Part 1 – Nonsense. When logic makes a (full opposite lock) left turn.
Life changes can be tough. Even when they are expected or results of our own choices. Marriage, divorce, moving, job change (or loss) often bring unpredictable impacts that resonate in our lives for a long while afterwards. As I recounted in my last COAL article, 1983 brought a new car, 1984 marriage, and 1985 fatherhood. When we married, my wife, also an Ozark flight attendant, was the owner/driver of a 1982 Mazda RX-7. I always thought highly of the RX-7s and influenced her decision to let go of a clunky 1980 V6 Firebird and go with the Mazda. Although I did not drive it all that much, it was a very nice car and a good value. However, she still owed on it, and we were preparing for a single-income lifestyle, so we made a decision to sell it. Which then and now, in retrospect, seemed to be a sensible choice. What followed however, was anything but.
With my two-year-old GTI, we were covered with four seats and a fairly utilitarian vehicle. I figured we had about five grand to spend on a good used car. However, my logic was clouded by a photo posted on a cork board just around the corner from our crew scheduling area where we reported for work. On it was a photo and advertisement for a powder blue 1962 Triumph TR3B with (apparently very rare) U.S. Mag wheels and 58,000 miles on the odometer.
For me, growing up in the early sixties, the term “sports car” was pretty much synonymous with two-seater British roadsters. The most popular ones were MGs, Triumphs and Austin-Healeys, and there was a local dealer, Continental Cars, that had two large dealerships in the St. Louis area which carried these three makes and at times a few others. Their popularity began to wane as I reached driving age in the early seventies, but ironically as second or third-hand MGBs, Midgets and Spitfires became more affordable they were quite common among my high school peers. I often say, looking back, that the popular cars and motorcycles of that era were treated like disposable lighters. Used up and discarded when subsequent repairs bills were expected to exceed the value of the car.
I am anything but unimaginative, so I was already coming up with reasons why this would be a good deal. The car itself was in original condition, across the river in Centralia, Illinois. It had a unique, if somewhat macabre provenance. The original owner was from Centralia, but had lived near Santa Barbara, California for decades. His mother died and he and his wife drove across the country to attend her funeral, when he unexpectedly passed away in his hometown. I can only speculate, but as he and his wife (now widow) were both in their sixties, I’m sure after traveling one-way from California to Illinois in a TR-3, she was not anxious for the return trip, so she arranged to sell the car. It ran well and unlike virtually any midwestern examples, it was free of rust. That said, this was not a logical choice. That said, perhaps the fears of impending responsibilities were directing me to one, last “what the hell” decision. My wife gamely agreed and we bought it for $5,000.
The first thing it needed was a new exhaust system, that I purchased from Moss Motors and installed myself. In fact, our mailbox was soon filled with catalogs from Moss, British Victoria in Lenexa, Kansas and one other supplier whose name I cannot currently recall. The availability of parts was definitely not an issue. The car cleaned up nicely and became my daily driver. I’ve never been an excellent mechanic, but it was a simple machine and came with a service manual, and there were several British car enthusiasts among our pilot population (as well as one of our aircraft mechanics who was available to do work on the side). I do recall mentioning to one of our pilots that I dreaded having to begin what I expected to be never-ending adjustments of the twin SU carburetors (which seemed to be inevitable judging from my friends who had owned similarly equipped cars) and having owned Volvos equipped with SUs gave me some of the best advice. “Once you set those, if they go out of adjustment, nine time out of ten it’s not the carburetors that need adjustment, it’s usually valve clearance or some other issue.” And he was correct. I did have to have the steering box rebuilt and it was the only car I have ever owned that had an oil leak inside the car (the fitting on the mechanical gauge where the slim brass line attached would occasionally work loose) but other than that, it was extremely reliable. The engine had started life as a tractor powerplant, and was pretty sturdy.
What it wasn’t was comfortable, with a single-layer vinyl top and side curtains, and a heater that was activated by turning a spigot on the rear of the engine block. And the only fair weather ventilation came from open air. But I didn’t have to drive it all that often, and I was not at all uncomfortable leaving it on our guarded parking lot for a two or three-day trip with the top down and the tonneau cover zipped closed.
Compared to nearly any vehicle of recent vintage, it could hardly be considered sporty. Most of the mass was pitched forward, the steering was slow, and it was riding on some very tall, high profile tires. Also, as it had a relatively high compression ratio, it had a nasty habit of the rear end breaking loose under sudden deceleration (we used to refer to this as “back-spin,” when the compression resistance caused the tires to rotate more slowly than at speed and lose contact). There’s a reason why, when you look at vintage photos of sports car racing in the 1950s, that virtually everyone is sliding through the turns with their front wheels at full opposite lock.
I have to say, however, cleaned up, it made quite an appearance. With the top down, it was like a time machine that gave me a deepened insight into the cars that generated so much enthusiasm. Experiencing the limitations of this mostly first generation sports car has only made me more impressed with the levels of performance and reliability that we now take for granted.
Whatever urge had compelled me down this road had been satisfied, and especially after two winters I was ready for a change. We sold the GTI and purchased the sensible (Part 2) Jetta sedan, and shortly afterwards I sold the TR for around $4,500, which was not at all bad for nearly three years of use. The purchaser intended to begin a complete frame-off restoration, and this car was probably an ideal choice to begin from. It also taught me a good life lesson, that as much as I love, cars I am not the person who has the skills, money and/or patience to attempt any kind of restoration.
Three years of fun for $500 depreciation sounds like a good deal to me. Have you priced TR3s lately? Most of the decent examples I’ve seen are selling for at least 20 grand, but that’s probably the pace of inflation over the course of 37 odd years. You had arguably the best of the bunch; some of the TR3Bs apparently had the TR4 engine and transmission. I’ve loved sidescreen Triumphs since I saw one in an old school film in 8th grade. Even back then (early ’90s), the film was 30 years old, but a TR3 was used to demonstrate the laws of motion. Great car!
Once again, I love your references (the title in this case). Jane Austen was pretty snarky, so her works fit well into my Venn Diagram. 🙂
The thought crossed my mind, but between 1986 through 1990 I became the father of three beautiful daughters (and while the enthusiasm for cars varies between the three they at least have appropriated their old man’s respect for maintenance) and the company I worked for experienced two major bankruptcies, so time and money were scarce commodities. Not to mention the lack of seats. And while TR-3s have increased in value, at the time they were kind of low end collectibles and if you were buying new parts specific for your model like interior trim or a top from say, Moss, you were paying the same as someone restoring a Jaguar 120 or 140 for a car worth much less. The bottom line for me was, as much as I could admire the design, the safety and driveability factors just weren’t there.
Jerry: My first and sixth cars were TR-3s – bought about ten years apart.
The red ’58 served unreliably as my high school car and took me to and from my after school and weekend job. The car looked great, was fun and was way beyond my 16 year old ability to deal with. I owned it for about two difficult years. Top was almost always down – even though this was Illinois.
The black ’59 came from a used car lot in Denver when I did not need a reliable car (had a company car). It was used on weekends only and I sold it three years later when I moved away from Colorado. That car required nothing beyond an oil change or two.
I remember the cut of the door allowed me to be able to put the palm of my left hand on the ground.
“Carburetor” is a French word meaning LEAVE IT ALONE .
I too love old British cars, mostly BMC products .
The primary failure of older British cars was the lack of initial quality control ~ once you took the time to sort out the build problems they were usually good runners and easy to maintain .
However, they were also basic 1930’s & 1940’s technology and that unlike anything built since the mid 1960’s, requires regular touching and adjusting even when there’s nothing actually wrong .
Understand and be able to deal with this and you get a nice reliable and fun daily driver .
Mouse fart heaters appear to be endemic though .
Only my 1959 Nash Metropolitan Fixed Head Coupe had a good heater from England that I recall .
Was that the well-regarded Nash Weather-Eye heater, by any chance?
Things like hydraulic lifters escaped British notice so you have to adjust clearances periodically and points if still non electronic not a lot else, The heater in my wagon is disconnected it leaks I have a spare matrix and should fix it before winter but I moved north and it didnt get cold up hedre last winter so may not bother it likely doesnt do much anyway.
I operated a fairly large restoration shop for 30+ years, specializing in British cars as well as American luxury cars. I’ve restored or worked on hundreds of vintage vehicles & ran the shop at “Start Your Engines”, a Triumph TR specialty shop that eventually was absorbed into the Moss empire.
I have always felt that the Smiths Company failed to properly label their temperature changing device for vehicle passenger compartments. They should have been advertised and sold as “Smith’s Warmers”, not “Smith’s Heaters”!
Wow, I can’t tell you how envious I am. You owned a TR for 3 years and got 3 years of use out of it. I owned a TR4 for almost 20 years and drove around the block twice.
I too spent years surrounded by boxes from Victoria British and Moss Motors. People used to ask me “how do you find parts for that?” and I’d say “it’s all available, all it takes is money” 🙂
Thanks for this positive story of TR ownership
“All it takes is money.” That applies to a lot.
Actually more to my perspective is this quote from Pablo Picasso. “I’d like to live like a poor man with lots of money.” Or as I tell my kids, money can buy you a lot of nice things, but most of them are distractions. The only really valuable thing money can buy you is independence.
I actually joined the St. Louis Triumph Owners Association during this period, but I really wasn’t all that active. (Like Groucho Marx, I don’t really want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.) I do recall going to meeting at the Village Bar and Restaurant (an old established dive – and I feel there is nothing uncomplimentary in that description – on Manchester Road) and I was the last to arrive. There was a relatively new, bright blue Spitfire on the lot, and it was clearly leaking coolant. As soon as I found our table I reported my observation to the owner. He first asked how long the puddle was, then following my reply asked how long it was. I guess somewhere in his experiences he had come to recognize an acceptable amount of loss depending upon the dimensions of the pool of liquid on the pavement. (I’m assuming this cannot be accurately applied if parked on dirt or gravel.)
British car ownership is a world unto itself.
You lived the dream for three years and got an education for a loss of only $500. I’d say that you did quite well.
Internally the TR engine is a relation of the Fergy tractor engine but thats about it, The car version was in the Triumph Reknown and Standard Vanguards for their entire production run you could buy a Vanguard with TR spec engine at one point, SUs are set and forget keep oil in the dashpots and they work well for years, the drive train in those things is fairly bullet proof the bodywork rusts away around you, get one without rust and keep it that way it will be a good car as your one seemed to be, 3 years with little going wrong is pretty good, An ex girlfriends father had a TR3A with Judson supercharger that was fast and fun but went the family sedan route eventually too.
I often describe owning and operating this car like having a 12 string guitar that you pick up every now and then to play. It’s not going to sound right just out of the case, you’re going to have to make some minor tuning adjustments.
Nothing ever went south, usually, without giving two weeks notice. Like the time the clutch started to feel a bit soft, and I kept procrastinating looking into it. Now I’m ready to go to work, I disengage the clutch to start the car, and the pedal goes to the floor as the slave cylinder failed.
Which reminds me of something else. All but two of the cars I’ve owned as the primary driver have been manuals, but the Triumph was the only one without some extended form of linkage to command gear changes. It was an all-synchro tranny that while with a heavy feel, was solid yet responsive. Shifting without using the clutch was very, very easy, especially upshifting. You merely aimed for that sweet spot between acceleration and deceleration, slipped it out of gear, then with a light feel as the rpms declined, catch that moment (you could feel it) when the revs matched the speed and drop it in without any knashing. I imagine it’s similar to what a safecracker feels when the tumblers drop in.
This is the kind of nonsensical driving I would have loved. I love the idea of a British sports car, but have never tried to actually live with one. Which may be why I still love the idea of them.
About 20 or more years ago a guy I knew slightly from my school days bought a house across the street from where my mother was living. I had seen that he had an old TR-3 apart in his garage. One day I saw him out and walked over to see it. He had done a really nice job with it, and it was probably 2/3 of the way back to what it should be. We had a nice visit and I have no doubt he got it finished and enjoyed the heck out of it.
My advice would be to purchase a Miata in British Racing Green.
Hi, why are you using my car for one of your pictures? You can clearly see my steering wheel is different than yours in the picture of my car. top-down and pic taken from passenger-side rear angle next to fence.