By Alicia St. John
Photos by Christian Maurer
The best years of my life have been spent driving my MGA. Nothing could compare to navigating the curves of Mulholland Drive, on a starry night, with Sinatra playing on the stereo. The beautiful instrument panel, lit up against the darkness. My right hand cradling the wooden shifter, feeling the beating heart of the engine. I would glance at my gloved hand, poised on the Mota-Lita steering wheel, and know that perfect moment of joy. Since the age of 21, I had worked on my own engine, under the tutelage of long-time friend of Al Moss, Mike Goodman. My MGA was neither a toy nor a hobby; but, since I built her from the ground up, customizing every beautiful detail, she was my identity. My handsome Irish father had built his own cars as a young man living in 1950s Manhattan. I loved his stories of racing for pink slips and always winning. I lost him early on in life, but his love of classic cars now flows in my blood.
Ten years ago, my dream car was destroyed in Los Angeles, in a violent act of crime. Coupled with personal threats against me, the LAPD and LAFD confirmed that I had been the target of a psychopath. Late one night, I watched as my MGA went up in flames, which escalated 15 feet high, consuming the car beyond repair. I will never forget that sight. I had done nothing to incite or deserve anyone’s vengeance. I was always a strong and independent woman, intelligent, responsible and kind. Despite society’s penchant to shame victims of violent crimes, I must say that oftentimes good people are simply preyed upon.
How does one heal from violence? There are many possible paths and none are easy.
I was not familiar with the term “post traumatic stress disorder,” but now I understand that it is the natural reaction of anyone who experiences violence or trauma. Previously, I had thought it was suffered only by soldiers returning from combat, policemen and firefighters. For the past ten years, it is a condition I have been treating within myself and, since the condition is complex, I have approached the solution medically, psychologically and spiritually. I believe that the most important component of healing is forgiveness. Philosophically speaking, being able to forgive allowed me to start a process of personal growth, rebuilding my world from a position of strength. But, like many people who have endured these experiences, I have not been willing to speak about it.
I am not defined by loss, tragedy or violence. I am defined by the beauty I create, the joy that I bring to life, and the wisdom with which I grow. William Saroyan wrote of a journey to a place of a terrible compass; but, once through the storm, we are transfigured. The journey back to myself would take me ten years and, metaphorically speaking, thousands of miles, but I was determined.
We are at our best when faced with adversity. We have the power within us to hold back the darkness, to right a wrong, to live the life we choose to live. But, when you are in crisis, it does not feel so optimistic. It is simply painful. What I needed to rediscover was my own strength and indomitable spirit.
Road to Recovery
I set about to have my dream car once again and purchased a 1958 MGA through an online auction. She was transported from Florida to California, and I remember the day of arrival. The car was not in good shape. Her paint was faded and cracked, worn-out upholstery, pitted chrome, and I barely got the engine to turn over. However, all I could think about were the possibilities. And so, the MGA went in for a complete frame-off restoration.
It took a total of eight years. The engine was blueprinted and specced by California Showcase Classics and completed by my own hands. Moss Motors was there for me at every moment, sourcing the parts that would create an absolute beauty. The King of Tech, Moss’ Kelvin Dodd, puzzled out the decisions with me, down to the smallest details. And my deepest gratitude goes to Roy Miller, founder of East-West Motors restoration shop. Roy is a 35-year automotive judge, 17 years at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. He was the only mechanic who would allow me to work with him, and in the process I found a kindred soul.
The culture of classic cars sometimes resembles a brotherhood of like-minded individuals, and Roy Miller is not only a master of the art of mechanics but also an historian. There is something so incredibly magical about working on an engine, while hearing about the history of auto racing and the men who became the legends we so admire.
I wanted my MGA’s story to be a part of that same magical history, and so last summer I drove my newly restored MGA in the Rally-4-Kids, a 200-mile race to raise money for the local Boys and Girls Club.
Morning, Race Day
I’ve checked and double-checked my list of mechanical items to inspect. Plug wires and belts are tight, fluids are topped off and there are no signs of leaks. I walk around noting that the Vredestein’s are all in perfect condition and the tire pressure is 30psi, inflated with nitrogen gas. In the trunk of the car is the spare, on the 5th wheel rim, ready to go, the wooden knock off paddle and a jack, just in case she blows one on the course. Always prepared, I’ve brought a few tools and parts. The Girl Scout’s checklist of supplies also includes a quart of 20/50, sewing machine oil for the SUs, the MGA manual, a fire extinguisher, Mag-Lite, flares, and a first aid kit.
In any show or rally, everyone pays as much attention to getting his or her car to look as perfectly as it runs. For me, the flawless curves of the car, the spotless camel men’s wool suiting and matching leather of the interior, the high polish of the lacquer and chrome are all “practical.” I step back and admire her. It was two weeks of prep work just for this rally…two weeks with my arms up to my elbows in the engine (note: a woman’s hands are the perfect fit for the British engine and I’ve never needed to use special tools to reach down to tighten a nut) and polishing the seemingly endless details of the interior and body. It was all worth it… She’s gorgeous.
If I’m not ready now, I never will be…
I climb into the cockpit of the MGA and belt myself in. The matching camel and chrome seat belts were something that I sourced and installed. According to Roy Miller, back in the day, drivers preferred not to have them at all, but be ejected. In the event of a crash, I think I’ll stay with my car.
I pull the choke and tap the throttle, feeding her a little octane, and turn the key before the organizers called my class group forward. The engine roars to life and a deep satisfaction comes over me. I smile from ear to ear. Another driver yells out to me, “Behave yourself out there, Alicia!” and I reply, “Absolutely not!”
The organizers have the new Ferraris and Porsches out of the gate already, long before the vintage cars. These guys will be seriously trying to outmaneuver one another on the road, likely up to 120mph, and I’m sure that they want the vintage cars out of the way. Nevermind… an MGA with no modern modifications will never outperform a new Ferrari, and I have nothing to prove here anyway.
Many of the men take their wives and girlfriends, however, out of 54 entries there are only five female drivers. The other four gals are driving new sports cars. I am the only vintage racer.
My car is signaled forward, through the gate. Then, the adrenaline rush flows over me and I am in the moment. I put her in gear and take off. The landscape rushes by me at rising speeds. I find myself trying to catch the car ahead and the chase is exhilarating! Winding endless roads, I push her through the corners. It is the first time that I’ve sent the newly rebuilt engine to redline. She is doing 80mph without overheating and is steady and sure of herself. And so am I. Car and driver are one.
I do not consider that we are ever victims nor survivors. I believe that we are heroes. There is nothing that cannot be overcome. The focus should never be on what was lost, but on what we build, a testament to the human spirit. The journey of the hero is the privilege of a lifetime.
I am currently creating a mentorship program for the Boys and Girls Club. “Inspire The Next Generation” is an interactive TedTalks for children, drawing on mentors from the community, and is at no cost to the club. My own mentor was the iconic author Ray Bradbury, whom I met when I was seventeen and knew for twenty-four years of my life. It took many years, but I eventually became the writer that Ray wanted me to be. As a volunteer for charitable organizations, I learned that I could make a difference, especially when I became a mentor. It is our responsibility to inspire the next generation. I live each day with that goal in mind.