Perhaps it was just asking too much of a 37-year-old British roadster that was not reliable even when brand new. The warning signs were there shortly after reviving her from eight months of hibernation as she stalled and sputtered—at least until I replaced the spark plug wires with some 15-year-old spares. Yet, in the twenty or so days before and after my Vietnam vacation, Goldie had faithfully shuttled me between family and friends in scorching-hot Stockton and the more bearable San Francisco Bay Area, racking up 1,500 miles in the process. What, then, would be another 1,140 miles to go back home in Fort Collins, Colorado?
I pondered this question on my last day in the Bay as I found myself in a position that was familiar at least in the pre-ignition-wire-replacement days of my time in CA: on the side of the road, bonnet up, perusing the artifacts of British under-engineering and looking for something that was “wrong.” Again. This time in Hercules just a mile away from a friend’s house, Goldie was vacillating between motoring like a Formula 1 champ car and refusing to budge like an obstinate mule. After I wiggled some of her ignition wires we were back on our way, but the incident had left me a bit unsettled.
When I told my Herculean friend about this when I arrived at her place, she offered just one piece of advice: “Maybe when you get back to Colorado you should think about getting a new car…”
“When you get back” was quite optimistic in this case. “If” was becoming more and more uncertain….
Back in Stockton
Somehow, after the Hercules incident, the car ran perfectly all the way to my mom and dad’s home in Stockton—the official starting point of the thousand-plus mile journey to Northern CO. While this is generally a good thing, it also made debugging difficult (if not impossible), as I could not replicate the problem.
On the other hand, doing any sort of work on the car was not something I was looking forward to in light of the following:
- In the midst of a record-breaking heat wave, Stockton was 109 degrees, hot enough to roast ants.
- The electricity had gone out at my folks’ place all day, meaning that there was no air conditioning or fans working—not that the garage would have had either of those luxuries.
- British Car Specialists—the only sure-fire shop within a 60-mile radius of Stockton with readily available parts for an MG—was on vacation all week. If I needed parts I would have had to order them and endure the Stockton doldrums for another few days.
- After being away from home for six weeks, I was looking forward to getting back as soon as possible.
So the decision was made to go for it, as in to depart first thing in the morning. To go for it, as in commencing the drive without doing anything more than topping off the radiator, oil, and gas tank. And loading up the car with 150 pounds of crap that I needed to bring back with me to Fort Collins, including a massive bike box containing artwork from my former (Fremont) home. Oh, and spare parts. Lots and lots of spare parts. In fact, all of the MG parts I had, plus a floor jack, jack stands, and a bunch of tools I had left in CA for this moment. Somehow I had the feeling I would be needing them.
After I was done packing past 11:00 p.m. I glanced back at the primrose roadster squatting back on her haunches under the extra weight, and muttered to myself, “It’s going to take a miracle to get back…”
But enough of that. I had to wake up in five hours and hit the road!
4:30 a.m. This is it. I snuck out of the house very quietly but probably woke up the entire neighborhood the instant I turned the key in Goldie’s ignition and she roared to life.
Through Lodi, Sacramento, Auburn, and Tahoe it was a near-perfect drive. Top-down and relaxed, I felt clever for starting so early in the morning as I got a jump on the swarm of rush-hour traffic and the day’s scorching temperatures. In fact, up at elevation in Tahoe, the air was a little brisk. Considering that I had experienced air temperatures of only warm, hot, or scalding hot during the previous weeks in California and Vietnam, this was welcome.
The MGB was running superbly. In fact after two hours of driving and 140 miles, I had renewed confidence that we were going to make it. If things continued to go so smoothly and we stopped for nothing but gas and food, it might even be possible to make it back to Fort Collins by midnight, I surmised.
It would only be about a dozen miles after crossing the California/Nevada state line that the blissful vision of getting home later that same day and sleeping in my own comfy bed was thoroughly shattered like an errant grapefruit crashing through the glass panes of a china cabinet.
I had just exited the highway near Reno in order to get some breakfast when I noticed Goldie’s handling was a bit squirrelly. After I pulled into a parking lot I walked around the car and saw that, to my dismay, the left rear tire seemed half flat. Worse, the right tire was holding less air than a deflated balloon. This was not good. Resigned to the fact that this early on in the day I already was going to have to open up the boot and bust out the jack and toolbox, I walked away and thought to myself, “Better get some food. It’s going to be a long day…”
Chowing down a fruit and walnut salad in near-record time, I went back out to the car and noticed that the left rear tire was now three-quarters flat. Having two flat tires (I only had one spare) would normally make me think that I was royally [bleeped], but I also noticed something across the parking lot: a Big O Tire store! In the face of misfortune was some good fortune.
So I replaced the totally flat (right-hand) rear tire with the spare, and then very slowly drove the car across the parking lot to the tire store. There I also took off the left-hand flat tire and had the shop fix both of them. They had to order new tubes (the MG’s wire wheels require tubes like bicycle wheels) which would take a couple of hours to come in, but I was just thankful the shop could even get them. “Shall I order three tubes just in case you get another flat down the road?” inquired the sympathetic Big O Sales Representative. “Yes, please,” was my quick reply.
As I waited for the new tubes to come in and the tire guys to do their magic, I text-messaged a couple of friends. One of them replied, “Is it the heat? She really does not like leaving CA!” and offered, “Call me if you need anything: internet lookup, moral support…” I gladly accepted the latter.
Hours later: back on the road. Just 1,000 miles to go. Heh.
If I had any illusions that the rest of the drive would go faultlessly, they were put to rest just 20 miles later when the entire car started vibrating like the Sharper Image massage chair and funny noises were emanating from the right rear corner of the car. I pulled off the highway into a gas station and soon was text-messaging on my cell phone again.
“3rd flat tire! I am screwed!” I typed. This was being perhaps a little over-dramatic, however, as all I had to do was swap out the flat tire… again…
What happened this time was that the (perhaps 30+ year old?) Dunlop spare tire had begun to unravel, with steel wires protruding out of the sidewall. I had kept the spare tire mounted on the right rear corner of the car not so much out of laziness but because of remembering how in 1996 I once got a flat tire down the Pacific Coast Highway. In that incident I put on the spare, then got the flat tire fixed and put it back on, only for the same “fixed” tire to get another flat 50 miles later. As a result, I had in my mind ever since that “the spare tire is more reliable than my regular tires.” Clearly, this was flawed reasoning, but in any case, whether due to the extreme heat now facing the roads or the old age of the spare, the tire was toast.
Fifteen minutes later I was back on the road and 155 miles later (Mile 335) I stopped by another tire shop to get the shredded spare tire replaced. The third tube I purchased earlier in the day came in handy after all.
The next few hours were uneventful until shortly after crossing the Utah state line when Goldie lost all power and the engine shut off. I coasted in neutral on the shoulder, muttered “come on, let’s not die now!,” turned the ignition key to try to start the engine again (while still coasting), and lo and behold, the MG fired right up, and we were on our way.
A creditable 100 more miles rushed on by before the engine conked out in a similar manner again.
This time (Mile 625) I exited the highway, popped open the bonnet, and fetched some spare ignition parts from the trunk. I wasn’t sure what was the problem but it seemed ignition-related in nature so I figured it was worth trying to swap out some components and see if they made any difference. Unfortunately, I had no more spare ignition wires. I was beginning to think that the wires weren’t the problem anyhow so I replaced the distributor cap with a 10-year-old one I had. This cap looked to be in about as good as shape as a neglected eight-track cassette from the 1960s but the one that was on the car did not look so great itself. I then fired up the car and she was idling a bit rougher, but at least she was running. I closed the hood and off we went.
By Mile 665 it was already dark and I stopped at a gas station for gas and a beverage. During this time not one but two people came to look at the car and chat. Excerpts of the conversations went something like this:
Admirer #1: Your MGB is in great shape! I bet it is a lot of fun to drive, yes?
Felix, stammering: Um, yes… at least when she is running well. When she isn’t… not as fun…
Admirer #1, ignoring the last part: I’ve been looking for one for a long time! I especially want one with wire wheels!
Felix, thinking “no you don’t”: Er, the wire wheels are pretty, but the problem with them is they require tubes and are prone to getting flats. [Gives a 15-second synopsis of the flat tire problems I’ve had on this trip and over the years…]
Admirer #1, not dissuaded at all: Cool car!
[Ten minutes later]
Admirer #2: Nice car. I used to have one a long time ago. Sold it when I started a family. Wish I still had it…
Felix: Er, thanks…
The contrast between the two onlooker’s enthusiasm (illusions?) and the reality of the situation was actually quite comical, especially considering how bleak the car was starting to sound. Instead of a deep, melodious and relatively smooth exhaust note emanating from the rear, the sounds from the tailpipe were sounding more and more like a Harley twin or a raucous single-cylinder thumper.
To her credit, Goldie kept on puttering along and I was determined to keep pressing on as long as she was. A few hours later I took a 90-minute nap inside the car—top-down and in the driver’s seat no less—and made a final gasoline stop at Mile 936. By this time she was clearly only running on three cylinders so under a parking lot lamp I pulled each of the spark plugs and inspected them for fouling. Nada; guess each of them were firing. Mystified about the exact cause of the problem, I shut the bonnet and resigned to the fact that we’d have to go two hundred more miles on just three cylinders.
Dawn broke in eastern Wyoming and as I turned off onto Highway 287 in Laramie, a reserved smile swept across my face. Just 60 miles to Fort Collins on this highway. We were going to make it. Even if Goldie conked out here, I thought, I was close enough to home that I could possibly call a friend—or a tow truck—to fetch me if need be.
And so the last hour of this epic drive proved to be the best. Northern Colorado was about as colorful as ever, with fir-covered mountains seeming a tad greener when I last left, topped by red rock and granite outcroppings. Green and honey-colored hills provided just a peak of the Rockies juxtaposed behind, and wispy clouds—something I rarely saw during the summer in Northern California—dangled above. The MG continued to sound terrible, but at least we were making forward progress.
By 8:00 a.m. Mountain Time—or 26.5 hours after we had left—Goldie arrived at her new sanctuary where I had reserved garage space for her. Home sweet home. The journey was eventful—too eventful—but despite all the problems, she still managed to go 1140 miles in just over one day. This is a record (by far) for any car I have owned.
Looking back, I am amazed at what she has achieved in the 11 years we’ve been together. Be it a detour-ridden drive down to Death Valley or an all-night drive down to Malibu (1997), a winding/high-altitude drive through Yosemite to Bishop (1998), or—somewhat reminiscent of this trip—going down to San Diego and back on three cylinders (1999), she has always gotten me there. Not bad for a car who emerged shortly after the Beatles did.
This trip may have been pushing my luck, but don’t worry, I won’t be asking her to repeat such a feat ever again. She deserves the rest.
Other Issues I Forgot to Put in this Story
- From a buddy: “Hahaha, you forgot the part about when you were in Hercules and you were out of cell phone juice!”
- Turn signals stopped working at Mile 675 (most likely a loose wire… somewhere…).
- At Mile 936, when pulling the plugs, I spotted a missing nut on the alternator retention bracket and hence the alternator pulley belt was not tensioned properly. I didn’t worry about it, however, as the ignition light was not staying on while driving, so there must have been enough tension to provide adequate charging…
Special thanks to…
- Loren, who was trying to help over the phone during the Hercules incident. He even researched some of my questions about ignition wires right then and there.
- Lisa Z. and Tori, my stalwart friends who provided moral support during the trip.