1960's Car Stories: MGA and TR3

Vintage photo of MGA and young ladyI was probably 15 when I first sat in a sports car. It was my best friend’s older brother’s 1957 MGA. Black with wire wheels and green interior. The top section of the steering wheel was missing and gave it that “airplane half wheel” racer look that was temporarily popular. The remainder of the wheel was tightly wrapped in what was once white string for a better grip when “dicing”. Tightly wrapping steering wheels in string was all the rage at that time. The top was down and my friend John and I took turns sitting behind the cut-down wheel and playing with the shifter. Then his brother came out of the house, and shooed us away. His hair was shiny and slicked down, the air for 10 feet around him was a cloud of Old Spice, he wore dark rimmed sunglasses. He pumped the throttle a couple of times that we could hear, started it up and pulled on his mesh backed driving gloves. Cool. He then put it in reverse and backed down the driveway, the reverse gears sounding very loud and whiny. We watched in envy. Once he hit the street he pushed it into first gear and roared away leaving two 15-year-olds standing there and feeling inadequate.

MGA

This was Quebec in the very early sixties and the beginning of 30 years of political upheaval. Quebec had elected a provincial government that wanted more say in how it was governed. It was the beginning of the “separatist movement” that divided the country and created much ill will. In some ways it is sad to reflect now on how little effect the turmoil had on our young lives. We were interested in cars, beer, and girls. The order of the final two changed based on availability.

In our small circle, the two major cars that had a modicum of power and style were the MGA and the TR3. From an engineering standpoint, both were brutally primitive. Prone to rust, equipped with poor brakes and horrid shocks, neither reliable heat, defrost, nor wiper systems to speak of and prone to producing huge gaps between the opaque side curtains and the top at any speed over fifty miles per hour. These cars were a rolling invitation to poor health five months of the year. But on a sunny summer’s day, in their own way, they could be elegant and exciting. And, even if only in the eyes of their owners, they denoted a sort of European savoir-vivre.

I was in my very early twenties, and in rapid succession, I owned two MG-TDs, a Bugeye Sprite, a clapped out MGA and then a Triumph TR3. To this day, I have yet to sit in a car as cosseting, non-threatening, friendly as a puppy, and enveloping as an MGA. This was a car you wore like a warm glove. The ever present smell of leather, wool and wood combined with the unobstructed view along the long hood and two soft fenders sloping away to the road ahead was enchanting. Among the smaller sports cars, only the Morgans came close to as pleasing a view of the world ahead as an MGA. Part of its appeal is its sexuality. It is definitely feminine. It is “pretty”, not “handsome” and far more women drove MGAs than did my next car, the Triumph TR3.

TR3, by Garret Vreeland, at 2014 Santa Fe Concorso

The TR3 was a different animal. A masculine one. More powerful than the MGA, it had faster acceleration and also an overdrive which could be rigged to jump in on second, third and fourth gears, in effect making it a seven speed transmission. The engine itself was derived from a tractor and it wouldn’t have been much of a leap for it to go back to plowing fields. It was neither as free revving nor as high revving as the little MGA. Not that the MGA motor was a jewel even in its twin-cam configuration. Neither was built with the precision of the Italian Alfa engines of the day. But again, my 1959 Triumph TR3, Red on Black with wire wheels and a white top is probably one of the handsomest cars I have ever owned. I drove all these cars year round. Winterizing consisted of putting cheap “recapped” tires on the rear wheels and a piece of cardboard in front of the rad. That was it. On a strictly sensual scale, the MGA lulled female passengers into a false sense of warmth and security. Fresh TR3 passengers, upon spying the ground so near those low cut doors, felt a sense of danger that in my mind saw them leaning inward to the driver’s side, where a pretty young thing might be greeted with a reassuring whiff of Old Spice and a comforting pat on the knee, or slightly above it, by a mesh backed soft gloved hand.

TR3

It was a simpler time and those were simpler cars which in today’s market are fetching multiples of their original price. If you have never owned one, but have access to country roads, and like to fix your own car frequently, this may be your cup of tea.

Our Model Maven, Marshall Buck, will review models of these two vehicles for you next week.

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