Over the years, there have been times when I thought car projects would drive me crazy. My son Jonathan and I both owned MGBs that we maintained and restored. Armed with the shop manual, every MG repair book written, Moss catalogs, and a good supply of parts, I learned a lot about how to keep my blue 1976 MGB running and in good shape since the day I bought it new.
I would never have thought another MG project would serve as my therapist.
But eight years ago Jonathan died from a brain tumor at 26 years of age. Our family struggled with the devastating loss. I was in desperate need of an emotional outlet, so when a friend and co-worker offered me an MG TD “in parts” that had been in her family for years, without hesitation I jumped at the chance. I needed a project and what could be better than a ’52 MG TD in pieces?
from the Beginning
The owner of the car had died after starting its restoration, and all we knew was that the parts had been sitting in a storage facility on Vancouver Island in Canada for years. There was no title, and the car had been completely dismantled, down to the last bolt. My wife and I rented a U-haul, headed to the little town of Comox, and hoped the customs officials would not give us a hard time crossing the border with an undocumented bunch of dismantled car parts. Fortunately, one look at the condition of the parts in the trailer and the officer waved us over the border. I named the car “Comox” for its place of rescue.
I had never really seen an MG TD up close, and certainly didn’t know how all these worn out parts were supposed to go together. It was like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. The first job when we returned to our home in western Washington was to identify and box as many parts as possible. Armed with the Moss catalog, I figured out what each part was, what I had, and what was missing.
Gradually over the years, the undertaking took shape. Each piece of the restoration was a project within a project. Whether it was rebuilding the carburetors, flocking the glove compartment, or dismantling the lock cylinder to make a key, every step was an interesting challenge with its own rewards. Some jobs were intimidating, but I also had a sense of freedom to tackle repairs since almost anything would be improvement over what it was.
I tried to restore things to their original condition, but was not averse to using an occasional upgrade like radial tires or a modern battery. I made a few modifications for performance or safety reasons. Examples included installation of urethane suspension bushings, seat belts, and turn signals.
The engine required a complete rebuild, so I had the Moss rear seal installed. It still leaks a tiny bit, but much less than I’ve observed in cars that don’t have the seal in place.
Since the project helped me focus on interesting challenges, I was willing to make a number of parts that were missing or beyond hope, as long as I had a picture or pattern to work from. However, if time or labor is an issue, it is probably more cost effective to simply order the part. A good example of this was the seat spring case. After removing three layers of rotted old upholstery, the completely rusted out spring case fell apart in front of my eyes. I chose to fabricate a new spring case from scratch and then upholster it with the Moss tan leather seat upholstery. However, fabricating the spring case itself took over a month of part-time work.
Even though I am not highly skilled, I enjoyed using my MIG welder for fabricating metal parts, filling holes, and rust repair. I was always appreciative of the help I received with a tricky welding or metal project from my younger son, Benjamin, who was attending diving and welding school at the time. Dismantling and reassembling the tub was fairly straightforward, but there is no easy way of fitting the doors in the tub. It took weeks of fiddling with hinge shims, adjustable door straps, and body shims to get a good final fit.
You can probably get more opinions about paint than any other subject. The paint codes that appear in the Moss catalog are probably correct, but good luck when you go to your automotive paint store to try to match them. Most are no longer available and the paint colors in 1952 probably varied considerably. Because the T-Series cars require painting of each body panel separately, I decided to paint the car myself with an acrylic urethane without a clear coat. To pick the color, I watched modern red cars for months until I found a color that I thought would be just right. I chose “Salsa Red” (A3H) found on 2008 and 2009 Volkswagens and have been very happy with that choice.
Find Your Motivation
Each of these projects kept my mind focused on something other than the pain of our loss, and they helped me endure the span of time that grieving requires. Over time, it was really satisfying to see boxes of parts actually begin to look like a car.
Amateur restoration is not all fun and games. It takes a lot of patience and persistence. At one point or another there were car parts in almost every room of our home. Parts in the crawl space, parts in the garage, parts in the bedroom, and parts in the living room. The project also had its tedious and discouraging moments—like the time I broke the aluminum bellhousing, the endless hours of de-rusting or sanding of body parts, the delightful aroma of automotive paint, or dealing with an officious young State Patrol inspector.
No one likes to talk about how much a ground-up restoration costs. Fortunately, I have an understanding wife, and had the sense to put myself on a monthly budget. By doing almost all the work myself, I not only enjoyed the challenge of learning new skills but I kept the labor costs to a minimum. Nevertheless, engine work and parts are expensive, and certain things like radiator or shock absorber restoration need to be farmed out to the experts. But the fun part of restoring a TD from the ground up is the excitement every time a box of fresh parts arrives or a rare part is found and won on eBay.
One issue with doing a ground up restoration on a basket case like Comox is deciding how much to invest in each stage of the restoration, before knowing if the car will even run. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend a fortune on new chrome, if the engine is beyond hope. So it’s easy to imagine what an exciting moment it was after four years of work, to hear the newly rebuilt engine start up on the first try.
Although the garage was not her favorite place, my wife was tremendously patient and supportive during the restoration. How many partners would put up with parts drying in the kitchen oven, acid in the sink, and romantic pillow talk about the causes of vapor lock?
One day while my wife was lending a third hand with the wiring harness (she couldn’t believe so many wires could go through such a small hole), I asked her, “What do you think motivates me to stick with this project?” Without much hesitation, she replied, “You are a perfectionist and thrive on a challenge.” That may be true, but I also felt a sense of accomplishment as each part of the car gradually came back to life.
Before he passed away, my son built me a model of my blue MGB, with a small plaque that read: “To many roads ahead—together.” During the TD restoration I had a vision of someday returning to Comox and rolling down the road in the shining red TD. For me, that vision of the “road ahead” helped keep me going even when jobs were tedious or I felt overwhelmed.
When we drive Comox, my wife and I regularly get thumbs up from teenage drivers, pedestrians, and many other admirers. We’ve joined a local TD club, and this is leading to new friends and activities.
I owe a lot to Comox, my little red therapist. The project helped me through a very difficult time. As I drive down the road with the wind in my face, I can’t help but think I’m also getting a thumbs up from my son.
By David Losh