I knew two Kens in high school. One was into photography and he took some of the best pictures of me from my high school years. The other Ken was into cinema, and he had a understanding of the world that was more sophisticated than my own. I liked him because of that. He hosted the first party I attended where alcohol was being served. I can still remember the timid way I drove home after that event.
Ken would organize showings of classic and “art” films at a Unitarian church in Sacramento. Later, when we went to Berkeley together, he would show them there. They were shown on the pretext that it was a “film club” activity. It was his enterprising way to earn a little cash. I saw Deep Throat at one of Ken’s “film club” showings at Berkeley. I guess Blockbuster, Netflix and the Internet put an end to film clubs.
At Berkeley, Ken made friends with the owner of a tiny movie theater on Telegraph Avenue called the Telegraph Repertory Theatre. The owner was an aging fellow from the beatnik era. The sign on the box office said “Student Tickets $3. Everyone is a Student.”
Ken knew about my work on the MGA, and somehow word got around to the theater owner – who had a derelict ’63 MGB in the garage under his apartment building. He offered to sell it to me for $100 if I could get it out of there. The first production year of the MGB was 1963. Mechanically, it was very similar to my MGA. I knew if I could get fuel and spark the the engine, I could make it run. Keeping the MGA going had made me mechanically fearless. For $100, I couldn’t resist.
I found the “B” in the dark back corner of the subterranean garage heaped with garbage. As I cleared away the debris I found that the car had been burned – it looked like some homeless person had used the B as a place to sleep, and had let a lit cigarette catch the interior on fire. Since then, the people had been using it as a garbage bin.
After clearing away the garbage, I began to go through the engine and brakes. After installing a new battery the engine started easily and revealed that the main muffler was missing. I had to take all four wheels off to take them to have new tires installed. The brakes required bleeding and adjustment – but seemed to be sound.
It didn’t actually take long to get it going well enough to drive home. Without a top the air flowing over the open cockpit caused grit and debris to float up around me – it was a very nasty ride. And with only the exhaust resonator because the muffler was missing, it was hard to be inconspicuous. All I could do is smile and wave as I crept down the Berkeley streets.
Getting the B back into shape turned out to be a fairly easy process. I simply had to replace the parts that were burned or dented: The hood, doors, trunk, top, seats, steering wheel and carpets. I bought a new top, but got all the other parts used from a British car dismantler. Each body panel was from a different color car – so the B was pretty colorful before I got it painted. I wanted to paint it black, the car’s original color. But the painter advised that black paint will reveal every minor blemish and wrinkle in the old body panels. So I looked through his paint books and found “Diamond White.”
The process of renovating the B taught me a valuable lesson – you can’t make any money fixing up old cars cosmetically. I mistakenly thought that with the difficulty of finding mechanical parts of old British cars, one might do well financially buying one that ran well, but needed beautification. After all, people want cars that look good. What I discovered is that it’s never much trouble finding some mechanical part – and the expense of repairing a car’s interior and body work is so high that it’s always a losing proposition. (I’d put that lesson to work later when I bought the most cosmetically perfect Aston Martin I could find.)
My favorite experience driving the B was on very early mornings when I was driving across the SF-Oakland bay bridge. I worked from midnight to 6am on a computer project at the University of California at San Francisco’s data center – to earn the money to feed my car habit. Still with no top, calico body panel colors, a bungee cord holding one door closed, and only half a muffler, the B made a beautiful noise reverberating between the decks on the drive back to Berkeley. Fresh air, morning light, cool temperatures, burbling car noises – it was splendid.
The B turned out to be pretty reliable, and only stranded me once. I was driving back to Sacramento at night to visit Ann and elected to take highway 16, the river road, instead of the interstate. A few miles after leaving the major highway, and right by the only phone booth for miles, the B’s radiator failed. Too poor for the luxuries of AAA or tow trucks, I called Tytus to come help. Tytus picked me up and took me back to Berkeley to get a “spare” radiator – the one in the MGA. We took that to the B and although it didn’t really fit, I got it in by removing the radiator fan, and wiring it in place with baling wire. I wired the hood down too, because the radiator was too tall – but maybe because of the cool night air, the B made it back to Berkeley without any trouble overheating. Later, a new radiator core made the B good as new.
Ann loved my MG’s – and for a brief while we were members of the Sacramento MG club. Once we got to drive in a parade at a California State Fair. I’m not exactly sure, but as I recall, she always wanted the MGA, but without real windows and because of its temperamental wire wheels, I thought the B was a better car for her – and ended up giving it to her when we split up. I remember my dad saying that if that’s all the break up cost me, I was lucky. Actually, I think his wording was more insensitive.
We were kids, breaking through into adulthood – what was he thinking? We were experiencing our first serious adult issues and challenges together. Changes in the decisions we made then would have been life altering. I’m incredibly fortunate – today Ann is one of my dearest and closest friends. I think we both miss the B.