I was ill prepared for the vintage car driving experience. A reclusive sort of fellow, all the attention is new to me. I have driven the local Northern California foothills in a very practical beige four door sedan for 14 years and doubt if anybody ever smiled at me. Now people become animated; grinning, waving, and shouting out. Any routine stop takes triple the time as kids to grandmas and grandpas want to see the car and talk. Many recall with a bright smile some similar vehicle in their past. If I'm low in spirit and cheering up seems like too much effort, I drive the beige sedan instead.
A classic car can also trigger adolescent behavior.
To my wife;
"Honey, anything you need at the store? A bar of soap? Oh, it's no problem, I'll just run out and pick it up, all for you my love! Be back in a couple of hours."
She nods and smiles, knowing it could take much longer, and still no soap.
That was the sort of thing I used to say to my mother in order to get the keys to her '60s Mustang.
How did I get this way?
I saw the roadster first in 1964, a '61 MGA convertible with the top down. It was radiant in the morning light while purring into our middle class suburban neighborhood. The shapely body had paint matching a cloudless blue sky and was brightly polished. The fenders were wonderfully distinct, sweeping from chrome trimmed headlights to bullet shaped tail lights lit red by the sun. Those lovely curves caressed only two doors, which were unmolested by handles. I wondered how they opened. California black license plates were bolted to modest chrome bumpers that both introduced the car, and bid farewell.
But the MGA didn't bid farewell because I lived at the end of the road. Indeed, it pulled up to the vacant house next door where a Realtor had recently removed the for-sale sign. A pretty woman in her thirties skillfully extracted herself, and decamped for the house. I covertly drifted nearer, and took in the simple metal dash dotted with an ample assortment of knobs and switches, several blackface gauges, as well as a Radiomobile with one center mounted speaker. As if the car itself wasn't entertainment enough. Black leather clad rails surrounded two seats of the same material, trimmed with blue piping complimenting the paint.
Later I saw the girl, for the pretty woman had a daughter in kind. With a pleasing smile, boundless energy, and undeniably cute, it is hard now to understand why the car was more captivating. Still, I was only twelve, and none too savvy about g-g-girls. I delighted in things that moved to be sure; go carts, motorcycles, cars . . . but it seemed only high speed turbulence could pleasingly mess up my hair.
The neighborhood kids played softball in the street, and that house next door was far right field. Our muscles grew, and someone eventually hit a long fly ball that crashed down within a few feet of that lovely roadster. The pretty woman was quick out of the house and intent on conversation with the fielder, me. I came away from the interview realizing for the first time that life hangs on a very thin thread. An emergency meeting of the rules committee declared right field out of bounds.
So I lived long enough to obtain a driver's license, and became heavily involved with motorcycles. As it happened, so did those next door neighbors, father and sons. We rode and raced on weekends, repaired and prepared the bikes most other nights in their garage. The MGA sat in there too, always washed and waxed, coddled by its mistress. Under watchful eyes, occasionally they let me try a hand at British car maintenance.
One day out on the desert something broke that I couldn't fix, the motorcycle had gone one way while I was headed elsewhere. Fortunately, an orthopedic surgeon was available and possessed the required tools and skill, but it kept me out of work for awhile. I hung around the motorcycle garage and found myself in close proximity to that cute girl mentioned earlier, only something had happened during the intervening years. It affected my thinking.
We found ourselves in the same room one day for about twenty minutes without a word spoken, though my mind was churning. Finally giving in to what seemed hopeless, I blurted none too delicately, "Want to go for a drive?". She replied in the affirmative, which caught me totally off guard as no planning had been done for that contingency. There followed a prolonged pause . . . about which she never made comment, but it couldn't have been more than fifteen minutes before I recovered my senses. We then climbed into my dirty old motorcycle hauling van for a drive to Foothills Park.
Finding the experience rather pleasant, we repeated it a number of times, and then something extraordinary occurred. Her mother offered me keys to the pampered MGA. I politely thanked her while snatching them up, then ran to the sports car jumping in behind the steering wheel, and my gorgeous companion of late slid into the seat beside me. The car sped out of town on the first of many day trips.
We motored up twisty roads in Coastal mountains, winding serpent like through towering redwood forests, driving the skyline taking in spectacular vistas, maybe heading down to the beach, perhaps to one of many exceptional parks, inhaling the various smells missed in hardtops, cedar campfires being a favorite, skunk not so much, waving as other sports cars rolled by, often in fog, and always with the top down. The destination really didn't matter, it was hard to take a wrong turn on Northern California back roads. Our first kiss wasn't in the MGA, but it had brought us to the location.
Several months flew by, and being a practical fellow, it seemed unlikely that life would improve much apart from this lovely young lady and her mother's car. Within a very short time we joined our lives together for good and for ill. On a wall close by is the one blurry picture of the era, only salvaged decades later with the advent of digital photography. It shows a couple of newlyweds leaving church, headed towards the mountains, waving from the MGA, with the top down of course. May 1974, the last time of the century I remember driving the little blue roadster.
My in-laws moved across a couple of valleys to the Sierra foothills, the car was driven less, and in 1981 state registration was allowed to expire. It sat in the garage for awhile, but space was at a premium, so it was ingloriously pushed outside and covered with a tarp. More time passed and it was rolled further down the hill, out of everybody's way. The tarp would break down, replacement slow to come, then the cycle would repeat. Rust began, rodents moved in, insects built nests, hot sun broke down the upholstery, paint faded, rubber parts disintegrated, and wooden floorboards rotted.
In 2010 the pink slip had my name printed on it. While undecided about the car's future, a downhill coast and a rope tow would put it in my garage. The tires amazingly could still hold air, but the brakes were shot, and with nothing to sit on a pail was utilized for a bucket seat. We pulled it to the gravel driveway, then gave it a shove down the steep grade with me sitting once again behind the wheel. As the speed picked up so did the wind turbulence, and I was hit with a bunch of happy memories. After negotiating the ninety degree turn at the bottom of the hill the decision was made . . . a driver restoration would be attempted. Perhaps a quick fix? Get the car running and do the cosmetics later? After all, "it ran when parked".
Reality was much harsher. Part after part came off as each revealed a deeper problem. Finally, the body itself was unbolted and hoisted off the chassis. Three months after being pushed into the garage, the once glorious roadster was strewn about the garage floor, on shelves, and hanging from the walls. Uh oh . . .
Surprisingly, almost any part could be purchased if not repaired. Sets of rubber grommets, interior furnishings, even a crankshaft if needed. An incredible amount of restoration information can be found online, I poured through it. Hour by hour salvageable parts were cleaned, sand blasted, and otherwise prepped and painted. This was labor intensive, but inexpensive. A spreadsheet of many needed parts was created, and the price of each seemed quite reasonable. It was adding them all up that caused me great pain.
Parts were bought nonetheless, the body was bolted to the now finished chassis, then sent out for paint. When it came back progress was finally exciting. Assembling the dash went quickly and hinted this thing was really a car. The piping had to be sandwiched properly between the body when hanging fenders, and took persistence and multiple tries. Much of the interior installed quickly in a straightforward manner, though covering the twisted cockpit rails in leather was a trick. Mounting the windshield in its multiple piece chrome frame was a complete failure, until a workable technique emerged. Electrical wiring and proper routing required care and study, as did rebuilding the engine. But the roadster was taking shape.
Two and a half years following dissection, the engine started. Several weeks later the car backed out and motored up the drive. On a lovely September day in 2012, 30 years idle, the MGA went on the road again. Life changed.
After several dormant decades a once dying roadster is twisting through mountain passes again, traversing Sierra meadows colored with wildflowers, feeling small under giant Sequoias, hugging the road while looking over steep cliffs with small rivers far below, and even combusting salt air along the Pacific coastline. But now it is a classic car, the sight of which brightens the lives of many who see it, and hear the history behind it.
Still, as lovely as vintage car ownership can be, it doesn't compare to 40 years of marriage to the girl next door.