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Column

Wimbiscus: One man's white elephant

The roof is in tatters.

The windshield is cracked. 

The hood doesn’t lock. 

And the body is an amalgam of dents, scratches and rust.

Still … it’s sleek.

It’s sexy.

And it’s very, very British.

The thing has been sitting in the garage since mid-January, taking up the spot where my car used to park, slowly dripping oil on the floor.

It’s my father-in-law George’s pride and joy (besides his only child, I mean): a 1953 MG Midget TD two-seater convertible, a real vintage English sports car.

Now when you mention English sports cars, most people think of high-performance coupes, the kind of car an English spy might drive.

This one’s pedigree, however, is closer to John Steed of “The Avengers” than James Bond 007.

George came across his first MG during a 1953 stint at U.S. Air Force boot camp in Mississippi. The car was owned by one of his fellow grunts, who evidently was a well-off grunt. And though George never touched it, let alone rode in it, it was love at first sight. It would take another 16 years before he finally consummated that passion.

MG created the TD model in the 1950s, primarily as an export for the North American market. The 1953 version had a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $2,115, which equates to around $19,725 in today’s dollars. Not chump change by anyone’s standards, but relatively accessible for what was then considered a high-performance roadster.

The car’s four-cylinder 1,250 cc engine had a top speed of 77 mph. It could do 0-60 mph in a blistering 22.7 seconds, according to a Popular Mechanics review at the time. With a fuel consumption of 26.7 miles per gallon, its 12-gallon tank gave it a range of more than 300 miles. Which was good to know, since it didn’t have a fuel gauge (a red light on the dash was supposed to come on when it was about to run dry).

A British auto magazine in the 1950s noted the car provided good “all-weather protection” by standards of the time, evidently referring to the leather roof and removable glass windows held precariously in place by a system of snaps and studs. The car had no heater, but since you practically sat on the engine, it didn’t really need one.

MGs originally came from Abingdon, a small English town located 52 miles outside of London. George’s came from London Mills, a small town located 52 miles outside of Peoria and, oddly enough, just down the road from Abingdon, Illinois. He paid around $500 to its owner, a father expecting twins who needed cash in a bad way.

The car was in pretty rough shape. Most of the instruments didn’t work. And the rest of the interior, at least what was left of it, really showed its age. The leather seats, still stuffed with horsehair, were no longer bolted to the floor, and would slide a bit if you weren’t careful. The carpet was shot, so the floor under your feet was bare plywood, through which you could watch the highway roll by in a couple places.

Still, it ran. George had the engine tuned up, and during the 1970s he and Sara would take it out on the weekends to Princeton, LaSalle-Peru and other exotic locales. 

But by the time I came on the scene, the weekend jaunts had ended and the MG sat unused under a tarp in George’s garage. And there it remained for the last four decades, right up until a couple of years ago when George suddenly got an itch to get it running again. 

That itch started when Dave, my youngest daughter Bess’s boyfriend, offered to tow it to his auto shop in Chicago and take a look at it.

Once there, his mechanic was able to start it up long enough to find several issues, including a cracked piston head. To remedy all the problems, they ended up reboring the engine and making a host of other adjustments so it could handle unleaded gas. 

The initial fix-up took about six months, followed by another six-month search for replacement tires. Finally, last summer Dave, Bess and I went to pick it up from the tire store. Driving it back through the busy Chicago streets without turn signals or license plates was a real adventure, right up until the moment the battery gave out in the middle of traffic. Apparently, the generator (or “dynamo” as the British called it) wasn’t charging the battery. 

And so the work continued. Right up until the day Dave sold his shop. At which point the MG migrated to my garage. And there it sat until last weekend.

With the apparent arrival of spring last Sunday, Sara and I decided to charge it up and take it out for a spin. After stuffing myself into the tiny driver’s compartment – no easy feat – I tried to start it. It was at this point I realized it didn’t have an ignition key, just an “on” switch and a bunch of unmarked buttons and knobs. Not knowing what else to do, I simply started pushing buttons and pulling knobs while Sara Googled “how to start a 1953 MG.” After a few minutes of trial and error, it roared to life.

“You know how to drive a stick, right?” Sara said.

“Sure,” I said. “Though the clutch is in a weird place.”

“That’s because you’re stepping on the headlight dimmer.”

I finally found the clutch and put it in first. It lurched forward and stalled. I tried again. It stalled a second time.

“Maybe you should go back to the dimmer,” Sara said.

On my third attempt, I was able to shift into second and slowly roll it out of the garage into the street. We took it around the block, and then another block for good measure. The four-speed manual transmission took some getting used to, especially first gear, which kicks like a mule. And pushing the clutch is no easy task when you’re sitting on an unbolted seat that wants to slide backward. Still, I was able to get it back in the garage before the battery died. 

It’s readily apparent that it still needs work. A lot of work.

No matter.

Because what some might dismiss as a white elephant will one day become Sara’s white MG.

• Bill Wimbiscus, former reporter and editor for The Herald-News, has lived in Joliet for 25 years. He can be reached at news@theherald-news.com.

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