Me and my British ‘chick chariot,’ the MGB-GT: The good times and the bad

05/31/2014 7:00 AM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

It was on my third cup of the office thundermuck when it became clear that this month’s column would be about that indefinable quality of 1960s British engineering.

I guess the idea came to me when reading about the 50th anniversary of the Mustang, displayed at the 1964 World’s Fair. Saw a lot of cool stuff there, but I don’t recall the car. Ford put a ’Stang up on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, too. We went up there as well, but again, don’t recall such a thing.

We might have just ignored it because we weren’t Ford people. Dad stuck to Chevys and Buicks, and in my school days I drove a sweet-looking Pontiac LeMans (vinyl roof and custom wheels) and a grossly overpowered Olds 442 (only spun off the road once).

But then, just about this time 40 years ago, I acquired a bride, a reporting job at The Star and a secondhand MGB-GT, all in the space of about a week. At least one of these decisions turned out to be a blooming disaster.

I loved my little British sports car, my bucket-seated rump riding just inches above the asphalt, ripping through the gearbox, the whining engine fed by the dual carbs, the leather-wrapped steering wheel.

And the wire wheels with the knock-off hubs? To change tires, they gave you your own rubber-tipped hammer and a spanner. I mean how cool is that!? The very things James Bond would use to kill a supervillain!

I had to ferry our newlyweds’ mismatched furniture across the state to Kansas City in the rental truck, which meant the good wife ferried the MG, teaching herself to drive a stick through the hills and small towns. I confess I gritted my teeth a few times, but she figured it out. No second-gear pieces left on the road that I saw.

Driving up Grand Boulevard to The Star every day, I’d pass a big bank of mirrored windows and see myself. Young dude with lots of hair, looking gooood in his sorta-yellow sports car. (Back home, we might call the shade “calf-poop yellow.” The Leyland Motors color chart called it Snapdragon. … I saw no need to share either detail in any biker bars.)

Though expensive luxury for a young journalist, the machine paid back dividends in excitement. Take the great St. Louis blizzard run of ’75.

Mi esposa became a tad concerned that night when we could see nothing but the brake lights of a semi 15 feet in front of us. Had the trucker — who obviously had a death wish to stay on I-70 in such weather — plunged through a bridge railing, we lemmings would have followed him, screaming, into the deep waters.

Then it got worse.

MGB-GTs came with two windshield wipers, with a motor for each. One burned out, then the other. The good news was that the car was so small that my co-pilot (in life, baby, in life) and I took turns reaching out into the cold wind with a brush to scrape holes in the drifts building on the windshield. But I never lost that truck.

Ah yes, English electronics. The fan, the radio, the lights, the horn all went on the fritz at one time or another.

My theory: Once the Brits beat Hitler with their superior radar, the engineers all went down to the corner pub and got totally wasted, blotting out everything they ever knew about circuits. This is why they used to drink warm beer: Nobody could wire a refrigerator.

Oh you like that?

So a guy walks into a parts store and says, “I need a gas cap for an MG,” and the parts guy replies, “OK, that seems a fair trade.”

As time went on, more things began to go wrong. We would limp in to a small garage on 39th Street where Yorkie, a mechanic with the correct accent, would administer resuscitation. Our personal balance of trade ran more and more heavily in Great Britain’s favor.

It was a good thing that we did not have any college debt (that came later with the girls) and did not drink as heavily as our scribe peers (that came later, too). Speaking of college bills, I’m sure all Yorkie’s children went to Cambridge on my dime.

Enough was finally enough when one day in Brookside I plopped into my bucket seat and stuck the key into the starter — and pulled out what resembled a bleedin’ popsicle of junk metal, that is, the ignition and lock mechanism. I melted down.

It wasn’t long after that that I bought my first Toyota, a can-do vehicle that surely raised the reliability average of even those sturdy Japanese makes.

But I remember the first day I drove the Corolla to The Star and saw myself reflected in those windows. Who the hell was that?! What had happened to the sporty studmuffin and his chick chariot? All I saw now was a schlub piloting a brown, dumpy station wagon resembling a bolus on wheels.

It has taken years of counseling and drugs to get past that self-worthless day, that balloon-like popping of my image. I’d tell you more, but the therapist thinks it will just reopen the scars.

(Next month, the MGB-GT, the lost valley and the death of Elvis.)

To reach Darryl Levings, call 816-234-4689 or send email to levings@kcstar.com.

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