My Car is a What ?

November 12, 2017

I bet you thought I was gonna say a Piece of Shit.... or as the British would say shite... It is said that the British and the Americans are two nations divided by a common language. As a tech blog for British cars I thought it might be useful to explore this difference, and then get some working definitions so we can be united in the common vernacular of maintaining and restoring our British cars. 


In terms of driving our cars, it gets confusing for us yanks pretty quickly. Our cars have a bonnet under which we keep our motors. We have a boot where we store our stuff for trips - mostly spare parts and fluids. We have a hood that we put up over our cars when it rains. They run on petrol not gas and preferably not on ethanol! Displacements are in cubic centimeters and when we work on our cars we use spanners. Confused? Read on...


 I owned 2-seaters in my first year of college because they were cheap and I was poor.  In a span of one year I bought and wore out a Fiat 850 Spyder, a Triumph Spitfire and a Triumph TR4 . The Spyder was my first and only rear-engined car.  It came with a tiny spare motor and gave me months of trouble free service as I commuted back and forth to mechanic school.  The Spit was a blast and I loved driving that car.  It had been painted some God-awful rattle can purple, had no door cards or hood (remember that means top not bonnet) and blew copious amounts of blue smoke out while driving back and forth along I-10 in SoCal. When the Spit finally gave up on the abuse I was hurling at it I found a  

TR4.  That is probably the car I'd like back.  As a young motor-head I knew a bump on the bonnet always meant something interesting was inside. I think Triumph could have squeezed the carbs under a flat bonnet, but why do that? It's better to signal that something different is going on. Something cool! The TR4 is the only one I sold on that was still in respectable shape.  Who hasn't said, "I shoulda kept that one."?


A couple of years ago I wanted to do a car project with my kid who was in his last year of high school and needed to learn a few things about cars. 


My first car was a $300 1961 Chevy BelAir,  with a straight 6 and three in the tree.  It wasn't a 409 (sigh) and it wasn't even a two-door that I could claim some sportiness with.


No, it was mum's plain old vanilla grocery-getter. But at least it was red, it was mine and I was no longer walking to school or bumming rides to the beach! The first time it broke down my Dad offered me $20 to be used on bus fare or car parts along with an offer to teach me how to fix the carb.  Of course I chose a carb rebuild kit and a Saturday morning with Dad.


Josh and I looked briefly at American muscle cars (I had a '67 Chevelle in my senior year) but quickly got inspired to do a little foreign convertible, not even specifically a British one. I'd consider anything small that would fit in the garage easily, was cheap and had a top that would come down as just the ticket for the upcoming summer.


I ended up with a $1,500 1977 MGB Roadster. I'd like to tell you that I did tons of research and looked at hundreds of candidate cars but that wasn't the case.  "Red Betty" was the first ad on Craig's list that met my three criteria.  She was running, the rust wasn't too bad and she was cheap. The ad had also come out that Friday morning. I met the owner in a school parking lot in Morrow where he had brought her over on a trailer. A cursory inspection revealed no major rust, the engine bay had all the bits needed and as a bonus she had a strange looking hard top! So she started, I backed her off the trailer, drove two laps around the parking lot with no brakes, handed over the cash and running on fumes headed to a gas station with Josh in trail in the Jeep.


With 5 gallons of gas, no registration, no insurance and no brakes I carefully drove down 22, passing one Barney Fife who was was thankfully too preoccupied giving a soccer mom in an SUV a texting ticket to notice me and Betty.  With no drama & no breakdown I settled Betty into  

her in her new home.  Also my new home - we had just moved from Singapore, the garage didn't even have a work bench yet and all my "cool" stuff was still in storage including work benches roll-aways, compressors and the like. My main criteria in choosing my townhome was obviously an oversized garage. I can get 2 MGs and my Jeep in there along with tools and benches - Total score for a gearhead!


So with that giant back story out of the way, we get to the crux of the question. What had I bought? She was completely original except for a terrible respray at some point in her life. If it wasn't for the paint job she would be a survivor. What's a survivor? A survivor is also a "preserved" car. Preserved as it was out of the show room.  It's been driven but has all its original parts and as importantly, its original paint.  So Betty can't really be called a survivor.


The Antique Automobile Club of America is probably one of the authorities on this and for super expensive cars it probably matters a lot. Hemmings did a great article on "restored" vs. "refurbished." We can argue definitions all day but I agree that in true form "restored" is restored to factory conditions with all original OEM parts. No substitutions and, by the way, all those parts meet factory conditions and "new" blueprint limits. This is also my definition for "rebuilt." Hemmings then gets into the methods of restoration and so on but for that vast majority of us we are not restorers.  That Jag is a bona fide concours winner - it's serious business with serious judging. Also in the rarified air category are survivors. Survivors are basically untouched cars as they came off the factory floor. There aren't too many survivors and collectors of these can be snootier than concours winners.  For most of us mere mortals however, there are another set of terms for us to use.  Daily drivers, resto-mods and franken-cars suffice to encompass the rest of the cars I've seen so let's explore some working definitions.


Restored - Restored to factory condition using all original parts dawn to nuts, bolts and hose clamps.  You can change a component but it must be the original exact part.  Except for serialized parts like engine, head and so on.  The numbers need to match the original car's paperwork as shipped.  Hat's off to those that achieve this and achieve it well.  I was speaking to one of the Jaguar guys and he spent 2 years looking for exhaust hangers! Restoration can be done poorly or it can be awesome.  Hats off to the guys that do this well.


Survivor - Pretty simple here.  A proper survivor hasn't had a lick of work done to it other than maintenance.  It "is" as it came off the factory floor, including original paint and interior. Some will argue this but that's the beauty of hanging out. We can debate stuff all day long that doesn't matter. Yet, if my survivor has 6,000 miles on it, original tires (and original 1967 air in the tires), the ashtray has a non-filtered Lucky Strike butt in it, with Marilyn Monroe's exact lipstick color on it, bought from a Rexall drug store in 1963 and has had one servicing done at the MG dealer using an original oil filter, I win... and you suck! 


Daily Driver - A daily driver is maintained to various levels of  

drive-ability using most any methods and parts 

that make sense. I would say in this category copious amounts of aftermarket parts are used and the owner tries to keep modifications to a minimum using period correct pieces. I had no idea of the huge aftermarket for LBC parts when I bought Betty. I am pretty good techie and had been on sailing forums so I was pleasantly surprised when I found - a huge active forum for MGs.  They also have other forums for Triumphs and so on and if you haven't checked them out and you own an LBC you should.  I was further blown away to discover Moss Motors, Victoria British, The Roadster Factory and numerous other go-to suppliers! Maintaining most LBCs is easy on the supply front.


Resto-Mod - A resto-mod is not a car that has been restored but it is more like a daily driver that has been refurbished and modified. When does a daily driver become a resto-mod? I don't know but somewhere around after market aluminum radiator, coil over front suspension and 5-speed gearbox conversion you've done enough mods to have a resto-mod. I totally respect this category and it can be a lot of fun for a motor-head.  Purists can really go-to-hate on these guys. I think that one of the joys of LBCs, especially the MGB is that it is a great palette on which to "go to town" with mods that might make a fun car even more fun and unique.


My GT is a chrome bumper '68.  Many think, like me, that the earlier and rarer cars should not be molested too much and I agree.  My GT has subtle mods that experts will see like the 1972 center console and late model coolant recovery tank but in general I am keeping this daily driver "period correct." 


Betty on the other hand is a late model, "rubber bumper" MGB.  Late models had ride heights raised, more smog gear added, engines detuned and of course 5-mph Ralph Nader inspired "crash resistant" rubber bumpers. I like the late models and some are pretty beautiful but most folks don't think this era of car is worth saving in purity. I have a long list of mods lined up for Betty including super-charging, 5-speed, VW Golf "wing" flares, Frog bars, Miata seats, Sebring treatment and more.  One of the more common resto-mods are engine swaps to V-6 or V-8 power and done properly I think these are definitely in the resto-mod category. However there is a line that crosses into Franken-car.


Franken-car - I am not sure when a resto-mod becomes a Franken-car but sometimes it's obvious.  I mean it's painted right on the side of the car, right?  I am not sure what possesses these guys but I am sure it starts with someone giving them a MIG welder for Christmas. "Hey, Billy-Bob. Let's try out my new welder by welding that 318 Dodge motor under the porch into Sally's MG!" Just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be done! To be fair, as an engineer I do admire some of the creativity of  "well-engineered" franken-cars but as a general rule they are complete disasters.


Engines - A final note about engines. As a licensed aviation mechanic and graduate aeronautical engineer there is one sticky point to keep in mind in getting along with me and how I do maintenance. Engines can be "Rebuilt," "Overhauled" or "Repaired."  Rebuilt means that the engine was stripped to pieces and everything was restored to factory blueprint dimensions. No over-bored cylinders, no oversize bearings. And all the accessories (carbs, oil pump, water pump, alternator, etc.) are also restored to factory condition. 99% of all engines are overhauled or repaired. The difference from rebuilt is the shop manual tolerances are not necessarily to blueprint. 


Overhaul still takes all the engine bits to piece part (not necessarily the accessories) but allows parts to go back in service that are not quite at factory spec. In some ways overhauls can be better. Line boring crank journals, decking the block, balancing the rotating parts and other geometric conditions can often be improved in a non-production type environment.  In regards to repair there are a lot of repairs.  "I overhauled the head." Great but in doing so you repaired the engine. "I changed out the rod bearings and fitted a new oil pump" does not mean you overhauled the engine. You repaired it. Peace, bothers and sisters. Soap box back in the laundry room.


 The BCCGC Technical Committee - I took a look at Steputis' member records and as a club with 111 members we have on record 115 cars! I am sure we don't have all your beauties recorded but that's a pretty good number with MGs and Triumphs our most popular member car.  I find it surprising we don't see more member cars at our drives and events and that's something Rick Benhase as our new technical chairman wants do do something about.


In the new year we want to help get your car out and about and Rick has offered up his own private car bay at his shop to help out. We also have "techie" volunteers as well.  While Rick does not want multi-day jobs and neither do we, we think there are a lot of cars out there that "ran when parked." If your car ran when parked in 1973 that's probably beyond us but if one day a couple of years ago your alternator light came on and the battery went flat and you said, "I'll fix that soon" or one day the brakes started grinding and you said, "I'll get around to it in spring"  or the "Prince of Darkness" (Lucas) descended on your car and the starter quit starting and no dash light comes on"... Well these are all likely day jobs and we can help you get rolling.


 Moreover - "If we knock up early our gormless bastards might even bung togevah a gearbox or clutch job in a day if they leg it a bit and don't faff about. By end of day you'll be gobsmacked as your car will be the dog's bollocks. Unless, of course, some prat spent the day pissin' about making a dog's breakfast of it. We could be over the pub for a piss up by tea time and you so chuffed you'll likely splash out for the pints." (Ed. - If you need translation from English to English, give Ray Rawlinson a bell)


Betty came home with no brakes and I assumed the worst. The first step was to bleed the brakes, and in the immortal words of Gomer Pyle, "Surpraise, surpraise, supraise..." - That's all it was and I was able to start driving her immediately, after title, registration and insurance, of course - I am not a complete idiot, for Pete's sake - LOL. Here's a shot of Betty's undercarriage shortly after she got home - note the brake fluid on the 1981 vintage tire!


This is not "free"auto repair by any stretch. We've worked out a simple pricing structure as you can see - Ha, ha.  But seriously, we'll evaluate your problem, tell you what parts to buy and even if your car isn't running we have methods to get it to the shop. Then you'll help with the hands on part - even if it's just handing over spanners and such.  Our incentive on the day is to get you running so we don't have to trailer your car back to "the barn."


Most of us who are going to volunteer are professional  or experienced mechanics and insist we fix your cars cars in the following order.


- Make it stop - brakes first & foremost (ironic based on Betty's story, eh?)

- Make it roll - Safe tires!

- Make it steer - suspension and steering evaluation

- Make it go... safely and reliably


What about make it pretty? After brake bleeding Betty got new tires, brakes and suspension. Then over time while being a daily driver, she got new carbs, a new exhaust, a new transmission, electrical overhaul, new cooling fans and a few other things that made her very reliable - I drove Betty 7,000 miles that first year and could not bring myself to tear her apart for paint.  To this day Joe says, "That's Dan's car over there.  The one painted with a roller brush." - Ouch...


We all want pretty but I can tell you, pretty can wait (Betty's been waiting 2 1/2 years) - I go on drives, car shows, cruise ins and have all kinds of fun.  Pretty can wait. The only thing that can be called pretty that Betty got was a new hood (top - remember?)


So, What kind of car do you want? If daily driver sounds good. Check out the website tech page.  I am gonna add events in coordination with Rick to "schedule" your car in the shop. We''l probably start with spring tune ups. We also can come to your place and do a complete evaluation on your car and tell you what it needs and in what order.  Then we'll pick cars and get going. And then 10 cars on a Donut Run will become 12 and then 16 and then soon we will have an army of British cars invading donut shops all over!


So.... "Do you want $20 for bus fare or $20 for car parts and some tutoring?"


What are you waiting for? Get of your leash... and Fix Your British Sports Car!





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