27 September 2006

Magnetic Attraction

Unless we’ve been tipping too many pints with Andy Capp (a beloved British cartoon character known for his pub-hopping ways), there’s a trend towards English saloon cars evolving in the United States these days.

As most car collectors know, Great Britain has its own automotive terminology. A hood is the bonnet, a convertible top is the hood and a generator is the dynamo. So, a saloon car isn’t what Andy Capp goes pubbing in – it’s a four-door sedan.

British car fanciers are scooping up saloon cars of all types lately, and there are several reasons for the trend. First, the Harry Potter movies and the revived Mini Cooper have made British sedans cool again. Second, many wives and girlfriends of British sports car owners are tired of the inconveniences of roadsters – cramped space, windblown hair and leaky tops. Third, British sedans are actually somewhat economical, especially compared to Detroit Iron. Getting 20-25 mpg touring in a vintage car is a great selling point when gas is $3 a gallon.

Morris Minors, Anglias, Prefects, Cortinas, Minxes, Rovers, Rileys, Vauxhauls, Humbers and Wolsleys are all models that British car collectors are restoring. Those with bigger gas budgets are moving up to Jaguar and Daimler saloon cars. Those who are loyal to a particular brand of sports car seem to prefer an Austin A90, Triumph Mayflower or Herald, or an MG “Y” Series or Magnette.

It was a two-tone 1957 MG Magnette that caught our fancy during the Iola Old Car Show this past July. We spotted it for sale sitting on a trailer; our first impression was: “neat junk.” The windshield and back window were missing (albeit laying inside the car), the beautiful wood dashboard was almost completely deteriorated, and the engine compartment looked like the Bat Cave. However, there was something about that Jaguarlike maroon-and-black paint job that said the car warranted a second look.

Upon closer inspection, the body was really quite nice, the door fit was excellent, it seemed like all of the hard-to-get pieces were there, the tires (installed in 1974 and never driven on) still had nibs on them, the paint was actually quite decent and the seats were even serviceable…if you didn’t think “Pebble Beach.”

We spent the next two days bargaining on the car. Ultimately, we didn’t get it for our preferred price, but we split the difference. The clincher came when a friend with a nice car collection said, “I’ll buy it if you don’t.” Because we want to be like him when we grow up, we figured the car was worth spending more than we first offered to take home. We were also saving on shipping because we live in Iola.

Since that day two months ago, a lot has happened. We have learned more about the history of the ZA and ZB Series Magnettes than we thought we’d ever know. The ZA was brought out in 1954 alongside the MG TF roadster. It was actually more of a Wolsley than an MG. Between 1954 and 1956 about 18,000 ZA Magnettes were built.

The ZB model replaced the ZA in 1956. It had some minor changes in trim and a few mechanical updates. At some point, cars bound for the United States traded in their semaphore-type “trafficators” for regular signal lights. The car we purchased was actually titled as a ZA, but turned out to be a version of the ZB known as a Varitone. This seems to relate to the two-tone paint job, but some Varitones were also delivered in solid colors. All of them had a larger wraparound-style rear window. The larger window opening was hand fabricated from the standard ZA/ZB body stamping. MG built about 18,000 ZBs between 1956 and 1958; about 7,300 of these had the Varitone option.

The seller delivered the car to our home, and we went to work cleaning it and getting the title straightened out through the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s “Special Plates” unit. The car looked much nicer when it was clean, and we discovered that the engine could be turned with the hand crank from our MG TF. However, it had also turned hard in some spots and appeared to need more work than we originally expected. We ended up taking it out to replace or rebuild.

As the glass was already out of the windshield and backlight, and now the engine and transmission were out, we checked with a local body shop about the cost of painting the car. The price was right, so at this point we’re saving to have it painted. We also found a replacement engine, purchased a new wiring loom and located instructions on how to rebuild the wood dashboard. We actually purchased a cache of parts, which are sitting in Oregon until we find a reasonable method of transporting them back to Wisconsin.

As things are shaping up; this looks to be our first complete (or nearly complete) restoration of an old car. The prospect of fixing and rebuilding so many components is both exciting and scary. Our motivational goal is to get the car ready for the 2007 Iola Old Car Show, which will recognize the cars of 1957 with a “Coming Up 7’s” theme. We do not expect to have the interior and dashboard finished by then, but we’d like to have the car completely assembled, painted and running so we can drive it to the show and display it where it came from. As work on the car progresses, we’ll try to keep you up to speed on our project.

In the meantime, anyone interested in MG Z Series saloon cars should check out the British-based website www.magnette.org. It has oodles of photos and informative facts about these unusual cars. 
 
John "Gunner" Gunnell is the automotive books editor at Krause Publications in Iola, Wis., and former editor of Old Cars Weekly and Old Cars Price Guide.

 

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