By Keith Daniel
I met Dave the summer my family moved to the country. He lived a short walk or shorter bike ride down the road, and by the second day we were best friends. His dad had a fantastic garage and hustled a buck on the side by clearing out things people wanted to get rid of, most of it great stuff. There was always something interesting at Dave’s house. “Hey Keith, look how cool this liquid mercury is.”
One of the most fun jobs we got to help with was dragging home old cars to either junk or fix up and sell. People don’t flat tow with a chain the way they used to, and for good reason I suppose. It was a recipe for disaster: two 15-year olds in cars that wouldn’t run, no power steering, no power brakes, or maybe no brakes at all, tied behind Dave’s dad who, after a mile or two, seemed to forget we were back there. It was like being in the last car of a roller coaster, and we would laugh hysterically the whole way.
I was into muscle cars, but for reasons I didn’t fully understand till years later, Dave liked foreign cars. His first was a Renault 4CV, but after a while with that car we dragged home his first Brit, a clapped out TR3. To be truthful, every car he dragged home was clapped out. Dave really had done a bang up job restoring the 4CV, and he went to work on the TR. Looking back, Dave had an amazing work ethic even as a teen. While I spent a fair amount of time hanging out at Winky’s, home of the Big Wink burger, he would be home rebuilding Triumphs. This turned into a business for him in high school, and a side business as well as a hobby for 40 years to come.
Of course back then there were few concours level restorations, mostly pop rivets, lots and lots of Bondo, and topped off with a backyard enamel paint job. Dave once told me he had owned 26 TR3s. That doesn’t count all the other MGs, Triumphs, a Healey or two, a Jag MK7, GT6, an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider, and a bunch more that I’ve forgotten. It’s amazing that there were so many cars of distinction to be had for a couple of hundred dollars. Dave’s love was always the TR3 though. For probably 50 years he was never without at least one. The amazing thing is, I can’t ever remember anything serious going bad on any of them. Maybe a clutch now and then, or a generator, but even as daily drivers they were pretty reliable.
Dave had an eye for finding old cars. Driving down the road he’d spot a car in the back of a garage or in the woods, and usually know what it was if one bumperette was showing. When I got to my mid twenties, my zest for muscle cars was waning, and I decided I’d like to have a sports car to play with. After all those years, and with the gas crisis of ’73, Dave finally convinced me of their merit. I told him to keep an eye out, any one would do, as long as it was cheap. Before long he told me about a ’67 Healey 3000 sitting behind a garage. Rusty on the bottom, and a bad brake booster, but it had Cragar S/S mags on it and Volkswagon beetle highback bucket seats. The owner wanted $750 for it, but after a few minutes talking with me he said I could have it for $425. So out came the tow chain and home it went. The happy ending to this story is I still have that Healey 40 years later.
I can’t count the number of adventures Dave and I had as teens blasting around in a Triumph. It sounds completely made up now, but I can remember him putting 25 cents worth of gas in so we could go out for the night. That bought a gallon back then. One night we were on a country road and came upon two girls walking. We stopped to give them a ride, but while we were trying to figure out where to put them, a couple more guys came by in a car with a backseat.
Every time I go to downtown Pittsburgh to this day I remember how thrilling it was looking straight up at the skyscrapers in that convertible, listening to the exhaust note bouncing off the buildings.
Another time we were cruising down the road when the car quit. Out of gas. This was not a problem though because Dave had a can of gas in the trunk. Why he had the trunk stocked up but the tank dry, I don’t know, but he dumped some in and cranked the starter. It was taking a while to fire up so I offered to prime the carb. Ever try hitting that little venturi with a five-gallon can? Lets just say it was a little rich when it fired. I was reminded of Art Arfons at the starting line. I dropped the can onto the engine and concentrated on beating out the flames on my arms. Dave grabbed the burning gas can and hurled it, reminiscent of Halley’s Comet. So now his engine is flaming, my hands are flaming, and some poor slobs yard is flaming. Right then a gas company truck happened by. He got out and calmly got an extinguisher off the side of the truck and hosed down the area. While Dave and I were catching our breath, he chuckled, said, “You boys be careful,” and rode off. My arms were no worse than a day at the beach. Can’t say the same for the lawn. Dave hit the ignition, it fired right up, and down the road we went… laughing hysterically.
As most do when they get older, Dave trimmed down his collection of cars. He still had one TR3 and it looked decent, but he decided to strip it down and redo it. About this time we all noticed that Dave was getting forgetful, but heck, so was I. He and I were pushing 60 and slowing down. After a year or two of the car sitting untouched, Dave told me one day out of the blue that he would sell it the way it was. He said he just wasn’t interested any more. I can’t tell you how hard that hit me. From the time we were young teens, every time I would go over to his parents house, and later his own, Dave would be out in the garage working on something. As I drove up he would come out with a big smile, happy to see me and happy with what he was doing. Ready to show me what he was working on and to tell me a story. Always an interesting story. For him to say he wasn’t interested in cars anymore was like the Pope saying he didn’t want to be Catholic.
At the time I didn’t really comprehend what was up, none of us did. We all kept hoping and praying for the best, but my best buddy’s sports car days were over. I don’t know if painting all those cars contributed to the problem, or if it was just the hand he was dealt. Back then nobody used any kind of respirator or protection of any kind. With an air hose we’d blow asbestos brake dust away and get all kinds of chemicals on our bare skin. All I know is that British car outings just aren’t the same without Dave there. He really had a joie de vivre, or whatever the British equivalent would be.
I guess the takeaway from this is to enjoy life, pack in as many experiences as you can. I regret that my Healey sat in the back of the garage for 15 years, that I was too busy working and raising kids to get it back on the road. That was 15 years of British motoring I missed with my buddy Dave.
In the few months within writing this story, and before I could get pictures together and submit it, Dave passed away. Mercifully he died quickly and I think painlessly at the age of 66. For Christmas his son Ryan gave me a copy of the classic book, The Red Car. It was the book that got two wide-eyed teens interested in sports cars, Dave had passed the book on to me, and rereading it some 50 years later brought back a flood of memories of two young boys starting life and giddy with the thoughts of the freedom, the joy, and the adventure that these little cars were about to bring us.