COAL: 1968 MG 1300 — A Driving Interregnum

A garden variety MG 1300. Smallish on the outside, biggish on the inside.


My racing had reached a stopping point, and I had also arrived at a point in my life when everything was due to change. I had been single, working various jobs, and living the “younger person” lifestyle, but it was time to shake things up. Work towards owning, not renting. A career, not simply working jobs. A significant other, not singlehood. There was still a COAL involved, though I didn’t own it and I never drove it. Consider this COAL entry more of a “people” post with a car involved in it, rather than the other way around.

In the summer of 1985, I quit my zoo job, put the three car fleet into long-term storage, and left the country for an extended period. I had been working towards my teaching credential, and took the opportunity to move to the UK, on an exchange program, to fulfill a student teaching term. Sort of like going off to college, but with flying instead of driving, packing light, and with the understanding that there would be no road trips home. New place, new life, and mostly new friends.

During this excursion, I met my future wife, learned quite a bit about people, and discovered some of my own weaknesses and limitations. I went to the London Motor Show, bought and dived into all sorts of small, specialty British motor magazines, and wandered through an automotive environment made up of an almost completely different collection of motorcars. The older cars and trucks I saw in the UK largely filled out my real-world exposure to half of my childhood Matchbox collection, the half that did not resemble the vehicles on the American roads. Specifically, the Ford Anglia, along with the Commer and Bedford trucks, resonated with my own memories of the Matchbox miniature equivalents. And there was the little green Matchbox MG 1100/1300, with the plastic dog in the back seat, if I recall correctly.

In addition, travels across the continent acquainted me with Trabants and Skodas, and refamiliarized me with Borgwards and all the quirky French cars. My then-future wife and I accidentally ended up in East Berlin for part of a day, and visited both the Berlin Wall and the boundary fences between East Germany and West Germany. A series of big wake-up calls on how institutions can treat people. Visited my family’s ancestral stomping grounds in Bremen Germany, Amsterdam, and Salzburg Austria, and also Vicki’s family’s ancestral digs in Northern Ireland. We met relatives of hers, which she was unaware of, at the school campus where we lived and met. All in all, a delightful and adventurous turning point in my life.

Saw a couple of these Trabants puttering about and belching smoke in Berlin.

At school, I was assigned a “teaching practice” position in the equivalent of a high school, about a half hour away from campus. A car pool was arranged with two other practice teachers, driven by “Peggy” (names changed), along with “Michael” and myself as passengers. Peggy owned the MG.

Peggy was tall, from Kent, and she had a striking visage, with a fair complexion but dark hair and eyes, and she carried a mien of extraordinary intensity. She had a love/hate relationship with her car, as I would come to learn. The MG may not have been the only love/hate relationship in her life. Peggy had a fierce presence, that would both intrigue and intimidate, all at the same time. In the teachers’ lounge, some of the older males were openly smitten with her (this was the “old days”, and a different time and place, so some “old school”, somewhat questionable things were said and done). Some of the adolescent boys would simply stop talking and stare in her presence, and some of the girls liked to give her the evil squinty side-eye. Peggy definitely stirred the pot, wherever she went.

Her MG was quite the little car. Basically an enlarged iteration of the original Mini, it was huge inside while somewhat small on the outside. White, with a tidy but spartan interior. The wide sweep speedometer dominated the otherwise mostly featureless dashboard. The entire interior of the car was essentially featureless, but in a roomy way. Knee room, head room, hip room, and shoulder room were ample for four full-grown people.

Tidy but simple and spartan, and with a lot of room in the areas where one needs and wants it.

The car was old, it wheezed and smoked, and it drank oil. In fact, a quart needed to be added to the engine at every fill-up, and that is what created the issue between Peggy and the MG. The first day of the carpool, we drove to a nearby filling station, pooled our money, and Peggy topped off the petrol tank. Once the task was complete, Peggy retrieved a bottle of oil from the case stashed in the boot, and proceeded to add it to the engine, while attired in a shortish black dress, tights, and heels. Once the engine had been fed, she went to close the bonnet. “Slam, slam, slam”. We heard a sharp shout of “Oh bloody ‘ell!”, as she stomped her high-heeled foot onto the ground. The bonnet wouldn’t latch. Michael and I jumped out to assist, white knights that we were willing to be, but Peggy quickly pivoted and ordered us to “get back in the car”, accented with a long glare. “Yes, Miss, anything you say, Miss”, thought but not spoken. A couple more slams, and the bonnet was fastened and we were on our way. Not a further word was spoken about the incident.

Peggy’s 1275 engine was a thirsty little thing. I never got to see the undoubtedly less-well-detailed engine room. Peggy would not permit it.

Every week or so, we would return to the filling station for another topping off of both petrol and oil. Every week Peggy would “slam, slam, slam” the bonnet down. And every week she would exclaim “Oh bloody ‘ell”, and stomp her foot a couple of times. Rather comical, truth be told. The predictability of it all was part of the joke. Then she would re-enter the car with a glare, silently signaling “don’t even start with me, lads”. I would have been happy to adjust the latch, but I didn’t dare volunteer. It would have somehow either acknowledged the fault itself, or her inability to overcome it, and whichever of the two was the area of contention with her, it just seemed completely unacceptable to bring it up. As it was, Michael and I were always “eyes front” and stone faced, every time she got back into the car at the petrol station. We wanted to giggle at the whole thing, and at how it repeated, week after week, but it just would not have been at all appropriate.

So much interior room in all directions, though Peggy’s MG was a two door. When she was done adding oil to the engine, her expression was always whatever the opposite is, of what this woman’s face looks like.

The car offered a good seating position, front and back, without the chin-to-knees arrangement of so many others. It was a bit wheezy in the power department, but otherwise nimble in traffic, in its smoky and rattling automotive old age. It did keep running, in the face of no obvious maintenance schedule, other than to give it lots of oil. No doubt any professional mechanic would have simply adjusted the bonnet latch without being asked, as all it would have taken was the release of the jam nut and a couple of turns of the latch post.

In fact, another teaching couple, expecting their first child, would carpool Michael and me, on the odd day when Peggy was unavailable. They had a new Ford Escort XR3i, which was a very attractive rendition of the ‘80s Ford squared-off styling language. Granted, it was a bit of a smaller car overall, but it was so small inside. The dashboard area was a sea of squared-off plastic, very au courant, and the front seats appeared very well shaped and comfortable. But things like head room and leg space under the dashboard appeared much more constricted. As to the back seat, where Michael and I dwelled, it was impossibly tiny. Twenty years of car evolution, and the interior dynamics had gone straight backwards, in the name of styling and fashion. The exterior of the little Ford was awesome, but the interior was really only suited for two. The coming little one would only fit back there for a few years, before the car would need to be traded in.

These Ford Escorts looked great. Loved the wheels.

The Escorts Ford sold in the U.S. never looked this nice.

Peggy’s boyfriend (fiancé?) lived next door in the men’s dorm. The walls were rather thin. He and Peggy argued and fought like crazy people. It didn’t sound like anything but huge outpourings of pure vitriol. But who am I to say? Maybe it was a courtship of sorts, or it was just how they rolled. But it sure sounded like love/hate. As it is said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, perhaps there is something to the love/hate thing for certain people. Passion and anger all rolled up into a ball. Just like the “slam, slam, oh bloody ‘ell” sessions at the filling station, I just ignored it all and said nothing.

That’s not to say she did not have her kind or sweet side. We occasionally worked together on “teaching stuff”. But she was one of the most intimidating people I ever met. Some people are the stars, in given situations, and others are merely stagehands. She may not remember me at all, or merely as a cipher, but my memories of her are indelible. She was definitely the star of her own odd little show.

The front of the Escort passenger compartment looked nice, if a bit cramped.

Uh-oh. No way two full sized humans were going to fit back here. But we did it, somehow.

The teaching experience taught me quite a lot. The school was strict, with uniforms, corporal punishment, and daily assemblies. I found that the school environment was great for some of the kids, and awful for others. It is a matter of matching the person to the environment, and one doesn’t always get to do that, or the system or the parents will push a certain child into a certain school, for various reasons. It is always the case that what works for some does not work for others, in almost everything. And there are people who are rigid and uncompromising, and one must work around the edges of such a person. People live in the world they make for themselves. All these tidbits I picked up during that term.

I found that I was not much of a teacher, and the kids always had me well outnumbered, and also outmatched in the battle of wills, even in a strict school environment. I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world, but I learned that teaching was definitely something that I was not good at doing.

The MG 1300 again. What a marvelous car for the task it was given. And attractive in its own distinctive way.

One last Peggy story. I am walking through an interior hallway in a classroom building, and I hear the familiar “Oh bloody ‘ell”, from around the corner. Peggy has a serious run in her tights. She tells me there is no women’s restroom nearby, and she can’t walk around with a run in her tights. There is no one else around, and she gives me a flick of her chin, turn around. Got it, and I turn away. As she no doubt has her skirt hiked up to remove her tights, the classroom door I have turned to, and I am facing, unexpectedly opens up, and about a half dozen boys, younger ones, first years or second years, come bounding out. They all stop, simultaneously, in mid-step, and their jaws quickly drop, in dead silence and stillness. I hear a whispered “Oh bloody ‘ell” behind me. Eyes forward and stone-faced, I count to five and then turn around. I didn’t know a face could turn that red in embarrassment, especially her face. On the way back home in the MG that evening, Peggy was in tears. Her fierceness was absent. She was certain that her tenure at the school was over, and she would be asked to leave. She had no idea how infatuated the headmaster, who was my master teacher, was with her. She had nothing to worry about. All of the adults involved knew to face forward and say nothing. Everything would be alright.

I hope that Peggy, and also Michael, have led long and happy lives since then. I heard through the grapevine, a few years later, that Peggy had been offered a permanent teaching position at that school and had accepted it. The headmaster gave me a joyful grin when he shared that information with me.