In 1977 I started a lighting maintenance company. One of my first customers was Royal Toyota on Woodward Avenue, near 13 Mile in Royal Oak, Michigan. I spent many hours as a teenager sitting in that parking lot, watching people smoke their tires—it was the epicenter of Woodward drag racing. I convinced the dealership owner to have my new company change all of the high-output fluorescent lamps in Royal Toyota’s service bay and clean the reflectors. The bay went from dingy grey to brilliant white, and I was a hero to the mechanics.
Walking through a storage area to count how many more lamps I’d need, I found a pile of British Leyland boxes stacked five feet tall. Since the dealership was in the middle of a campaign to rebuild hundreds of Toyota engines due to a recall, the Leyland boxes didn’t have an obvious explanation. I did a double-take when I saw a luggage rack on a trunk lid—and realized that there was a British car under the parts boxes. Being naturally inquisitive, I asked the owner of the dealership about the car.
From the dealership owner, I discovered it was a TR-6, stolen from the used car lot a year after its manufacture date and found stripped to the bone—literally. For some odd reason, the miscreants left the doors, hood, and trunk lid intact but gutted the engine compartment and interior. They even took any carpeting that wasn’t glued down. Did they steal the parts to rebuild another stripped car? Makes you wonder.
Since the vandalism episode, the car had been recovered; the Toyota dealer bought the shell from the insurance company for next to nothing. Since then, the car had been sitting untouched for two years. In the 1970s, a national warranty campaign paid a flat rate for mechanics to rebuild Toyota engines, a rate based on the average time it would take a mechanic to rebuild an engine. Toyota mechanics quickly became quite efficient at this task, however, and, under the warranty program, earned nearly twice the hourly rate they’d be paid to nurse the poor TR-6 back to health. No one wanted to touch the funny little convertible.
All the parts needed for the restoration were even sitting right there at the dealership. Using the loss sheet from the insurance adjuster, the dealership had cut a deal with the Triumph dealer and bought everything needed at a substantial discount. It simply wasn’t worth anyone’s time to fix it.
As the story unfolded, my eyes must have gone wide, because the dealership’s owner asked me if I had any interest in tackling the project. I was told I could bill the dealership my normal rate as an electrician, and I could work whenever I wanted to.
Of course, I said yes.
Like a jigsaw puzzle, a car can only go together one way, for the most part. Since assembly training is often done on the fly, cars are designed so the least-trained can readily assemble them. If the parts only fit one way, it’s harder to make a mistake. However, I’ve never worked a production job in my life, other than a single day in a cardboard box factory. Assembly-line jobs are mind-numbingly boring to me—trial and error was my preferred learning method. Fortunately, I had the mechanical “knack.” I was taking radios apart and getting zapped at an early age. I was also that kid that stuck two finishing nails in an electrical outlet and got blasted across the basement floor. Maybe that’s why I ended up in the electrical trade.
As an avid jigsaw puzzler, I simply saw the rebuild as a challenge. I had no boxtop to work from, but I did find a service manual in the pile. One of the first assembly tasks was loading the mahogany dashboard with gauges. I made piles of subsystem parts like I would for any puzzle. Since everything connected to it in some form or fashion, I liken the wiring harness to the edge pieces of a puzzle. I sorted the wiring equivalent of edge pieces and major parts into piles, touching and examining each component. I found boxes of clips and screws—enough to reassemble the whole car. With dozens of parts to identify, sorting through the parts was like perpetual Christmas.
Once the harness was in, everything fell into place. It was like being back in my high school shop class where we restored our teacher’s MGA; I loved every minute of it. My wife likes to tell the story of my driving that MGA—without doors, trunk lid, or hood—off school property on a parts run. As I passed, I’d wave at her when she and her classmates were out for gym class. She went out with me the first time I asked, so maybe that’s why.
The TR-6 came together pretty quickly. In went new brakes and even new steel brake lines— the car had been truly ransacked. The new differential and front and rear suspensions were easy to install. After mounting new Michelin redlines on color-matched wheels, I had myself a roller. Since I’m so tall, I had to get the dash and heating system completed before the rest of the interior—I couldn’t work under the dash with the seats in place. After some struggle with the interior, I called in an expert to stretch the new top.
I did have help installing the engine. The engine the dealership bought wasn’t new, so the dealership sent it and the used transmission to a shop for a rebuild. The dealership did the alignment, but I did everything else. I think it took me about four months to complete the project. I got the dealership’s shop foreman in to lay hands on everything I had done before I told the owner that I was done.
I was pretty proud of myself. I handed the keys to Dave, the dealership owner. He handed them back and said, “It’s yours for $500, what we paid the insurance company for the shell.” The parts and labor cost had already been settled, so this was his way of making things right with the world. I got paid to build my own car—does it get any better than that?
I brought my wife to his shop—ostensibly to show her the lighting I had done—and surprised her with the TR-6… which she didn’t know how to drive. She had a Pacer at the time, though, so she was eager to learn how to drive a stick. She’s rowed her own gears ever since.
We took the TR-6 to Florida on major freeways but took many of the coastal byways on the way back. The car was most at home on the narrow streets of Boston, but by 1983, five years after I first found it, the car was tired. The engine came out for a rebuild, and the body came off this time; Mother Nature had taken her toll. I had the frame and body dipped and propped the body up on sawhorses for rust repairs while I completely rebuilt the chassis.
Then disaster struck. Fire broke out in the garage and melted roll upon roll of black irrigation pipe I had stashed in the rafters; streams of it dropped onto the floor next to the body. The intense heat warped the body badly. Firemen sealed the car’s fate by spraying cold water on the red-hot body and forever trapping the body in its gruesome appearance. It was a total loss but not a waste; we had more fun in that car than one has a right to.
My fondest memory of that dearly departed TR-6 was when my wife and I went to K-Mart to get a new comforter, forgot which vehicle we had driven, and bought a Weber barbecue. Instead of driving home to get the Pacer or my van, the kettle rode home in the TR-6’s passenger seat; my wife rode home on the rear decklid, like a movie star or a homecoming queen.