“Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.”
Ben Franklin may not have owned an MG, but he was wise enough to leave that advice for MG owners.
Recently I took bits of my MG engine to a machine shop to be examined, ground, bored, and otherwise refreshed, and I realized this was the fifth engine rebuild and/or swap for my car. The multiplicity of rebuilds is not the car’s fault. I’ve been to the “dear school” many times, and I thought others might be interested in the lessons this fool has learned.
Engine #1: History books tell us the Summer of Love occurred in 1967, but for me it came four years later, when I fell in love with a 1957 MGA roadster. A college buddy and I found it languishing behind a dilapidated house, slowly being absorbed by weeds and dirt. We bought it for $50 and enthusiastically began rebuilding it to be my daily driver. My buddy had rebuilt engines before, so he tore into that while I tackled the bodywork. I quickly discovered I was uniquely untalented in that art, but my buddy’s father stepped in and showed me what a true artist could do with bondo. In a few weeks I had a gleaming, running MGA, for a price that was well within a student’s budget.
The car drove beautifully. The only drawback was that it anointed the highway with oil, about a quart every 50 miles. My buddy and I tightened every bolt, replaced every gasket, and tried every snake oil to no avail. Finally we pulled the engine and showed it to an experienced mechanic. He looked at it for a few moments, pointed and said “There’s your problem.” The previous owner had run the car with bearings that were so bad the crank had battered the oil slinger to uselessness against the block, ruining the block in the process. In our ignorance, we hadn’t even realized an MGA engine was supposed to have an oil slinger.
Lesson learned: when it comes to rebuilding engines, youth and enthusiasm are no substitute for knowledge and experience. Work with someone who knows what they’re doing.
Engine #2: My MGA engine was beyond salvage, and a planned trip to North Carolina was less than a week away. Then a character known only as “STP” showed up with an MGB engine in the back of a pickup truck. He assured us the engine “ran good.” For $100 he let us lift it out of his truck and slide it into my MGA. Not being a total fool, I changed the oil and filter before I tried to start it. It did in fact run very well, and it gave a dramatic boost to the power of my MGA. It drove me to North Carolina and back to Indiana without skipping a beat, and a few days later it proved it had enough power to scatter the cogs in my gearbox. I had the gearbox rebuilt and enjoyed several months of trouble-free motoring.
Then one day I was driving with good oil pressure, normal temperature, and no apparent problem. Suddenly there was a tremendous bang under the hood, followed by a horrible grunching noise and a huge cloud of blue smoke. I pulled onto the shoulder and checked the dipstick to make certain I hadn’t run out of oil. There was plenty of oil in the pan, but I got an inkling of how bad the problem was when I noticed the tube that holds the dipstick lifted out with the dipstick. Worse still, a small piece of the block was still attached to it. STP’s engine was toast.
Lessons learned: (1) Before you add more power, make certain the entire drivetrain can cope with the increase. (2) If you buy a used engine from a guy named STP who peddles engines from the back of a truck, rebuild it before you drive it.
Engine #3: I was working part-time at a sports car shop and anxious to rebuild an engine myself. I picked up an MGB 5-main bearing engine and resolved to turn it into a screamer. Wedge-topped pistons, hot cam, shaved head (ported and polished, of course), competition clutch, shot-peened rods, full balance—you name it and I did it. I did have a momentary panic when I started to reassemble the engine and discovered all the parts I had cleaned so carefully when I disassembled it were beginning to rust, but fortunately the only serious rust was on the cam and I had a new BMC “half-race” cam to replace that anyway. I bolted it all together and the car ran great. Didn’t idle worth a damn, but it would wind to 6,000 rpm in a heartbeat. I entered the Air Force and saw a fair portion of the Eastern US driving that car. I also ran it in autocross events with a local sports car club.
The downfall of this engine was the Arab Oil Embargo. When I first rebuilt it, it ran great on regular gas from a quality station or premium gas from a CheapMart. When the embargo hit, prices skyrocketed and quality plummeted. For a while I could still run on Sunoco 260, but then Sunoco dropped that blend. Eventually prices came down, but the octane never went back up. On a hot day I had to back off the throttle to keep it from pinging. Going uphill the engine sounded like someone threw a handful of gravel into the oil pan. What’s the point of having a high performance engine if you can never give it more than half throttle?
I considered another rebuild, but a body shop made that decision for me. The paint that had looked so shiny in 1971 had seen a dozen years of hard use. So, I left the car at a hole-in-the-wall body shop while I deployed to Egypt. They’d done good work for me in the past, but they stole my engine while I was gone.
Perhaps “stole” is too strong a word. They claimed it spun a bearing so they rebuilt it, but they might have accidentally switched blocks with another engine they were rebuilding … Right. I think what really happened was they had a buyer for an MGB on their lot but its engine was bad, so they pulled my engine and put it into the B, rebuilt the B engine, put it in my car, and hoped I wouldn’t notice. So now I had a freshly rebuilt MGB 3-main engine in my car, and some poor lady in Louisiana had an MGB that wouldn’t idle worth a damn and pinged like mad.
Lessons learned: (1) When you rebuilding an engine, oil or otherwise protect the parts after you clean them. (2) In a daily driver, drivability is at least as important as peak power. (3) If you’re deploying overseas, don’t leave your car in a sleazy body shop.
Engine #4: The 3-main engine from the body shop ran great, idled smoothly, used no oil, and was surprisingly peppy for a stock engine. I pumped it up a little with headers, electronic ignition, and some careful carburetor work, but it was mostly stock.
When I finally retired from the Air Force I gave it a quick service and drove it from Michigan to Georgia, much of the trip on Interstates at close to 5,000 rpm. (Click “Wake Up Maggie!” to read the story –Ed.) I drove it regularly through hot Atlanta summers, and when my son turned 16 it quickly became his favorite car. He drove it for several years, and although he was a good driver he was a teenager. He also had friends with big V8s and who teased him about his “Stuart Little” car. I suspect my MG saw a bit of spirited driving with him at the wheel, but that MGB engine never let us down. Then one night a drunk in an SUV slammed into it. Thankfully my son was unhurt, but the car needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. I’m doing the 5th engine rebuild as part of that project, and I’m looking forward to getting the car back on the road with a lot of help from Moss Motors.
Lesson Learned: The MG engine is remarkably rugged. It’s not idiot proof, as I proved on several occasions, but if you build it right it’s tough and reliable.
Passing the Torch:
My son drove the MGA through high school and is now searching for his own MGA, but my daughter Grace fell in love with an MGB. Originally she fell in love with my 1971 MGB, but then she found an affordably priced MGB which soon became her car. (It also is a 1971 model, much to the confusion of our insurance company.) It needed a fair amount of work—including an engine rebuild—but Grace has been helping me work on cars for years and was not afraid to get grease under her fingernails. The process was not always pretty, as these photos attest, but it’s been a great father/daughter project. She’s used that car as a daily driver for the past seven years.
About the author: Steve Tom has been using old cars as daily drivers since he bought a 1928 Ford in high school. His book Flaming Floorboards (available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble) describes his “adventures” in MGs, Jaguars, Fords, Chevys, an occasional Ferrari or Cobra and, of course, his MGA. Excerpts are online at www.random-writings.com.