By Jamie Boss
Most young men in high school were passionate about something. It could be the young ladies. Definitely football. I even knew some who were passionate about math. I loved British cars. While some would read serious books for English class like Moby Dick, I preferred shop manuals with exploded views. Such was the depth of my passion.
In my sophomore year, I was blessed with the honor of working part time at a Triumph sports car dealership. I began with changing oil but soon graduated to complete tune-ups, new car prep, and doing whatever was needed to the various used sports cars in the front row line-up. I got to work on Alfas, MGs, Jags, an occasional Morgan, Sunbeams, and every Triumph made up to that point. I even worked on a Triumph Mayflower, much to my chagrin.
Calling it a dealership is a stretch, as the building was a converted A&W Root Beer stand with a two-car bay added to either side. My boss, T. Paul Kelly, had been a salesman at Lee Circle, which was in the early ’60s one of the premiere foreign car dealerships in New England. When Lee Circle closed, Mr. Lee helped T. Paul put together a little Triumph dealership that was lovingly called “Sports Car Land.” I practically lived there during my high school years.
As usual, I spent my Christmas vacation tinkering with the Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite that I reassembled from piles of parts from two different cars. On Christmas eve it was T. Paul, Jo-Jo and myself at the shop rebuilding S.U. carburetors and figuring out how to put a new top on a Morgan 2+2. Jo-Jo was probably in his mid- twenties and was the main “wrench” during the day when I was at school. He was every bit as enthusiastic about British cars as I was.
Home for the Holidays
The snow had begun to fall on the almost deserted road. Most sane people were already snuggled safely in their homes, preparing for the joyous day of Christmas the next morning. Children were imagining what Santa was going to bring them and their parents were trying to do the last minute wrapping out of sight of prying eyes.
As our day was waning, we noticed a Triumph TR3 limping up the road at about 10 miles an hour. It barely made it into the lot. The snow was falling at a brisk rate and the driver, all bundled up in a car with questionable heat, hopped out and hurried to the showroom door.
Shaking the snow from his military uniform, he said, “I’m on leave and headed to Boston to see my family for Christmas before shipping out to Vietnam in two weeks. I barely got off the turnpike when my clutch started slipping badly. Is there anything you guys can do to help me out? I haven’t gotten paid yet, but if you can help me out, I promise I will send you a check next week for whatever it costs.”
My boss, T. Paul, had a soft spot for a sad story. To most he was a hardheaded Irishman, but those who know him, knew he went out of his way to help those in need. “Sure,” he said, “we should be able to get you going, one way or another. How long have you been driving?” The driver said he left North Carolina early that morning and had been driving all day in bad weather. Turning to me and Jo-Jo, T. Paul said, “You guys up for this?” I looked at Jo-Jo and he looked at me and we both blurted out “Yes!” at the same time. T. Paul said, “Why don’t you and I go down the road to the diner and get you something to eat while this crew gets your car up on jack-stands. They’ll pull the transmission out and we will bring them back a Christmas Eve snack.”
There was a sincere look of gratitude and thanks on the driver’s face when T. Paul gave us the go-ahead. Jo-Jo and I got the TR3 into the shop while the man and T. Paul piled into the shop’s TR4A demo, lovingly called the “Circus Wagon” because of its outlandish red, white and blue paint job. The two of them sped off into the snowstorm.
With a little bit of luck
Our dealership was extremely small. We had no car lifts. Everything was done with a jack and four jack-stands. Unlike the Jaguar XKE, where you had to remove the hood, take out the front torsion bars and drop the engine on the ground to get at the transmission, the TR3 was easy to work on. The transmission came out from inside the car. Once jacked two feet in the air on stands, we pulled the passenger seat out and removed the transmission tunnel. It seemed like there were a thousand special screws that held it into place. It was more like eight or 10 on a side. You pulled up the rug, took the shift knob and boot off, removed all of the hardware holding the transmission tunnel on and voilà, it pulled right out. With the tunnel off, we could now work on the rear mount, transmission-to-engine bolts and other minor annoyances that popped up here and there. In no time the transmission was out, with the jack holding up the rear of the engine. Bear in mind that one “lifted” the transmission out by hand. It helped to be small. One person straddled the transmission from above, crouched low and lifted while the other wiggled it from side to side and pulled towards the rear to get the input shaft out of the clutch plate splines.
The Final Stretch
Leaving Jo-Jo to remove the clutch assembly from the flywheel, I went down into the cellar to search out a pressure plate, clutch plate and throw-out bearing to finish the job. Finding all three on the shelf, I hauled them up to the bay and laid them out on the floor for Jo-Jo to see. “Damn,” Jo-Jo said, “we lent Harvey the clutch alignment tool yesterday for his race car. How are we going to install this?” Thinking quickly, I pulled a long wooden dowel out of my toolbox and began wrapping the first inch with electrical tape. As soon as it looked right, I stuck the end into the pilot bearing and it fit just fine. I then wrapped the next three inches with tape until it fit into the splines of the clutch plate. Totally not in the official repair manual but it worked just the same. We smeared some white grease in the pilot bearing, popped in our makeshift alignment tool and installed the pressure and clutch plates. Lastly, we put in a new throw-out bearing and began re-installing the transmission.
The TR3 was the car of my dreams. It had that World War II bomber cockpit look, especially with the top down. Even 50 years later I can still picture my friend Ritchie driving down North Street in my hometown of Milford in his bright red TR3. The large steering wheel made it feel like you were driving a truck. The low door sills gave you the feeling of riding down the road on the seat of your pants. The short, straight shift lever fit perfectly into your hand. When you pressed hard on the gas pedal, the engine made this memorable sucking noise as the air screamed into the two S.U. carburetors. Everything about it made you feel connected to the car. You didn’t just drive a TR3, you “motored” in it. While I owned many British cars in my life including a Bugeye Sprite, two MG Midgets, an MGA 1600 hardtop coupe, a TR6 and, of all things, a Berkeley roadster, I’ve never owned a TR3. I know there is one out there somewhere with my name on it. By the time T. Paul and our traveler came back, we were in the process of bolting down the transmission tunnel and reinstalling the rugs. In no time we had the seat in, adjusted the clutch pedal, and started her up to make sure everything worked. All was well in Triumph land.
Hard Work Pays Off
As the man thanked us again and again for our help, we could see that our efforts brought out an emotional response in him. A solitary tear ran down his cheek. We watched as the TR3 motored off into the snowstorm on its way to Boston as we consumed the cheeseburgers and milk shakes they had brought us from the diner. T. Paul did receive his check the very next week. I often wonder if our Christmas Eve traveler ever thought of his Christmas present during his stay in Vietnam. I think of his visit often.