There it was, parked alongside the barn, almost totally obscured with weeds. A bird’s egg blue MGA roadster. Find!
In the 1960s in rural Minnesota, British sports cars were scarce. You rarely saw one. I’d already had several cars by my late teens, all American iron. But after reading an absorbing teen fiction book about a boy who discovered an MG TD parked in a barn, brought it to life, and won a sports car race – a cascade of highly unlikely scenarios – I had to have a British sports car. While cruising the country roads in my ’55 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop, I came across this gem: a 1957 MGA roadster, covered with dust and what looked like just a little rust, last licensed several years earlier. Sitting. Neglected. Calling my name. “Steve – look, look, rescue me!”
In farm country, you don’t go walking up to a stranger’s barn unannounced, unless you wanted a seat full of lead, so I knocked on the farmhouse door. Through the screen, I could see a bearded man in his middle years looking out.
“Excuse me, sir, but I noticed that old MG sitting alongside your barn and I was wondering if you might be interested in selling it.”
He opened the door and stepped outside.
“What would you want with an old piece of junk like that?” he asked.
“I like fixing cars,” I said, “and I’ve never had an MG. I’ve heard they’re fun to drive.”
“It’s been a long time since that car has been run,” he said. “I bought it brand new in 1958 when I graduated from the University of Minnesota. I drove it to New York to grad school. I was headed back to Minnesota after that and decided to take a little detour. I ended up driving through just about every state on this continent. When I got back here, I started work as a potter, and I’ve been doing it ever since. My pottery studio is in the barn. There’s a Vincent Black Shadow in the milk house. And my MG has been resting alongside the barn. Maybe you’ll be the next owner. Let’s go take a look at it and see if you’re still interested. It’s pretty rough. My name’s Dick.”
It was rough. But to me, that meant cheap. I was 18 years old and had no money. My Dad was a mechanic – he’d taught me to turn wrenches, so I was undaunted by the fact that the engine hadn’t turned over in several years, the two 6-volt batteries behind the seats were dead and covered by corrosion, and you could see the ground through the floorboards. It had well over 100,000 miles. Still, it was an MGA. The only MGA that I had ever seen up close. I loved sitting in it. It was complete and had been driven to this spot. The keys were still in the ignition. I had high hopes and very little cash, but nothing to lose by asking.
“If I can get it running, I’d like to buy it. How much do you want?”
Dick looked at me and smiled. “Well, if you’re crazy enough, you can have it for $100. Let me know when you get it running. Stop out any time and work on it. Would you like to see the Vincent?”
We walked to the milk house, and there it was – a complete, original Vincent Black Shadow, now one of the rarest of the rare and one of the most desirable classic motorcycles in the world. In the milk house, covered with dust.
“Forget about buying it,” Dick said. “My brother owns half interest and he’s not selling.”
Then we went into his barn, which was a state of the art pottery studio. It turns out that Richard Abnet was a very well-known potter and ceramist. He did mainly religious commissions, like chalices, candleholders, and large baptismal bowls. Readers who’ve lived around Stillwater, Minnesota, will know who he is.
It took a week to get the MGA running. I jerry-rigged a single 12-volt battery in the trunk, and with a push of the starter button, the engine turned. But it would not start. Spark was good, but when I disconnected the gas line, a nasty substance dribbled out. I’d added new gas, but I’d added it to the gas tank on top of a foul concoction of rust, dirt, debris and something that looked like a former petroleum product. I flushed out the tank, finding a collection of rocks and even a wrench inside. With actual gas now flowing to the carburetors, the engine coughed, coughed again, and started up. Within a few minutes the blue gray cloud that was coming out of the exhaust pipe cleared and the engine settled down to what resembled an idle.
I gathered my life savings, paid Dick, got the title and started home with the MGA. I almost made it. A few miles away, the clutch went to the floor and stayed there. I managed to limp home in second gear, running a few stop signs on the way. Thus began my education on keeping a British sports car alive long enough to enjoy driving it. The slave cylinder on the hydraulic clutch had failed. I got a repair kit at an import garage that served as the only MG dealer in the area, but when I tore down the slave cylinder, it was corroded beyond repair. After a long search, I located a used one at a wrecking yard about 50 miles away, rebuilt it, and I was on my way.
Not for long. The car had been sitting so long that one by one, everything made of rubber failed. Brake cylinders, brake lines, gas lines, master cylinder, hoses – replaced them all. My friends thought I was totally crazy. But they didn’t have an MGA and I did!
In between repairs, the MGA was an absolute joy to drive. The 1.5 liter engine pushed out about 70 horsepower, good for a top speed of about 95 miles per hour, downhill with the wind at your back.
But that wasn’t the entire story. The real pleasure of this mighty little two seater was unadorned driving pleasure. I’d drop the top on a warm summer’s evening, head for the back roads with the wind buffeting my hair, watch the tachometer rise and fall while moving the gear stick around to find the best gear for the job at hand – whether double-clutching down for a sharp curve or cranking it out on the straights – and listen to the glorious sound of that spunky little engine breathing through the special sport exhaust that I’d made with a flow-through small tractor muffler. The MGA shocks had almost no travel, so the car cornered flat and true. I loved going out on the back roads with friends in their heavy Fords and Chevys and losing them when we hit the curves. Of course, they’d catch me and pass me on the straights, but I’d catch then again in the curves.
A year or so later, I sold my little bird’s egg blue MGA to another masochist, making a tidy profit. I tired of cars quickly, and I was always moving on to something else. Later, I was to have several British sports cars, and they were all a blast to drive: another MGA roadster, a rare MGA fixed coupe, an Austin Healy 100-6, an Austin Healy 3000, a Triumph GT 6, a Triumph Spitfire, a Jaguar XK150 convertible, and others that I can’t think of at the moment.
The original owner of my first MGA, Richard Abnet, worked in his barn studio in between Stillwater and Marine, Minnesota, just off the St. Croix River for decades. I stopped back to see him from time to time, hoping to buy that Vincent Black Shadow. He passed away at 77 years, working as a potter until the end of his life. I’m forever grateful that he sold me his bird’s egg blue MGA, my first British sports car.
These are photos of an MGA roadster I found for sale on an Internet site, along with other images. This beauty is almost exactly like mine, though in far better condition.
Here are some period sales materials for the MGA
4 thoughts on “My First Brit: 1957 MGA Roadster”
Great story!! I lived, for a few years, about a mile North on Hwy 95 from Dick & Edie Abnet. In addition, my uncle owned an MG, but I couldn’t tell anything more about it than the color, which was red. These connections, along with your reference to Stillwater, took me into an afternoon reverie. Thanks for sharing!!
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I have to say that writing and gathering the photos, as well as immersing myself in that time of my life, were most pleasant, Stephanie. It’s amazing how close those memories are to the surface when you go looking for them. Glad you enjoyed the post. More to come – I have about six decades of stories to tell! And some I think it’s better I don’t tell….
My sons have asked me to journal or write my memoirs. I had been thinking of grouping them by cars I had owned, or houses where I had lived, or women that i had loved… doug
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I’m using this blog as a discipline to write that memoir, which is why I’m including so many subjects in the same place, but with specific categories. If you start your blog, Doug, I’ll subscribe!