If you were snowshoeing one crisp day late in November, 1980, through peaks 8000 to 9000 feet in the air just south of Lake Tahoe and heard a single car ruining the silence of that day as it roared, half-muffled, through the valley below, the jerk driving the car was me, me in my 1962 British-racing-green Triumph TR-4. In my head, though, I was Tazio Nuvolari at the Mille Miglia in my bright-red Ferrari. I’m just out of a hairpin, redlining it in second gear. Bang! The car’s in third and pushing me back in my seat, accelerating. I hit fourth gear and there are fewer Gs, but still a lot. The noise of the wind through my helmet, from the engine, and from the tires is almost overwhelming, but now I can just hear the “Bravos” and the “Vivas” from the crowds lining the final straightaway. Champagne and garlands await me. The car screams to the finish line, streaks under the pennants, and then its engine pops uproariously as it is finally allowed to backoff. . . . Actually, the Triumph is carrying me and my pal back from a reunion of old friends at the lake and the two of us are having a glorious time, shouting stories of our current lives over the sound of the two-month-old rebuilt engine.
The Triumph is cruising on new radials, clinging to the two-lane highway ’s modest banks and curves fairly well, in that way a decent car has of making its driver suspect greatness in himself. I was feeling cocky, in other words, and though I might have ruined your silence during those four or five minutes it took for the Twentieth Century to barge in and out of your hearing range, consider this: it was the last day I truly enjoyed the car for what it was meant to provide.
Five years later I still own and drive the Triumph, but now I worry that at any moment its door might flap open on a curve, or that a coupling in the steering linkage will jam and I’ll be borne off-road and toward a mighty eucalyptus, or that the damn thing will simply blow up right on the spot, leaving nothing but a small mushroom cloud where it and I once were.
My Triumph, not once but twice — and for entirely different reasons — has lost a wheel while I was driving it, the second time at high speed. It has lost its lights in the middle of the night for a second and then regained them, never again to lose them. A quarter-inch-long section of throttle linkage burst loose and lost itself, bringing the Triumph to its familiar state of rest just as I was driving it to the home of someone who’d said he wanted to buy a TR. It took four hours of futile searching for the twenty-one-year-old part I needed before I finally had to re-tap threads and substitute a bolt of non-British manufacture to get the car moving again, too late for the appointment. I do not loan this car to friends temporarily wheel-less; but then, they don’t ask for the loan.
I did not sell the car on that first attempt, nor was I able to sell it on a second try that lasted through four weeks of classified ads featuring a sales price that steadily declined to a point below what I paid for it when it was a non vintage fifteen years old. The car and I seem to be wed, like two unhappy Hapsburgs under imperial pressure, in a union that cannot be broken no matter how obvious the signs are nor intense the efforts of either party to get the hell out. My Triumph.
When I was a kid, ten or eleven, I read car magazines the way other kids read comic books. Not the hot-rod mags or how-to modem mechanics magazines that honestly and earnestly explained carburetor overhaul and compression-boosting exhaust systems, but the consumer slicks aimed at an older and more affluent readership — the Car and Drivers or Road and Tracks of the time — plus the nifty brochures available from dealers in Detroit iron. I was into style, not substance. I’d look at the body first and find out only enough about the car’s performance to see if all that promise inherent in its design was realized in its 0-to-60 m.p.h. or top-speed numbers.
Think of the races: Niirburgring, Le Mans, Targa Florio, Watkins Glen, Monza, Monaco, Mille Miglia . . . Madonna, what places they must have been! The drivers: Juan Manuel Fangio, Graham Hill, Joachim Bonnier, Masten Gregory, Briggs Cunningham, Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham. Names like theirs dripped class. Even the cars had movie names: Cooper-Coventry Climax, Lotus, Cooper-Bristol, Ferrari. Maserati, Alfa-Romeo. Even the lesser cars within reach of weekend racers and weekend races had messages of grandeur. Little Fiat-Abarths and mini-Coopers with the back ends opened up to make room for breathing apparatus, Alfa Giulias screaming past bigger Porsches on improvised airport courses. What could a kid do but surrender his dream time to auto racing? Not to Daytona and Sebring, and for God’s sake not to the dirt tracks of the good ol’ boys down South, but to the Campari-and-soda, gentlemanly world of high-winding European cars with their Lollobrigida fenders and low hoods, their gussy, curving British and Italian bodies. Aston-Martin DB 4s and Ferrari Testa Rosas, Morgans, Cobras, Cad-Allards with leather straps to keep hood on, long, louvered, ported, cigar bodies with big, gum-droppy tires, bubble coupes, doublebubble coupes. It didn’t matter what class, what engine displacement — they were all out of reach.
I got through the high school years out of danger of sports car ownership, content with a stock ’51 Chevy coupe, content to fondle the fenders of a friend’s father’s MG A. There was a crucial moment as I graduated and was bound for a small, expensive Wisconsin college on the earnings of two summers of construction work, a small scholarship, and my parent’s savings. The TR-3 had caught my eye, this squat frog that outran MGs (after all, hadn’t Dan Gurney gotten his start in Southern California racing his TR-2?), and I tried at the eleventh hour to talk my parents into letting me trade wheel-less and expensive Wisconsin for the more affordable Arizona State University and a TR-3, but it didn’t work. After that, my car history was all Volkswagens and a Fiat sedan — a sad enough history at that, but nothing like that of my Triumph.
Now, I’m not the kind of guy who lives to take the TR up to Mammoth for a long weekend topped off at its conclusion with a steak and a St. Pauli Girl. Nor would I want to cruise in my Mercedes with sunroof to Prospect Street, looking for a parking spot out front of the tournedoes in brown sauce so I could watch the street closely for anybody who might park next to it and put a ding in the rolling bank account. I don’t want to go to the track in my LeBaron convertible and talk currency over a Glenlivet, or BMW my way to Microchip Valley, or put the 280Z on I-5 heading for a success seminar. I don’t covet chromed Jeeps, or carpeted vans, or personnel-carrier pickups that could cross the storm-swollen rivers of El Cajon.
I just want a car with a little bit of power, enough to get from the on-ramp into the right-hand lane at a speed that won’t put me at the mercy of some callous grump who’d rather Ben-Hur me into the ice plant than let me in. I’d like it to be dependable so that I don’t have to have two of them in case one breaks down. I want it to be a touch sensitive and agile, so that I don’t fall asleep at the wheel and can also get out of the way of a collision. It doesn’t have to look like a personal computer; in fact. I’d rather it didn’t because I want to be able to change its oil and plugs and time it and maybe adjust the valves myself. It doesn’t really have to look good at all but, you know, it ought to have some class even if my livelihood doesn’t depend on impressing the clients. This is, after all, San Diego, a stratum of Southern California, freeway-world, mirrorland. So you can play around a little with your transportation, you can have an open car, a lightweight car that doesn’t have to contend with axle-busting potholes and apocalyptic weather. Have some fun.
That’s what I was thinking when I bought the TR-4 some twenty years after my initial, adolescent urge for one sprang up. Now there’s a lesson I should have learned but didn’t: anything that takes that long to do, shouldn’t be done.
I knew I didn’t know old sports cars, and my 1972 Fiat had taught me I didn’t really know cars, so what I did in 1977 was hire a mechanic whose business was to search out and examine used cars. Tom (not his real name, nor are the names of others in this piece, who didn’t know they might appear in a story years later) drove a little roadster himself, a Datsun from, I think, 1967 that he called his “Fair Lady.’’ I thought that a bit sweet at the time but later found out that’s what the Japanese named them. Tom also said he had worked for a Triumph dealer as a mechanic. So I was pleased. I told him I was willing to pay $2000 for a car that didn’t look any better or well-ordered than I did, but that the car had to be mechanically terrific. Tom said this gave him confidence.
A few weeks later, in October, Tom called to say he’d found what I was looking for up in Clairemont. Its owner had finished rebuilding the engine less than 500 miles ago and had all the receipts for parts he’d bought, assembled, and installed. He was only asking $1400 because the interior was ratty, “but the body’s real fine,’’ Tom
1 said. The next night we went up to Clairemont to the home of . . . let’s call him Dick, Dick Marichal. It all seemed pretty much as Tom had described it: Dick was low-key and competent; the garage of his home was a work space with a long, broad wooden workbench against a wall hung with tools. A big block and tackle for pulling engines was in one comer and the floor was cleaner than the floor of my Fiat sedan. The TR sat in the garage’s center, not showy with new paint but — how can I put it? — looking like a solid, respected veteran. On the other side of the TR-4 sat a gleaming Morgan — a British novelty that continued
to look like a meatier version of the old TC, TD, and TF MGs long after MG had discovered streamlining — and Dick was in the process of getting that car ready for the street. He also owned and raced another TR-4 that we visited where it was stored in a neighbor’s garage. I was impressed.
On the test drive through the neighborhood, the offered TR-4 was a bit balky. “Cold,” said Dick, even after the choke seemed to help only a little. But then, I was already sold. What did I know next to two mechanics, one of them professional? I thought I’d throw in some negative observation to show that 1 wasn’t a sucker, and observed as how it could use a muffler. “Yes,” said Dick, reasonably, “it does need a muffler.’’ I had fourteen one-hundred-dollar bills in my back pocket and when we got back to the garage I laid them on the workbench. Dick’s eyes widened. He signed the pink slip over and I remembered to ask for the parts receipts. I wanted to show the person who might one day buy the car from me as much of its history as I could. “Hmmm, the receipts. You want the receipts?” Dick said. There was a slight pause.
“May as well,” I said. He went to get them, we said good-bye, Tom and Dick and I, and I drove the TR-4 out of the driveway, not without first having to ask where reverse was.
So by mid-October .1977 I owned what I considered to be a sensible yet jaunty sports car and still had $600 I didn’t spend with which to make some minor upscale improvements. The horns weren’t working, neither was the windshield wiper motor, and there were two rust spots on the body just forward of both rear wheel wells. Maybe I’d get a new ragtop to replace the discolored old white one with its clouded plastic rear window panels. The seats didn’t match and were starting to rip. If I went to the right places and did some of the simple work myself, the leftover $600 could cover all those projects.
I might have been heading up on the scale, but the car was moving in the opposite direction, rapidly. It began missing the third day I had it. I called Tom, then Dick to give both the news. Both said I should check the plugs. The first one was covered with oil and soot, the second too. So were the third and the fourth. I replaced the plugs, and the car and I picked up strength. A few days later, the symptoms recurred. On Tom’s advice I installed a “hotter” set of plugs and for three more days I was on the road, hopes high, wind in my hair. I was a bit surprised to discover the oil pressure needle dropping off to the left of center, but figured the two quarts I added must have been missing when I left Dick’s garage. But then, after another week, the needle dropped from dead center again and I discovered that my capacity to hope springs just about twelve days, not an eternity. There may have been no oil spots on the concrete over which my TR-4 hunkered so seemingly powerful, but there was no reason for optimism.
Tom tried to revive me on my third call to him. New rings on new pistons take a while to seat themselves and during that time the engine will burn up some of its oil, he said. It’s not a difficult concept to grasp if you’ve seen a piston with its rings, which I had. They look something like this:
What’s supposed to take place is, those rings, the horizontal bands toward the top of the piston, are supposed to expand just beyond the piston so that they’re snug against the cylinder wall (not shown), snug enough so that the oil bathing the bottom end of the piston rod and the crankshaft (not shown) to which it’s attached does not creep up into the combustion chamber just north of the piston’s top, where it would get burned up along with the gasoline, some of it remaining behind to leak onto the spark plug tip and foul the plugs.
My car was burning up two quarts of oil a week, and I was driving it only to work and back, fifteen miles a day. If it had rings at all, they must have taken up some function other than the one for which they were designed. I began to notice plumes of smoke from my exhaust — white smoke, black smoke, blue smoke. I was black and blue.
Other things were happening. Two tires peeled apart, revealing themselves to be retreads, a detail my positive thinking in Dick’s garage caused me to overlook. I bought five Semperit radials and mounted them on the wire wheels, which gave the TR-4 a capable look as long as the engine wasn’t running. The battery went dead. I re-laced it. Three hundred of the $600 I was going to use for minor upscaling had now been used up on major maintenance. Still, Tom and Dick were sounding as though I had no problem, oil consumption, plumes, and misfiring or no. So after three weeks of owning the car I took it to Harry, the trustworthy if expensive garage owner who’d worked on my Fiat. Just what I’d paid out $1400 to avoid doing. “I wish you’d brought it to me for a look at it before you bought it,” Harry said after listening to the engine. ‘‘I think I hear piston slap.” This is a rattle that indicates that the pistons are so loosely attached to the crankshaft that they ’re raising hell inside the block, and might just sever themselves from the crank. When he said he heard it, I thought I heard it. I called Tom to tell him. I took the car to yet another mechanic, for an assessment, and without prompting from me he said he thought he heard piston slap.
Well, for those who don’t know it, the pistons and the crankshaft are as deep inside an engine as anyone can ever get. To get to them you have to get to everything else first, and there’s no real way to know what’s going on without dismantling. I told Harry, a few weeks after he and I listened to the ugly rattle of my engine, that he should dismantle. By November 29 he showed me scorched pistons, useless rings, scored bearings. The camshaft needed grinding and polishing, so did the crankshaft. I needed a new oil slinger and new valve lifters and more. All these parts were supposed to have been installed new or rebuilt maybe 700 miles before and yet Harry was telling me, “It’s obvious nothing’s been done to that engine in at least 50,000 miles.” Harry did a quick estimate that it would take $1200 parts and labor to rebuild the engine.
I meditated over the receipts from Dick, looking for a message that could explain what had happened and how to prove it. Harry had said the camshaft needed grinding but I had Dick’s receipt from a machine shop for a TR-4 custom cam regrind on which Dick had scribbled “street car.” I took the cam to the shop and the owner pointed out that the cam didn’t bear his grinding stamp. He gave me a letter saying he never ground the cam. Then there were the main bearings. These are trivial-looking metal sleeves that must be perfectly round and smooth so that the heavy couplings at the bottoms of the piston rods can rotate in harmony with the crankshaft. They look vaguely like this:
Receipts showed somebody’s bearings had been ground .020 of an inch, but the bearings from my car were stamped .010 It dawned on me that the receipts were for parts in Marichal’s car, or for parts bound for his Morgan’s engine, because Morgans use TR-4 engines. Maybe that was why Dick Marichal had been reluctant to hand the receipts over. Too late, I was getting smart.
I called Tom and asked him to go to Harry’s garage to look at the disassembled engine, which he did, afterward telling me he agreed the engine had not been rebuilt, and then called Dick to suggest we all meet over at Harry’s to work out the problem. On January 3, 1978, Tom, Dick, and Harry came together with me for the first and last time. I thought the moment of truth had arrived.
There was no yelling, no shouting. Marichal turned the parts over in his hands, weighing them, while I stood around talking occasionally with Tom or Harry. The whole scene had Tom and Harry and me looking skyward and fidgety, but Marichal was methodical and unruffled. Incredibly, he suggested at first that Harry’s mechanics had botched the engine pulling it from the car, then he said some of the parts weren’t worn, then he warned me Harry was ripping me off. “You could buy three TR-4 engines for $1200,” he said. “Tell you what,” I said, “you find me a good TR-4 engine for $600 and we don’t have a problem.’'
Marichal thought for a minute and then made his first and only offer: valve lifters, pistons and liners, and piston rings from a friend’s wrecked TR-4. I said I’d accept the parts if he’d also pay for the camshaft and crankshaft grinds he’d already conceded were necessary, and for half of Harry’s labor. He refused. I toldhnim I’d take him to small claims court to try for a $750 award from him. “Do what you have to do,” I think Marichal said, walking away. Cool. Icy. That’s a sports car driver for you.
There were times during my early, Marichal days with the Triumph that I thought of getting together a few of my beefier friends and going over to Marichal’s house to kick sand on his Morgan. But he kind of looked like a cop, and besides, I’m not a macho. Well, maybe just a little. At any rate, I couldn’t just absorb the beating I was taking from Dick Marichal. I night have managed to do that if I hadn’t already been keeping anybody who’d listen informed of developments, telling friends in the heat of outrage that I was going to do such and such, telling them what Marichal had said when I said this or that. One’s stature, one’s credibility, one’s . . . let’s say it. . . ego becomes involved; a person has to do what he says he’s going to do. Such pigheadedness knows no class or political bounds. It’s probably why Ronald Reagan has dispatched the U.S.S. Ranger and the New Jersey and all those other ships with their Marines and sailors to the coasts of Central America — after all those years of slinging celluloid guns and mouthing off about communism, he’s feeling like he’s supposed to do something. I wish he could have helped me in small claims court. On the other hand, he probably would have come down on Marichal’s side, which would have been a waste, because it turned out Marichal didn’t need any help.
I made a mistake at the outset by submitting a lot of evidence — a five-page, 1600-word typed indictment supported by the letter from the camshaft grinder, a letter from Tom saying Marichal had misled us, a letter from Harry describing the condition of the engine, Marichal’s switched receipts and pictures I’d taken of the miserable and twisted parts themselves. Small claims court is not the place to be this careful; you only wind up looking like a compulsive sorehead.
While Marichal and I waited for our mano-a-mano to start, I watched one after another plaintiff say simply that this plumber caused water to overflow and ruin a carpet, that that mechanic never did the work he said he would do, that this person never paid for some service or another, and so on and so on. The plumbers and mechanics would deny what was being alleged and the judge, in this case an attorney who was being paid to fill in for the judge who was missing that day, would simply cut in half the dollar figure being asked, award the plaintiff, and send everybody quickly on their way.
Marichal sat in one of the seats across the aisle, cool as he was when last I saw him. On the other hand, I was growing clammier and more apprehensive by the minute watching the attorney/judge-for-a-day — a short man named Robert Bergen with un-modish sideburns and the look of a guy who wished he were somewhere else — dispense justice in three- or four-minute timespots. I was going to have to work fast, through a lot of material.
At the beginning, Bergen asked if either of us had anything to submit to the court. I unloaded my ten pounds of paperwork. Marichal did nothing. I started to read the statement, intending to point out at necessary spots in my interminable narrative which letter or receipt or picture bore the various smoking guns, but midway through this whine, Bergen stopped me, as I feared he might. “Mr. Dorn, this is small claims court. We don’t take this kind of evidence here. This is more like a civil case you’ve submitted for trial, where both parties have attorneys and . . .’’I don’t remember the rest. He turned to Marichal and said, “What about you, Mr. Marichal? What can you tell us about this case?”
I hadn’t gotten to any of the good stuff and here was Marichal being asked his side of things. I felt the futility of the damned. For his part, Marichal simply said he’d never offered me the receipts and didn’t know how I’d gotten them unless I’d taken folders from his workbench. The rest I can’t remember, probably because I was too busy trying to find Tom’s letter, which backed me upon Marichal’s receipts. I remember telling the judge Marichal was lying.
“Mr. Dorn,” the judge said, “you , bought a used car from Mr. Marichal and now you want him to make it a new car.
“No,” I said, “I just want him to provide me the car he said he was selling me.’’
“Mr. Dorn,’’ said Bergen, “people sell things on television all the time, and they’re lying. I’m sorry, I can’t award you any damages at all.’’ People on television do what? I was dumbfounded. A Marxist or anarchist might have said that and then bombed the television station, but why would a small claims court judge put caveat emptor in terms as cold as that and then not award the case to the sucker?
I swept up my paperwork and walked out of the courtroom while the attorney/judge was still talking. On the way out I added courtrooms to my list of institutions to be avoided at nearly any cost, hospitals and cemeteries being already on the list. Unfortunately for most of us, we eventually wind up in those three places because of the car.
It’s February, 1980. A medium-hard rain is falling on Highway 94 at about 10:00 p.m. and I’m driving west in the TR-4 at forty-five miles per hour after having soaked up a good bit of wine at a friend’s house in Lemon Grove. I’m driving below the speed limit because of the rain, my condition, and that of the windshield wiper motor, which is a memorial to the technology of the Nineteenth Century. The latter I know, because on my repair trips I have been inside it to view the levers, cams, bushings, gear wheels and odd bits that look vulnerable as clockwork in an avalanche.
To get on with it, I hear a click from the front end, nothing much, but it is followed by a sudden shudder and a crash up front as my car’s four-inch box frame hits the pavement and the left-front wheel breaks free, passing me going backwards outside my window. Sparks are flying in the night, the car is swimming left and right. I am not dreaming. This is happening. I lift my head up as high as the new $105 ragtop will let me so I can see better. I look behind me to see where cars are. I resist braking, not knowing if it will destroy the inertia which so far seems to be carrying the car in more or less a straight line, and I begin to guide it slowly to the shoulder of the freeway, cars jerking around to my left. It grinds to a halt and I leap out of it, heart pounding.
All I can think of is that wheel and tire rolling back toward Lemon Grove the wrong way into oncoming traffic, and I start running in the same direction as the tire. Cars are coming around a bend, some of them swerving either to the left or right. I have located the tire and wheel and I begin thinking about how I am to get out into the freeway to move the wheel when I see one car’s headlight, the left one, leap in the air. The first leap is immediately followed by another from the same car, which has run over the steel-and-rubber wire wheel with front and back wheels of its own. The victimized stationwagon slows and stops, just ahead of my three-wheeled Triumph. I turn back into the gloom where my tire was.
What I see next is like a scene from a cheap, cybernetic horror film — the tire and wheel are rolling crazily down the slope from the freeway’s speed lanes toward its slower lanes and the shoulder. It is rolling straight at me, its owner, its hapless, star-crossed, panicky owner. If this car does not have a soul, it is only because the devil does not permit it. The wheel comes to a halt five feet in front of me. I kick it. My foot hurts when I do.
It was the one mishap in my Triumph’s history that contained elements of mercy. The stationwagon’s driver was a wonderful guy who, even though his wife and kids were in the car, channeled his anger in the direction of the Fates and not toward me, to whom he expressed understanding. His insurance would cover his damages (and did). The Highway Patrol officer ignored my expired license and did not smell my breath.
The TR-4 was towed to my house and the next day I got out the manual to see what had happened. Four specially machined bolts holding the wire wheel to the hub had sheared off, probably because someone (not me) had tightened them too much or not enough. They look pretty much like this: [diagram]
I shopped around at junkyards for used ones without success and had to go to a Triumph dealer for replacements for the four bolts, plus a nut for each. The bolts came to eight dollars apiece, the nuts, two dollars. The total for parts was a bit more than forty dollars, about the same money as the towing company charged, so I got out of it for eighty dollars because I attached the spare myself. Of course, I'd lost a wire wheel (seventy to eighty dollars, used) and a tire, both of which destroyed themselves in the collision with the wagon, but by then I had learned not to complain about small stuff.
A person has got to be either a mechanic or rich to own an old sports car. Leaving aside the subject of riches for a moment, let’s talk about the other option, that of doing one’s own work. It is an implicit ethic surrounding old cars, particularly the British ones, that nearly anything that must be done to the car can be done by its owner. The manuals are all written with a stiff-upper-lip, can-do charm. If the retaining clip does not pry off easily, they’ll say, rig a special tool out of a hairpin and a length of stout cord. How this specially rigged tool is to overcome the problem, that is, how it is to be used, is most often left to the ingenuity of the owner. The British manuals assume a measure of dexterity is possessed by the car’s owner; they do not warn that since the clip is under tension, it will leap from its position when the tension is removed and land in some oil-soaked, filthy corner of the engine where it is difficult to retrieve. It is advisable, therefore, to have at hand some long magnetic piece of metal that can reach where one’s trembling and bloodied finger cannot. I’d like it if the manuals included this kind of advice. The manuals, when addressing particular jobs, always mention that the owner should periodically, say, once every two months, inspect and tighten any fasteners and bolts that may have come loose. Given the number of mechanical systems on any car, this means that the owner will probably be underneath his Webley-Vickers 2-plus-2 every weekend.
I suspect that this do-it-yourself stoicism arose out of the Empire and hung on long after the sun began to set on places no longer shaded by the Union Jack. No matter how wealthy the aristocratic colonial officer, if his Rover broke down on the road to Mandalay, it was he who had to crawl under it to squeeze metal. So the British sports car is linked by the demands of survival to its owner in a very personal way. All this attention to the mechanics of the car is not really aimed at winning races (it was never the British cars that won speed contests) but at getting there through whatever territory it was necessary to cross, no matter how desolate. And that is why Austin-Healys, Jaguars, MGs, and, most certainly, Triumphs cause non-British owners to curse their cars; the British simply assume that when one drives a car, one is ready for all eventualities.
Money and having it don’t entirely get the driver off the hook, though. Even the rich will have to realize that if they don’t do their own work, or are not capable of it, they run the risk of scorn from the true gentleman-driver. A mechanical illiterate who owns an old sports car is a lot like a person who goes to ski resorts to drink at the bar: the essential point of the activity is being ignored and the sham is there for others to see. Money will keep the car on the road, but it won’t buy the driver respect.
By the time of my near disaster on Highway 94, the TR-4’s engine had been rebuilt, not by me but by Harry and not for the $1200 he first estimated. nor for the $1400 he subsequently estimated after dismantling, but for $1630, the major part of which went to exotic parts that are still making their way across the Atlantic like English actors. Harry kept discovering problems: the clutch disc was scored, the clutch slave cylinder was dying, little shims and tensioners were shot and had to be ordered new because junkyard parts were as ancient and tired as my own car's. Something as simple as the eight solid, chromed cam lifters, three-inch cylinders weighing a half pound each, had to be replaced at eighteen dollars apiece for the set. We awaited their arrival as if they were semiprecious objets d’art. They were, in fact, pretty. I was sorry I couldn't have them around the house.
I transformed my $1400 Triumph into a $4000 Trimuph whose interior still looks as if it had been through a twelve-year enduro. The horns still do not work, the car still needs steering and suspension work, and if the transmission ever goes, I will have to sell the TR-4 as a paperweight. Unless, of course, I can find someone who knows transmissions and who just wants a car with a little power to run around town and have some fun in.
There are those who say that people choose their cars using the same criteria they employ in looking for lovers. This may be true. We seldom get what we’re looking for in either case, but this doesn’t constitute proof by itself. In my own case. I’d say the TR-4 as it existed in my mind before I bought it pretty much matched the woman I love; it was sporting, lively, not pretentious but good-looking, dependable. But then, why does the woman I love hate old sports cars, even good ones? We have an exceptionally good relationship and yet she dislikes my taste in cars.
I have a father-in-law who says that a person should drive only those cars manufactured in the country in which he or she is living. Given the price of import parts, this seems sound advice. But fewer and fewer of us Southern Californians are following it. And my father-in-law and mother-in-law have three cars and only one of them is domestic. I can't recall a single friend who drives a domestic car.
I think of a decal on the door of the parts store nearest my house; the store is within walking distance of my place. You might think this is good, but it counts for little. When my car is broken, I have to go all over town for parts. This shop is a speed shop catering to owners of big-bore, latter-day Barracudas. I stop by for the odd can of oil or antifreeze, but when I’m looking for a split pin for my throttle linkage, j two millimeters thick, they just suck their teeth. Their door’s decal advises, “You are what you drive.” I take offense every time I read it.