Ever dropped an engine? Into a car, that is. I have, many times, back in the 1960s.
My first engine install was when I was 18 years old. Dad had been an airplane mechanic, and he was a very competent car mechanic. So I grew up with a wrench in my hand. I’d bought a ’57 Chevy Bel Air four-door hardtop on the cheap, then wrecked it. Went off the road in the early morning hours, through a fence, then end-over-end into a farmer’s field. Flattened the top almost down to the dash. My buddy and I were miraculously not injured, so we walked back to the road where there was a county sheriff waiting for us. He had some questions. Times being what they were, he told us to hop in and then gave us a ride home. “Too bad you wrecked your car, but come by tomorrow and get it out of the field. And get hold of the farmer to see about fixing his fence.”
This is almost exactly the same 1957 Chevy Bel Air four-door hardtop – even the same colors.
Next day, I got the Chevy home. It was totaled, but the iconic small-block 283 V8 was just fine. Word got out that I was looking for a car to put that engine in, and within days a friend towed over a ’55 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop with a blown 265 small-block V8 engine. Perfect swap.
I got hold of a couple friends and we pushed the cars under a big oak tree, attached a block and tackle to the engine in the ’55, and started loosening bolts and tearing it out. Took half a day. The shade tree mechanics spent the rest of the day pulling the good 283 from the ’57.
Now came the interesting part – dropping the ’57 engine into the ’55. In our haste to get me back on the road again, we hadn’t paid a lot of attention to what parts went where. It all seemed so straight-forward as we worked away, banging our knuckles into bare metal, mixing blood with engine grease, and ripping everything apart. Piles of parts everywhere. Now we had to put it all back together.
I was not about to learn that dropping an engine into an engine bay was a lot trickier than taking one out. We hoisted the engine and transmission on the block and tackle until it was dangling in mid air, then pushed the ’55 under it. As we started to drop the engine in, we narrowly missed dropping it right through the windshield!
We finally got it in, secured the motor and transmission mounts, and then got to work installing the parts that would make it a whole car. Connected the exhaust headers that had come with the ’55, and started on the drive shaft, wiring, gas line, radiator and cooling, and linkages – including the Hurst floor shifter.
Soon it was back together, and I was ready to turn the key and go for a spin.
It wouldn’t start. It was turning over just fine, but it was just backfiring, which brought my next door neighbor over because it sounded like gunfire. He was a veteran hot-rodder, so I immediately enlisted his expertise to find out why this pig would not grunt. He couldn’t see anything. Then he asked “the question”: did you take out the distributor and reinstall it? Well, we had because when we were dropping the engine in, we’d mashed the distributor against the firewall and had to replace it with the spare distributor from the other engine. He just smiled.
“Are you sure you got the distributor camshaft gear in exactly the right position?”
I thought we had, but there was an excellent chance we hadn’t. So I pulled the distributor out and reinstalled it one notch over. Pumped the gas, hit the key and it fired right up, sounding very sweet through those cherry bomb dual exhausts.
I was back on the road. The ’55 was a mean looking car. It had dark grey primered paint, no front bumper, and the front end was jacked up to give it the drag car look. It sounded like a dragster, and it went like hell. I drove it back and forth to college for about a half a year. Never got a ticket.
Took a little searching, but here is a photo that comes very close to my ’55 Chevy two-door hardtop. Primered paint, no bumper, mags on the front but not the rear. Ruff, ready, and willin’! See trailer at the end for a clip of “Two-Land Blacktop.”
The end came on a back road on the way home from school one afternoon. I was doing about 85 mph when there was a loud bang, the oil pressure gauge dropped to zero, and the exhaust turned to black smoke that appeared to mixed with some kind of particles.
I’d blown the engine.
I didn’t have time to swap in another engine, so I sold it cheap to a hot-rodder buddy. He took the engine apart and told me the inside was just a mangled mass of rod bearings and parts of pistons. He dropped in a 327 Corvette engine and raced it at the local drag strip.
I replaced it with a ’58 Chevy two-door hardtop – pretty blue with that venerable 283 V8. Floor shifter, headers and very mellow sounding dual exhausts. It needed a clutch, so I picked it up cheap and installed a clutch in my back yard, scooting around on my back in the dirt.
Here’s an image of the same model ’58 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop as the one I owned, except that the car was solid blue, not two-tone.
Over the next several years, I did a couple more engine swaps. Dropped a 327 into my ’65 Impala Super Sport, swapped a Mercedes OHC six cylinder into my ’62 Mercedes 220S, put a junk yard engine in a ’73 Pinto (why bother, one might ask), and even swapped a English Ford engine into a cute little ’58 English Ford Squire station wagon.
Here’s a couple minutes of one of my all-time favorite films: “Two-Lane Blacktop,” starring songwriter James Taylor, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, actor/director Warren Oates and Laurie Bird. And – a primered out ’55 Chevy!
Frustrated by all the people milling around while I was trying to take photos of iconic historical cars at the Kirkland Concours d’Elegance on the shores of Lake Washington, I decided to compensate by getting up close to the design elements on these elegant automobiles. Here is a sample of that work, which sometimes drifts off to abstraction.
The Concours that year was a tribute to Carroll Shelby, featuring five unique Ford classes. So I’ll begin with a couple minutes of the “GT40 Soundcheck.” Yes, the ground was shaking. Turn up your speakers if you want to experience the thunder.
A selection of my photos. Please feel free to use with attribution.
“Done polishing the grill? OK, put some Comet on that sponge and scrub the hubcaps. Rinse each one right away so the cleanser doesn’t dry.”
Right. I knew the routine. We were giving Dad’s car its Saturday morning bath. Dad soaped and rinsed his two-tone blue 1952 Dodge Coronet two-door hardtop, and I scrubbed the bright work. I stole a toothbrush from the bathroom, dabbed it in Comet cleanser, and scrubbed the hood emblem – ruby glass set in chrome with a hint of gold – as well as the Dodge Ram hood ornament. Then I squatted on the ground like the rice paddy farmers I’d seen in my Book of Knowledge to dissolve the week’s road grime from each hubcap with yet more cleanser on a small sponge, finishing up by scrubbing the three-inch wide whitewall tires. When we were done, that Dodge sparkled in the sun like ripples off a cool Minnesota lake on a summer day.
After I finished the last tire, I turned the hose on myself. It was a toasty Midwest day in July and I’d worked up a sweat, so I pointed the hose skyward and let the ice-cold water rain down on me. Now I didn’t have to worry about taking a shower before we headed into the city. The joys of a 10-year-old country boy in the summer.
Dad was working late shift at the Minneapolis Post Office garage, and today I’d ride in with him to spend the weekend with my Uncle Bill and Aunt Dorothy in south Minneapolis. I looked forward to these weekends because it gave me a break from pounding fence posts, carrying water, and baling hay. My two cousins, Sue and Kathy, were a few years younger than me, and they had lots of neighborhood friends. I looked forward to meeting up with the neighborhood boys to play catch in the back lots and stalk the neighborhood girls trying to scare them. They ran screaming, then doubled back on us, exacting their revenge. We raided refrigerators, filled Mason jars with Kool-Aid, and sat in the shade telling each other the biggest lies we could think of. I loved visiting the city.
The usual perk that came with the hour trip was a pack of new comic books. Dad generally stopped by a corner market in our small town and let me pick out a three-pack of comics while he bought his daily ration of un-filtered Camel cigarettes. A three-pack of comics for quarter – saved a nickel. But today, he hooked left out of the driveway instead of right. What was going on? I waited a minute and then decided I’d better inquire into the status of my comic books. Maybe he forgot.
“Dad, don’t you need cigarettes?”
“No, I’ll get them at work.”
“How about my comics?” My stomach was starting to sink.
“Look, do you want me to turn around and drive back to town for comics or do you want me to let you drive the car for a bit on the way to the city?”
What? Drive the car on the road?
“Drive the car? By myself?”
My boy’s mind turned this information over a couple times. I’d had the steering wheel in my hands on the road many times before, but it had been while I was sitting on Dad’s lap. I had driven the tractor and pickup truck around the farm since I was about seven. But sitting in the driver’s seat by myself driving down the road? That was something.
“So what’s the verdict? Comic books or drive?”
“I want to drive!”
As he pulled over to the side of the road, I started to get nervous. This was about the best thing in the world I could think of. State fair rides, driving a tractor, kicking up the dirt around the farm with my Cushman Eagle scooter – they were nothing, nothing. I sure didn’t want to screw this up. Put the Dodge in the ditch and it would be a very long time before I ever got to drive on the road again.
Pre-flight check: seat pulled up, cushion under my butt, could see over the top of the steering wheel fairly well, could reach the pedals more or less, and could kinda’ see behind in the rear view mirror. That steering wheel was gigantic! There in front of me was the Dodge Ram hood ornament, pointing the way.
Now what? I’d rehearsed this in the car on the driveway many times with the motor off and emergency brake set. Now the motor was running – I could feel the pulse in the steering wheel, feel it in the pedals with my feet. I blipped the gas pedal: varoom!
“You know what to do. Watch for cars; when you’re ready, signal and pull onto the roadway.”
There was little traffic this time of day. I released the emergency brake, put in the clutch, pulled the Fluid Drive gear shift lever into Drive, revved the engine a little, let out the clutch – and we were moving.
The Dodge had a Fluid Drive transmission – a hybrid automatic transmission with a clutch. You had to push the clutch in to move the gearshift selector from Neutral into Drive, Low or Reverse. There was no Park. You absolutely had to use the emergency brake if you were parked. Drive had two gears. Once you selected Drive, you let the clutch out and accelerated. When you reached about 15 or 20 miles per hour, you had to abruptly let off the gas pedal and the Fluid Drive would drop with a decisive “clunk” into the top gear. Push back down on the accelerator and you were now on your way to breakneck speeds of 50, 60, even 70 miles per hour. It was a very sturdy transmission, but it functioned laboriously. Even with the 103 horsepower put out by the 230 cubic inch engine, acceleration was leisurely. Later, as aspiring hot rodders, we’d jest: “slip and slide with Fluid Drive.” You won’t be burning rubber with Fluid Drive, be assured.
We were under way, the road beneath us and the horizon coming at us. The trusty L-head six cylinder engine was galloping along: I could feel the rhythmic throb of the crankshaft turning as the six pistons rose to the top of the combustion chamber and produced power as the spark plugs exploded in a chorus and sent them back for another revolution. I knew exactly what was going on under that hood. I’d taken small engines apart and put them back together, usually with very few parts left over.
“Give her some more gas, let up so you shift into high, and keep your eye on the road.”
Dad was sitting right next to me, ready to grab the wheel. But I had this. I understood the process. I made sure I was steady in my lane, accelerated a bit more – listening to the motor sing – and let up quickly. The Fluid Drive wheezed and slithered into high gear.
“Watch the hood ornament. Keep it lined up with the right edge of the blacktop, like I told you before. As long as you do that, you’ll be in the proper place on the road.”
It worked. I kept those shiny chrome ram horns lined up with the side of the road, and Dad’s Dodge settled into its asphalt groove. I have often wondered what driving instructors tell people who learn to drive in modern cars without hood ornaments. Maybe that’s why they invented seat belts and airbags.
Dad got comfortable with my driving and moved fully over to the passenger’s side, keeping his left foot on the transmission hump. The cowl vent was cocked open, the windows and window vents were in full draft position, and the sticky summer air moved through the car with little obstruction. My knuckles were turning white from gripping the steering wheel, and the muscles in my arms were tied in knots. As I relaxed and loosened my grip, I surveyed my domain. I looked at each dash board instrument separately and then quickly turned my eyes back to the road. The gas gauge showed three-quarters, the oil pressure was steady at 30 pounds, the water temperature was about 160, the amp gauge showed a slight charge, and the speedometer showed 45 miles per hour. The speed limit was 50. I was on my way to 50!
“Car coming ahead. Watch your hood ornament.”
On it. We’re good. I’m driving. There wasn’t so much as a waver; I was tracking that old Dodge like it was on rails. But I wonder what the other driver thought as he passed – a crew cut and black plastic eye glasses peering over the top of the steering wheel were all he would have seen.
Soon – too soon – we got closer to the city and the traffic increased. I knew my time was up for now.
“OK, use your turn signal, slow her down, and pull onto the shoulder. Push in the clutch, put the gear shift into Neutral, and set the emergency brake. Leave her running.”
I pulled over, selected Neutral, and used both hands to pull the big chrome handle on the emergency brake up to the top. Dad got out and walked around the car while I slid over to the passenger side. My heart was racing, my hands were shaking, and I was grinning like…like a 10-year-old boy who had just driven a car down the road for the first time. My world was new.
“Nice work. We’ll do this again. But don’t – I repeat – do not tell your mother or your aunt and uncle or anyone else, OK?”
I wanted to tell everyone – run down the street, shout it from the roof tops.
I didn’t mention it to anyone. At least for a while. Dad let me drive again from time to time. Same procedure. We washed the car, checked the fluids, maybe topped off the radiator, and stopped by the Texaco to get some gas and check the tire pressure. Then I drove home, taking the long way, past the bluffs along the St. Croix River and down narrow winding country roads, avoiding any place I might attract unwanted attention as a kid driving a car. When we got home, I parked the car at the bottom of the drive where Mom couldn’t see me get out of the driver’s door.
Then one day, the burden of holding inside the greatest event of my life was too much. Mom was in the kitchen.
“Hi, Mom. We went for a drive.”
“Dad let me drive.”
She put the plate she was washing back in the sink and turned around, drying her hands on her apron.
“Your father let you drive the car on the road?”
“Please go tell your father that I’d like to talk with him.”
Gulp. What had I just done? Idiot! Probably screwed up my entire driving future. Plus, got Dad in trouble.
I went out and sat on the shady side of the house with my dog, Patty. I waited for my name to be called from inside the house, but it never was. Later, Dad came around the corner.
“So what did Mom say.”
“Nothing you’d be interested in.”
That was it? That was it. No news is good news.
The next weekend, Mom asked if I wanted to go with her to visit her friends in Anoka, about 30 miles away. We drove her 1953 Buick Special, a four-door sedan with a straight eight engine and a Dynaflow transmission. It was turqoise and white with seats as plush as living room sofas.
On the way back home, she said, “Your father tells me you’re a pretty good driver. He thinks you can drive this Buick. Would you like to drive home?”
“Sure, Mom. The Buick is easier to drive than the Dodge – there’s no clutch!”
Soon, I was driving all over with my parents, starting at ten years of age. By the time I was 12 years old, I was a confident driver. I’d driven my parents’ Dodge and Buick, as well as my Grandfather’s 1949 International pickup truck and his 1953 Chrysler New Yorker. I’d also driven my Dad’s Dodge replacement, a red and black 1954 Pontiac Star Chief with a big straight eight engine and Hydra-Matic transmission.
On that 12th year of my life, I got my first car – a 1952 Chevy Styleline. My buddy and I saw it sitting in a back yard on the North Hill of Stillwater. It had expired license plates and obviously hadn’t been driven for some time. The homeowner’s son had left it when he moved away. I sensed that all was perhaps not well between the two. He had the title and was glad to get rid of it. We got it running and I went home to get Dad. The guy wanted $15 for the car. Dad told me to offer him $10. We split the difference. I paid $12.50 for my first car.
I was out for a drive in my 1956 Jaguar MK I 2.4 saloon a while back. My purpose: pick up a few provisions at the grocery store in the nearby small town.
This drive started out like many others – not in a hurry, not concerned with when I leave, how long it takes or when I get home. The Jag and I start out slowly, letting the car’s fluids warm up, and we eventually end up hitting a long stretch of road, running the revs up to blow a little carbon out. The added benefit is keeping the bearing seals lubricated, moving the grease around in the various components, and keeping the rings and valves free. It doesn’t hurt that we get to enjoy the appreciating nods, looks and waves from other motorists and pedestrians, as well, who are mostly pleasantly surprised to see this wonderfully sculpted vision from an automobile era long past gliding down the road with a bit of a growl coming from under the long red bonnet that is accented with the famous pouncing Jaguar hood ornament – know to Jag owners as “The Leaper.”
Today, as I pull onto the highway from a traffic light near home, I spot an early 1960’s Jaguar Series I XKE a few cars back in the line. No time to wave as I’m cranking the large, non-power steering wheel onto the road and changing gears at the same time. Vintage Jaguar owners always wave at each other, and occasionally newer Jaguar drivers do, as well, in recognition of their own car’s heritage, if they happen to recognize it.
It didn’t take long for the XKE to move up almost directly behind me, weaving to the side occasionally to take a peek at my Jaguar Mark I in this statistically improbable encounter with another vintage cat on a country highway. There are darned few XKEs on the road today, but there are far fewer of the Mark I, which was only made from late 1955 through 1959. Not many were imported into the United States, and not many of those survived the ravages of rust and bad mechanics over the past 60 years.
As we pulled into town, the cars between the XKE and us started to separate off on side roads, leaving the XKE directly following me into town, a sight that was having an joyful effect on drivers of oncoming cars and pedestrians who were waving, giving a thumbs up or a two-finger victory salute. I wondered how many of them really knew the significance of the automotive history passing them by. Very few, likely. Most were just enjoying the sight of two beautiful old Jags out stretching their legs: my Mark I, with flowing curves emanating from the distinctive oval grill, sweeping back to a single point at the rear, and the XKE, one of the most beautiful and sensuous roadsters ever built. In any case, they were seeing a couple beautiful old Jaguars that brought them a smile and maybe for some, a memory.
When we stopped at the next light, I had the opportunity to put my arm out the window and give my fellow Jaguar driver a hearty salute, and he returned with his own. We both turned at the light and rolled on through town. As I signaled and turned left off the roadway into the grocery store parking lot, the XKE passed on my right, with a toot of the horn, leaving behind the sweet sound of that 3.8 liter Jaguar twin-cam six.
There’s transportation, and there’s transportation. Humanity has been moving across land from one place to another over the centuries, creating roads and trails to move on and vehicles to move with from Point A to Point B. The horse and the wheel facilitated the process over the millennia, and then the invention of the internal combustion engine at the end of the nineteenth century brought individual motorized transportation into practical use.
Though this evolution of travel came about because it provided a more efficient way to travel, it also meant that some would look beyond the basic conveyance and add style, fashion, design, art and excitement. Remnants of horse carts have been found in pre-historic Celtic graves, and the earliest known carriages were the Mesopotamian war chariots dating back to 1900 BC. Even these early wheeled vehicles were the subject of design and decoration, with constant improvements to performance. This culminated at the end of the 19th Century with some very extraordinary carriages that had specific purposes from family outings to sport driving.
Design and performance matter. The Romans bred fast and powerful horses to pull their war wagons, with an eye on a favorable horsepower-to-weight ratio. Just as the Romans tested their horses and chariots in races, it didn’t take long after the introduction of those first few cars before we started racing them. Speed and power were at first in the hands of a few, but as technology developed and became more accessible to everyone, cars became faster, more comfortable and more beautiful, from the two-seater Stutz Bearcat of the early 1900s to the luxurious and very fast Duesenberg Model J and the blazing fast but highly practical Ford V8s of the 1930s. The definitive Jaguars of the early 1930s were first known as SS 1 and SS 2, derived from the original manufacturer name: Swallow Sidecars.
If you couldn’t buy a fast car, you could make one, and the consummate inventor, the American hot rodder, was born. I remember my Dad recounting with obvious pleasure how in the 1930’s he tuned his first Model T with hot magnetos, twin carbs, shaved heads and a high-speed rear end. The Jaguar I’m driving today was my Dad’s car. He was a mechanic and taught me how to turn a wrench. He put me in the driver’s seat of his 1950 Dodge Coronet with Fluid Drive – an automatic with a clutch – when I was 10 years old, and I’ve been driving ever since. He collected cars, favoring Packards, Studebakers, and Hudsons. Just before he passed on, he gave me the Jaguar. I remember his instructions: “There’s no synchro in low gear on this car, Steven, so you’ll need to double clutch. There’s nothing wrong with the transmission, it’s just the nature of the English Moss gearbox.”
I get back into the car with a bag of groceries, turn the steel ignition key cylinder on the dash board and push the chrome starter button. The twin-cam XK six comes to life with a slight snarl, worthy of a car named after a large cat. With a pull of the gear lever back into second gear, I then push it directly into first before starting out. I put my hands on the steering wheel, which still has the leather cover my Dad had sewn on. The “cat” stares back at me from center of the wheel. The only two people who have driven this car in the last 50 years have been my Dad and me.
As I pull onto the street, I double clutch into second, as Dad had recommended in that last phone call. A few people nod and wave as I go by, but my mind is elsewhere. I’m not ready to go home. I’m going to take a drive.
There was a clacking noise coming from the front end of our 1957 Citroën 2CV. At first, I only heard it when turning left, but then, as the kilometers rolled by, it changed from clacking to non-stop grinding. Wheel bearing, maybe. Or a CV (constant velocity) joint, perhaps. Time to find a garage and see what was going on.
This was to be my first repair on this ancient and primitive vehicle, which could best be described as a tin can powered by a lawn mower engine with seats made of rubber bands. We’d purchased it for $200 in Brittany, not long after arriving in France, to transport us on our adventures in Europe and Africa.
We began our travels in Rennes, drove down the Atlantic coast of France, cutting inland at Bordeaux, then south at Toulouse into the Catalan Pyrenees. Our last port of call in France was the sun-drenched Mediterranean city of Perpignon. From there, we set a new direction south again into Spain, through Barcelona and Valencia, crossing the Alboran Sea by ferry from Almeria to the Spanish enclave in North Africa of Mellila – see THE MIDNIGHT FERRY FROM ALMERIA TO MELILLA
Destination: Africa. From Mellila, we crossed into Morocco and scaled the Rif Mountains to Tangier, laboring up the inclines in second gear, then plunging down in rapid descent while standing on the totally inadequate and barely functioning brakes. From Tangier, it was south again to Casablanca and the imperial city of Marrakech, set against the towering Atlas Mountains.
The Atlantic Ocean beckoned, and we crossed the parched uplands, dropping down into the coastal city of Agadir. Here we camped on the beach alongside an Austrian trader with his girlfriend (“she is so lazy,” he complained) in their Land Rover 109. We pulled the front seat out of the 2CV and stretched out inside. We’d left the back seat in France. The Austrian advised us to chain our front seat to the car, however, as during the night it would be stolen if unsecured.
I’d hoped to drive to Sidi Ifni and then on to Tantan, where the Western Sahara Desert begins, but my well-traveled Austrian friend advised against it. He said that from Sidi Ifni on, the roads disappeared and reappeared as winds off the ocean whipped the sand into ever shifting dunes. There was nothing – no water, no fuel, no food, often for a hundred kilometers. This news exceeded my sense of adventure, so we turned north again.
It was while travelling north that the 2CV started clicking, then clacking, then grinding. We’d passed Rabat and were nearing Kenitra when I had the distinct premonition that my luck was about to run out. We drove into Kenitra, found a garage that serviced Citroëns, and left the car off while we got a hotel. When we returned, the mechanic said the wheel bearing was completely gone. Never seen anything like it – the bearing had vaporized. But the good news was that this was Morocco, where 100 times zero is still zero, and the repair would be cheap. Stop back tomorrow.
Next morning when we returned to the garage, as we were settling up – with me trying to get a “student discount,” which often worked – two Americans came up to us. In this part of Morocco, it was unusual to see fellow Yanks, so we took our conversation to a nearby café for breakfast, Moroccan style – fried flatbreads, semolina Beghrir pancakes with butter and honey, mint tea and fresh squeezed oranges.
Bob and Robin lived just out of the city of Kenitra. They rented a villa on the ocean in the tiny beach enclave of Mehdia Plage. Bob was stationed in Kenitra with the US Navy, and he’d met Robin through friends in the Peace Corps.
Wait – the US Navy? In Morocco? I had no idea there was a US base there. Naval Air Station Kenitra was a former Vichy France airfield that had been captured by the United States during World War II when the destroyer USS Dallas came up the Sebou River and landed a Raider team, taking the airfield. Just up the road at Sidi Yahia was a Navy communication station for the Sixth Fleet. And right across the street was a local pulp paper factory that was a front for a Russian surveillance operation that kept an eye on the nearby American presence. This was a very interesting breakfast.
Bob and Robin would not let us leave without spending some time at their villa, which they rented from a colonel in the Moroccan army and his wife, who was a niece of the King of Morocco, Hassan II. They shared the villa, which was right on the ocean beach, with a couple other Navy guys. Several other villas in Mehdia Plage were rented by Peace Corps volunteers, so it turned out this little village had a very high American population. There were parties and barbeques on someone’s veranda every night with fresh caught fish, booze from the Navy liquor store, Spanish beer and Moroccan wine. As we had no real plans, Bob and Robin asked us to stay for as long as we wanted. We rented a portion of the villa for a very small sum and used Mehdia Plage as our base of operations for a couple months.
Next: Mehdia Plage, the colonel, the king’s niece, and Omar, who lived in a German pillbox on the jetty.
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.
“My Cars” features some of the approximately 300 cars I’ve owned since I was 12 years old. Today’s car is a ’41 Chevy business coupe. Mine was just like the one pictured, except in slate gray.
I bought my Chevy business coupe for $100 from a college student when I was attending the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, in the early 1970’s. His dad was a mechanic and had completely rebuilt the stock 216 cubic inch inline six cylinder motor. The seller had re-done the interior upholstery in classy chocolate brown Naugahyde, an industrial quality fake leather popular at the time. The car was mechanically excellent and the body was solid, though the interior was a bit dark. A business coupe had no rear seat, just a long bench that extended from behind the front seat into the trunk. Business coupes were a popular low-priced model offered by most car manufacturers of that era. They were designed for traveling business or sales people to keep their samples and wares. This served my purposes well because I had big Irish Setter named Erin who liked to stretch out.
One salient and funky feature of that Chevy was the paint. The owner had painted the entire car bright red. With a broom. Using house paint. I bought it in the middle of winter, took it to a coin operated car wash, and started spraying. Large slabs of thick red paint went flying off the car in all directions. So I cashed in about $10 in quarters and used the high pressure wash wand to blast off every bit of red paint. Underneath was very solid, completely unrusted original gray paint in great condition.
Just as I was leaving the car wash that night, the wash owner came out and said: “You ain’t leaving until you clean up that mess of dried paint, buddy.” So after spending a small fortune in quarters stripping the paint off the car, I had a nice clean-up job sweeping up buckets of dried red paint fragments under the watchful eye of a cross old geezer. I was at that car wash for a long time that evening. But I’m pretty sure the owner had a shotgun, so it wasn’t like I had a choice.
I decided to take a break from the university about that time, and I accepted an interesting offer to be a glass blower in Milwaukee at a small shop that made head shop paraphernalia, hanging glass mobiles, vases and chess sets. Remember – this was the early 1970’s. Glassblowing had always fascinated me, and opportunity was knocking.
One evening in deep winter I left Eau Claire in that ’41 Chevy and headed down I-94 to Milwaukee, about a six-hour drive. It was bitter cold, the temperature hovering well below zero, a crystalline sky above opening to an unlimited star-lit vista. With the heater on full blast and the AM radio playing clear channel WLS out of Chicago at 890 kHz with 50,000 watts of power, it was a cozy drive through the Wisconsin farmlands.
When I stopped for gas around Wisconsin Dells, I calculated that I was getting about 25 mpg. That fine old Chevy was rock solid, never missing a beat. My hundred bucks had been well spent.
This is the name of an Internet group made up of Jaguar enthusiasts from all over the world: Jag Lovers. By and large, the name is an accurate representation of the membership. I’m in. A Jag lover and a Jag Lover. For over 20 years, I’ve had the Jag pictured – a 1956 Jaguar 2.4 saloon, otherwise known as a Mark I. It was my father’s car before me. It’s been in the family now over 50 years. That is my cherished German Shepherd “Nikki” alongside me, now passed on after 13 years.
I can’t say I really knew my father well. Not that we didn’t get along. We did, but more or less by virtue of both coming under the iron fist with which my mother ruled the household. We could sympathize and, certainly, empathize, with each other. The oldest born, my mother would berate me: You’re just like your father. It was not meant as a compliment.
No, we just didn’t know each other very well, in most respects. We didn’t do the sports, hunting, or fishing thing together. By the time I was coming into the age when a father would have been handy to have available, to talk about those confusing issues that the early teen years bring to the forefront, he was working two jobs and took about any excuse he could to get away from the house and the wife. He moved into a space in the basement and came and went with the shadows. I ran into him in the basement stair well one morning about 4 a.m. I was sneaking in late as he was heading out to work. He put his finger to his lips beseeching me to keep quiet for fear of awakening the dragon who lay snoring fitfully above. Some years later, to the great relief of all concerned, my parents divorced, and I didn’t see him for a very long time.
My father loved cars. He loved the B-24’s that he’d worked on during the war. He loved clocks and guns and all mechanical mechanisms with machined surfaces and gears and bearings. But he loved cars most of all. I guess I learned to love cars from him. Or maybe it’s in my genetic code. His best stories, the ones I remember, were about his cars. His first car – a Model T Ford with a hot magneto, shaved head, and high-speed rear end that would let it approach speeds of over 70 mph. The time he broke his wrist when he forgot to retard the spark before hand cranking it to start. His 1932 Model B roadster with the rumble seat, fitted with Ford’s first flathead V8. His 1938 straight-eight Buick that would top 100 miles an hour. His 1936 Chevy Master Deluxe with the worn-out knee-action front suspension that made the front end of the car bob up and down as he drove down the road. His 1949 flathead Ford Coupe that ran for a year with absolutely no oil pressure. And many more. His cars were alive to him, each with its own personality and distinguishing traits.
When I was very young – four or five – he had a Ford Model A Tudor. As first-born, I was the only child at that point – pure bliss. He let me climb into and through the car as he worked on this and that. I sat in the driver’s seat, trying to peer between the spokes of the steering wheel and the dash, imaging what it must be like to drive. I had no idea what he was working on. Sometimes he’d be under the car, other times he was leaning into the engine compartment, the hood folded over. Then he’d fold the hood back, latch it down, smile, and we’d take the Model A for a drive, up the country road onto the highway to stretch her legs, or back down the dirt road where the crazy old bachelor lived in a hut with bizarre yard ornaments. Then back. Sometimes I sat in his lap, with my hands on the steering wheel, just below his, feeling the road, feeling the strength and power that came from driving, driving, driving. He pushed the clutch in and I shifted from second to third, which involved taking both my hands off the steering wheel. But Dad had the wheel so we stayed between the ditches.
So while we weren’t close in the sharing of words, we shared cars. He taught me how to drive at 10 years old, propping me on a cushion on the seat of the 1951 Dodge Coronet, telling me that as long as I kept the leaping ram ornament on the hood lined up with the right side of the road, I’d always be exactly in my lane. It worked. He helped me buy my first car when I was 12, a 1952 Chevy Deluxe sedan for $12, to drive around the yard and work on. With his help, I took that car apart and put it back together. Later, when my mother’s car broke, she drove that old Chevy for about a year.
Dad never did mention anything about Jaguars. He seemed to basically cherish American cars – straight eight Pontiacs, Buicks, and Packards were his favorites. He liked the odd-balls and unique marques, too, like Kaisers, Studebakers and Hudsons. If there was something unusual about a car, that recommended it to him. But he never talked about any foreign manufactured car. He said the best car in the world was the Duesenberg, a name he revered.
He basically left town after the divorce, and I didn’t see him for about 15 years. I more or less left the family, as well, except for my grandparents, who were my rock. Dad didn’t try to get hold of any of us kids, and we didn’t try to get hold of him. No communication, don’t know why. I guess we all just wanted to let it all go. I suppose I thought he was just tired of the whole thing. I heard of him through my uncle a couple times. He retired from the Minneapolis Post Office garage, collected cars, opened an antique store in Minneapolis, and traveled to San Diego where he’d worked on B-24’s during the war, and to Mexico to buy antiques.
One summer day, he returned. There was a note pinned to my door when I returned to my rural home: “Your father has returned. You weren’t home. I’ll stop back later.” And he did. He came up the driveway in a right-hand drive early 60’s Rambler that had been a postal vehicle, still painted the postal color scheme – that unusual characteristic that he favored. He got out of the car, shook my hand, and asked me how things were going. I made some coffee, then we sat and talked all afternoon and into the evening. He wouldn’t stay for supper. As he was getting up to leave, he asked if any of the other kids might like to see him. I said, yes, I’d imagine so. I think it took a lot of guts to do what he did. He was our father, and he wanted to make right those years of absence. He’d had a calling.
We saw him fairly frequently after that. I went to his house, which was stacked to the ceiling with antique clocks and collectible firearms of all sorts. He showed me his collection of cars. He had about a dozen at that time. Among them, a 1951 Studebaker Commander, 1954 Hudson Hornet, 1949 and 1954 Packards, a 1956 Cadillac that had been converted into a large camper, and a 1956 Jaguar 2.4 saloon.
I’d owned many British cars by this time, including a 1959 Jaguar XK150 drophead. So I took an immediate shine to the Jaguar. It was in very nice condition, a California car with low mileage. He rarely drove it. He rarely drove any of his cars. He kept them in garages all over town, going to work on them, clean them, run them, drive them around a bit, park them, and go on to the next. He had a couple cars he drove regularly – a behemoth of a 1983 Chevy Caprice wagon with the entire rear end loaded with stuff, and a pristine 1963 Chrysler New Yorker 4-door hardtop with a white leather interior and white exterior.
Then I moved. To California, then to Europe for 10 years. We kept in touch with the very occasional letter. He was busy with his antique business and old cars, buying and selling, buying and selling. On one visit, we went to look at Jaguar again. He’d just had it repainted in the original Burgundy paint it had come with from the factory. He noted my admiration and told me that the Jaguar would be mine when he passed on. He said he’d keep it for me. And he did.
We moved back to the US, first to Monterrey, then to Seattle. I invited him to visit, but he never did – too busy, he said. Didn’t like plane travel, either. He saw his granddaughter once, when we went back to Minnesota for a visit. A couple pictures are all we have.
Then his health started to deteriorate rapidly. All of a sudden, he didn’t care about his cars, his guns, or his antiques anymore. He started to give them away. My sister called and said that I’d better contact him about the Jaguar. I did. He said that now was the time to get it, as he didn’t think he’d live much longer. I tried to reassure him, but he knew better than I. He thought about committing suicide, and almost was successful at doing so. Maybe it would have been better, because a few months later he was in the nursing home, and then a month after that, dead. The autopsy showed that he had cancer throughout his body.
Before he went into the nursing home, he helped make arrangements to have the car shipped to me on the island I live on in the Puget Sound. It was a cold November night after midnight when it arrived. The driver had been stuck in a snow storm in the Cascades, and when the passes opened, he drove straight through until he got to my house. We unloaded the Jag from the enclosed car carrier. I watched as the driver backed it down. I’d never heard it run – it sounded beautiful, the throaty song of the legendary twin cam XK engine. The car looked just as I’d seen it many years ago right after the restoration. New paint, new chrome, and interior of burled walnut and bisque leather.
As the transport driver and I completed the paperwork, the car warmed up in the chilly Pacific Northwest fog, and I told him the story of how this pretty red Jaguar sedan happened to be sitting by the side of a wooded road on an island in the Puget Sound. I eased off on the choke to bring the idle down from a growl to a pulsating purr, like the cat the car is named for.
“That’s one beautiful old Jaguar you’ve got there. Your Dad must have been a real Jaguar lover,” he said.