Monday, December 26, 2011

Driving a Tent on the Highway

First, a little language lesson. In "British" the top is called the hood. The part that lifts up to reveal the engine ("hood" in Americanish) is the bonnet. The trunk is the boot. Got that straight? Hood, bonnet, boot. That said, it's kind of fun driving with the hood up. In cold weather it only takes a few minutes to get the inside toasty warm, and it's a little like driving a tent around. And who doesn't like tents?
The inside of the car is hermetically sealed from the elements
by the hood and the side screen, except for a "minor" two-inch gap.

Stranded Twice - The Most Unreliable Part

Now that the top was up I could handle even cold days and began commuting in the MGA basically every day.  Early on I had a few days working off site, which required a slightly longer trip in - about 45 minutes across town in typical DC traffic. Visibility isn't as good with the top up, but I did fine with the stop & go.  I think people are a little less aggressive around me than they would if I were driving my typical car, and I am certainly more cautious.

This picture from a few months ago captured the most unreliable thing in the car. Can you spot it?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Wrestling an Octopus Armed with Hammers - Installing the Top

With my teeth rattling issues sorted out, I was able to really start commuting in the MG.  As the cooler weather started to set in, I needed to bundle up a little but it wasn't so bad, especially putting the heat on.  This is the right way to drive to work - a lot of fun.  That is, until the "cool" weather gave way to some no kidding cold days. I realized it was time to get the top figured out - it was time to convert this convertible.

Getting ready to take the first spin with the top up.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Safety Fast

A special note to my fans: I'd like to apologize to both of you for the long delay since my last post, especially given the safety cliff hanger I left you with in the last installment. I will endeavor to catch up.

Um, that was easy. The dreaded safety inspection turned out to be a piece of cake.  I figured out by furious Googling that all the safety equipment introduced since 1958 (including seat belts) are not required for my car even for daily use. I was worried about having to add a third brake light, put in a roll bar, and all kind of other crazy notions but as far as the good State of Virginia is concerned I can drive this thing just like they did in '58.  A word of advice if you find me out on the road: steer clear for all our sakes.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Shake, Rattle and Roll

The next day after getting the seat belts delivered, I took the day off and went with Shelly (the heretofore unnamed patient wife) to the Waterford Fair in Western Loudoun.  It was another glorious drive through back roads to a historic setting.  Waterford was settled in 1733 and still feels like it probably did 100 years ago, so it's fun to drive the MG in a setting that makes it look new.  Since the tires were looking very low, we stopped and filled them with air.  To my surprise and horror I found they were very low (about 10 PSI) so I filled them to the max rating on the tire (about 32 PSI).  This probably explained at least some of the inaccuracy of the speedometer I'd noticed.  Since the tires were under-inflated, their effective radius was less than normal, which meant that the speedometer (which really just counts wheel rotation and translates that to miles per hour using the wheel circumference through a series of gears) was over-reporting my speed.
Waterford ca. 1930. It looks more or less like this still today, but now the town is in color.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Go West Young Man

The drive west from Aldie to Upperville in a classic convertible is good for the soul.  The drive winds through rolling hills along horse farms traced by stone fences standing as they have for 200 years, then passes through towns and villages at least partly stuck in time. It was a sunny, slightly cool fall afternoon and we were heading to British and Classic Car Doctors to have the seat belt mounts welded in. On the way I happened to stop in at the store owned by the guy I bought my car from.  He was glad to see it and we chatted for a while.  I've seen him twice since buying the car and both times I've gotten the sense I could sell it back to him on the spot. Not a chance.

Monday, October 24, 2011

I Hit My Car with a Hammer, or The Muffler Change

You don't have to be an expert to diagnose this muffler problem.

 As it turns out, that muscular "growl" of the engine was a series of small rusted holes in the muffler. Over the weeks, the growl got steadily louder until the other day when it became nearly deafening.  A quick peek under the car revealed a softball sized hole in the muffler where the small holes joined to let loose a big section of rusted metal.  I'm suspicious that the muffler had silver paint over a rusty section when I bought it, but no big deal I had already noticed the visible rust on it and had planned on replacing it. Turns out this is one part that has gotten scarce, but I was able to track one down from a supplier in Michigan: $89.95 plus shipping from the "Little British Car Company" (

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fuel Gauge Repair and Near Death Experiences

The offending fuel gauge unit partially removed for the repair.
I decided there is no way I could commute in this without a working gas gauge.  Mine was either pegged beyond full no matter how much gas I had, or bouncing wildly between empty and full as I drove around - neither was helpful.  The way the gauge works is that inside the gas tank is a floating aluminum cylinder attached to an arm, which as it moves up and down with varying levels of gas the acts as a variable resistor by moving some internal parts.  This assembly is called the Sending Unit, and is connected through a long wire to the back of the fuel gauge where the varying resistance is supposed to position the needle between E and F relative to the height of the float, and therefore the level of fuel.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

No, the other MG Blog by a guy named Geoff

Incredible as it seems, it will not be sufficient when telling your friends about how this blog has changed your life to identify it as "The blog about an MG by a guy named Geoff.  I have discovered quite by accident and completely beyond all statistical probability, that there is actually another MGA blog by a guy named "Geoff" who is doing a strangely similar thing with his blog from the West Coast. Oh, and it's Red with Tan Interior same as mine. In the words of the great Dave Barry, "I swear I am not making this up".

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Repair: Electropneumatic Trafficator Timer

The turn signal way up there on the dash.
Driving an older car in some ways is like learning to walk again.  All the familiar workings of modern cars are missing and replaced by what can be a bewildering array of "not obvious" replacements.  One of these in the MGA was the turn signal.  Of course it's not a control arm attached to the wheel on the left side as in all modern cars - that would be too easy.  The control is a lever on the dashboard that you have to take one hand off the wheel to reach. When I first got it I wasn't sure how the thing was supposed to work, other than that pushing it one direction or another obviously made the corresponding blinker flash.  However, as received when you pushed it to the left or right and held it the signal functioned, but stopped immediately as soon as you let go and it was a real pain to try to hold the signal through a turn.  It wasn't very safe and it slowly dawned on me that it couldn't be the way it was meant to work.

Friday, October 7, 2011

MacGyver vs. The Accelerator Cable - A Near Stranding Saved

Who knew MG stood for MacGyver?
It started when my kids asked to go out for a joy ride.  How could I refuse?  I promised to give all three kids a turn and took off with my oldest. We got down to the bottom of a hill just around the corner from our house and the accelerator pedal seemed to lose all power. Jamming my foot against the floor board would get the engine speed up just enough to move under low power.  We limped along far enough to find a safer place and pulled over.  It was getting dark but I could see well enough under the hood to see there was no obvious catastrophe.  I also noticed that the engine was still running fine except that I couldn't get the tach above about 1500 RPM.  Odd.  It was enough to get me down the hill and across level ground, but I'll never get back up the hill at that engine speed. I start to worry about how I am going to get this thing home, and really wonder if I was just too big a sucker to notice that I'd bought a nice looking lemon.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Getting Legal

It was time to get legal, and I found some pleasant surprises after a little research.  First, I didn't need to get a safety inspection before getting it titled and registered in Virginia. You can take care of that afterwards.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

First Gas Run and Turning Heads

I now know what my wife has known for years: what it's like to be a hot girl. With only two gallons of gas in the tank and a questionable gas gauge, I decided it was excusable to venture a little farther for a gas run since I can't even make it to an inspection station without more gas.  It's a 10 minute drive from our house to the nearest gas station, so while this would not be the longest trip by length of time, it would definitely be the farthest from home, and therefore the longest walk home if something went wrong.  So I double check for my cell phone, and put on a jacket as it's a cold day.  The floor boards probably put out enough heat to keep me warm, but you never know.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Gas gauge and battery - my first stranding

We decided to go out for a little night time drive around the neighborhood.  You know, to "inspect" the lighting system.  This car is even more fun to drive at night.  The lights are not as bright as modern halogens, but are a beautiful warm yellow color that just feels right.  The high beams work fine too, and definitely make it easier to see.  The high beams are the old style with a foot switch. Luckily my first car was a 1976 Dodge (before that was "vintage") and had the same type of foot switch or I would have had to google to figure out the high beams.  I wore flip flops and quickly regretted it as hot air from the engine bay streamed in and made it uncomfortable to keep my foot on the accelerator.  That's a cheap and easy fix: wear shoes from now on.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Seat Belts and the First Sticker Shock

Did I mention that this car has no seat belts?  As it turns out, cars prior to 1960 were not required to even have the mount points to connect seat belts, and though they were offered as a factory option apparently no MGAs prior to that point were ordered with that option.  Kind of incredible. 

Not wanting to become an airborne projectile, I bought 3-point harness brackets from Clarke Spares and Restorations (CSR) ($87.50 including shipping - part number M70A).  I purchased the matching belts from JC Whitney ($89.22 including tax and shipping, part number BEACH300BLACK).  The Clarke Spares installation instructions include information at the end about options for suppliers for matching seat belts.  If you wind up doing this yourself, note that the JC Whitney part number information provided differs from what I could find on JC Whitney.  The info in the instructions is actually in the form of an old ad (appears to be 60's era?) so I imagine they've just changed their numbering since then. 

Not bad prices and cheaper than increasing my life insurance, which my enterprising wife would have insisted on. In all seriousness, though I am old enough to remember a time when it was common to ride around without seat belts, having done just a little of that in this car I can't imagine driving on any big roads around town much less commuting without them now, and the thought of taking my kids or wife around in it except on small local back roads is crazy.  Also crazy is the idea of going with just a lap belt. The three point mount is apparently a real pain because it has to be unhooked to close or open the top, but I am looking at this as a mandatory inconvenience.

Would you want these kids unrestrained in the car?
So far so good, but since these mounts require welding and this Great Experiment is not nearly far enough along for me to want to get into welding my own safety devices, I called the local British Classic Car specialist. I was lucky enough to find one 20 minutes away that I'll work with this time, but there is another an hour away that might be cheaper (based on location) and specializes in MGs that I may try out later.  Surprise #1: There will be a 2 week wait for an appointment. Modern cars can take advantage of the automobile version of the "walk-in clinic". An old classic needs to see a "specialist", and I should have assumed there would be a wait.  Surprise #2: The cheap option is the cost of 4 hours welding labor, about $400, but involves cutting massive holes in the carpet at the weld sites to avoid fires, and leaving them un-repaired: an eyesore.  The upgraded option is to pay about twice that for the extra labor to try to peel the old carpet back without ripping it to shreds, do the work, and re-glue the carpet.  The right option is 5-6 times more to rip the old carpet out, scrape out the glue, weld the mounts on, install a heat/sound barrier, and replace the whole carpet (and that maybe didn't include materials - I was sobbing too hard to fully understand the option).

For now, I've set the appointment and told him to expect the more affordable "peel the old carpet back" upgrade option but we'd talk again before the appointment for my final decision.  We've definitely realized the carpet will have to come out eventually because it really is pretty musty, but I don't want to do that before figuring out what major engine problems might be lurking.  I also didn't want to leave the car with him for 2 weeks to wait for that to be done.  It's been excruciating waiting this long to really use it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

First Trips, Second Impressions

So within 15 or 20 seconds after the car was delivered we took it out for its first spin, the rain clouds having miraculously parted and the sun shining through.  The only driving I had done in it before this was a very brief test drive in which I was mostly on grass at the previous owner's farm, and never got above 2nd gear.  The title was not yet in my name.  We have no registration, no license plates, no inspection sticker, no county tax sticker, and no seat belts.  We somehow managed to put a in few miles and got into all four gears (plus reverse) circling the 2 block radius around our house, honking and waving at the neighbors while grinning from ear to ear.  My long suffering and patient wife (who had to drive across town in a rain storm to pick up the cash and cashier's check to pay for it) got the first ride, then each of the kids, then back to long suffering and patient wife, who got a turn behind the wheel herself.  Satisfied we had tempted fate too long with the police, our safety, and the car demons we fear are lurking we pulled it into the garage, having banished the Civic to the curb where it sits, sulking. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Great MGA Experiment Begins

1958 MGA - The Subject

Well, I did it. I bought a classic British Sports car, an MGA. You can chalk it up to mid-life crisis, but this I will deny.  Though the car arrived coincidentally on my forty-somethingth birthday, I have no other symptoms of that illness.  I am calling it a mid-life "opportunity". As I get ready in the Spring to turn my current car over to my about-to-drive son to get myself and my wife out of chauffeur duty, I need a replacement.  When I was a teenager, I scoured the classifieds for a month or so looking for an old British convertible before finally settling in to a long series of hand-me-downs and practical low-end imports that I drove until they were ready for the junk yard. But now I found myself with an opportunity to try something new, and I've gone and done it.