“It’ll never be an investment. It’s a money pit.” The sage words of my high school friend’s father.
My first car was a 1969 MG Midget. It had a fiberglass hard top, so I didn’t even know it was a convertible at first inspection. I knew very little about cars and even less about British cars.
I bought the car for $1,350, money I had earned working at the bakery and a few dollars that my sister Dot had loaned me. I was 15 at the time, so I drove it around quiet streets with my dad in the passenger seat. Looking back, I’m not quite sure what my dad must have thought.
On my sixteenth birthday in 1987, I got my driver’s license and registration for the MG. I proudly drove away with an unbelievable sense of freedom.
I was sure the car was perfect, but maybe the brakes needed a little work. A trip to the Jiffy shop for a “free” inspection resulted in an estimate that rivaled the purchase cost of the car. “Some of these parts are hard to find,” they said. Apparently Mr. Jiffy didn’t know about Moss Motors.
My neighbor at the time had a beautiful green MGB, and he suggested I head downtown to University Motors. After driving down the bumpy streets, the neighborhood getting worse with each block, I walked in for the first of many, many visits. A test drive later, I was told that there were no rear brakes and my steering was dangerous: “You really can’t wait to do this.” A few days later, I handed over most of the money I had left in the world, and my Midget was returned to me, safety fast. Along with my keys, John Twist handed me my worn pinion gear, the first of many decrepit parts, which took on the appearance of my own rogues’ gallery. I think that was also the first time John offered me a job. It took me a few years to take him seriously.
That Midget took me everywhere until the snow started. I didn’t drive it that first winter, instead borrowing family cars or bumming rides. Some time the next summer, I was accelerating spiritedly in second gear and heard a loud noise by my right knee followed by an angry thumping. Limping back to University Motors, using the three unangry gears to get there, they said, “Your gearbox is shot.”
This was beyond what my bakery money could handle. “You can fix this yourself, I’ll loan you my cherry picker,” Mark the mechanic said with a nonchalance I found hard to accept. I didn’t come from a particularly mechanically inclined family, so I was skeptical. Yet, a couple weeks later, my friend Paul and I stood in my garage next to a red Midget with the engine and gearbox removed. Surprising myself, a couple weeks after that I was mobile again. A lay gear with a huge bite out of it took a prized position in my gallery.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my investment in the Midget was starting to pay off. I found I had at least some mechanical aptitude and enjoyed working with my hands. I gained a confidence to take on the unknown. I learned about being careful and methodical, even when struggling with a 1275 engine.
I finally took John Twist seriously in the spring of 1990 and began working at University Motors. The benefit of youth is that everything is new, and I learned a lot that summer. Not only was it the best job I’ll ever have, it was the perfect job through the college years. There was an unending supply of work during the summer and enough hours to keep the bills paid during the school year.
My investment in my first car continued to pay off. I gained an appreciation for being on the steep side of the learning curve. I discovered life is more interesting when surrounded by smart and intriguing people. I learned that a 1974.5 MGB with a lot of body filler makes a great winter beater, leaving three tracks in deep snow—the third from the exhaust system. But more than all this, British cars taught me innumerable lessons that are analogies to life: always keep your eyes open for problems that can be fixed now; maintenance is cheaper than repair; the cheapest bid is almost never the best deal; paying more for something doesn’t guarantee a better outcome; every problem has a solution if you take time to think about it… The list really is endless.
I now own two MGs, but the Midget is long gone. A lot has changed since joining corporate life, but I get a sense of accomplishment and almost nostalgic repletion every time I work
on one of my cars, especially the British ones. I find the smell of hypoid oil and well-worn upholstery unbelievably comforting.
A first car is typically going to be a practical or inconsequential decision. In any other car, would I have learned all those valuable life lessons in such an interesting and memorable way?
In the serpentine path that brought me to today, my little red Midget was an apex. That “money pit” was an investment in life.
by TJ Verbrugge