Discharge of the Light Brigade

Say you were a tweedy gearhead living in New York during the 1960s, the glory days of sports car living. Chances are, on more than one occasion, after neatly trimming your Van Dyke and quaffing a fine breakfast wine, you’d have strapped on some string-back driving gloves, adjusted your flat cap and rearview mirror, filled a briar pipe, and set off for a Watkins Glen race weekend.

Your destination: The unofficial first home of American sports-car-dom. A bucolic village of fewer than 2500 souls nestled along the banks of glacial Seneca Lake — one of the majestic Finger Lakes and New York State’s deepest — and site of the first formal road race held in America after World War II, staged in 1948, just as the nation’s sports car craze was getting underway. It enjoyed a large assist from abroad in the form of the sporty new rolling stock assembled by British carmakers heeding their government’s postwar export-or-die policies. For decades, Watkins Glen would constitute a crucial front in Britain’s successful, if depressingly finite, automotive assault on America. Yet despite its amazing proximity to my domain — only 250 miles from New York City — and my own lifelong fascination with the sports cars built during those magical motoring decades past, I’d never even seen Watkins Glen.

September’s big race weekend — when the hallowed racing burg would celebrate the anniversary of the first United States Grand Prix held here (in 1961) with a full card of vintage racing — seemed like the perfect time to correct that omission. We laid plans to attend with three period-appropriate British sports cars: an all-original, 37,000-mile, 1963 MGB I’d recently acquired in California; a similarly unrestored but more battle-tested 1967 Triumph TR4A IRS, also SoCal dry but sporting 100,000 miles and a freshly rebuilt engine; and a 1967 Sunbeam Alpine in the very rare, one-year-only shade of orchid green and with a believed 65,000 miles on the clock, recently resurrected from a fifteen-year West Virginia slumber to mysteriously wind up in my garage.

Since the Glen also planned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Alfa Romeo, it seemed only right to include one in our motorcade, hence the restored Giulietta Spider Veloce seen here. Although built in 1959 and comparatively expensive back in the day (even more so now, as this rare Veloce model is probably worth more than the other four cars here combined), it remained in production until 1963, by which point all of the cars we’d be driving had come to market. It was a benchmark for many drivers back then, something to graduate to from things cheaper, less technically sophisticated, and presumably British. More important, its owner, Steve Lehrman, was willing to toss us the keys.

While Italian artisans never got in its way much, most people would say that England’s sports car trade was mortally wounded by the rise of the Japanese auto industry. So, we rounded out our snapshot view of the 1960s motoring scene by bringing along a contemporary competitor from Japan, a Datsun 1600 with 43,000 original miles. Built in 1970 — the final year of production for a model first sold as the 1500 in 1963 — the 1600, although not unsuccessful, would nonetheless be outshined and outsold by its replacement, the epochal, Brit-killing 240Z.

And so one crisp morning we set out from the White Plains garages of Domenick’s European Car Repair, where these five exemplars of the old, top-down sports car creed had gone in for a quick once over and safety check (see sidebar).

Five cars and five drivers, all of whom would have been young boys when these cars were current, and one of whom, another fine vintage British export named Martyn Goddard, would also be taking pictures. Santo Spadaro, who runs Domenick’s with his brother Frank, would race his ’58 Alfa Giulietta Sprint Veloce at the Glen (earning a Victory Lane Spirit Award for his determination) and tow his mount northwest behind a Chrysler minivan; he agreed to join our convoy in the event we needed some professional wrenching.

Even though our fleet consisted of largely unknown propositions — three of them being new to my collection (the MG, the Sunbeam, and the Datsun), one being recently returned to the road after a long absence (the Triumph), and the Alfa belonging to someone else — breakdowns were blissfully distant from our thoughts as we set off.

We’d allotted three days to march back in time, to relive the wind-in-the-hair romance of the two-seat sports car revolution that had captivated the enthusiast population before sputtering and then fizzling as the ’60s ran out and the ’70s rolled in. If nothing else, we hoped to answer a question that still vexes hardies of a certain age: which low/mid-priced ’60s sports car was the best?

Of course, part of the romance of old cars is learning what’s right and wrong with them and setting them straight as necessary. How fortuitous it was, then, that it took so little time finding out what was wrong with the MGB. Less than fifty miles out of White Plains, a horrible — as in pull-over-immediately horrible — noise began emanating from its front left wheel. Before we knew it, we were beached in a Burger King parking lot in Goshen, New York, needing a wheel bearing for a car built forty-seven years ago in England.

We thus found ourselves on a grand auto-parts-store tour of the state’s lower Catskill region. Miraculously, however, two calls turned up the required bearing nearby, albeit a cheap Chinese knockoff, waiting on a shelf at the local CarQuest. But they didn’t have the retaining washer we’d need or the proper grease seal. A nearby AutoZone didn’t, either, but they cheerfully put us on to Sisco Auto Parts, an independent shop that found a tab washer off a Ford F-150 that looked like it might be made to work. They then helpfully directed us to the local iron workers, B&B, for some sheet steel that might be cobbled into a shim, the original having blown up big time along with the bearing, which had evidently perished after previous visitors to the MGB’s front end neglected to install a vital seal, allowing the grease to escape.

One thing’s for certain, you meet the nicest people in the Goshen/Middletown area. Pulling up at Sisco, some roughneck on a sport bike squinted at our Datsun. Anticipating an ill-mannered affront to our manhood as we exited the petite, cream-colored roadster, we were surprised to hear him inquire, “The Z’s worthy predecessor, I presume?”

B&B couldn’t help, but they pointed us to the local Maaco body shop, where the fellows were awfully friendly, too, even though their thinnest sheet steel wasn’t slender enough. So, we returned to the BK parking lot with a lot of hope but only some of what we needed.

Enter Santo Man (Spadaro). After pulling his trusty floor jack from the minivan, field-stripping the B of its wheel hub (using the wire wheel itself to remove the hub), and extracting the shattered remains of the pulverized bearing and spacer, he calmly set about making a stand-in grease seal with an old rag and replacing the missing shim by carving one out of an aluminum can. An electrician working at the Burger King lent him a vise and a hacksaw, which he used to modify the tab washer, and before we knew it, we were back on the road. It was an incredible display of can-do mechanics that held up for another 600 miles, and but for which our trip might have ended.

Admittedly, the giddy sense of joy, relief, and camaraderie would start to dim only twenty minutes later, when the MGB’s charging-system warning light flashed on. We attempted to pull off the highway as a group, but somehow senior editor Joe Lorio, driving the TR4, and Goddard in the Alpine kept going. Alone among the cars, the TR4 had a modern sound system, which may have distracted our fearless editor.

The fact that Lorio had left his phone in the Datsun, which had the only working cigarette lighter with which to charge a mobile device, didn’t help. Phones were dying right and left. Meanwhile, these cars were so spartan by modern standards, so devoid of onboard entertainment possibility (no CDs, USB ports, power jacks, etc.), that our pal Jim Travers remarked that he regretted not having brought along his saxophone.

Goddard, who drives an Austin-Healey 3000 back home in England, had surprised himself by liking the pea-green Sunbeam so much — with its big trunk and electric overdrive, which made it an unexpectedly useful highway cruiser despite its four-cylinder’s meager 1725-cc displacement — that he refused to relinquish it. Offered the choice of the hard-top-wearing Triumph — a potential enticement as the skies began spitting rain — he instead donned gloves and skull cap and soldiered on, all the way to our evening’s lodging outside Trumansburg, New York.

Spadaro figured the B could make it in on battery power alone and we set out, with Jake Gouverneur in the Datsun, Travers in the Alfa, and me in the B. (As Emily Post once wrote, the gracious host always volunteers to be the one to die when a wheel falls off one of his cars.) In an effort to conserve time and juice, I’d drive the MG top-down, with no headlights and minimal use of wipers, through a steady rain that had arisen annoyingly to follow us most of the way in. We made it, too. As a longtime British car owner, I am well versed in the press-on possibilities when such familiar electrical gremlins strike, but in the morning we’d have to begin an aerobicizing regimen of frequent push-starts.

At least our first order of business was clear: a trip to a local shop with a taste for old English cars and Lucas electrical systems. An ad for Smalley’s Garage, longtime tech inspectors for races at the Glen, cried out to us. Tom Smalley, chief proprietor of a family enterprise that opened its doors a couple days before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, settled into the B’s charging issues. Travers and I went next door to Mr. Chicken, a local landmark known for its toothsome broasted birds. Dining at an outdoor picnic table, we were treated to an amazing display of classic sports cars on parade, the fine luncheon fare accentuated by the fumes of passing Allards and other historic gems cruising along the old route.

Held initially on these very streets, the races at the Glen took a turn for the big time when a purpose-built track was constructed on the outskirts of town in 1956. In 1961, Innes Ireland won the inaugural United States Grand Prix here, and over the years, the rural course saw riveting victories by Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, and a bevy of legendary others, as NASCAR, Can-Am, Trans-Am, Formula Libre, Formula 5000, and CART all passed through. Today, NASCAR, vintage, and SCCA competitions keep the grandstands filled and decibel levels up where they belong.

Better than any car show, just about every make and model of sports car was represented in volume on the streets of Watkins Glen, as many clubs make the September race weekend a highlight of their annual calendar. While eating, we spied hordes of Honda S2000s, BMW Z3s, and Mazda Miatas, not to mention thundering megatons of American muscle, passing passels of Porsches, Corvettes, Saabs, Jags, Triumphs, and a lone MGC/GT with a period Richard Nixon bumper sticker. Down the street, we came across ten Datsun roadsters, not unlike our own, parked together outside a bar. Their owners were cheerful but dispiritingly humble: “They’re not worth anything and no one knows what they are, but they’re not so bad,” was a popular refrain, although hardly a winning rallying cry. Unfortunately, not one of them could tell us why our 1600 had begun running hot at speed in spite of a new radiator.

Now we had two old cars with problems. Smalley had concluded that the B needed a generator, but he couldn’t get parts or a rebuilt one until early the following week. We also had concerns about its right-front wheel bearing; presumably anyone who had omitted the grease seal on the left side was capable of committing the same error on the right. This was likely what we’d hear squeaking as we push-started the MG over the next few days. Not that there was much to be done about any of it. And now, for no obvious reason, we were being forced to turn on the Datsun’s heater to keep the engine from boiling.

I’m used to automotive inconvenience, but there were already more problems going on simultaneously than even I — an old-car stoic whose optimistic pessimism is rooted in a hard-won pessimistic optimism — could process. And that was before the other cars in our traveling party rolled into town and it transpired that things were far worse than I’d imagined.

In fact, I’d inadvertently led myself and four innocent friends into a perfect storm of old-car badness. The Sunbeam, which had impressed us all with its comfortable ride and a cushy demeanor derived from its surprisingly rigid unibody (a small miracle when you consider what a small company Sunbeam’s parent, the Rootes Group, really was), had begun using oil and smoking badly. And the Triumph, handsome and powerful but the uncontested rattle-trap champion of our funky bunch with its beefy, separate frame and ambitious but leaden independent rear suspension (the only one in our group), had started making rock-crushing transmission noises in each of its three lowest gears. Top gear sounded alright except when the electric overdrive was switched on, but it had started automatically disengaging and re-engaging like some kind of demented rheostat. Of our quintet, only the Alfa — the one car I didn’t own — was singing a happy song.

Having pretty much tanked my friends’ relaxing race weekend, the guilt was so searing that I could only get past it by dwelling on my imminent personal economic devastation. Suddenly, I was transported back to the days of my motoring youth in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when driving old sports cars had been a constant race to the finish, to make it to your destination before something blew up or you failed to make it home under your own power. Going broke, either way.

But in the end we nursed all these sad puppies home, at no further cost other than gasoline (and, for the Sunbeam, motor oil). Aside from frayed nerves, occasional heated exchanges, and embarrassing memories, the real cost will be incurred over the winter, when the boys at Domenick’s dig deeper into these houses of horrors.

Yet, in spite of it all, we were able to reach some consensus views. First, never listen to me when I tell you my cars are ready to roll. Second, the MGB was the unanimous walkaway favorite, notwithstanding its assortment of (relatively easy-to-fix and now-sorted) maladies. Perhaps this was not so surprising, as it was in period easily the best-selling of all the models considered, with more than half a million produced during an eighteen-year (1962-1980) production run. Early cars like this one not only sound right, with a fruity mellow exhaust tone, but feel right, with sublime steering, a rifle-action gearbox, and a taut, well-constructed body. Good MGBs go right and, to my eyes, look great, especially the early ones.

Although a few team members were less enamored, I’d put the Alfa, which excelled in spite of its mere 1290-cc displacement, a very close second. Credit the mesmerizing sophistication of its double-overhead-cam engine, which punches well above its weight, happily revving to 6500 rpm while the OHV lumps in the others were largely ready for retirement-buyout packages by 5000 rpm.

The Michelotti-designed Triumph was voted the most handsome of the bunch and the best highway cruiser with its 2138 cubic centimeters of displacement and overdrive (when it worked), good enough for a third-place finish. The Sunbeam was better than everyone expected in all ways, except that it wasn’t the best at anything and returned a surely aberrant
17 mpg. Still, along with the MG and the Alfa, it reminded us what a big leap monocoque construction really was as these carmakers bravely marched into the future, as they knew it then. And also how crucial overdrive is for American driving (its eventual retrofit into the MGB is now a certainty).

Which left the Datsun, also with body-on-frame construction, bringing up the rear, but don’t you dare dismiss it. Clearly inspired by British efforts — its Hitachi side-draft carburetors were made under license from SU, and its OHV engine would have surprised no one at BMC — it’s a charming reminder that Datsun built Austins under license in the 1950s. By the late ’60s, Datsun actually bettered its Britannic inspirers in several meaningful ways, the 1600 being quieter, more comprehensively equipped, and possessed of butter-smooth shift action. Its 1595-cc four is a peach, too, a fair match for the 1798-cc MG. In retrospect, if the 240Z blew the British sports car builders out of the water, the Datsun 1600 roadster and its more powerful twin, the five-speed 2000, were serious warning shots across the British carmakers’ bow. They may not be worth a lot, but values are rising — fairly, we think — because they’re damned pleasant machines.

Singly and collectively, ailing or not, as these five cars sailed down a tree-lined New York State two-lane at 70 mph, each in its own way offered a potent reminder of what robust (I’m not kidding!) and emotionally powerful cars you could make in the days before computers and dudes in architectural eyewear ruled the roost, back when sports cars weighed 2000 pounds and a hundred horsepower, give or take a few, could still make you feel like a sporty guy.

In the end, there were no losers on our excellent trip to Watkins Glen. Except for me and my bank account. That’s one place I’ve been before. But I keep going back.

Safety First

No trip in an old car should be taken without a thorough safety check and a decent set of three-point seatbelts. Just because safety back in the day meant optional two-point lap belts, there’s no reason today’s driver shouldn’t extend himself and his passengers the enhanced security of a proper restraint system, one that keeps your upper body from flying forward.

We were fortunate in this regard to receive three sets of complimentary belts — one fixed pair and two sets of retractable inertia reels — from Victoria British Ltd., one of the country’s leading suppliers of old British car parts, based near Kansas City www.victoriabritish.com They also sent us on our trip with comprehensive kits of frequently needed spares, like points, condensers, hoses, and fan belts. Unfortunately, front-wheel-bearing grease seals weren’t on the list. Who knew? A set of shocks for the TR4 worked nicely, but the seatbelts — take care to install them properly — increased our comfort zone even more. Next to keeping your brake fluid topped up, air in your tires, and your eyes open, there’s nothing you can do that will make driving an old car safer.