Austin Healey

The British Marque – A Family Affair

By Joe Gliemmo

British cars have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. My Dad had an Austin-Healey 100 from the time I was 6-7 until I was 16. It was some time before I figured out why he’d sold it. He had a ‘54 model, then a ‘59 during that time. I remember many road trips and the top-down cruising at night with me asleep under the passenger side tonneau. Sometimes, roads and weather permitting, I would sit on his lap and steer and attempt to shift. Going into overdrive was easy, it was just a switch.

Austin Healey

I even had my own all-metal pedal car Austin at home. I’d never seen anything like it. It was white, just like my dad’s, with an opening boot and bonnet, chrome bumpers, working lights, red upholstery, parking brake, inflated tires, custom wheels and other items I’ve forgotten. I outgrew it in about two years, but it was much fun while it lasted. Hopefully another young car enthusiast got it and had as much fun as I did.

The British car bug resurfaced while I was in college. My roommate, fraternity brother and later, my best man, bought a 1957 TR3 in the summer between our freshman and sophomore years. The car was actually the front half of a 1957 model and the rear portion of a 1958 model ­— at least that’s what he was told when he bought it. He played with that Triumph for several years, and we spent a lot of our time and gas scouting junkyards for the parts needed.

My roommate’s brother and family lived in Slidell, Louisiana. And so, with two sets of golf clubs packed in the car, we went there for our spring break in 1971. I remember going down I-75 asleep in the passenger seat. I’d pulled an all-nighter the previous night studying for exams, and was dead tired. I slept a good two hours before waking up with about a quarter inch of snow in my lap that had come in through the gap between the fiberglass side curtain and the rag top. The starter went out on the trip down. We ended up buying one from a parts store on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. We pulled the TR up on the curb and I laid in the gutter holding the starter so he could bolt it in. I remember it was noon, and to this day, that’s been my only trip to Bourbon Street.

We actually drove that Triumph 2,700 miles on that trip. It was 900 miles to Slidell, after which we drove another 900 miles to Daytona Beach to meet some other classmates. Of course, it rained the whole time, so we were ready to get back to school in Oxford, Ohio. But we lost the oil pan plug somehow and had trouble replacing it on a Sunday. We finally got some help from an Exxon station, which saved the day! They actually made a plug that got us home. My roomie still buys Exxon gas to this day whenever he can as a payback for their “beyond the call” customer service. Thankfully, the 900 miles back to Ohio was uneventful.

I bought my first British car as a graduation present to myself in 1973. I got a Damask Red (burgundy) MGB. The cost was $3,350 and included a Panasonic Stereo with an 8- track player. I drove the car 35 miles to Dayton to pick up my fiancé so we could go buy our first 8-track at Gold Circle. When we got back into the car, it wouldn’t start. After letting half a dozen parking lot mechanics try to fix it, we called my future father-in-law, who came and got us. It was dark by then and the Gold Circle was closing. I borrowed my father-in-law’s ‘65 Impala and slept next to my new MGB. It was towed back to the dealer in the morning in Springfield, Ohio. My first 70 miles were 35 driven and 35 towed, not a good start! It turned out that the freeze plug had blown out. I ended up carrying a sawed off broomstick in my trunk. This got me by on several occasions before the dealer finally solved the compression problem.

We drove this car on our honeymoon to the Smoky Mountains, and for another 36,000 miles before trading it for a 1976 red Camaro with all the bells and whistles. I had the Camaro for a year before I realized I wasn’t ready for anything other than a British sports car.

Triumph

Next, I bought a new white 1976 TR6. When I traded the Camaro for it, I took a real beating on my pocketbook. I paid $5,400 for the TR6 plus the remainder that l owed on the Camaro ­— not the brightest financial move of my young career.

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The TR6 became my daily driver and was a blast to drive because of the speed and torque output. The only problem was that I had been promoted, and my daily commute was an hour each way on the interstate. Ten months after I bought the TR6, we found out we were pregnant with our first child. This was the last year the TR6 was produced and the price skyrocketed on cars still in inventory at the two dealerships near me. One dealership raised the new car price up to $7,400. I sold my TR6 in a week to a member of our church for several hundred dollars more than I’d paid for. I was finally able to get even financially for the Camaro deal!

We bought my wife a new 1977 four-door Chevy Concours, a nice car with all the attractive features offered at the time. She drove the Concours and I drove a 1967 Plymouth my mother gave to me. We had our second child three years later. Work and home life became so busy, we didn’t really have the time or money to think about another British sports car. That finally changed in 1992 when our youngest child was 12. I bought a red 1973 TR6 for $5,500. That was more than I paid for my white one off the showroom floor back in 1976. It was a solid, decent car but labeled a “diamond in the rough” when I entered my first car show. I kept it for five years and did all but a frame-off restoration during that time.

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This was the car the family got the most use out of. We took overnight road trips and entered several shows in the tri-state area of Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. My daughter Sarah probably enjoyed it the most. She was up for a cruise any time. We attended car shows, went to Cincinnati Reds’ games and later took an overnight road trip that included a college visit to Indiana University. We left early on a spring morning with the top down as usual and headed to Bloomington, Indiana on the back roads. We drove the 2+ hours in a light rain, and cruised through downtown Indianapolis later that night which was pretty awesome with all the lights and tall buildings. The engine with its throaty exhaust sounded particularly strong and we turned a lot of heads. We entered a British car show the next day. Though the weather was fine for most part, the new chestnut carpeting was completely soaked due to the rain and had to be removed to dry when we got home. It turned out that a large grommet was left out when the floor pans were refurbished.

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The happenings with this car could fill a book, let alone a short story. One of the neatest parts of the story concerned the garage I found to do the work I couldn’t do. Somehow, I found a two-mechanic foreign car shop in the middle of a small business complex about three miles from my house. The shop was owned by the local neurosurgeon who liked to race vintage cars (Allards) and usually blew an engine or wrecked his car at least a couple times a year. During my five years, I saw quite a handful of foreign cars being worked on. Both mechanics were former British car owners and knew almost everything about my Triumph. What they didn’t know, they looked it up. They redid the undercarriage, the engine and engine compartment, a few rusty places on the body, including the paint, and put in a new stereo and carpeting. A lot of this work I didn’t pay for ­— in fact, some of it was a surprise to me when I picked up my car. The car was always perfectly clean because they tested new cleaning products on my car before they would use them on the doctor’s $20,000 paint jobs.

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The Allards were quite special and valued at $200,000 each. Like all good things, this setup came to an end. The doctor’s wife, who paid the bills, was always complaining that the shop was a financial drain, which I’m sure it was. One of the mechanics found a higher paying job and left, and the remaining one who did most of my work, decided he wanted to be a financial planner. At least on two occasions when I had a breakdown, he picked me up with the company truck. I was never charged.

When my son was going to turn 16, I felt it was time to sell the TR6. More importantly, I didn’t get butterflies driving it anymore. Looking back, it was the only car that gave me butterflies before or after. I put an ad in the paper and sold the car in less than a week. I got the asking price, which meant I was only $500 out of pocket in five years! The cost per year was well worth it.

I went eight years before I purchased my last British car. During that time, my kids went through college and I got transferred to Alabama for work. Northern Alabama has mountains and very curvy roads. It wasn’t long before I started craving something other than a truck or SUV to drive on them. For some reason, there aren’t many sports cars in this part of the South, so I spent a lot of time browsing online for another MG or Triumph.

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I found a 1963 MGB in Arizona. There were 40-plus pictures and quite a detailed write-up about the car’s history and the restoration process it went through. Again, after looking on the internet for almost a year, this was the best example of a near-perfect British specimen I could find for the money. I was willing to pay a little more for the complete package since I wasn’t the candidate to do a restoration project. The car was up for bid. When the time came, I sweetened the bid during the last minute to $14,400 and ended being outbid by $200. Thinking it wasn’t meant to be, I went on with my day. A couple of hours later I was notified that the high bidder backed out and that the car was mine. I didn’t know you could do such a thing on eBay.

The car arrived at my house around Christmas 2005. As it turned out, it wasn’t the gift I was looking for. Watching the hauler try to start the car, I realized I had made a mistake. It wouldn’t start. We pushed it off the trailer and I got it started by rolling it down the hill in front of the house. My wife and I took the MG on a quick spin and she ended up holding the top closed so it wouldn’t blow off the car.

It went downhill from here. It turned out, the seller had not lied to me, he just didn’t disclose the real condition of the car. Lesson learned, never buy a car or pretty much anything sight unseen. The cosmetics were decent, but the mechanical systems were weak. It took several years to get the car to be what I wanted.

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The first thing I did was to get the undercarriage repaired, the rusted metal replaced, and all the tack welds that had come undone over the half century repaired. The two battery compartments were pretty much gone, and the battery was being held in place by a rusted flange and the cables themselves. My welder, known as “Tony the Tin Man,” said it was a good thing I hadn’t tried to stop too quickly coming to his shop, otherwise I would have ended up sitting on the engine!

I visited several repair shops and wasted a lot of money trying to get the car right. I found a decent foreign garage an hour away and bought a 1980 MGB Special Edition as a parts car. After a year, the MGB was pretty much new again! The transmission from the field car was reconditioned to replace the original. It was fully synchronized and had electric overdrive. The original transmission was hard to get into gear, which was the reason the former owner had sold the car. I had the same trouble. We replaced the original 2-main bearing engine with a newer 5-bearing, rebuilt engine from a ‘79 model. The engine switch allowed the engine compartment to be detailed pretty much for free, which was good. I’m embarrassed to admit, but my obsession to get this car to where I thought it should have been when I originally purchased it cost me about $35,000. It wasn’t Concours but close.

I used to take the MG out of gear and push it out of the garage when I wanted more room to work. The drive was flat enough outside the garage that the car would sit there out of gear without rolling. I never took a chance, and would always put in gear just to be safe. One day, I pushed it out to change a lightbulb in the garage door opener. When I was up on the ladder, I noticed the car rolling back. I jumped off the ladder and took off running to catch the car before it went off the driveway. As I took off, I slipped and fell flat on my elbows and was only able to watch as the MG rolled over a small apple tree and headed for the slope that led to my neighbors’ house (their garage, to be exact). They were on vacation in Hawaii and their new Lincoln and one-year-old Buick were in their garage. As I laid there on the floor, I thought the MG was going to smash through that insulated metal door and total both cars! Somehow, the MG gained speed descending the grade and veered right. It ended up missing the door but hit the bricked corner of the garage. Another three feet and it would have missed everything and started down the hill towards the rest of the neighborhood.

The car hit the wall pretty hard. Before that, it claimed a five-gallon ceramic flower container that stood off the ground about three feet on a wrought-iron stand. The power pot exploded into a thousand pieces when hit, and the stand wrapped around the rear bumper somehow. The collision into the garage was so intense the car bounced back four feet. The downspout was smashed, two quoins were smashed, two decorative bushes were uprooted and the actual framing of the garage was altered from the foundation by an inch or so.

As for the MG, it didn’t look that bad until you got up close. The plant stand was wrapped around the bumper somehow to the point where I couldn’t get it off. The right side of the car was about 1.5 inches shorter than the driver’s side. The rear quarter was pushed into the door and the door was pushed into the front quarter. Other than that, the car was okay and drove like normal. My mechanic agreed to repair the MG. He first had to get the car’s dimensions back to original specs. He put the car on a frame stretcher with the warning he might pull the car apart because of the age and the fact that it was a unibody vehicle with no real frame. The operation was a success and the resulting gaps were better than before. All the new metal and chrome was attached. The car was resprayed, cleaned up and ready to go. My mechanical shop took over from there providing finishing details like re-drilling the holes for the top and luggage rack, reinstalling the back lights etc. Total cost was $13,000, and my insurance carrier didn’t bat an eye.

The car came out of this in wonderful shape and we had fun with it the next few years by competing in a couple of “Motoring Challenges,” out-of state-car shows, and even buying a car hauler to make shows easier! The kids and grandkids got a kick out of it. My daughter was probably the biggest fan and had been dating back to the ‘76 TR6. She usually visited twice per year from California, and the MG was her car of choice. We would go to the YMCA every morning before 5 a.m., top down with heater and radio both turned up. She loved it!

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I finally decided it was time to move on from the British Marque and maybe try something else. Eventually, I decided on a Porsche of some sort. They had always fascinated me, and it’s a pretty standard opinion that German cars are some of the best on the planet. My kids, when they found out I was looking, advised me that I was not a “Porsche type of guy” ­— whatever that meant?  My mechanic was more precise in his opinion when he said I didn’t fit the Porsche mold because I wore socks! Regardless, I traded my MGB, sight unseen, to an exotic dealer in Nashville for a 2004 Porsche 911 Cabriolet Turbo. It was very clean and only had 18,000 miles on it. The dealer gave full price for my MG and knocked $5,000 off the Turbo because he liked the fact that I was half Italian.

According to my research, I still paid top price for the Porsche because it was a 9 out of 10 in my book. I put roughly $3,000 to $4,000 into it and brought it up to concours level for shows.

I thought I was going to be buried in it until my peripheral neuropathy progressed to the point where I couldn’t safely shift gears. I had that car for 17 months, during which my daughter visited three times. She never rode in the car, never saw the car or even asked about it. I ended up selling it for what I had in it and bought the S model which was eight years newer and an automatic (PDK- a paddle shifter). This is a nice car with all the bells and whistles, most of which I still don’t know how to use. Automatic or not, it’s still too much power for someone who really does not have control of his feet. I noticed my Nashville dealer friend has a nice 1976 TR6 on his lot, and he’s low on nice Porsches. I guess I’ll be giving him a call in the new year…

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