by David Grainger
President, The Guild of Automotive Restorers
American cars are the subject of most restorations in North America but they are by no means the only occupants of a busy restoration shop. British sports cars are subjects often targeted for restoration, and because there are so many on the road and in process, parts availability is often quite good. Don't confuse availability with low price however, because depending on which car you choose, mechanical parts can be quite expensive. The plus side is that body parts are usually quite reasonable and considering that these are the parts you will find you need the most of, that is a good thing.
So where do we start in a discussion of the restoration of Brit cars? Perhaps a quick explanation of why, unlike any other foreign cars excepting the Beetle, British sports cars entered our car culture is in order.
Shortly after the Second World War Britain was in the process of rebuilding a badly ravaged economy, which not only included the rebuilding of infrastructure and the retooling of factories from war materials to civil need, but also included a shortage of money. The national coffers were just about empty and England needed a thriving export trade in order to bring in cash. North America proved a fertile target for export because unlike England, the U.S. and Canada came out of the war in very enviable positions. Industry was booming and millions of returning servicemen guaranteed a consumer base who needed almost everything, from homes to toasters to cars. Cars were a product that many in England thought could be exploited and to that end designs for small cars to fill an area that the American manufacturers ignored completely were tendered and built. Although they tried to introduce small passenger cars, America wasn't interested in economy cars in which four adults felt cramped, and with their small motors and inefficient heating systems, they could not begin to compete on a continent of such vast distances and extreme weather conditions. As passenger vehicles English cars were less than a great success, but a niche that they virtually created in North America was far more successful.
The British had always built small two passenger sporting cars for racing and just plain driving. Marques like M.G., Jaguar, and Aston Martin thrived before the war and were set to continue producing cars after the war. Aston Martin never achieved much market share because their cars were expensive but Jaguar did find a market for their X.K 120, 140 and 150s. Jag also made the most serious inroads into the passenger car market but this was because their cars were larger and better able to compete with the American cars, although undependability and nagging electrical problems which remained unsolved year to year assured that the large Jaguars would never capture much market share from the high end American luxury cars with which they were competing.
M.G., short for Morris Garages, built small, inexpensive cars which captured a specialized market and became an immediate hit. They were soon followed by Triumph, Austin Healy and to a lesser extent Lotus, Healy and Daimler, but it was M.G. and Triumph which filled the niche and gave the American public cars unlike anything else on the American road. They were small, economical to run, fairly easy to fix and just plain fun to drive. They appealed to younger single people and with families affluent enough to have a second or even third car for popping around and running errands. Racing and rally enthusiasts also welcomed these little cars with open arms. By the late fifties these British cars could be found all over the Continent and the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties saw a small Renaissance for the British Sports cars and they ruled unchallenged by anyone all through this period. Some other countries tried to jump on the bandwagon such as Germany with its Porsches and later the Volkswagen, and Karmen Ghia and Fiats from Italy, but these attempts were pretty feeble when compared to the acceptance with which the British cars were given in North America. It is strange but understandable due to economics that these cars were far more common in North America than they were in Britain, and remain so to this day. I recently read an article in a British car magazine heralding the restoration of an early steel bumpered Triumph Spitfire of which they reckoned only three existed in England. This is a car which I know has at least three examples within four miles of my shop. Their rarity in their country of origin points out just how aimed at export all of these little cars were.
The popularity of these cars remains today despite the fact that their manufacturers are long gone from the serious American market with the exception of Jaguar. The reasons that they disappeared are too many to outline here but gone they are, leaving behind a legacy which has created some of the most loyal following and largest most enthusiastic clubs and organizations on the continent.
This popularity is based on the fact that these cars are just plain fun to drive. No, they are rarely what anyone would consider fast, even the fastest of them, but they feel fast. No, they are not dependable, they require understanding, patience and a certain masochism on the part of the owner. They are certainly not comfortable. A long drive can be an agonizing experience as limbs lock up from poor and cramped driving positions and you get in contact with parts of your body that you hadn't known existed in years, but they feel great in small doses.
What they do is conjure pictures of Stirling Moss and John Surtees stroking their cars through the road courses at Le Mans or Monterey. They sound and feel like racing cars. Their faults are forgiven, because for many of us they are as close as we will ever be to getting into the cockpit of a real racing car, and they really do deliver on the promise. You may be able to take your Neon around the on ramp at seventy miles per hour effortlessly, a speed which would cause a Triumph Spitfire to go spinning off onto the verge at anything over forty, but at forty that corner is an exciting prospect which starts the adrenaline coursing and sets the teeth grinding in anticipation. The fact that you can have these Walter Mitty like dreams while passing a Police Cruiser who will remain unconcerned about your speed or what's going through your mind is a huge part of the appeal. In a Corvette, Mustang or any other American car, the same feelings will only be obtainable when you are far outside the legal limits and you will really be endangering the driving public. In a British Sports car the only one who will think you are endangering the rest of the driving public will be you.
Restoring and maintaining these cars has floated hundreds of specialized companies from single bay proprietorships to huge parts supply and reproduction companies. They are sometimes fun to restore and sometimes so challenging that most people just shut off the light and swing the door closed.
The easy ones like the M.G.T. series cars are very satisfying and are simple enough for even dedicated but reasonably inexperienced amateurs to bring up to incredible standards. The hard ones like Healy 3000, Astons, and some of the Jags are a challenge for any restorer. An Austin Healy 3000 will inevitably take from 1000 to 1500 hours to restore properly and costs can exceed fifty thousand dollars quite easily. Many of these cars have bodies composed of steel and aluminum panels. Structural integrity is a blend of small lightweight chassis combined with bodies bolted on which continue the structural support through rockers panels and specialized internal braces and supports. Rust and corrosion supported by water and dirt traps along with reactions caused when steel and aluminum come in contact with each other plague the restorer, and the uninitiated can come to grief if they hack and slash before properly jigging the car and supporting it properly.
I have seen many cars where nothing fits properly because the correct steps were not taken to preserve the car's dimensions while it was being prepared. If you are cutting up a 57 Chev and replacing panels, you have to work pretty hard to mess it up so badly that a door won't fit back in its hole. With a British Sports Car it will be inevitable unless you learn how to avoid it.
I once worked on a Jaguar XK 140 Roadster which had a concourse restoration. Unfortunately the back of the car was on a totally different angle to the front of the car and the wheels were flush with the wheel wells on one side while buried deep within on the other. To compensate for these problems the shop that did the car actually removed a quarter inch from the edge of one door and added a half inch to the edge of the other. The car passed a non critical inspection every time because it was just so pretty to look at, on serious inspection it was a mess. It wasn't that the shop that restored it did it on purpose, it was that they just didn't know how to avoid certain problems at the beginning. By the time the problems were evident I am sure that the car was almost finished and they didn't want to admit the mistakes and start over. Instead they made adjustments like the doors and a few other things under the car in order to get it off to the auction where it was sold to an unsuspecting buyer.
In short, British cars need a certain knowledge on the part of the restorer if some of their largest problems are to be avoided. A lot of their original design deficiencies can also be corrected during restoration, many of which won't even hurt their chances at show. In the next column Ill address some of the problems encountered during the restoration of these cars, and how you can avoid them.