After swapping out the better parts of the green ’67 Mustang to upgrade my blue one, I traded it for a ’56 MGA. It was the only car I’ve owned that was older than me. The MGA’s owner was a young woman who was in love with its style – but unable to contend with the needs for regular repair and maintenance. The car came with several boxes of spare parts – which I came to learn was a common accompaniment to a British car.
This car was about as simple as an old tractor. The things that made it a challenge (and fun) were the parts that were different than those on American cars. For example – the shock absorbers weren’t the standard telescoping type – they were “lever action” units – that had refillable oil reservoirs. The car battery was connected “backwards” with the chassis ground attached to the positive battery terminal – a “positive earth” arrangement. (And it had two 6 volt batteries wired in series.) Of course it had SU carburetors – again, very simple – once you took one apart to see how it worked.
Some of the unusual things that made the MGA fun were the knobs, latches and switches. It didn’t have door handles. You opened the door by reaching inside the open center of the interior door panel to find the cord strung across that released the door latch. That was no problem from outside the car – there were no windows on the door. For rainy days, you could install the “side curtains.” These were plastic windows, two sliding panels mounted in an aluminum frame, that clipped onto the doors and were secured by a big knurled knob. Even starting the car was fun – you turned to key to turn the car on, then pulled a knob on the dash to crank the starter. I usually just left the key in the ignition – nobody was likely know which knob to pull to start it.
The biggest liability on the car was probably the spoke wheels – real “knock-offs” that were held on by a large single wing-nut that was tightened by hitting the “wings” with a special lead hammer. (Hence, “knock-off”) I followed the prescribed maintenance procedures such as keeping the wheels clean and the hub splines greased, and these wheels never gave me any trouble. And I managed to avoid denting the fenders by missing the wing nuts with the lead hammer when installing and removing the wheels.
I can remember three mishaps in the MGA. The first was a simple traffic accident. I made a left turn and failed to yield to an oncoming car from the right. I was taking my friend Laura for a ride to show off the MGA along “fraternity row” in Berkeley. I felt as stupid as a box of rocks. Other rides were more successful – like when I took my cousin Peggy for a tour of the San Francisco area including a drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. I remember being embarrassed, though, after that ride. I hadn’t yet figured out that the convertible top could be folded down to stow out of sight under the rear turtle-deck – so we road around with it collapsed behind us like the folded down top of an old baby buggy carriage.
Once while driving my sister Ruth from Berkeley to Sacramento, the engine died during rush hour on the notoriously busy Nimitz freeway. The sun had just set, and it was getting dark fast. A simple engine like the MGA’s will at least sputter if it has gas and spark. Since it didn’t, I popped the hood to check for something obvious. Removing the distributor cap and cranking the engine, I saw no spark from the distributor points, so the primary circuit of the ignition system seemed to be the fault. I removed the distributor by feel in the dark so I could inspect it by the light of the headlamp. Sure enough, the points had failed – the plastic cam rubbing block of the cheap points previously installed had melted. The angel of roadside repair was with me that day – I had a spare MGA distributor that came in a box of parts that I got with the car – and just happened to have it in the trunk. I set its points gap by sight, and installed it setting the timing by feel, and we were underway again in less than 20 minutes.
My most harrowing experience in a car was in the MGA, also on the Nimitz freeway during rush hour. I was driving back to Berkeley from San Jose when the steering started to feel light. I remember thinking that something may have come loose on the suspension. Then I noticed that the steering wheel was loose in my hands – it had come disconnected from the steering column. I slowed to a stop by easing off the gas and gently applying the parking brake – so the front brakes wouldn’t pull the car over into another lane. I also reached behind the steering wheel hub to grab hold of the steering column splines in an effort to steer the car straight. I was in the left lane, and miraculously I was able to control the car to a safe stop on the left shoulder.
After allowing my heart rate to settle back down, I discovered that the big nut under the plastic steering wheel horn button had simply come loose. It was easy enough to place the steering wheel back onto the splines of the column and tighten the nut by hand. I was on my way again in just a few minutes – although I do remember sitting on the left shoulder for a while counting my blessings and thinking about the heart attack I almost had.