By Brian Kinney
Memories are funny things.
In 1963, when I was four, my Dad bought my Mother a birthday present. I know this because I have the hand written bill of sale in the glove box. It was a red, 1961 Triumph TR3A Type 20 roadster. My Dad had recently been stationed in Hawaii as an Air Force pilot flying C-118s and we were fortunate to be able to go with him. He was gone a lot, that was the nature of the job, so he wasn’t aware that I was being taught to drive.
It wasn’t that Mom was aware she was teaching me anything either, I was absorbing the smell of hot vinyl, engine oil, and the visceral sense of speed through my back. Mom drove aggressively. She wedged and strapped my two brothers into that car, and I would say that it really blew our hair around, but Dad made sure we didn’t have much. It was a new feeling that we didn’t get in the back seat of our 1955 Pontiac four door. We used to have fun tying string to our Army Men and dropping the through the rust perforated floors in an attempt to get the car behind us to run them over. What did we care, they were Army men and we were bored. For young people reading this: there were no seat belts in a ’55 Pontiac.
I got older, we moved to Universal City, Texas, and the car moved with us. Dad was a flight safety officer for the squadron and was in the process of teaching very green South Vietnamese how to fly. There was a circle drive around the “Taj” (observation tower) on Randolph AFB that Mom would always take too fast, and she invariably got pulled over by the Air Police. I can remember on many occasions off base, Mom would have taken off her shoes, tucked her mid-length skirt between her legs (which forced her to re-iron it later) and go scooting down Pat Booker Road though Universal City when we would be rapidly approaching our right turn on to Red Horse Manner. She quickly flicked the clutch, down-shifted into third, no brake, flick the clutch again, second gear, blinker, and then hard right all the while staying in the appropriate lane. It was better than a carnival ride and I soaked it all in. We heard more than one loud ‘discussion’ at home about this and Mom would promise that she would slow down—then she’d wink at me if I was close by. Around this time Dad bought Mom another car, a turd brown 1966 Buick station wagon. I’m sure it had nothing to do with my mothers driving habits, but Dad started driving the TR to work.
In 1970 Dad volunteered to go to Vietnam. We moved to Foley, Alabama, during Dads tour, and the TR went into storage soon after. I recollect one memorable drive to see my Moms’ parents. We stopped at Moore’s Store at the beginning of Oak Street to pick up a soda. I would climb up and reach into the chest fridge to get a root beer while 60-plus year old Frank Moore, the proprietor, would gently scold Mom with a grin about driving so fast in “that legal go-cart” with children in the back. He spoke with a comfort that comes from knowing someone for most of their life. Mom said he probably remembered when she would slowly drive a pickup truck between the watermelon patches, riding the clutch, allowing her partners in crime to ‘hook’ the melons from the field without putting the pickup in the ditch. I’m sure my Grandparents were proud.
My Time at the Wheel
We spent several years overseas as an Air Force family and when we got back to the States the TR was waiting. I was now old enough to actually, physically learn to drive. Dad took on the chore.
He decided I was going to learn how to drive a four speed. He claimed if you drive a clutch you could drive anything. I relished my future. My enthusiasm waned as I noticed Dad with a pad of paper, generating “check lists.”
That was Dad, the consummate pilot. I learned how to read the gauges, change tires, check tire pressure and fluid levels. “Before you start the engine, the bonnet key must be located and placed in the driver door pocket,” he would say. After two days in the carport going over checklists and performing proper walk-a-rounds, I was ready to get behind the wheel and attempt to start the TR. My older brother was having the laugh of his life watching this process. Mom taught him to drive while we were living on Kadena AFB on Okinawa. When Dad wasn’t teaching me to drive, my brother was zipping around in the TR.
“To start the engine,” Dad would state in perfect pilot-ese, “depress clutch and with the parking brake set, place gearbox in neutral. Now turn the ignition key to the ‘on’ position. Pull out the choke with your right hand and reach through the steering wheel with your left hand and depress the start button.” Nine times out of ten the
1991 cc engine would fire to life. If by some reason it did not, I repeated the steps until it did. A little louder now, Dad would state, “Now is the time to scan, with your eyes only, the gauge cluster on the dash. By the way, let go of the choke.”
These regimented lessons went on for a week. I found that to keep a finger from tapping the side of my head it was best not to look at the shifter as I changed gears. Eyes constantly moving across the dash, head on a swivel, estimating the speed of others while you paid attention to everything around you. Dad even taught me at what RPM to change gear. Everything on those checklists had a purpose, a function for efficiency and safety. (If you open the boot lid today you will find the three strips of flight line reflective tape Dad placed inside, so if you had to pull over at night they would glow when headlights hit them.) An automobile was a tool of privilege that came with responsibility. I was wishing for my green Army men and some string.
Dad took me to take my driver’s license test in the TR. I was fidgety about parallel parking and starting on a hill. Dad told me I would do fine. I passed the written exam and moved outside with the rest of the sad sacks. Each car would pull up to the line and a Missouri State Police Officer would administer their driving test. These guys were big. I mean they were probably assigned this duty based on their girth. I am sitting in a little red British car that couldn’t have looked accommodating. To my relief, a petite female officer holding a clipboard stepped next to the TR.
The officer, in a very matter of fact voice, explained what we were going to do and in what order we were going to do it, without variation. She then had me pull away from the curb and proceed to the first stop light. I was sweating again. Once around the corner she had me come to a complete stop, turn my wheels to the curb, set the brake, and kill the engine. She then explained that I would pass the test if she could drive the car for a few minutes. I was back to riding in the passenger seat of the TR with an aggressive female driver at the wheel. I did not complain nor tell my father about it until forty years later.
I shared the TR with the rest of the family until my senior year in high school… in Illinois… in the winter. I questioned my privilege.
Retirement came for my Dad in 1979 and he, my Mom, and my sister moved to South Carolina taking the TR with them. I was in college and had my own life staring me in the face. There were few lingering thoughts about the little red car.
Now I’m the Teacher
I have had many cars since then: Oldsmobile’s, Chevy’s, Ford’s, and Dodge’s as well as most of the Asian imports. The one I remember the best was a well used BMW five-speed my oldest daughter acquired while in dental school. She didn’t know how to drive a stick so we ended up in an abandoned Wal-Mart parking lot with lots of room. She already had already been taught how to read the gauges, change tires, check tire pressure and fluid levels. She had learned how rebuild a Ford 2bbl carburetor and change the transmission filter in our 1963 Ford Fairlane as a junior in high school. With a few tears and many jostling starts, she got the hang of the clutch in about an hour. She had to drive the car back to school that same night. She did. As she drove away from the house, I heard her flick the clutch, shift strongly into second, throw gravel from the tires, and disappear right smartly around the corner. She has a lot of her Grandmother in her.
About nine years ago my parents were in the process of downsizing and I again got the privilege of the “little red car.” Dad towed it from South Carolina to Illinois. She had been well maintained and even received a re-spray about 18 years ago. I was so pleased with the acquisition that I built a garage to house her in the manner she deserved.
When the TR arrived an assessment of her condition needed to be done. My Dad had kept records over the last few years. I read it, considered it, and then set it aside. I needed to go from front to back without bias. The car was visually stunning. She had been maintained and stored well when not in use, but there were mechanical and some electrical issues that needed to be attended to before it could be driven regularly. The first and foremost was the serious steering play and bump steer. The car would literally jump two feet in either direction, you didn’t know which, when you hit a bad spot in the road. Not safe. I red tagged the car until repaired.
The apron and radiator came off the front so I could more easily get to the steering and suspension components. I found that the rubber encased isolator bushings that connect the drag link to the other components had failed, the rubber was completely gone. While at the front of the engine I also noticed that the bushings and bolts that held the fan to the engine had suffered the same fate. It was the first time I had to look for parts. The Moss Motors website made it easy to find them. Getting those bushings in and out of the steering link without a press was another story.
I went from front to back checking and repairing the small things that needed attention. I was amazed at the amount of parts available for this 50-plus year old car. When I would hit a snag, online forums and LBC club websites connected me with the people and answers I needed. I even joined a one of these clubs. The members of the Illinois Flatland British Car Club are instantly accessible and a great group of people. Their support and love for these cars eventually inspired me to take the TR3 to the 25th annual Champagne British Car Festival in Bloomington Illinois in June of 2016. It was a great day with exceptional cars. I even purchased a T-shirt. I drive the TR regularly in the warm months. I try to keep her clean and dry. My youngest daughter asked to use the car in her wedding, her new husband driving them away from the venue in the car. Good day to own an LBC.
I learned how to drive from my two teachers, both bringing with them something special. They brought it with love. You can be relatively safe as well as have a relative amount of fun. We lost Mom a year ago and I know that every time I look at her car it will hurt. But that is not going to let it stop me from driving the TR on the edge every now and then. Right after I check the fluid levels and tire pressure.