Contrary to what you may have heard, you do not have to be crazy to own a British sports car. Eccentric, perhaps, but not necessarily crazy. In my opinion, the misnomer is a perception problem, based on one of those cultural misunderstandings that have so littered our relations with the British.
Most Americans, dullards that they are, look on the car as a tool. They expect it to take them from place to place with a maximum of comfort, efficiency, and convenience and a minimum of the unexpected. They want to put gas in one end and occasional doses of oil and water in the other and to be carried predictably from place to place.
To the British car designer, such expectations seem rather unsporting. Where is the variety, they ask? Where is the surprise? The adventure? For many years British car designers concentrated their efforts, with stunning success, on delivering lots of all three. The idea of transportation was clearly secondary. Once you grasp this basic concept, you will see the British sports car in an entirely new light.
I can speak with some expertise on the subject as I have for many years owned an MG TD (If you don’t recognize that, its the roadster with the French curve fenders, upright gas tank and bug-eye headlights). Over those years my TD has filled many days with wonder and variety and brought adventures galore. It also taught me the British sports car owner’s Rule: Never take it if you really have to arrive.
I think it has also taught me something fundamental about the British nature. Were it not for the TD, I would not have experienced the Briton’s joy at freezing your tail (while driving in Northern California) in a car with no heater. I would never have understood the Briton’s closeness to weather had I not experienced driving in the rain with both top and windshield folded down (it’s a long story). And I surely would never have found myself being driven at high speed, standing up, with my butt in the air and my head hanging down into the engine compartment.
That last deserves a bit of explanation. The TD (and most British cars of her vintage) rejoices in having an SU fuel pump. For the uninitiated, this is a little electrical diaphragm pump with a set of contacts that go click with each stroke. Turn on the key and you hear a mad click-click-click as it charges the carburetor.
Those contacts are the bane of every owner’s existence. They have a penchant for getting contaminated with carbon and stuff. At which point the merry clicking stops and in a few seconds your car magically transforms itself into roadside artwork.
I don’t know single SU owner who does not keep super fine grit sandpaper in his toolbox for emergency repairs.
After a while, you even get fairly efficient about it. You are driving along, reveling in the driving experience. Your engine stumbles, sputters, stops. You pull over to the side of the road, pop the hood, get out sandpaper, remove SU cover, clean contacts (slip sandpaper between contacts and wiggle back and forth), replace SU cover, put sandpaper back in tool box, restart car and go on your way. With enough practice, it is a matter of a few minutes.
We all got lots of practice.
However, I said the British car designer’s goal is to deliver the unexpected. On one occasion, a really beautiful Sunday, a lady friend and I decided to take the TD down to the beach. Along the way, some miles from home, the familiar stumble, sputter routine began. Automatically, I pulled over to the side of the road, popped the hood and performed my routine. All seemed well.
However, when I asked my companion to turn the key, the result was not the familiar clickety-click. Instead, the leaf spring carrying the contacts smoked for a second, then turned a bright red.
Frantically signaling my partner to turn the key off, I surveyed the damage. Hmmm. Doesn’t look too bad. Nothing visibly melted. Now, if I can figure out why the bloody contacts froze together…
I touched the upper contact. The leaf spring promptly broke in the middle and it and the upper contact fell to the ground. Oh-Ohhhh.
An electric fuel pump with a break in the circuit is not a useful device. The TD’s desire to turn into a non-op art had clearly entered a new and more creative phase. Hmmm.
I located the broken piece on the ground, brushed it off and tried to jam it into staying more or less where it belonged. Turn on key. Clickety… It fell out again.
A few more tries at this proved pretty clearly this idea was a non-starter. Hmmm.
Plan B: Well, I suppose I could manually pump the diaphragm enough to fill the float chambers. That ought to get us some of the way home. Then I can do it again. And again.
Pumping them up got the car started and we began to drive…for almost a hundred feet. A few more tries demonstrated clearly that at the rate we were going we might get home sometime Monday. Hmmm.
Plan C: Back to the leaf spring, with variations. Unscrew, jam in place, tighten screw. Clickety-clickety- click. It worked for a few seconds, then slipped to one side. Unscrew, jam harder, hold while tightening. Clickety-clickety-clickety-click. By now we had moved almost a block from our starting point. Clearly this one had potential, but the darned thing kept slipping off to the side. Hmmm.
I must admit I was getting a little desperate by this time. That is the only excuse I can give for my next proposal.
Plan C: Okay, I told my lady friend. Here’s what we do. You drive. I lie out on the fender, with my head even with the pump. If the contacts move out of place I will simply push them back. Okay?
Oddly enough, it more or less worked. I lay there, holding on with one hand, trying not to slip off, while I pushed the leaf spring back and forth with the other. However, the plan had two flaws which quickly became apparent.
The first problem was that it was simply bloody terrifying lying there, with my tail a few inches off the ground, with one hand between me and grievous bodily harm. The second was more serious. After a mile or so the leaf spring fell out and was lost forever. The TD, short of towing, seemed to have achieved its goal of becoming a paperweight. Hmmm.
Nothing stimulates creativity quite like sheer desperation.
Plan D: Okay, tell you what. You still drive. I get into the passenger side and stand on the seat. Leaning over the windshield, I should be able to reach the fuel pump. I can insert my screwdriver into the pump. If I hold it just right, the screwdriver should act like an upper contact.
It was an interesting experience. Bent over the way I was, I could only see backwards, so I couldn’t see the expressions on the oncoming driver’s faces. However, my lady friend, who kept up a continuous narrative, made them sound pretty spectacular.
I can believe it. With my head down, I could see the road behind us. Quite a few of the passing cars were swerving wildly with their driver’s heads swivelled around as they passed from sight.
It was a good day. We had had our best adventure yet. We had not gotten to our destination. We had been alternately angry, frustrated and terrified. We had exercised our vocabulary and our wits. And we had won.
Point is, I still have that car. I still love it and shovel money at it. As a putative piece of transportation, there is no way it could ever repay what has been spent on it. Even when running, it is primitive, has a feeble engine, and gets you nowhere fast. And it is no more reliable today than it has ever been. I doubt I will ever part with it.
Some loves are like that. Once you are captured, rationality becomes feeble rationalization. Cost becomes secondary. To pour money and effort into something as defective in conception and execution as that defies all logic. But love and cost-effectiveness are not truly at odds with one another. Instead, they operate on such separate planes that there are no real common points of contact for meaningful opposition. They simply miss each other.
We humans seem to have this natural bent for loving the weak and expensive. And once captured, we never seem able to break free.
You have to be careful what you love.