head gasket. He says every time he gets the parts to fix his car, someone in a bind buys them. Judging from the dust, I think the last time must have been at least a year ago. Then he reaches under the counter and produces OUR head gasket: a nice thick gray fiber gasket, just the ticket. He wants to charge as much as a full gasket set, but I'm not complaining; I pay with a smile. When I ask if he would like to install it for us he replies that he's pretty busy now and maybe we ought to find someone else to do it, so we graciously leave him in his empty shop.

A few checks around town yield the expected results: all booked up or "We don't touch those". Well we know where there's a friendly garage in Phoenix, and it's all down hill. We're expected there tonight anyway, so we'll just show up a little early. A couple of precautionary water stops later we're back in Phoenix; 108 degrees today; having second thoughts about this place.

I borrow Mac's garage again, and three hours later we're purring like new. After it warms up good I put an extra five lb-ft on the torque all around just for good measure, the compression's good all across, and the water pressure holds steady as a rock. Now I would like to thank Mac Spears again for the loan of his facilities (twice), without which things would have been a little tougher.

There were to be a few more friends over tonight, but it's mid-week and pretty hot out. Apparently nobody in Phoenix comes out before dark anyway; maybe we'll catch on some day. For now the little roadster still owes us a trip to the South Rim, and he ain't gittin off easy just for playing sick for a day. If he's hanging out with me he's going to work hard or die, and since we know where the cool is, we point it north up I-17 again. Thirty miles flat and hot, then the sun retires for the day just as we hit the hill. This time the little 1500 does us proud, flat out up the hill, no mercy shown, never missing a beat and getting cooler all the way. By midnight we're sacked out in the Flagstaff KOA, figuring we've only lost one day in three weeks, and taking comfort that an old problem has been banished from our lives.

Friday 6/30
Leisure day today, we sleep in a little in the cool of the morning, then we head northwest, blasting up through the hills we limped down through yesterday, just for good measure. All is well, yesterday's pass is good for a week, and the world's largest hole in the ground is a terrific treat. After sunning on the brink for a while, we do two miles on a shuttle bus down West Rim Drive, five miles of hiking the South Rim, and take lots of good photos. About five gallons of water and two sodas later it's time to leave. We were considering a hike down the wall to the river and back, but having lost a day we put it off for next time. I'm just going to lay the photos on you as this is a rare treat for most people (sometimes never).

The hiking and mule trail above. Drop a quarter in the telescope, stretch the telephoto
a little on the 35mm, and we get a picture of some hikers heading for the drop off.
The rest below is just sweet beauty anywhere you look.

The cruise out of the park and back to Flagstaff is great fun. We take the easy road this time, mostly down hill or level for fifty miles past more scenic overlooks, and then about twenty miles moderately uphill. What a day! This is great! Then, just a half mile short of the first service at Flagstaff, the roadster starts to steam a little without warning, with the gauge no higher than 212 (that's about 195 after error correction). We ease it on in to the first service station and check under the bonnet. This time the radiator top tank has opened a seam just a crack. A shot of stop leak and top it off, and we go just one mile to the same KOA as last night, but by day light this time. Holding the water pressure steady with the tester for about a half hour of idling with the goop inside seems to stop up the leak all right, and compression looks good all across, except that these high altitude pressure readings take a bit of getting used to. All's well that ends well, so we say goodbye to June and get a good nights sleep.

Saturday 7/1
Determined to make up some miles today, we're off to an early start. Having been through Phoenix a couple of times, we switch our plans to a more northern route and head east. Just forty-two miles out there's Meteor Crater. We've been here before, but not the MG, so we stop in. I guess I'll hike around the rim this time to get a photo from the far side (it's just my style). All the way around, groveling over the rocks and boulders and through the sand, fifty-three minutes later, I'm glad it's only 9:30 am. It's already hot enough for that stunt, and I'll probably know better than to ever try it again. Another gallon of water over the gums and I can collapse back into the MG for a more leisurely task: drive east. All is calm for hours. We skip Kansas Canyon and the Petrified Forest, knowing that we will return another time.

Then just shy of the New Mexico border, the radiator gives up its noble grip and opens up the top tank with a big POP, well beyond the help of any stop leak sealer. A couple of refills later, with the pressure cap in my pocket, we've made the twenty miles into Gallop, New Mexico, where a nice air conditioned lunch fits into the two hour pause to have the radiator re-soldered and pressure tested to 16 psi (twice the cap pressure relief rating). I just had the thing re-cored in January and really didn't expect this particular problem. It must be a side effect of the blown head gasket. Having gently cooked the head again, there are a few small bubbles in the hot brew, but I think they'll be tolerable with just a daily topping off with water, and we're on our way again.

Think we've had enough trouble yet? No way. Just making it past Albuquerque we meet big hills and little sputters, ala 45 mph tops going up hill. I pull the fuel line at the carbs, turn the key on, and get just a trickle, not enough to pull the hills in style. So I pull the battery cover and detach the line at the pump to blow it back into the tank to clear the pickup tube, a simple and common procedure. Curse the funky aftermarket plastic-bodied fuel pump. Two fat thumbs and one broken plastic pump fitting later, I'm calling for a rental car. It's 7:00 pm Saturday evening on a holiday weekend, forty minutes for a cab, twenty-two miles back to the airport rentals. Not being too particular, I pick up a new Grand Am and beat it back to the dead roach (I mean roadster). The navigator has found a campground a hundred yards up the hill in my absence, so we just empty the trailer into the Grand Am, button down the tonneau cover, and pitch the tent on the hill about 10:30 pm. I'm thinking this week is going to be sounding very weird in the trip log.

Sunday 7/2
A 9:00 am trip to Mike's Buy-Low Auto Parts in Albuquerque nets a good fuel pump: all metal, universal fittings, hose connectors, and a tubing cutter to do the job on the original metal fuel lines. Back to the MG, it takes just twenty minutes to fit the new pump, and we now have a gusher at the inhalers. I fire it up and drive up the hill to the camp site (just barely), blowing out the radiator cap while still cool in the pots. You guessed it: blown head gasket again! Still having the rental wheels, I make one last ditch effort at a fix without tossing the head. A couple of calls and this time to the NAPA warehouse for a head gasket set plus an extra head gasket, and a cheap torque wrench. For the ultimate success one must have a good radiator and a good gasket seal at the same time. A few hours later the motor is sporting a double head gasket in an attempt to get a good seal and lower the compression at the same time. It seems to work just as planned, dropping the compression by about 15 psi. For you engineering types out there, that doesn't make a lot of difference in the ultimate combustion pressure, but it's guaranteed to eliminate pre-ignition, spark knock, detonation and run-on.

I return the rental car with the navigator tailing along in the MG. Then we stop for dinner in another air conditioned restaurant and proceed to take the advice of the locals, "When in the desert in summer, don't go out 'till the sun goes down." While we're cooling it over dinner, I vow to cover my tail on this silly cylinder head problem. So I check the calendar (holiday weekend), check our itinerary (six or seven states in the next three days), and call Tom Jevcak in Tampa, Florida. I tell him the head looks pretty well cooked by now, and could he find someone near Tampa to rustle up a new head by the time we get there in about three days? He recommends a local shop and gives me a number which I call.

Now it helps to be in with the "in crowd" when it comes to MGs. I get hold of Glen Lenhard who runs an import repair shop in St. Petersburg. He does a lot of work on MGBs and will make up any kind of head, so I order just what I want: early model MGB or European MGB cylinder head without the air injection ports, hardened steel valve seats, stellite exhaust valves, silicon-bronze valve guides and General Motors valve seals. The MGB head has lower compression and runs great on today's lower octane fuel; it also has bigger valves that more than make up in performance for the loss of compression. The rest of the bits will allow it run happily on unleaded fuel and reduce oil consumption. Glen agrees to have it ready by Wednesday evening.

At 8:30 pm we point the roadster east once again on I-40 and cruise on into the hills. We are soon counting stars, enjoying the night air, and watching lightening in the hills to the north. Up in altitude again we're just a bit shy on torque, but the hills are shrinking and la-machine purrs steadily. We cruise through Amarillo, Texas without stopping at 2:00 am, and just two pit stops and a pre-dawn breakfast later we're flashing the expressways of Oklahoma City at 7:00 am. Yup, drove right across the Texas panhandle in the night. As the rising sun glares into our eyes trying to force us to sleep, we check into a Motel-6 for some well earned air-conditioned rest. The trip meter says we've done 606 miles for the day, including 44 miles out of the way to the Albuquerque airport and not including the 99 miles on the rental car, for a running total just shy of 8,000 miles in 21 days. We're still a day and a half behind schedule, but we'll make it up; this is an MG, and it always seems to know where it's going, even if we don't.

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