About 33 years ago, Don Don Tonks wanted a Model A Ford. He came across a Morris Garage machine during that quest. Now 82 years old, Don has never owned a Model A, but he’s collected quite a few MGs.
Some of the cars came to Don in boxes, while others came as rollers. While Don once rebuilt, restored, and even painted all the cars, these days he spends time enjoying his fleet by taking them out for a spin. But even now, Don is keeping his eyes peeled for the next MG project.
Don has two garages in his home in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. One has three MGTDs, a 1917 MG YA, an MG Arnolt, and even a 76 MGB. And that’s not all. ‘Tucked away in various states of finish elsewhere are a few Lincoln Continentals, a Mercedes 220, a Porsche, a few T’-Birds, a Pan-American replica race car, a Ford Mustang, a ’33 Ford, and a ’51 Mercury that Don says he’s saving “for [his] old age.”
With the exception of the ’76 MGB, which rolled into the driveway under its own power, most of Don’s MGs came to him in pieces or in ragged states of disrepair. He still enjoys taking his first TD for a regular spin, but the car was more spun than spinning when Don picked it up 33 years ago from a neighbor for the princely sum of $400. He eyeballed the car for a while, eventually convincing himself that the TD looked enough like the Model A he coveted. The car turned out to be a running graduate of the just-barely-enough school of auto repair.
“It was a running car, but it had screen-door hooks for the doors,” Don remembers. “Anything that didn’t make it run, they didn’t fix!”
One was not nearly enough: Three years after picking up his first TD, Don dove into reviving a second. It was truly a basket case. ‘The previous owner had taken the car apart to restore for his wife.Three kids later, he decided it was never going to be done. Don arrived in a pickup with $407 in hand to collect the body, frame, and seven boxes of pans. Upon witnessing the disaster that was once a perfectly good TD, Don’s brother Roy remarked, “A guy who would buy this will buy anything!”
Don didn’t let the fact that he was an American car aficionado at the time dissuade him. He had no idea how to assemble a TD from a pile of parts, but he got it done over the course of a few years.
TD number three had been sitting in pieces for 10 years by the time Don picked it up. This one came together faster. Don still has all three running-and-registered TDs.
Somewhat satisfied with the sporting side of his postwar MG stable, Don figured he would move onto something a bit more luxurious. Thanks to a tip from none other than Mike Goodman himself, Don soon found the shell of a 1917 MC YA—on top of a building! With no other place to store it, the owner had hoisted the car’s body and all its disassembled parts up on top of his roof. So once again, a heap of boxes and parts rolled into Don’s garage.
Don first got the body dipped lo remove the rust and decay collected during its roofing days. The next step was to repair some rear body damage and find a replacement spare wheel cover. Today, the YA’s only missing equipment is the semaphore control. Whatever collection of bakelite and rubber that made it work had long since disintegrated by the time Don took over. This part is evidently still made of unobtainium.
The YA sports the same engine as the TD but hefts bit more weight behind the bonnet, making for nothing speedy about traveling in MG luxury. “They run good al about 45 mph,” Don says. “They’ll go faster—but they don’t want to.”
One of the more interesting cars in Don’s MG stable is his ’52 Arnolt. The brainchild of Stanley Harold “Wacky” Arnolt, the little MG sports some Italian heritage, thanks to its handcrafted Bertone body. Arnolt, a major MG dealer, purchased the running chassis from MG, then had Bertone do the coachwork. With the advent of modern monocoque body construction (or what we refer to today as unit-body), car and body building techniques were squeezing many of the Italian coachbuilders out of business. With the demand for hand-built bodies on chassis waning, Bertone was more than happy to bang tin onto MG bodies.
In restoring the Arnolt, Don got a firsthand look at what it used to take to hand-build a steel body. In the process of removing the old paint, the even-older filler peeled off the car to reveal the original tin-pounder’s handiwork.
“The top was made of about 15 different parts, all welded together,” Don says.
While Don still has the original engine and transmission, the setup has been supplanted by a modem Mazda four-banger with an automatic. Don installed this al the behest of his wife, who subsequently decided that the Arnolt was not to her liking.
On the other hand, Don’s daughter enjoyed driving his first TD around the San Fernando Valley. After finding numerous notes on the windscreen urging involvement in a local club, both Don and his daughter decided to join forces with the nearby MG faithful. Even though most of the club members have now moved away from the Valley or on to the big valley in the sky, Don remembers not only the fun in driving around but the safety that came with group outings:
“We would get 12 or 14 of us together,” Don remembers. “We were enough of a novelty that people didn’t run over us. If you were out there by yourself, you would get run over!”
The most modern car in Don’s collection is a 1976 MGB. While at a British show in Ventura, California, Don got wind of the disc-braked, overdrive-equipped car and bought it sight-unseen for a mere 500 bucks. While Don had intentions of parting out the car, he changed his mind once it rolled into the driveway.
“The previous owner drove it here, and I didn’t have the heart to take it apart, so I added another car to my collection,” Don says.
While Don doesn’t work on his cars as much as he used to, he still drives his collection every chance he gets. He gets as much enjoyment out of driving them now as he did while putting them together over the years.
Don’s favorite story comes from a drive in his ’76 MGB. At an intersection in the Valley, Don saw the headlights of something massive pulling up beside him. It was none other than Jay Leno out for a ride in his massive tank-engine-powered roadster. The perpetual wisecracker yelled over the din of the government-issue Chrysler engine and said, “What are you doing in a convertible with a top up? Well…at least you’ve got the windows down!”
With that Jay sped away, and Don kept on driving and smiling.
By Mike Bumbeck