Spitfire Saga

This story starts with the purchase of a 1974 Spitfire body two years ago.

The owner of the car body tried to install a 20R Toyota engine and five-speed tranny. This didn’t work at all, so I sold the Toyota gear and purchased a 1972 Spitfire parts car for $250. This car had an engine that ran and a destroyed tranny. In the trunk of this car was a complete tranny that dated between 1975 and 1980. After gathering information, I  found that this could work, but I would need to replace the original flywheel with a newer one that would accept the larger clutch to mate with the newer transmission. This was not as hard as I thought. I was able to purchase a used flywheel that worked like a champ. After putting in all new clutch hardware and rebuilding the engine, the two were buttoned together. The only parts not replaced during the engine rebuild were the alternator and the water pump. With a fair amount of time spent getting the Lucas electrical system back in shape, the car was ready to roll.

Since that point in time, the car has been used for one and a half summer seasons. Within this timeline, the car had been driven for a few thousand miles, but never for more than 25 miles on a consecutive run. Therefore, I decided that it needed to be put to the test. This test would end up being a 3,000-mile adventure. I have lived in Casper, Wyoming, for 15 years, but am originally from Franklin, Louisiana. I decided that since I hadn’t seen my family in a couple of years, I could kill two birds with one stone—visit family and tough-test the put-together Spitfire. My 16-year-old daughter and I made plans to leave on this adventure in the middle of July and return at the end.

After reading many horror stories of how British sports cars seem to break down at the most unexpected moments, I decided to replace the hoses, fan belt, distributor cap, rotor, points and condenser, and fuel pump. The old parts would be carried up Moss Motors and it wasn’t long before we were ready to tough-test a Spitfire.

The day of reckoning had finally arrived! The only concern was that the midsection of the country was having a record heat wave. The Dallas area was the hottest, and this was one of my stops. Just to be safe, we loaded a little extra coolant and oil onboard, along with lots of sunscreen and ice.

The throaty sound of the Triumph fired up at 6:30 a.m. Everything was going great until we hit the Nebraska state line. It seemed to be the start of the inferno—at least that’s what the temperature gauge on the car was saying. From this point on, our speed range was from 50 to 65 mph, depending on the temperature gauge. After many stops to refuel the Triumph and cool down our parched throats, we ran across the cute little town of Stockton, Kansas, at about 5:30 p.m. We noticed that there were children playing in the yards and adults doing many outdoor activities.

As we passed by a bank that displayed the time and temperature, we figured out what the problem was: the ambient temperature was 103. At about 7:30 p.m., we completed the last leg of the journey to Sell, Kansas. As we pulled into the motel, I noticed that the Spitfire would not idle very well—in fact, not at all. Looking at the temperature gauge, I told myself that it would probably run fine in the morning after a good cool-down period.

Well, morning arrived, and at a welcome cooler temperature, it was now time to check all of the fluids. The engine needed a little oil because it’s British (leaks), and the coolant level was fine. I was pleased with what I saw until I started the engine. It was a repeat of the idle from yesterday afternoon. Well, when you are 700 miles from anywhere called home and you have a problem like this, your mind can go in all sorts of directions.

After I regrouped my thoughts, I checked the adjustment of the carburetor. At that moment, I remembered a saying a friend told me about British cars: “If you think you have a fuel problem, nine times out of 10, it’s electric.” So I checked the spark plugs and they looked good. I now thought distributor, but before I left Casper, I had replaced points, condenser, rotor, and distributor cap. I popped the cap off and checked the point gap. It was about nonexistent, so I grabbed the distributor shaft and checked for wobble. It was good because I had had new bushings machined for the distributor three months ago. The only other possibility was that the wick to lubricate the fiber block on the points was gone, and the grease used to lube the points after installation had finally disappeared. I readjusted the points and applied a dab of grease to the shaft lobes. After putting the distributor cap on, we turned the engine over again. A perfect idle and a sigh of relief appeared. A dab of grease on the lobes every morning during the rest of the trip prevented this problem from recurring.

The trip to Dallas was without problems except for bearing the enormous amount of heat the sky dropped upon us. Without too much surprise, we saw many vehicles on the side of the road with their hoods up and green fluid gurgling from their engine compartments.

After two days of driving, you would think that you would need to clean the windscreen a few times, but the heat was so intense that the bugs refused to take to the air. I surely couldn’t blame them for that decision. The temperature that day was not meant for human, beast, or machine, for that matter. I was very impressed that the engine purred like a kitten on this extremely warm day. Dallas had only reached about 106°.

The third morning we did the inspection ritual again. Everything looked pleasantly well. We were excited that we would complete the first half of our journey today. However, the excitement subsided during the heat encountered on I-20 from Dallas to Shreveport. I didn’t believe anything could be this hot. Just placing your arm out over the door while running down the highway would burn it. We finally saw the Louisiana state line and felt a sigh of relief. As we approached the welcome sign, I had to pull over and get pictures to prove that a little put-together Spitfire had made it from Wyoming to Louisiana. This made the whole trip worthwhile. We continued our trek southward to the Gulf Coast. As we reached Opelousas, we encountered a rain shower. This truly was a gift from above. It was incredible and welcome to see how fast a temperature gauge reading could drop on a car. We reached our destination about an hour and a half later. It felt like we had just completed a mountain climbing expedition. Now we could finally rest.

The next morning during the inspection, we found green stuff on the ground below the fan area. I really felt that I must have been living right to have the water pump go out at the point of my destination. Surely, I would have had no problem getting a water pump for a British sports car on the side of the road in nowhere, Oklahoma. It was time to get out the Moss catalog. (NEVER LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT!) I then called Cody at Moss Motors and told him a water pump second-day air would be perfect for me. The UPS truck drove up two days later, and within a half-hour we had wheels.

After spending time with family, it was time to complete the last part of the journey and time for the Triumph to head back north. The temperatures were nice in South Louisiana, but by the time we hit Shreveport, it was heat city. The Spitfire made the trip to Dallas without a hiccup. The second day to Hays, Kansas, was as uneventful as the day before. All that was left was one last full day of driving.

By the time we reached Ogallala, Nebraska, it was finally cool enough to take the top down. This was the first time it was cool enough and dry enough on the entire trip to do this. This lasted until Torrington, Wyoming, where the rain started again. Even the rain was belter than wilting in the intense heat. We soon were able to see the end of the journey ahead of us. Casper was about five miles away when the alternator light decided to pay us a visit. I thought again that my daughter or I must be living right to have the only real problems happen at the end of each leg of our journey. The alternator had decided to start overcharging because the nut holding the rectifier to the chassis of the alternator was gone. This caused the regulator to have a failure. This problem is in the process of being rectified.

After looking back on the trip and the performance of the car, I feel that not all British sports cars are unreliable. Even if they were, I’d still make the trip again for the sheer adventure!

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