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Just Can't Top This: Spotlight on Convertibles

This MG-TC Roadster Had Character, Like Its Owner

June 25, 1998|ROBERT BEAMESDERFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Robert Beamesderfer is Highway 1's news editor

I can't say for certain if it was the first time I'd ridden in a convertible, but it's the one that sticks in my mind 28 years later.

Sure, as a little kid I'd probably been in a few top-down cars, but at a single-digit age, I didn't find it much different from something at an amusement park.

But my friend John's 1946 MG-TC was another world entirely.

John was the cool "older guy"--in his 30s--and son of an elder in my father's small Presbyterian parish in Chicago. He didn't care that a geeky 14-year-old wanted to hang out, absorb his automotive knowledge and read a seemingly endless collection of Road & Tracks. He would even indulge requests for a ride if his girlfriend wasn't around or if an errand needed running.

The TC was the first of Morris Garage's post-World War II roadsters and retained 1930s styling: separate fenders and headlights, running boards, side curtains instead of glass roll-up windows, a windshield that folded down, a wood dashboard, a wood-rimmed steering wheel and tube tires on 19-inch wire wheels secured with Rudge nuts, also known as knock-offs, which were hammered on or off. And, best of all, it was right-hand drive.

A ride in this car was special. You were in a piece of automotive history, an example of prewar British motoring elegance that by 1970s standards was quite crude. It wasn't fast like the newer MGs or Triumphs. It was drafty and noisy with the top up, it had no radio and what passed for heat barely dented Chicago's frigid winter. A January spin in this car was not for the Cadillac crowd.

But when you sat in the leather seat, looked out over the long hood and heard the ticking of the valves, it was like hearing a fine string quartet, albeit recorded before stereo. With 54 horsepower, the TC wasn't going to rock anybody's world, but the ride had character.

Despite its lack of sophistication, the TC was John's pride and joy. He had restored the yellow-and-black beauty, replacing rotted parts and shelling out a lot of money for a lacquer paint job. The only flaw was that too many coats of black on the gas tank resulted in a crackle pattern.

Timing light broken? John would adjust it using a sawed-off broomstick. I don't recall how he synced the dual SU carbs, but I'm sure it wasn't anything high-tech.

Flat tire? If he didn't want to run the spare or didn't have it, he'd take the wheel off, pry off one side of the tire, find the leak in the tube, patch it and be on his way. He took a certain delight in the bewildered looks of passing motorists.

He was a careful, capable mechanic with skill born out a love for old British cars and the era they represented. So when a female friend decided to try life in a Minnesota commune that required a vow of poverty, she signed her MG-TF 1250 over to him. He drove it enough on nice days to keep the battery charged and to cycle gasoline through it. When she decided that communal poverty wasn't for her, she came back and reclaimed a vehicle that was probably in better shape than when she left it. His kindness extended as much to people as it did to cars.

John appreciated my interest in sports cars, but he also knew the territory well enough to talk me out of buying trouble. I had the chance to buy an old MGA roadster for $150 that was in need of restoration: no top, mismatched tires of unknown origin and not much left of the interior that wasn't metal. I was 15, dying to drive and sure I could put whatever a part-time job would pay into making this my version of John's TC.

He talked me out of it, assuring me that whatever I spent to restore the car would buy something better and less troublesome. It was a decision I never regretted. I knew he was right and thought his counsel would be there when I was ready to buy something else.

Then John met the human love of his life. He drove the MG less, to preserve it and to offer more comfortable transportation to his bride.

He worked at a print shop in a rough area of the West Side. The company had two plants, and John ran one while his dad ran the other.

One day his dad asked him to come over to the other shop to talk about an order. He was driving a Buick Riviera--but never completed the one-mile trip.

They didn't call it carjacking in 1972, but the result was the same. After being missing for two days, John was found shot in the head miles from the print shop.

His funeral procession on a cold, windy day in March drew quite a few members of the local vintage MG club. John's TC stayed in the garage, a riderless horse.

I always look carefully at vintage MGs to see if they're real or just a body kit slapped on an old VW. There aren't many TCs out there anymore, but I miss them far, far less than I do John's wisdom and friendship.

*

Robert Beamesderfer is Highway 1's news editor. He can be reached at bob.beamesderfer@latimes.com

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