(first posted 2/15/2016) In psychology class, I learned that the sense of smell is closely linked to memory, and anyone who has been around a greasy old car since the halcyon days of youth could certainly agree. Interiors have that old car smell, crankcases seem to emit certain odors closely related to the engine’s manufacturer, and there’s just something about the over-rich mixture emitted from the tailpipes of a cold engine that evokes those teenage days of fumbling with a wrench. There’s more to loving cars, however, than the remembrance of things smelled. Old cars are like record collections or favorite songs; they transport one to a moment in time, stuck in one’s memory, that is as clear as the sound of an unmuffled engine ringing across the rural countryside. MGA coupes take me back all right.
It’s strange how life turns out. The fact that I own eight cars is really no surprise, but the fact that I own eight good old American cars is. Of course, my list is ever evolving. When I was 19 or 20 years old, bombing around in my old ’65 Mustang, I was certain I’d own a garage full of old British sports cars: GT6s like the one above, MGAs, MGBs, Austin-Healey 100s, Triumph TR2s and TR3s, and even Aston Martin DB2s apexed the corners of my mind and drove me mad with vehicular desire.
Right around the time of my high school graduation, I stopped to admire a Seafoam Green ’75 MG Midget that was for sale in my neighborhood, and I remember its owner ogling my Mustang and saying, “I’d rather have that!” The grass is always greener, I guess.
Twenty years have passed since then, and although I still love those old sports cars, I’ve never owned one. Last summer, Dad and I drove my good old Mustang to Grattan Raceway in southwest Michigan, a four-hour round trip, to watch the vintage races. And that’s where I discovered the MGA.
All of a sudden, 1997 came flooding back as I ogled this beautiful coupe for an awkward amount of time. As I did, I realized that although I don’t really want to go back to my youth, because I’m happy where I am, I do miss one thing about it: that beautifully misguided optimism and hope untainted by the basic realities of adulthood. As I approach 40, I just hope that I’m never a lonely old man; but at 20, there was a garage full of tiny wonders in my future. Although I was totally unsure of how they’d get there, I just knew I’d figure it out somehow. Who has to eat anyway?
As recently as two years ago, I dreamed I was behind the wheel of a white MGA roadster, buzzing down a country road, but I think my dream lied to me. I’d rather have a coupe. Fewer than 10,000 were made, and most of them were 1500s, making this 1600 somewhat uncommon. But the coupe has it all over the roadster–those delightfully odd door handles, roll up windows, a roof that bears a striking resemblance to a later Lotus Elan (at least from this angle). An MGA coupe is a thing of beauty; my 20-year-old self was absolutely right, and I commend him on his exquisite taste in automobiles.
When I was even younger, I would daydream about freezing time and space, freeing me to roam around unimpeded, borrowing cars from dealerships for a quick spin, my progress unhindered by policemen, traffic, or my lack of a driver’s license. Childish? Maybe, but if I could borrow that hypothetical time freezing instrument to drive this MGA, I would.
The MGA, of course, was nearing the end of its run in 1960, soon to be replaced by the everlasting MGB, which was never quite as good looking to me, although I did make a few calls regarding the purchase of some potential beaters, even though I had no money. The MGB was a better car, but the MGA was magic, and I’m always surprised when it doesn’t make any of those myriad “most beautiful” lists.
Unfortunately, MGAs are quite out of my price bracket these days (I’ve never spent more than $6500 initial purchase price for an old car); but dreams are almost as sweet, and even though I may never own a British sports car, they’re a part of my hopeful future as much as they shaped my idea of rolling sculpture in the past.