By Barry and April James
I was a six-year old fascinated with rocks. I collected them all around our neighborhood in Long Island, New York. My first fossil—a shell—I discovered when my dad was digging a hole in the backyard to plant a tree. The foundations for my future were being cast.
In 1969, as a high school graduation gift, my dad gave me my first car. It was a 1963 Plymouth Belvedere he bought from a coworker who had rebuilt and modified it to go very, very fast. At the time, I knew very little about cars because there wasn’t any need to know anything other than the Plymouth always started and ran perfectly up to 125 mph. The thought of a flat tire, hitting something on the road or encountering any of the many things that could go wrong never entered my 19-year-old mind. I was extremely lucky.
One day in May, 1970, while driving home, I spotted an incredible looking vehicle—a blue 1959 MGA. I fell immediately in love with British sports cars, sold the Plymouth Belvedere and bought the MGA. I went from the standard locking doors to pulling on a wire to open the MG, from roll-up glass windows to sliding pieces of plastic into position, and from enjoying the warmth of a heavy-duty heater to layering on lots of clothing in the winter. The willingness to overlook inconveniences enhances the wind-in-your-hair sensations of a sports car.
Soon thereafter, I found a 1963 Morgan. Books on fossils were put aside and sports cars became my main interest. I read all I could about these wonderful cars. My neighbor Charlie was an expert mechanic who taught me all I needed to know to repair and keep a sports car on the road.
Seeing my Morgan for the first time, a friend said his neighbor had a Morgan that had been taken apart. He suggested that perhaps I could buy it for spare parts. We went to the house but the neighbor wasn’t home. Small windows running across the top of the garage door provided a good view of the parted-out car, which was not a Morgan, but a right-hand drive, black 1950 MG TD—my dream car! Waiting patiently until the family came home, I was able to purchase the disassembled car for $250 cash.
After putting the car back together, it became my everyday driver. Since I had become intimately familiar with MGs, Chuck Bennett of Hanover Auto Parts in New York hired me as his MG expert, helping other owners find the parts they needed.
In 1974, I purchased a 1938 TA Tickford, sight unseen and delivered directly to me from England. I restored it with the help of all those I spoke to daily on the telephone as well as with input from members of the New England MGT club.
I have never lost the love of these great sports cars. And I also never stopped wandering out in nature collecting fossils.
In 1977 I moved across the country to Santa Barbara, California and found work as a parts manager for a car dealership. However, my astute new friends in town convinced me to go back to school. It made sense. So I sold my cars, including the beloved TA Tickford, and used the funds to attend college full-time and earn my Master’s degree as a Vertebrate Paleontologist. Following graduation, I met my wife April and, sharing a love of the natural world, we jumped right in and started a unique professional paleontological service, Prehistoric Journeys. Now, 33-years later, we and our crew have prepared the fossilized bones and display-mounted 158 rare skeletons of the world’s greatest prehistoric animals and dinosaurs for clients around the world.
Resurrecting an MG
Out of the blue one evening in late 2008, April suggested we find an MG to buy. I didn’t argue and she did not have to mention it again. Although it had been three decades since an MG had graced the garage, our admiration for them never wavered. Within a year, I found a 1951 MG TD in need of restoration at Smalley’s Garage in Watkins Glenn, New York. Everything I had learned about these magical cars so many years before came right back to me as second nature.
Before the restoration
During the TD’s restoration, we had the honor of preparing and display-mounting one of the greatest Tyrannosaurus Rex complete skeletons ever found. “Tristan,” a 68-million-year old, 41-feet long and 15-feet tall, freestanding skeleton is now on display at the Natural History Museum in Berlin, Germany. Of course we simply had to photograph our (then) burgundy colored MG TD with the nearly five-foot long skull of Tristan the T-Rex. And now, with the restoration completed, the TD is as dynamically black as the fossilized bones of the dinosaur. This is undoubtedly the first and only time an MG has shared space next to one of the greatest, most powerful carnivores that ever walked the earth.
The rebuilding of a classic car and the display-mounting of a prehistoric dinosaur are not so different. Both require careful preparation of parts when putting them back together. Granted, there are far fewer known dinosaur skeletons to work on than MGs, but the motivation and skills are similar.
Each task also requires being adept with tools—including welding equipment—having patience, applying engineering insight to visualize the dynamics of the finished product, confidence, time, and more patience, as inevitable challenges arise during progress of the projects.
The work with dinosaurs and classic vehicles shares another similarity. A close encounter with a fascinating creature that lived on earth millions of years ago, and the opportunity to appreciate a beautiful MGTD that travelled highways and byways seven decades ago, allows the public (and especially children, who exhibit great enthusiasm) the chance to learn about the past and, in natural progression, to consider the future of our planet. MM
Included among Barry and April’s skeletal restorations/constructions are an 84-foot long, 10,000 pound, freestanding Brontodiplodocus, and a 72-foot long Sauropod skeleton. Google “Tristan the T Rex” for amazing photos and stories.
Tristan the T-Rex in Berlin