Thank God the fuel pump didn't quit on the first day. Otherwise, we surely would have been the catalyst of a CNN-worthy Interstate 80 pileup just west of the Sierra Nevada mountains' Donner Pass, where--less than 75 miles into our 2300-mile trek from California to Michigan--we found ourselves in the middle of an unseasonable early October blizzard. In the January issue of Automobile Magazine [Collectible Classic], I summarized the weeklong journey home in my newly purchased, California-clean 1967 MGB/GT Special hardtop. Here's the expanded story of how it went down, along with more photos.
I found my San Francisco MG on Craigslist, emailing owner Thom Fox within hours of the ad's posting. A few days later, I'd recruited two friends/Bay Area car journalists, Lyndon Bell of On Wheels Inc. and freelancer Scott Corlett, both of whom supplied me with photos and information that convinced me that this car was worth a formal offer and a personal trip to Frisco (where vintage cars in clean, operable condition are commonplace) to take possession. Fox, a chef who still owns a '67 MGB roadster but replaced the B/GT with a Scion xD, gave me a thorough lowdown on the B/GT Special before we signed the papers, and then he guided me to the Golden Gate Bridge. After a few photos, I familiarized myself with my new MG during a ninety-mile blast to Davis, California, where I parked it beneath a generous college friend's carport. A few hours after parking the car, I was back on a plane to Detroit. In anticipation of the pending cross-country drive, I bought a brand-new Michelin spare tire from The Tire Rack and a box of side-of-the-road spare parts from the Little British Car Co., shipping these items to the car's temporary address. Meanwhile, my dad shipped a CB radio to the car, and my co-driver and I counted down the days to our MG adventure ...
Day 1 (Davis, CA to Soda Springs, CA): Tire paranoia/weather paranoia
Thursday (intended overnight stop: Salt Lake City, Utah; actual overnight stop: Soda Springs, California)
I arrive to pick up the MG midday on Thursday, October 4, in balmy Davis, California, with my co-driver and longtime buddy, Mike McPike. My Mark 1 B/GT has been parked under my friend Jessica Oster's carport since three weeks ago, when I excitedly drove my new baby nearly 100 miles from San Francisco.
We have about 2300 miles between Davis and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and we're on a pretty tight, (what turns out to be ridiculously ambitious) 650-mile-per-day schedule to make it home in time to go to work on Monday morning. No sweat, right?! Before departing, we install halogen head- and taillamps--the better to see and be seen--and hook up a CB radio with a weather-band channel; the CB will be our sole source of in-car entertainment, since the only reminders of the car's original radio are a small console speaker and an aerial fender antenna. That's OK, though, because McPike and I grew up playing video games together, and we're thrilled at the idea of a basic, 1960s-style road trip, without modern crutches such as iPods, satellite radio, navigation systems, comfortable seats, and so on.
After carefully packing the tiny back seat and cargo area with tools, spare parts, luggage, and cameras, we leave Jessica's house at about 2pm and head straight for In-N-Out Burger, a California staple that's a must-have treat for visiting Midwesterners. Afterward, we spend a few hours at Sports Cars Limited in Sacramento, where Mike Singleton changes the fluids in the engine, the transmission, and the rear end. Singleton (who commutes in a green Mark 2 MGB roadster) also finds that the left-rear axle seal is leaking and has made the brakes greasy, so he replaces the rear shoes on both sides. He also rotates the tires and completes a basic checkover, which turns out to be quite good. Still, from beneath the car, we discover a cracked rubber steering-rack boot and well-worn wheel-hub splines, not to mention a nail-like object in the tread of one tire. Thankfully, Singleton observes nothing trip-cancelingly serious. His recommended local tire store, however, no longer services wire wheels and inner tubes, so our only mounted spare is the vintage, bald Pirelli bias-ply that came with the car; the brand-new Michelin all-season radial that I bought to match the other four tires will just take up space in the trunk for now.
Not long after leaving Singleton's shop at almost 7pm, we spot an active warning sign on I-80: "Snowing over Donner Pass. Carry Chains." What?! Soon, we're caught in a crazy Sierra Nevada snowstorm. Temperatures are near freezing, snow and slush make the highway lanes barely visible, and I feel more stressed than the San Andreas Fault. After what seems like an eternity but before officials shut down I-80, we find a shining beacon: the Rainbow Lodge in Soda Springs. Blessedly, they have rooms available. We meet another frazzled cross-country crusader, Derek Desjardins, who's driving his brand-new Mazda MX-5 from Connecticut to San Francisco. Desjardins joins us in more than one stress-relieving pint of beer as other snowbound travelers arrive at the hotel, one car behind a tow truck.
Miles flown: 2028; miles driven: 95
Day 2 (Soda Springs, CA to Carlin, NV): Weather paranoia/hood paranoia
Friday (intended overnight stop: Kearney, Nebraska; actual overnight stop: Carlin, Nevada)
In the morning, my classic car has seven inches of heavy, wet snow covering it. After mauling plates of the Rainbow Lodge's fantastic French toast, we wait around for crews to clear the road to the interstate. We finally hit the road at 11am and drive through more cold weather and assorted crappy conditions. In Nevada, an angel at Reno Tire mounts the new Michelin radial in place of the ancient bias-ply (which we keep for sentiment's sake). I'd previously had no clue how few tire shops are willing to work with inner-tubed, wire wheels. Now I know.
After lunch in Reno, I nearly soil myself when the B/GT's poorly fitting hood pops itself after we traverse a bump on the highway near Valmy, Nevada. (After inspecting the well-engineered safety catch, we treat the two-dozen subsequent reoccurrences as routine nuisances.) We make it to Carlin, Nevada, before conditions became too dark (how horrible must those original headlights be if the upgraded halogens will barely permit safe highway speeds after dark?) and too cold (how can the temperatures be near-freezing; isn't Nevada in the desert?) to justify pressing on into the barren, hotel-less Salt Flats.
Miles driven: 318 (414 miles in two days ... so how 'bout that 650-miles-per-day average?)
Day 3 (Carlin, NV to Rawlins, WY): Weather paranoia/fuel-pump paranoia
Saturday (intended overnight stop: Chicago, Illinois; actual overnight stop: Rawlins, Wyoming)
At breakfast, we fearfully overhear some truckers sharing roadkill horror stories (bear, moose, elk, cow) of the American West. Nonetheless, we make good time through the rest of Nevada and Utah, the MG's 98-hp, 1.8-liter in-line four-cylinder propelling us to cruising speeds up to 80 mph (at engine speeds well over 4000 rpm) when we aren't traveling through more snow flurries, which are quite heavy near Salt Lake City. To Michiganders, the Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake are more foreign than Jupiter. Wyoming turns out to be windy, especially from behind the wheel of a 2200-pound antique, but a Welcome Center employee disagrees ("This is jeest a geeen-tle breeeeze," he calmly drawls) and says that we'll stay ahead of the storm if we keep hustling.
Which we're doing just fine until until until ... McPike is going about 70 mph when the car starts bogging and not responding to his prods of the gas pedal. Within seconds, as he's pulling onto the shoulder of I-80, the MG stalls. Upon the cell-phone recommendation of Automobile Magazine associate editor Sam Smith, who basically grew up in an MG shop, we check the carburetor float bowls, which turn out to be empty, indicating that the fuel pump stopped doing its job. So, on Sam's advice, we lightly tap the pump with a screwdriver handle, temporarily reawakening the pump.
Meanwhile, though, the same storm has caught up, again subjecting us to more cold and rain, plus five minutes of hail while we're outside troubleshooting. Because of the moisture, the car's windows fog almost immediately once we get rolling again, so McPike--now back in the passenger seat--must regularly wipe them clean with a rag. By this time, the precipitation has turned to snow and daylight has turned to night. Soon, the wipers tangle because the passenger-side blade has slid loose and refuses to stay locked in its track. McPike yanks off the entire wiper arm. Cue an even more harrowing drive through a dark snowstorm, but this time, the fuel pump could quit at any time, we've got only one wiper, and the hood still isn't latching very reliably. Did I mention that this car also lacks four-way flashers? We stick a reflective flashing safety triangle in the rear window, leave the right turn signal on, and creep along in the slow lane at 30 mph, hoping that we don't get rear-ended by a semitruck. (That wouldn't be pretty, since the car also has basic lap belts and a metal dashboard with lots of pointy protrusions.)
The fuel pump fails three more times before we reach the Best Western in Rawlins, Wyoming, twenty agonizing miles from our initial failure. Instead of decompressing with booze, we examine the MGB service manual and the spare fuel-pump points that I'd brought along.
Miles driven: 549 (ironically, the highest of the trip)
Day 4 (Rawlins, WY to Sidney, NE): Fuel-pump paranoia
Sunday (intended overnight stop: home--Ann Arbor, Michigan; actual overnight stop: Sidney, Nebraska)
Rather than mess with the finicky fuel system's archaic (moisture weary?) points in the hotel parking lot on a windy, frigid Sunday morning in Rawlins, we find an open auto parts store in town. They have several modern electronic fuel pumps for sale--just the ticket--but we can't get ahold of anyone who knows the MG's flow rate. While we're driving around town searching for parts, however, the car is running fine, so we continue our slow trek eastward.
The fuel pump continues its anemic behavior, but it's much nicer to fix your car on the shoulder of the interstate when it's sunny and 52 degrees outside, as opposed to rainy and 34 degrees--even with eighteen-wheelers whizzing past. After cleaning the leads to the fuel-pump wires, we enjoy 150-plus miles of cruising, including a gorgeous stretch through the Medicine Bow National Forest, before the problem reappears--this time with devastating frequency. We reroute to the slower (and more interesting) Lincoln Highway to reduce demand on the crippled fuel system. In Sidney, Nebraska (home of Cabela's), we find a Wal-Mart and purchase contact cleaner and a replacement female lead, in hopes that these changes will allow us to press on.
No dice! The boosted current to the fuel pump apparently arcs the points, and it will pump only enough fuel to fill the lines once, and then it's quitsville. Our day ends in Sidney with the car running worse than ever and our back-home ETA having passed, barely halfway through the journey. The fuel pump quit ten times today, but the hood popped only twice.
Miles driven: 255
Day 5 (Sidney, NE to Underwood, IA): What-could-possibly-go-wrong-next paranoia
Monday (intended overnight stop: home; actual overnight stop: Underwood, Iowa)
First thing in the morning, we call John Twist, University Motors' dean of vintage MGs. He reveals the required fuel-flow rate and gives us some of the best news of the trip: the new fuel pump can be installed under the hood so that it pulls fuel through the original pump near the right rear wheel, minimizing the need for working under the car and wrestling with cruddy fuel lines.
This is great news because we'll be working in the gravel parking lot of Sidney's NAPA store, where two Montana-bound hunters keep us company while they replace the water pump in their late '90s Dodge Ram. It's a good thing that my co-driver is an electrical engineer at Corrsys-Datron, an automotive-sensor company, and has tons of experience working on his dad's 1954 Ford tractor--this skill set is highly useful for working with the MG's Lucas electrical system. Not wanting to waste time properly wiring the new pump to the ignition, we connect it right to the battery and mount a toggle switch under the dash. Because the car uses a positive--not negative--ground, we wire the pump backward so that the fuel flows the correct direction, and we superinsulate the charged pump from the fender with a piece of rubber cut from the old bias-ply's inner tube.
By 1pm, after checking our handiwork and buying a fire extinguisher just in case, we're eastbound and down on I-80. The temperatures are warm, the sun is shining, the windows are down, the heater is off, and our speeds are fast. This is what we'd foolishly expected for the entire trip. The only map we brought along--a U.S. road atlas circa 1974--inhales small Nebraska towns, and our mood improves exponentially. We even enjoy a sightseeing break at an original Pony Express Station in Gothenburg, Nebraska.
Once valuable daylight goes away, we feast on the Lincoln, Nebraska, Cracker Barrel's tasty chicken 'n' dumplin' dinner. For the first time this week, we continue driving after dinner, with renewed vigor and full stomachs. Nearby Omaha is the first big city we've seen since Salt Lake, and dicing with traffic on I-80's rutted lanes keeps us attentive. Strangely, the lanes seem rutted east of Omaha, too, and the MG isn't responding very well to these conditions. No worries. We've reached the Iowa state line, and we've got lots of time to make up, so the drivers shall decide when to stop driving today, rather than having our arrangements dictated by Mother Nature or Father MG ...
KA-WHAM! The left rear tire suddenly goes flat, and I dart onto the exit ramp for Underwood, Iowa, stopping before any wheel damage can occur. The emergency triangle reappears, and we swap out the spare, using the car's lead hammer to loosen and then retighten the wheel knockoff. It's definitely time to call it a night, because when the tire (which had presumably been leaking since Omaha) first went, we'd worried that the sound might have actually resulted from one of those primitive knockoffs coming loose (which they're known for), liberating a wheel to go bouncing into the darkness. Instead of attempting any more miles, we promptly ensure the tightness of all four knockoffs. Later, we loosen the caps on some Pabst Blue Ribbons at the Underwood Motel's bar, where we meet a tough, young Iowan named Joel who says that the shop where he works can repair our inner tube in the morning.
Miles driven: 417
Day 6 (Underwood, IA to West Liberty, IA): Tire paranoia/brake paranoia/tire paranoia
Tuesday (intended overnight stop: home; actual overnight stop: West Liberty, Iowa)
At the crack of dawn, we recheck tire pressures and knockoffs security, drop off our flat at Joel's employer, Doug's Auto Diesel, then head across the highway for a succulent Prairie breakfast at Shelby, Iowa's Cornstalk Restaurant. Upon returning to Doug's for our repaired tire, we learn that they can't help us: "I won't touch true wire wheels," says the man. "I'm not gonna be liable; if one spoke is messed up, those wheels will be no good."
"Hmm," I say to McPike as we load the still-flat spare back in the trunk. "I hope the broken spoke I found this morning on the left front doesn't mean that wheel's no good ..."
Luckily, fate doesn't make us pay for proceeding across most of Iowa with a busted spoke and no functional spare. In Iowa City, Bud's Tire replaces the tube in our flat, so we seem set for a 450-mile blast to the finish, odd-hour-of-the-morning-arrival be damned.
Not so fast. As soon as we're back on the highway, I smell something peculiar. At the next exit, West Branch, we discover smoke wisping from the right front wheel. Its spokes are so hot that you could grill chicken on them. The brake is hanging up. Empathetic samaritan Tim Arkebauer leads us to Parkside Service, but the guys there can't help and direct us to Noel's Automotive Repair. Postponing his other projects (which include the restoration of a gorgeous 1970 Dodge Charger), owner Keith Noel finds that the right front rotor is seriously warped and the caliper's piston is indeed hanging up. He turns the rotor within a millimeter of its life and frees up the sticky caliper piston.
"Now, these brakes might be OK for just one panic stop, but you should be fine just going down the road," Noel says, stressing the temporary nature of the fix. "Be very, very easy on the service brakes unless absolutely necessary."
The brakes initially seem normal, maybe just a bit more pedal travel than usual, during a ginger test run through West Branch, so we get back on the highway as the sun is setting. Engineer/co-driver McPike suggests that we take the first exit to double-check that the brake lights (which are triggered by a pressure switch) are working properly.
Plus, the more I work the brake pedal, the softer it gets. Soon, it's all I can do to bring the car from 10 mph to a stop in this truck-stop parking lot. There's no way I'd be able to reel in this car from 70 mph for a Chicago-area tollbooth. Somehow air has gotten into the brake lines. Whether the piston has a leak or Noel let air into the system, we're not sure. All that's clear is that the MG isn't safe to drive any farther without some serious work, and there's no telling what parts we'll need, but they're probably not stocked at the nearest NAPA, wherever the heck that is.
While we're debating about what to do next, McPike notices that another tire is audibly leaking air from the valve stem, the proverbial last straw. We're smarter than we are proud, so we throw in the towel before something really serious happens. We've been lucky enough to persevere through snowstorms, ice, an electromechanical failure, freezing temperatures, flat tires, and a mechanical failure; it wouldn't be wise to head toward Chicagoland in this condition. I phone a benevolent family friend in Michigan, and he agrees to pick us up in the morning.
Thankfully, there's a cheap EconoLodge right around the corner, and the truck stop has forty ouncers of MGD and vending-machine sandwiches. Dinner is served.
Miles driven: 242
Day 7 (West Liberty, IA to Chelsea, MI): Don't-roll-off-the-trailer paranoia
Wednesday (intended overnight stop: home; actual overnight stop: home--finally!)
Next door to the EconoLodge, Mom's Kitchen (a restaurant/laundromat/general store) serves up a real meal while we wait for our ride. While we're loitering, we calculate that the MG averaged 22 mpg and 760 mpq (miles per quart of oil) over about 1900 miles--not bad.
Gracious friend John Bishop arrives around 1pm with his Ford Explorer Sport Trac and his brand-new trailer. We speed across the Mississippi River, skirt around the southern edge of Chicago, and by 11pm, the car is parked safely at Bishop's house in Chelsea, Michigan (where we eventually bleed the brakes and learn that my understanding wife actually likes the B/GT when she sees it in person).
This road trip was a blast. But for our next cross-country excursion, I'm pretty sure that McPike and I will take a new car. Maybe even something comfortable, quiet, and boring enough to warrant listening to the radio.
Miles driven: 0.2; miles trailered: 456
Click here to see a map of the route. Also, make sure to check out the finds that could have been on the next page.
The Search/False Starts
My wife blames Automobile Magazine's car-collecting addict, Jamie Kitman. He's the one who planted this vintage-British-car idea in my head, during the 2005 edition of America's British Reliability Run, for which Kitman shipped seven of his vintage British cars to Michigan for the annual rally for charity. I drove all seven, and the Blackwells were hooked. Sure, countless vintage American monsters have awesome style and power, but there's just something about the more nimble, more fuel economical, and less expensive British cars that I couldn't resist.
After months of browsing eBay, Craigslist, hemmings.com, traderonline.com, and other cars-for-sale Web sites, I finally found The One, thanks largely to the assistance of countless people whom I relentlessly pestered, including Kitman; Automobilers Sam Smith, Don Sherman, Marc Noordeloos, Richard Eccleston, and Joe Lorio; Richard Truett from Automotive News; Stuart Fowle from Motive Mag; Reliability Run kingpin Blake Discher; University Motors' MG impresario John Twist; members of the Sacramento British car club and the North American MGB Register; and a host of other friends and family. False starts varied widely in price, condition, and location and featured two '69 MG B/GTs, a '73 B/GT, an '80 Triumph Dolomite Sprint, a '67 Triumph TR4-A, a '66 Triumph Herald, two '67 Sunbeam Alpines, a '70 Alpine hardtop, a pristine '59 Hillman Minx (not pictured), a '74 Hillman Imp, and a Mark 2 English Ford Cortina.
Photos courtesy of car owners.