Cruel Britannia

UK flagby Josh Davidson

Every Spring I am struck by Angloautomania, that is, the need of a Proper British Sports Car—in spite of everything I know about them. I comb the classifieds in search of Triumphs and Sunbeams. Of course, the good ones are expensive and the cheap ones come in an urn, but like some sort of psychotic Goldilocks I manage to find the one that looks just right; “Easy restoration,” the ad promises.

Now, that phrase is as oxymoronic as “Royal Cheer”, but the chipper voice in my angloautomanic mind translates it to “charmingly shabby and roadable”, and can convince me to go so far as to call the seller—usually a fellow fiend who shares my belief in the existence of a $1500 MGA and the delusion that I am “serious”.

Oh, I know the facts. Shopworn tales echo in my mind: of convertible top mechanisms suited better to battlefield surgery than weatherproofing; of wire wheels “true” as Kim Philby at a poker table; electrical systems bred above the chore of carrying current. I know that, should the car even manage the tow home, it will become a dusty mistress of bottomless want, and that once my will, wit, and wallet are exhausted, even the paint will not work properly.

Ah, but with the ground streaking inches below, I sit snug in a cupped leather seat; a banjo-string steering wheel buzzes in my left hand while my right stirs a walnut gearshift knob to the tune of a rising raspberry note cooing shift points into my ear. Achieving top gear, my hand leaps to the close, quivering thigh of a slightly terrified girl, her hair wrapped in pastel...

The fever takes hold at the first whiff of warm weather. The symptoms are obvious: I become curious enough to research any new breakthroughs in lever-type shock absorbers and magnetos. The infection’s most insidious manifestation is the savant streak that formulates the favorable banking schemes imperative to folly’s finance. Yes, you see, it’s all so simple; and that retirement money is just sitting there...

Somehow, I have always been saved, often at the last possible moment. I might arrive at a seller’s tripping over my open checkbook, only to find the car too sunk in the mud to be budged; or some sadder soul would have gotten there just before me. Late enough in the season, my senses might be restored just enough to recognize a basket case for what it is. But it was neither providence nor revelation that rescued me from the jaws of a Triumph last May and freed me forever of the curse.

The car itself was not beyond rationalization; I had other times overlooked sheetmetal held together only by fungal growth. My reverie was shattered before I even saw it — as I drove my colorlessly trustworthy daily driver to the seller’s through fifteen Friday afternoon rush-hour miles across Boston. Mapped in Colonial times by grazing cows of spiteful mien, and modernized by a pox of rotaries and booby-trap traffic signals, Boston can only be navigated by driving like Charles Manson on his way to a celebrity roast.. Even upon pulling into the seller’s driveway, I already knew that, in anything more delicate than an armored personnel carrier or my Chevy Caprice, the purgatory of my daily commute would be a nightmare.

Thus, as the seller raked the humus off the Triumph, its mossy charm aroused in me more pity than desire. Only out of polite sympathy did I follow him into the garage for a ken of the disassembled engine.

As he prattled about straightening the pushrods, my wandering eye snagged on a geometry proof of dun-black tubes hanging from the rafters. I knew immediately that I had found the only appropriate alternative for a Boston-bound Angloautomaniac—a vintage Raleigh “Sport” three-speed bicycle.

I yanked it down like a rogue vine. The fenders had gone missing, the leather seat was rottener than a sweetmaker’s teeth, and despite a Queen Anne-style decal trumpeting the Raleigh as “The All-Steel Bicycle” (others, apparently, were of bamboo), the left chainstay was bent; otherwise it was in fine condition. Dusty, rusty and weirdly proud like an old bachelor uncle, it whispered to me: “Easy restoration.”

I took the Raleigh, anticipating a quaint weekend project. With a few new parts and a little grease, I projected myself clicking keenly through its three Sturmey-Archer gear-ratios on Monday morning.

The first thing was to get the wheels off, though I found soon enough that none of my standard or metric wrenches really fit any of the nuts. Without any British spanners, I improvised, discovering a 14 millimeter fit with the least wiggle. Now, fine bolt-threads rarely “crack” when loosened, but as I leaned on the wrench, something distinctly gave way, so I pressed it ‘round a whole half-turn. But the wheel remained firmly clamped between the forks; the nut hadn’t moved at all. Instead, like a beaver chewing off of its own trapped leg, four of the nut’s hex-corners simply oozed over in the wrench’s jaws, leaving only two hex-corners to grab.

Having many times before discovered the grace-saving magic of penetrating fluid, I determined its time was now and rummaged for a can of WD-40. To my pleasant surprise, I came up instead with a precision fluid-spraying device of Würth ROST OFF. Haha! I thought, this’ll scare the nut right off the axle! I mounted a relentless attack from every angle with squirt after squirt of the überfluid, reveling in the superior German chemical’s swift, unremitting surge though the musty British threads; just a matter of time now, I chortled, dancing a little jig.

Confident that my heroic Spritzwaffe had weakened the nut’s grip after a few minutes, I set to it again. But it was unbowed! The remaining hex-corners gave way like their mates, leaving the wheel still tight, and me stymied, wondering what Merlinesque alchemy bound this iron-cheddar alloy nut to the axle like the flint rock to mighty Excalibur. (and I, no Arthur.)

Where Teutonic arrogance failed, I determined that American brashness would not. The Vise-grips’ patriotic jaws sank into the nut like a pit bull into a poodle, and with a couple of tugs the nut gave way. But once loosened by Yank clamping power, my progress bogged thanks to the British infatuation with the massively infinitesimal: the much-longer-than-necessary axle was threaded at a microscopic pitch—the work, no doubt, of some Dickensian screwmaker paid by the thread. By the last one’s removal, I had to call it a day due to dizziness.

My colonial’s ingenuity was tested over and again, resulting in a lot of mangled nuts. No matter, I thought; I would replace them from the hardware store’s huge range of hardware, collated in bins and useful for fastening all manner of things from furnace panels to satellite gyro equipment—practically anything, that is, unless it’s British.

Tut Tut to the quaint system of inches and their fractions; Not So Fast to dreary continental metrics. British hardware is pitched with empirical sublimity, harking to the curl of the sovereign's short hairs, or the twist of a unicorn’s horn. Whatever threading legend was consulted in manufacturing my bike must have died with some wool-capped chap, because nothing like it is any longer available, leaving me to hoe my hand through greasy bins of used British bike gravel stashed in a bike-shop’s dusty basement, eventually replacing my mangled nuts and bolts with some only slightly less so.

Weekends came and went as the Raleigh acceded to resurrection. A local junk, er—collectibles dealer ransomed me a pair of the spindly stamped-steel fenders and a seasoned Brooks saddle. Their installation, accomplished mostly by hammer, marked the finish.

I finally rode to work one morning, and have done so on every tolerable day since. The amount of churning required to reach the Raleigh’s leisurely maximum doesn’t quite square with Newton’s Second, but I am a better man for the wasted effort. Maintenance isn’t too bad, if kept to rigorously, and I am raising a decent parts collection. In fact, since concluding the physical therapy to loosen my stiff upper lip, my steed and I have grown into grudging chums.

If nothing else, the affair has loosened me from Angloautomania’s grip. A pang of desire still rings when the occasional MG or Sunbeam roars past, especially if it’s not on a flatbed. But I buck up knowing that when my British conveyance breaks, my heart and back will remain intact. So if ever a four-grand Healey finds me again, I’ll only have to hark back to my grim experience, multiply the suffering by a thousand, and shiver with thanks for a lesson learned. Then I’ll go buy some Cadbury’s.