three cars

All that Glitters is not Gold

By Geoff Wheatley

“So how many classic cars have you restored?” is a standard question that I get asked at virtually every car show that I attend. The next question is “How much do I have to invest to get a nice car like yours?” This is followed by “So what’s this car worth?” My answers are usually “Many,” followed by “More than you estimated,” and the final reply, “Whatever someone is willing to pay.”

These are not smart-ass answers, but simply honest replies. I have restored six T-Type MGs, a couple of pre-war classics, and three MGAs. Also various MGBs (all chrome bumpers), several early Midgets, and a couple of early post-war British delights. The joy is finding the cars and restoring them to at very least their original condition. Sometimes we go a little overboard and add a few chrome extras that were not there when the car left the factory, but can be justified as “dealer extras” (you can certainly get away with that comment on this side of the pond!).

I also judge T-Types when I’m not showing, which can be a very interesting experience, sometimes even dangerous! More on that in an upcoming issue.

The type of question that I do like to hear is not related to costs, time, or value, but which cars should be purchased for restoration. Over the years I have purchased a couple of real horrors, like the wrong engine, bondo filler with bodies held together by the rust under the gleaming new paint, half-eaten frames that are covered with black underseal to hide the decay, lights that don’t light, or wheels that don’t turn or stop, etc. On the other hand, I have certainly learnt a few tricks to ensure that my hard-earned cash is not invested in a restoration nightmare. As T-Types are my first love, let me give any would-be buyer of these classic cars a few tips when you are considering a purchase of a TC, TD, or TF.

First, don’t believe all that is shown on the ID plates. Remember that these can be purchased quite easily. Engine plates are the same, and they are readily available for someone to fix and tell you that all the numbers match. However, this is not very important when all is said and done. I’ve seen some excellent vehicles with replaced engines that work better than the originals.

However, sellers can’t easily reproduce the chassis stamp, so look for that. On TCs, the number is stamped on the left-hand front end of the chassis side rail, just behind the spring mounting bracket. On TDs and TFs, the number is stamped on the left side of the front chassis frame extension. The number should be visible just under the edge of the front fender and chassis attachment point. Remember this when someone is trying to sell you a TD Mk II that has been fitted with some extra goodies, like double fuel pumps, etc. The prefix number for a genuine Mk II should read TD/C, not TD2. Many neophytes get confused, as the later standard TD engines have a prefix of XPAG TD2 followed by a four- or five-digit number. The first Mk II came off the line in May 1950 (TD/C 1123), so don’t be put off if the production number seems low. These early vehicles did not have the Mk II badge on the rear or side panels, but they did have the “bonnet bump” to allow clearance for the larger and longer carburetors.

Even after many years of restoration, I still read as many books on these cars as I can. You can never stop learning something new, even after 30 years. If you want to buy a TD or a TF, buy a couple of detailed books on the car. There are several on the market and they are all worth reading. Next, get a couple of books with pictures so that you can look and compare. Remember that the cars in the photos are usually both beautiful and correct. Don’t be over-impressed by gleaming paint and new chrome. They are desirable, but not very important when the rest of the car is in need of total mechanical and electrical restoration.

One giveaway on newly painted cars is the body seams that seal the gaps between the wings and the body found on all T-Types and the MGA. They should be free of paint; i.e., the tub and wings were separated and painted individually. When the car was reassembled, the old seams should have been replaced with new fender piping in the correct color like black, green, gray, etc. They should not have a spot of paint on them anywhere. A quick, cheap paint job where the car has not been taken apart will cause these seams to be covered with fresh paint. I have seen big money spent on cars that have this obvious defect simply because the purchaser did not take the trouble to either read a few books or invest in a pre-purchase inspection by someone who knows what to look for.

Next, look at the interior. If the carpets have been recently replaced, yet no other interior work seems to have been carried out, this is a good indication that the wood floor is suspect. Floorboards are plywood and are simple to reproduce or purchase off the shelf from Moss. The tunnel housing or floor struts may need attention. If the carpets are stuck down with adhesive, beware, as you can’t lift them up to see what delights are underneath. Look at the instruments and make sure they all work correctly. How do you know? Buy a picture book or check a Moss catalog that shows what they should look like. All T-Types are prone to wear on the rear drive splines, especially when the rear wheels have not been correctly tightened. A dodge that I have seen is to slip thin nails into the worn splines to take up the slack. Take off the rear wheels and check. If the owner is not happy with this request, go see another car. However, even if these parts are worn, all is not lost, as the parts are readily available. Just use this to negotiate the purchase price.

Also while on the rear end, get into the car and try reverse. If you hear a slight knock, the rear end is in need of work, and that can be expensive. Don’t be fooled by the seller’s assurance that all old cars do this—they don’t. Check the gearbox, especially on the TD and TF, which have tender gears. The TC is a more rugged unit but should also be thoroughly tested. If you can’t get into any chosen gear without some serious effort, don’t be misled by the statement that the car needs a clutch adjustment. Also, whilst your foot is on the clutch, put on the hand brake and put the car into second or third gear. Now slowly let out the clutch. The car should stall. If not, you may well have a worn clutch plate. If the car overrides the hand brake, a brake job may in order. This is a straightforward procedure.

Look at the way the doors fit on any T-Type (or any British Sports car for that matter). With the T-Type, they should always be flush at the top where the front blends into the scoop of the tub. On the others, they should follow the line of the car top and bottom. If not, you could be have a twisted body, or even worse, poor wood at the door support. Look carefully—it could also be as simple as worn or bent hinges. There is no real way that I have found to check the all the wood on these early cars unless you strip the body. However, owners don’t usually like that idea. You can look for telltale cracks in the body seams, especially where the rear hood fits the tub. If there are serious cracks, you may well have serious wood problems, and these can be very expensive.

The engine should be clean and the firewall the same shade of color as the car (except for the early TC, when the firewall and the engine were a battleship gray). Lots of disputes have been waged over which shade of battleship gray. But, as no one really knows, you can buy a tin from the local hardware store and paint away. You won’t lose any points from this judge.

Check the electrics, such as lights rear and front. Again, get a reference book so that you can see which style of headlight or rear light was used with your particular car, as they changed several times over the years.

Finally, step away from the car and take a long intense look at the vehicle. If you see any body ripples, especially on the doors, there could be body damage covered over with filler.

Does the car sit right, not leaning one way or sagging at the front or rear? Get someone to bounce the car at both ends and look to see how well the car corrects itself. Try the steering wheel for play whilst no one is sitting in the car. There should be no more than a modest amount of play, with the exception of TCs, where significant play is common and can be sorted with a careful front-end rebuild. If the wheel turns a couple of inches or more, you may have steering or front-end problems.

A compression check of each cylinder is most helpful and may help diagnose problems with valves, rings, head gasket, etc. The PSI will vary based on the compression ratios that may be an unknown. However, it is consistency between cylinders that is more important. Check the radiator for signs of oil in the water. If present, the coolant will be milky, with evidence of a scummy foam under the cap.

Okay, now you have sorted out most of the obvious things, but that’s only half the story. Drive the car to a local garage where you can put the car on a lift. Take a serious look at the underneath. It will be dirty and oily, but that is normal (I have never seen a British sports car yet that did not shed a few pints of oil during its lifetime). Look for the obvious, like lose or broken springs and/or exhaust fittings. Look for patchwork repairs. Beware of a car that has been smothered with spray underseal from the local car shop, as this can hide a multitude of sins. Expect to pay for the use of the lift, but it’s a good investment in the long run. This is the time for a more extensive check for wood rot. An awl or sharp knife is a handy tool for this job. If the lowest timbers look sound and original, chances are good that the remaining wood is sound. Again, if the owner is not willing to allow this inspection, move on to another car.

Take a good look at the top and the windscreen. A top is not expensive and relatively easy to fit, but a windscreen can be expensive both in terms of purchase and fitting. I have taken a few windscreen frames apart only to find that the replacement process is both time-consuming and not cheap, especially if you want to get the correct end result that will stand up to a car show inspection (I think the most demanding is the MGB). This is a task that should be left to the local garage unless you are a dedicated martyr. Most of the things I have mentioned can be fixed, but always at a price, even if you are a DIY person. Remember, every time you locate something that is not right, you are in a better position to bargain. Over the years, I have seen a lot of cars that claim to have come from the sunshine belt, no snow, little rain, kept in a private garage, and all that stuff. That’s fine, except that in hot humid climates, the rust starts from inside the body, not the other way around, and is more difficult to trace.

Mechanical problems are, for the most part, easier to sort out then serious deficiencies with the body and chassis. Also, mechanical restoration can be carried out in phases while the car is kept in service. Many projects can be done over a weekend or two and will make a noticeable improvement in the driving experience. Serious rust or body timber rot requires major restoration work that generally takes months, if not years, to complete. If you’re up for the challenge of a frame-up restoration, you can negotiate a good price before jumping into the project.

I received a call regarding an MGA that I was interested in buying for restoration. It was advertised as being in top condition. From the photos that were sent, I had to agree. However, I consequently found out that the car had not been started for three years. It had been sitting in a nice comfortable garage awaiting its owner to return from a job assignment in the Middle East. End result: brakes were frozen, electrical system corroded the petrol pump and various other mechanical items such as the wiper motor. In short, the car looked great, but the investment to get it back on the road could be substantial. On top of that, the engine may well have suffered from a lack of use. The end result was that I did not buy the car. Vehicles in this condition are not a bad investment, as mechanical issues can be sorted out. However, you should be aware and mindful of the aforementioned potential problems before settling on a purchase price.

You may have been told to always check the oil and see if it’s black and burnt. Good idea, but not very reliable, as its very easy to drain out the bad stuff and pour in some new oil just for the buyer’s benefit. Black and/or sooty exhaust is a better guide to what the engine may be like. Put your hand over the end of the exhaust pipe (with a glove on, of course). See if the engine eventually stalls after a few moments. If so, the engine’s exhaust system is in decent condition; if not, you may well have a leak in the system that needs attention. Turn on the wiper motor even if it’s not raining. However, ensure that the windscreen is wet while the wipers are running. I usually take a small spray bottle of water with me for this test. It’s not your car yet, so don’t try it dry, as you could scratch the glass.

Remember, all that glitters is not gold, but sometimes you can find a gem under a pile of dust and grime. It’s basically a matter of simple common sense. Three years ago I found a 1952 MG TD with 45,000 original miles under a pile of dusty sheets. More recently, a 1962 Austin-Healey Sprite with 29,000 original miles, both in excellent restoration condition once I had taken off the dirt and grime. In short, be prepared to crawl up, down, and all the way around in order to see what delightful restoration gem awaits your attention. Happy hunting.

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