By Scott Fischer
That was the two-word Facebook posting from my friend, and fellow British-car sufferer, Jeff Zurschmeide in April 2013. It accompanied a Craigslist ad he’d found for a 1951 MG TD, unrestored, in a nearby town at the edge of the Oregon wine country. From the pictures, it looked complete, straight, and with unimpeachable patina over what appeared to be original Almond Green paint and tan leather.
I looked at my bookshelf with the selection of Matchbox cars I’d had since childhood. One of them was a TD, originally Pale Primrose with red-painted seats. But at some point, when I was about eight years old, I decided a proper British car deserved to be green with tan interior. So I took my model paints, found an appropriate medium green and a flat tan, and customized my little TD.
And now I was looking at the full-size version, some half a century later.
Between those extremes, I’d owned a number of British cars, including my first, a 1974 Midget, and later, three and a half MGBs.
You know you’re a true British-car enthusiast when you measure your ownership in fractions. For those new to the game, the half was a parts car I bought when preparing my E Production MGB racecar for SCCA road racing in 1990-91.
More significantly, I’d just sold a classic that had always filled me with a mixture of love and fear. When it ran, I loved it. But every time I tried to start it, the fear took over. It was rare, exotic, and valuable, and owning it so far exceeded my comfort zone that I never really enjoyed it. Fortunately, its sale left me with a fair chunk of cash, and I’d hinted to my friends that I was looking for something with which I felt more at home, something I could tinker with.
As my wife Julie says, “Your friends really like spending your money.”
And so it came to pass that Julie and I took a drive on an only moderately overcast Oregon weekend to meet Jackie, the fellow selling the TD. Jackie’s house was surrounded by the kind of beautiful, mature trees it’s so easy to love about rural Oregon, and the barn behind it was filled with cars and car paraphernalia. He rolled the TD out of the barn, peeled off the cover, and I fell in love. I puttered, peered, and wriggled into the driver’s seat, listening to Jackie talk about how he came to own the car. He’d acquired it three years before from a longtime friend of his, a fellow named Lou, who sold the car when he turned 80 and said it was too hard to get in and out of the suicide doors. Jackie himself was more a fan of Sixties muscle and pony cars, of which Lou had some very special examples. So Jackie was cashing out the TD hoping to purchase a Sixties-era Ivy Green Mustang convertible that Lou was selling.
I was more than happy to help out two fellow car guys. We agreed on a price, I hit my bank the next business day for a cashier’s check, and Julie and I returned to Jackie’s tree-lined home to take possession of the TD. We arrived with the top down on my 1996 Miata, enjoying a day filled with sun and blue skies.
As I handed Jackie the check and took the keys, something occurred to me. I had never actually driven the TD.
In fact, as Julie pointed out, I’d never even started it.
So it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I took the driver’s seat and watched as Jackie pointed out which stop of the key powered the ignition, which knob enriched the pair of SU carburetors and which was the starter. I listened to the oh-so-familiar tickticktick…tick of the SU fuel pump, and when it stopped, I pulled the starter knob.
The XPAG turned over briskly and came to life. Coughing a bit, a little lumpy, but who knew how long it had been since it had been exercised properly? I selected first gear, feeling the lovely mechanical slide-and-catch of the gear lever on the straight-cut, non-synchro box, and let out the clutch. The car moved under its own power, but we were clearly not hitting on all four cylinders. No problem, I thought, it’ll clear up as I get under way.
I stopped at the end of Jackie’s long driveway. The familiar push-lift-PRESS on the brake pedal reminded me of the way my MGBs had felt when it was time to adjust the rear drum brakes. Okay, that’s easy and free to fix.
The steering was wonderful—more like my Midget than my MGBs—bright and quick and energetic, tracking straight without much play. But as we left Jackie’s home and followed the contours of the country road leading back to my house, it became clear the little XPAG was not happy, making sad little two-stroke popping noises and producing very little in the way of forward thrust.
About a mile and a half from Jackie’s place, the engine died. I put the car in neutral and steered over to the side of the road, Julie falling in behind me in the Miata, which we had filled with the boxes of various MG paraphernalia that Jackie included with the sale. As I sat in my now-silent sports car—thinking of all the times and places before when I’d found myself in a suddenly silent sports car—an early ’80s El Camino rolled up near me and the driver hopped out.
“Wow!” he said, enthusiastically. “What is that?”
“It’s an MG TD,” I said.
“Is it from the Thirties?” he asked. I decided not to go into how the TA begat the TB, then the TC, and eventually the TD and TF, but simply said it was a 1951, based on a design from 1935.
“Does it have a hand-crank to start it?” I’d seen it clipped into place behind the driver’s seat, so I said yes. I was a little surprised not to hear the usual questions (“Is it a kit car?” “Who makes it?”), but I was also a little distracted, and less than chatty, seeing as it had just quit on me, and I didn’t know why. So it was with a certain relief when the El Camino driver gave a cheery wave and drove off.
Of all the various times one or another of my MGs had quit on me, I recalled only one that had been a carburetor problem, so I got out and lifted the side of the bonnet covering the ignition. And sure enough, I got lucky: the #1 spark plug wire was lying on the dynamo, not connected to the #1 plug. How easy is that? I thought, and reached for it.
Not that easy: the ceramic insulator for the #1 plug had snapped and was inside the plug lead, while the metal part of the spark plug was still in the cylinder head.
I took my traveling toolkit out of the TD’s tonneau (as I’d soon learn the space behind the seats was called). I knew I had some spark plugs left over from a previous roadside adventure I unzipped the little case I kept the bits in and ran into hurdle number two. The plug I took from the TD’s head had a short, half-inch throw—the threaded portion that extends into the cylinder head. The spare plugs, meant for the Miata, were nearly an inch long—far too long to just insert into the head and drive home without risking an unhappy meeting of piston and plug.
As I was pondering what to do—trying to visualize whether all four sealing rings from the Miata plugs would make a sufficient spacer (and sealer) to fit the longer plug in the shorter head—Julie walked up from the trunk of the Miata.
“Will this help?” she asked, and handed me an MG spark plug. Grimy, sooty, oily—but complete.
“I saw you fiddling with the spark plug,” she said, “and I knew Jackie had given us a box of spare parts, so I dug through it and found this one, plus a few more.”
I threaded the plug by hand, tightened it with the plug wrench, reconnected the spark plug wire, and—because I may be an idiot, but I’m no fool—left the bonnet open while I test-fired the car.
It started immediately and ran more smoothly, though still giving sign of needing—you should pardon the expression—an Italian tune-up.
I closed the bonnet, lovingly running my hands over the twin latches embossed with the octagon, climbed back into the car, and drove home on an April afternoon with a few white clouds lazily following the Chehalem Mountains, thinking as always of my dear friend, Toad of Toad Hall, on his discovery of motorcars:
‘And to think I never KNEW!’ went on the Toad in a dreamy monotone. ‘All those wasted years that lie behind me, I never knew, never even DREAMT! But NOW—but now that I know, now that I fully realise! O what a flowery track lies spread before me, henceforth! What dust-clouds shall spring up behind me as I speed on my reckless way!’
I could still tell that something wasn’t quite perfect with the little 1250: oil pressure was good, temperature (Lou had installed a Stewart-Warner temp gauge just above the starter knob) was a solid 180 F, but when revs climbed over about 4500 RPM, the ignition seemed to run into a wall and begin coughing and sputtering till I dropped the revs back down. Still, there was inestimable fun to be had, motoring on such a day in such a car, and I knew that I’d be able to suss out whatever was holding me back.
That was three years ago; I’ve since solved the rev problem. The original, from-1951 coil was no longer effective in producing spark at the rate required for high-rev operation; a new Lucas Sport coil from Moss lets the car run like a proper sports car up as high as I feel comfortable winding the 67-year-old crankshaft. I added the Moss steering coupler kit, which replaced a coupler that had no rubber left in one lobe and about half in the other two; this made a stunning difference in how the car responds to the helm. I’ve replaced the fuel pump, and am preparing a few other pieces of deferred maintenance for weekends that are still in the future as I write this.
Maybe I’ll even adjust those brakes.