A fully restored 1961 MGA 1600 was for sale in Florida in the same town where my Dad lived. I asked him to take a look at it, and based on his report I made an offer that I frankly thought would be unacceptable to the seller. Much to my surprise, he made a reasonable counter-offer and a deal was struck.
My Dad was kind enough to clear out some space in his garage for temporary storage and so it sat waiting to be driven to its new home in Maryland. While the restoration was excellent—the rebuilt motor hummed nicely and the gears shifted smoothly—it did need a few items to make it completely roadworthy for a long trip. New front shocks, a stainless steel exhaust system, a fan shroud, rebuilt carbs and distributor as well as new tires were added to the sharp looking green MGA.
I left Palm Coast, Florida in the morning and enjoyed 430 miles of top-down driving, staying off the highway most of the way. An intermittent rattle coming from inside the gearbox held my attention, though. I may have lost a gear tooth somewhere and it now bounces around inside the casing, was my thinking. It will have to wait until I reach Maryland to drain the case and hopefully some bit falls out while draining and solves the annoying sporadic noise. There are no shifting or gear engagement issues—so hopefully nothing serious.
The next morning greets me with fine weather, but an hour later the skies darken with rain imminent. As the sunlight diminishes, I notice the ignition light on the tach gage is flickering dimly. This was not noticeable in the bright sunlight—hmm. It’s time to put the top up anyway, so I stop under an overpass to keep dry as the rain begins. With the top successfully erected, I peek under the hood and notice my fan belt much looser than it should be. Ok, that explains the flickering ignition light. I now have something to attend to at my next fuel stop coming up shortly. Approximately 10 miles later the belt has had enough. Ignition light now on bright and steady with rapidly climbing water temperature accompanied by the crack of a snapped fan belt. I immediately shut the car down and manage to coast up an exit ramp, through a stop sign (hey, this is an emergency) and into a truck stop.
The attendant at the local Love’s Truck Stop is immensely helpful and connects me with the CarQuest folks in Benson, North Carolina who want to know if I think a fan belt for a 1962 MGA will work (their computer database only goes back to 1962). I say heck yeah it will work, can you possibly deliver it to the truck stop with a few tools to use? They too are extremely helpful as my part and tools arrive 15 minutes later. The driver assists me as we put on the new belt. I provide him with enough capital to purchase two foot-long subs as my way of saying thanks, and I’m on my way.
At first everything is honky-dory, ignition light as dark as a moonless night, water temperature looking absolutely marvelous. Cruising on the interstate with the top up is somewhat deafening so it is hard to pick up new or louder noises, but there is definitely something there. As I am digesting all of this, the ignition light comes on bright and steady. Time once again to look for the next exit and investigate. As I slow down, the noise is now very noticeable. I pull into an abandoned service station and with a look under the hood. The generator is the obvious culprit as it is producing some excruciating grinding noises.
As I am contemplating my next move at this a seldom used exit, a local gentleman happens by and is interested in my difficulties. He offers knowledge of an electric motor repair shop in Benson, North Carolina owned and run by Mr. Henry Lambert. I follow his advice and receive directions to backtrack to Henry’s shop. There is no sign on Henry’s shop; everyone in town just knows where it is so who needs a sign? Just the crazy guys on the nearby interstate driving 50-year old cars with Lucas generators, that’s who. After another inquiry to a friendly town folk, I find a back alley and Henry’s shop, which immediately transports me back in time. Old wooden shelves laden with motors, generators and armatures are on one side, and test equipment from a by-gone era are on the other side. In the rear of the shop is Henry who looks like he’s been doing this work for 50 years. He smiles as he listens to my story and then calmly hands me some tools. I remove the generator from the vehicle as Henry repairs an electric motor for another customer. I will be next for his diagnosis and prognosis.
I phone my wife to get the Moss order number as I realize the 3:00pm deadline is looming for a next day delivery. At 2:50pm Henry pronounces my generator dead and unrecoverable. The bearings are toast and some armature damage has ensued. After all my careful prep in Florida, I did not put a few drops of oil in the rear of the case for the bearings. Ugh. Well, at least now I won’t have to drain the gearbox and look for a tooth.
Henry advises me that old Ford tractors use Lucas generators (I did not know this) and that I may be able to purchase one locally although some modification might be necessary. I thank him and bite the bullet to have a generator overnighted to Henry’s shop. After reinstalling my new paperweight (maybe a doorstop?) so I have water circulation, I secure a room at a local motel about one mile away. There is a Mexican restaurant attached to this motel offering “the best Mexican food in eastern North Carolina.” I have to say that the top shelf margaritas are better than the food, but then again I am no connoisseur.
Before leaving, Henry did advise me that he does not get to his shop until 12:30pm on Fridays. Not to worry he says because the UPS man does not get there until about then anyway. Just to be safe (in case the regular driver is not working) he recommends that I stand guard outside the shop by about 11:00am since that is the absolute earliest he’s ever seen the UPS man.
At 10:40 on Friday morning I pull out of the motel parking lot and as luck would have it there is a UPS truck finishing a delivery across the street. I flag him down and ask if he has a box for Mr. Lambert’s shop addressed to me. Well sure enough he does. The driver then mentions that he delivers to Henry’s shop last because it is well known that he doesn’t open until around 12:30 on Fridays. I’m instantly reminded that I am in small town America. I sign for my package from Moss, thank the driver and motor off to the shop to await Henry’s arrival.
At 12:40pm Henry arrives on his bicycle (doctor’s orders he says) swaps out the pulley/fan assembly and bench tests my new generator. He is pleasantly surprised at the 23-amp output of this Lucas device. He double checks my MGA to ensure it is still wired with positive earth and hands me the tools to install my dynamo.
Everything checks out fine after start up so I’m on my way. After passing through Richmond, VA, shouting distance from where my generator was shipped the day before, I decide I’ve had enough of the 18 wheelers buffeting me and the MGA and transition to US 301. The ride from Hanover to Bowling Green is wonderful. The clouds have cleared out and the setting sun is over my left shoulder highlighting the multi-colored leaves on the trees. The car must be sensing that it is getting close to its new home as it appears to hum a soft and sweet tone out of its new tailpipe, water temperature drops 5 degrees and oil pressure goes up 2-3 psi.
877 miles after leaving Florida I arrive home. I surely get to know the sights, smells and sounds of the new MGA. Besides my fan belt/generator issue, it ran flawlessly and burned less than a pint of oil.
My thanks to Dad for letting me borrow some garage space for a few months, to the helpful folks at Love’s Truck Stop, to CarQuest in Benson to the gentleman who led me to find Henry Lambert’s shop. Thanks also to Moss Motors for getting my generator out the door and shipped for overnight delivery.
A special thanks to Henry for his generous assistance and for keeping his craft alive. Once he decides to hang it up, the shop will close, fade from memories and sadly there will be no one to continue his type of work. America is changing, it has been for awhile, and it’s just that this experience has brought things into focus for me.
By Ken Nagel