I still had a 12-A Mazda rotary engine sitting on my shop floor. It had been an unused racing spare. It had gone into my red RX-7, but the result had been unsatisfactory for a daily driver (not the fault of the engine). I had been prepared to install it into the Lenham coupe I had bought, but I had changed my mind, not wanting to chop up the rare and complete car. The idea of putting the rotary into a “tiny” car had intrigued me for years. Time to do something about it for real.
The Lenham had introduced me to local British car events and shows. While there, I met the “MG guy”. Otherwise known as “the guy from Lake Elsinore that has a hundred MGs, but wants full price for them”. Others said he was hard to deal with, or a bit “off”. I found that he was an entirely reasonable guy, who was unwilling to simply give away MGs because he had a hundred of them. If he had made the effort and commitment to store them for decades, why should he just give them away later on? My impression was that he was charging full market for weathered but complete old MGBs and Midgets (which wasn’t a whole lot in 2014, but it was something greater than zero). I think, keeping in mind that a guy who saves a hundred MGs for decades is not your average guy, or even your average car guy, the odd reactions people would make to him would, in turn, elicit odd or somewhat combative responses from him. Dealing with him as a person with MGs ready to sell, and me as a potential buyer, we both treated each other straight up, fairly, and honestly. What more can you ask for in a transaction? He even went above and beyond by methodically trying to coach me through getting an old and skip-owned pink slip through the DMV. As I had just gone through a missing-and-with-transfer-of-title pink slip process with the Lenham, I felt I had the DMV process nailed down well (which I did, as it turned out). But I appreciated his effort.
Lake Elsinore lies in the lee of the mountains just east of Orange County, California. At the time, it was one of those quirky California towns that had never gentrified or “grown up”, and was full of eccentric people living “alternative lifestyles”. Two claims to fame were that the lake itself was a prime area for the fire-fighting seaplanes to land and refill to fight area brush fires, and for the large and somewhat well-known nudist colony on the outskirts of town (apparently nudist colonies are often hidden and not on the map, but this one bucked the trend). In the meantime, my counterpart had a whole bunch of MGs, and the city had decided that his site was both a public nuisance and potentially an unregistered toxic waste site, so the city was after him to move out most of the cars. The threats to crush them all, if he didn’t disburse the cars, was unnerving to him. From the circumstances under which he had arranged his life, understandably so.
As I arrived at the site, I found him both a font of knowledge on British cars generally, and MGs specifically, and also a very meticulous person. While there were rows of MGBs covering most of his property, he knew the history, features, and condition of each one of them. He had removed the engines from each of his cars, had noted which engine number went with each VIN in a vast pen-on-paper book of spreadsheets, and had put all the engines into a closed metal warehouse, mounted in racks and in rows. Among other cars there, I glimpsed two Jensen-Healey Estates (shooting brakes, two-door wagons, whatever you want to call them). Jensen-Healey didn’t make very many of those. While he didn’t give me any free rein to just look around, he did give me a tour. He apologized for being distracted, as he was busy mating Midgets with their extracted engines, and crating them up, six at a time, to be shipped to Australia. I guess Australia had an appetite for left-hand drive Midgets, some years back. He was glad to get the cars moving out, as neighborhood kids had taken to trying to shoot the Midget windshields with B-B guns, at his rented Midget lot across town. When you own over a hundred old cars and everyone is treating you poorly over it, it does tend to stress a person out.
He seemed to enjoy someone interacting with him on his terms, and not questioning what he was doing, or trying to bargain unreasonably with him. I helped him carry an engine over to his Midget lot across town, as a particular car (needing its engine) was going to be picked up from there later in the week, and we were heading over there anyway. We went over to pick out a Midget for me, and I explained to him what I was up to. We agreed to pick the least-likely-to-be-restored car that was complete and serviceable, because neither of us wanted me to build out a car that could otherwise be nicely restored to stock condition. We picked out a car from the dozens on the lot, one that had been hit gently in the left front and had a slight tweak to the radiator mount area. He assured me the frame and suspension mounting points were solid and square. As I was cutting up the radiator mount area anyway, to adapt a larger rotary-compatible cooling system, the car seemed like an appropriate choice for me, and I trusted him on the rest of it (and I was right to do so, as it turned out). We towed it on my trailer, back to his main lot.
He sorted the paperwork out, and he added some parts from his used parts inventory that were missing from the car, such as the convertible top frame assembly, an untweaked left front fender, and a front bumper and mounts. My kind of seller, who seemed genuinely honest, and who was trying to make sure I would not be disappointed in my purchase. $700, and I could have probably found something much cheaper on my own, but would I have gotten a complete car? Would I have gotten one that, while dinged a bit, was “certified” (strictly by a man’s word of honor) to be suitable for my needs? He also gave me photocopies of a long list of MGBs and Midgets, detailing the characteristics and condition of each one, complete with VIN, and with his asking price. He asked me to share it, as appropriate. The city was going to crush his stash, and he needed to find homes for his cars, much as people try to find homes for puppies or kittens, before they are euthanized.
I learned two things that day. One was that people may seem eccentric or troubled, and perhaps there are good circumstantial reasons for it, as in his case and the need to find homes for all of his cars. Two was to take people as they are, rather than judging them against cultural norms. If their differences are not dangerous or potentially harmful, everyone can come away from the encounter and interaction feeling pretty good about things, about each other, and about people in general. I know I did, that day. Old cars can create human connections, even superficial and fleeting ones. I hope he found homes for all those cars which meant a lot to him. Looking at Google satellite photos today, I see his lot cleared of cars, but the warehouses are still standing, and the entire fenced site exists as an island in a sea of recently built tract houses on tiny lots, as they build them in the California suburbs these days.
So, back to my newly acquired Midget. I knew from the Lenham that I could fit in it, and unlimited head room would be welcome in a tightly constrained cockpit. The matter of the engine and driveline was a puzzle to be solved. I knew it could be done. It was a matter of how to most elegantly and appropriately do so, with as little cutting and chopping as possible. As it turned out, only cutting the heater mount area, aft and above the rear of the stock engine, was necessary. A bit of cutting away for the radiator, and for the gear shift lever from the Mazda transmission, which emerges a few inches aft of the factory MG piece, was all it took. The Mazda RX-7 transmission is actually very light (with an aluminum case) and compact. The structure of the Spridget transmission tunnel is mostly enclosed, and outside of fabricating and fitting a custom transmission crossmember (along with the front engine mount crossmember), everything just drops in. Not only that, but using the older and shorter Mazda points-and-condenser distributor, meant that the hood could close over the engine without modification or cutouts, and the bottom of the oil pan was flush with the bottom of the car frame. It all fit! Like so many cars of today, it is a bit tight in the engine room. Get out those floppy joints for your socket extensions, you are going to need them. There is no extra space in any direction.
I found the mating of the engine and the car a very satisfying exercise. It was like the dimensions of each were made for each other. The (big) battery went into a box in the trunk, and the factory MG heater was moved closer to the firewall and adapted as an auxiliary cooling system. A completely new wiring loom was created, incorporating many more fuses and a series of relays. The original MG loom ran all of the power through the switches and buttons, and that is not the way to do things these days. We don’t want any dashboard fires.
A custom exhaust system had to be fabricated. It looks a bit on steroids, relative to the rest of the car, but it is what it has to be. The straight-through glass-pack mufflers are a bit loud, but there are three of them of various lengths, matched to the spaces available, and the car is still a bit noisy at speed. On the other hand, I can use the excuse made by the Harley riders, when their machines make the loud unmuffled “potato-potato-potato” engine sound, the idea being that at least they will hear you coming, because they will never see you. It’s a safety feature. Yeah, right, okay then.
I kept the rest of the car stock, particularly the brakes and the suspension, the wheels, and the skinny tires. I actually found that the engine was very mismatched to the car, as it sits. The factory engine of 65 horsepower or so is actually well matched to the rest of the car, as I have experienced it in the Lenham. The capabilities of each are appropriate to each other, in their limitations. Putting 110 horsepower into the little car overpowers it, at least with the factory underpinnings. I may need to rethink things on this one. Perhaps a smaller, less powerful motorcycle engine. I could go back to stock, but the point of the project is to find things that work well together, that didn’t come together. If a car has a mechanical soul, then this engine swap kind of ripped the soul out of the car. Despite the elegance of fitting a litre (1.148 litre, specifically—smaller than the stock 1.275 liters) into the pint pot, I didn’t accomplish what I had hoped to do, which was to build a completely satisfying package to drive around as a toy. Close, but not quite there. Get heavy on the throttle, and things get kind of squirrelly. Perhaps a buildup of the suspension and brakes, but that will wait for another day and for some thinking through.
In the meantime, I think I have a starting point of something interesting. Short of the bulging musculature of the exhaust system, it goes together like everything was designed for each other. I will come back to it later, once I try some experiments and figure some things out. All will be made clear next week…