Piston Broke Again

“How long will that job take?” my wife asked, as I headed into the garage.

I hate this question. Years of classic car ownership have taught me that fixing that annoying but almost certainly harmless rattle from under the dashboard will either take 10 minutes, two years or anything in between. And it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been tinkering (a word almost exclusively used by people who view your hobby as proof of a minor but socially-impeding personality disorder) with old cars, they’ll catch you out every time.

An extreme but nonetheless painfully true example of the fluid state of classic car maintenance is the time I embarked on a small bodywork job on my 1973 MGB GT. This was the car that replaced my much-loved first four-wheeled friend, a 1959 Morris Minor. By now I was in my mid-twenties and looking for something a little more sprightly than the undeniably cute but rather less than sporting little saloon. I wanted something less district nurse and more man about town, despite living in a village. Which is when I met a bloke in a pub.

It’s hard enough resisting tempestuous impulses involving old cars at the best of times…

A regular had just the car I needed. It’s hard enough resisting tempestuous impulses involving old cars at the best of times, but throw in a few pints of Flowers Original and there’s no chance of doing anything other than making an instant rash decision based on far too little information and a gross excess of blind enthusiasm. And beer. Which is how one Friday evening at around 9pm I became the owner of the Teal Blue MGB GT, which at 8pm I didn’t even know existed.

For several months I just drove it. Which is to say I did nothing other than maintenance jobs that took anything from a few minutes to a couple of days. But the small patch of rust at the very bottom of one front wing bothered me every time I got in or out of the car, and eventually I decided it was time I sorted it out. Doing so meant taking off the front wing, welding in a small piece of metal to replace the rust and refitting the panel. Paint could wait till the following weekend – for it was that long I thought the repair would take.

Vast sections had been eaten away by rust. The more I poked it, the more holes appeared.

Armed with a borrowed welding kit, very little idea how to use it and a hijacked corner of a friend of a friend’s barn, I set about unbolting the rust-blighted panel in preparation for a small corrective procedure. The job’s timeline went out the window from the get-go; removing the panel took me a lot longer than I’d anticipated and it took me almost all of the Saturday to successfully disentangle it from the car. When I finally did, the evening light was failing (the barn had no electricity) which was the only piece of good fortune in the whole of this tale, as it allowed me to enjoy my evening without the weight of the truth I discovered on my return the following morning.

The MG’s bodywork previously hidden by the wing contained a lot less metal than the car had left the factory with. Vast sections of bodywork had been eaten away by rust. The more I poked it, the more holes appeared. And the more I inspected other areas of the car more closely, the more I realized that a minor corrective procedure wasn’t what it needed. This wasn’t a couple of stiches and a tetanus jab, this was reconstructive surgery – Six Million Dollar Man style – and I was a hospital orderly in need of a consultant surgeon.

I had two options. I could stick the wing back on the car, polish it up and sell it, or I could buy a welder, lash out a small fortune on new panels and condemn myself to spending every spare minute I had cutting out rusty lumps of MG and welding in new ones. After I’d learnt to weld. And travelled the 10 miles from my home to the barn the car was now looking like spending considerably longer than a weekend in. Obviously, the former option was the sensible one. Equally obviously, I took the latter.

The sense of achievement I felt when I finally drove the car out of that barn was immense.

“I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger,” sang Rod Stewart. Maybe he had a rusty MGB too, as I’d certainly have taken the ‘polish it up and shift it on’ route if I’d had the slightest idea of the sheer amount of work I was about to take on. But thankfully I had no idea – even at this stage I reckoned that a couple of months’ work would have the car back on the road.

I say thankfully because although the next two years were gruesome at times – anyone who’s never had welding spatter go down their ear and sizzle like a particularly effervescent chicken shashlik doesn’t know the meaning of the word earache – the sense of achievement I felt when I finally drove the car out of that barn was immense. The only original panels left on it were the roof and the bonnet (it really had been beyond repair) and I’d repaired it. It may well have been stupid, but I learnt a lot; and not just how to weld, but how to dig deep and keep going even when every part of you just wants to give up.

Of course, the shine was taken off events six months later when the MG was stolen, never to be seen again, but that’s another story. And it’s also why, nearly 30 years later, I’m on the hunt for another MGB…

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Will Holman

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