How a 15-year-old’s MGA went from dream to tribute

In 2012, Daniel Harrison was your average 15 year-old kid, living a simple life in the Los Angeles suburbs with his parents and younger brother. A little more than four years later, his still-young age belies a maturity earned through life’s tragedies and the triumphs of successfully getting a British sports car to run for more than two days straight.

The car in question is a 1958 MGA. It first entered Harrison’s life as a tired, canary yellow project with red wire wheels. Even for a kid obsessed with cars, this old British roadster was hardly the obvious first car for a teenager. But then, Harrison is, self-admittedly, both an anomaly and an anachronism.

“I’m totally living in the wrong time,” says Harrison. “I just have this very romantic attachment to the 1950s and to Britain in particular.”

As unsightly as the MGA was at the time, Harrison was enthralled. His family home is located just down the hill from Paramount Ranch, an active film set in the hills above Malibu, Calif., that, for a brief moment in the 1950s, was also the site of a race track where the likes of Dan Gurney, Richie Ginther, and John von Neumann battled for position in the sports cars of the day: Ferraris, Mercedes, Corvettes, and, in large numbers, MGs.

As a child, Harrison loved retracing the remnants of the Paramount Ranch circuit, and now he, too, owns a car like those that once sped over the track’s curves. He spent his first night with the MGA in the garage, sitting in the car and going over every letter on each gauge and knob, overwhelmed by the car’s age and character.

His parents were skeptical of their son’s ability to navigate L.A.’s traffic safely in a ratty old British roadster. But they supported and encouraged his efforts, with Harrison’s mother, Helen, becoming his most enthusiastic cheerleader.

Harrison has been fascinated with cars all his life but had little experience working under the hood. His limited skills were further tested when he discovered how much work the MGA needed: The brakes were gone, the differential was shot, and the engine needed a rebuild. And then there was the body: The doors on MGAs are structurally important—leave the car sitting with the doors open for a day and you’re liable to return to a sagging car and have trouble closing those doors—and the doors on Daniel’s MGA showed extensive rust when he began poking around.

With no one around to warn him against trying, however, Harrison started small and graduated to ever more complex tasks as his skillset improved. Suspension. Then the brakes. Eventually he disassembled and inspected the differential. His confidence grew by the day and his parents gradually came to see that their son might just have a knack for this. Helen was particularly proud of her son and the car he was resurrecting.

Helen, however, was never able to see her son finish his MGA: She passed away from cancer when Daniel was a sophomore in high school, less than a year after he first got the car.

In her life, Helen had been an artist—using pastels to capture the flowers and landscapes of her native England. Harrison vowed to take his family’s loss and funnel it into his own piece of art: He christened the MGA “Helen” in honor of his mother and vowed that the car would be his tribute to her.

Now four years into his ownership, the MGA is better than new. Sporting new paint (a Jaguar color) and the 1.8-liter MGB engine that Harrison rebuilt, along with a rebuilt gearbox, and new wiring harness. For Harrison, however, he cares only that it would make his mother proud. As an homage to her, he replaced the car’s radio with a small canvas print of one of his mother’s artworks—a pastel of California poppies.

“The goal was always to finish the car for her,” says Harrison. “She was so excited, so giddy, for me with this car and she really wanted me to finish it and make her proud. I think I’ve done that.”

This process also gave Harrison, now an engineering student at the University of California, San Diego, self-confidence. So much so that he now sees the car as an extension of himself.

“I hope people see this car and understand how hard I worked to make it run well for more than a week, which I’ve finally achieved,” he says. “I mean, it’s Tuesday and it’s been going for seven days now! That’s a big achievement for me, but if the car’s not happy, I’m not happy.”

One thing’s for certain, Helen would be thrilled at what her son and this car have become.