Autobiography: 1957 MGA – Learning From Big Brother

(none of the images are of his actual car)

(originally published in 2007)    The pop rivets on the crudely fabricated rocker panels were a dead giveaway: tell-tales of cancer under the distraction of a fresh $29.95 Earl Scheib paint job. I noticed the rivets as soon as the smarmy soon-to-be seller of the ’57 MGA pulled into our driveway. But I was fifteen, and not his intended victim. That would be my older brother, who was utterly blinded by lust as the late-summer sun sparkled on the curvaceous roadster. He was nineteen, and about to enter that unique form of parallel hell endemic to the ownership of a clapped-out rusty English car. His only consolation: unlike most self-inflicted drives to auto-hell, his would at least be fairly quick, and a one-way trip.

My nagging doubts about the rocker panels and smoky exhaust were temporarily forgotten during my first ride. Sitting inches above the pavement, elbows hanging out over the low-cut doors, the warm evening air assaulting my head from all directions, I was intoxicated (in my altered state of consciousness, it looked every bit as nice as this pristine one). And since I didn’t own the fragile roadster, there was no hangover… for me.

In its prime, the MGA’s 1500cc engine had once made all of 72hp. For England in the early-mid nineteen-fifties, that might have been sufficient.  By the late sixties in the US, the tired MG was anything but fast. But the cacophony of loose valves, rattling main bearings and howling drive-line components overlaid with the “vintage roadster coefficient” made any speed seem at least three times faster. Which was just as well, what with its balding el-cheapo tires and drum brakes that oozed their vital fluid as copiously as St. Francis’ stigmata.

The big Jaeger speedometer did nothing to dispel the sensation of speed; its spastic pulsations were indecipherable above forty-five. Who cared? Most MG’s had never been truly fast cars. They just felt that way– until after 1968, when smog controls choked off even the illusion of speed.

The key to enjoying the elderly MGA’s still-precise steering (at least in comparison to Mom’s Coronet wagon) and other remaining talents: getting lost on north Baltimore County’s winding rural roads. On these near-perfect facsimiles of narrow English country roads, the roadster made its origins and preferences perfectly clear.

Joyriding was its only purpose, as well as mine. More than once, I surreptitiously took the roadster out for a spin during my pre-license driving era (sorry about that, bro, I just couldn’t resist). Driving the MGA released an adrenalin-heavy hormonal cocktail, as I worried about getting caught and/or whether or not the old heap would make it home.

My brother’s daily commute to college was the MG’s ostensible mission, and the rationale used to talk my father into financing the acquisition. Needless to say, post-purchase, practically every major system of the roadster failed in rapid succession: the notorious “Prince of Darkness” Lucas electrics, those leaky brakes, the anachronistic lever shocks, the perpetually unsynchronized Skinners Union carburetors. The left front fender went MIA after a frat party. It’s a good thing my brother’s buddy drove a boring but dead-reliable ’55 Chevy sedan.

Despite being out of action for weeks at a time that first winter, the pop-riveted rocker panels crudely fabricated from hardware store sheet metal quickly began to disintegrate. This opened-up an ever-widening gap between the floor boards (plywood, actually) and the doors. It was handy for discrete refuse disposal, but not so pleasant in the rain (as if an MG roadster could ever be so). Army surplus blankets were literally pressed into service to keep out the road spray.

At least the clattering, worn-out engine obligingly held on a few months longer, when income from a summer job and warm weather made an engine transplant from a Nash Metropolitan feasible (it used the same BMC B-series engine). And a bright red front fender acquired through highly unconventional means restored the body to a vague semblance of wholeness – even though it clashed with the Kermit-the-frog green paint job. In psychedelic 1969, the car looked almost fashionable.

That summer’s endless greasy and sweaty labors only temporarily forestalled the MG’s suicidal tendencies. Within months, the transplanted Metropolitan engine gave up the ghost, perhaps a form of organ rejection. The MG sat forlorn in the driveway leaking bodily fluids until my father called a wrecker, sealing its final fate.

And since he was called upon to finance its replacement, something more reliable was in order. My brother settled on a well-cared-for three-year old ’66 VW Beetle, still in the prime of its life. The Volks was the antithesis of the MGA in every respect, except for those rare summer evenings when it actually ran. It gave absolutely faultless, economical service for several years to come. And then he sold it for almost what he paid for it. It was probably the best car he ever had.

Now you might think that I would have learned to stay away from old MG’s, watching my brother and his ever leakier barchetta inexorably founder in a sea of brake fluid, oil and gas. And I did, for a good ten years. And bought several VWs almost as good as his. But youthful memory is short. I eventually succumbed to MG fever. But that’s another story.

Related reading:

CC: 1958 MGA – The Almost Great Leap Forward