By Eric Glomstad
I began my ownership of British cars when I was 19 years old. The vehicle was a Jaguar XK150, which I drove through my first three years of college. Since then, I have owned six Jaguars, seven MGBs, two Midgets, one Sunbeam Alpine, two Triumph TR3s, and three Austins. Through all the joys and frustrations of ownership, my vehicles have taught me many truths and dispelled others. Here are few of those “myths” which are often spoken of but which are not certainties by any means.
Lucas is the “Prince of Darkness”
Everyone has a story of being left on a dark night without lights, or finding that their car won’t start because the battery has died for some unknown reason. Yes, I have had my share of electrical gremlins in many of the British cars I have owned. Yet, these were few and far between. I learned that, for the most part, Lucas designed a system that was pretty reliable. Most of the electrical problems I had were due to my own attempts to add fog lights, 8-track tape decks, or some other accessory. Lucas systems in the early years were delightfully simple. For example, my TR3 had only four fuses! Contrast that with my BMW 325, which has more than 50(!) fuses on its panel.
British Car Parts are Expensive
Not only is this a myth, it has been proven to be false with nearly every repair I have had to make on my many British vehicles. In the early 1970s it was possible to find used parts in most wrecking yards. There were few manufacturers making reproduction parts, but the reverse is now true. Few wrecking yards have the parts I need, but there is a wealth of reproduction or remanufactured parts available for the enthusiast. These parts are not expensive! No one is giving them away for free, but the cost of replacement parts has dropped on many of my favorite makes and models. While wrecking yards have dried up, Craigslist has exploded with parts cars and used parts. They seem to be everywhere and most likely will remain tucked away in sheds and garages for decades to come. Contrast this with the cost of parts for many American vehicles, especially since they are not “made in America” as they once were.
British Cars Leak Oil
Okay. This is not a myth. It is quite true that they leak oil. My point is that every car I have ever owned leaked oil and therefore, it’s not a problem unique to British cars. I drove an Austin Marina from Portland, Oregon to my home near Seattle, Washington. In the 300 plus miles, I left an oil track that even Hansel and Gretel would have been proud of. But this was an exception, and not the rule for every British car I have owned. From Pontiacs and Buicks, to Mazdas and Volkswagens, they all leaked some oil. My worst leakers were the seven Chevrolet Corvairs I owned. But that story is for another time.
British Carburetors Need Constant “Fiddling”
The auto enthusiast looks forward to “fiddling” with his/her automobile. However, the myth is that British cars require a prodigious amount of fiddling. I find this to be untrue. Carburetors are often cited as a source of constant frustration—adjustments, synchronizing, and repairing linkage “slop” are thought to be time-consuming exercises which rarely produce pleasurable results. The truth is that SU, Stromberg, or Weber carburetors are quite simple and respond well to the efforts of amateur mechanics. If an owner wants to make the most of his engine’s power curve, a synchronizing vacuum gauge, such as a Unisyn is absolutely necessary. There are no moving parts to master with this tool and no electronics to fuss with. I have also had excellent results with a plain rubber hose inserted into my ear, the other end inserted into the throat of a carburetor, when measuring airflow differences between twin carburetors. The cost of this tool, though primitive, is negligible.
British Cars Are Not Watertight
When I was in Junior High my father and I visited Beach Motors, the local Sunbeam dealer. We were looking for a used commuter car and I was eager to have him purchase something sporty. It was in the fall and the rains had already come to Western Washington. While I admired the lines of the Triumphs, Austin-Healeys, and MGs on the lot, my father had criterion very different than mine. He opened the driver’s door of every car and felt the floor for moisture. We went home that day in a Renault Caravelle, simply because the floor was dry. Needless to say, that was not my idea of a sports car. It’s hard to dispel a notion that is “mostly true” as this one is, but I have found ways to seal the stubborn leaks in the British cars I have owned. Sunbeam Alpines and MGBs have removable hardtops and roll up windows. There were no water problems in these cars. The Jaguar XK 150s I owned were “drophead coupes” and they were watertight as well. The Triumph TR3s were another matter. Not only did they leak when sitting still, they both spit at my face while driving in the rain. A judicious buyer can make a prudent purchase by following my father’s advice: “Don’t buy a car with a wet floor.”
There it is, my top five British car myths. Perhaps you have a few of your own? I currently own a 1970 MGB Roadster with a removable hardtop in place for the winter months. The blinker lights are slow, the car drips a bit of oil, I just synchronized the twin SU carbs, and on Tuesday I felt a few drops of water hit my left ankle while driving in the rain. I’m glad I have Moss Motors to assist me, and the parts are not expensive!