Lifelong Memory of MGA becomes Reality

Owners and photographer: Phil and Dorothee Auldridge

Year, Make, and Model: 1959 MGA 1500 roadster

Location: near Austin, Texas

A young teenager growing up in a small Texas town in the 60’s, as I did, was generally unaware of the existence of any automobiles other than Fords or Chevys.

That all changed for me when, on a high school class outing to San Angelo (which might as well have been New York City for us country kids), one of the chaperoning teachers wanted to visit a new car dealership in town, and asked if any of us students wanted to go along. Of course, I was the first to volunteer for this excursion, since I seem to have been born with a wrench in my hand.

The dealership turned out to be–guess what?–a British car dealership. I walked through the front door, and right there on that showroom floor was the most beautiful mechanical creation I had ever seen–a brand new MGA roadster in stunning British Racing Green. It was love at first sight for me, and the image of that beautiful little roadster remains burned into the back of my brain to this day.

Of course a high-school-aged farm kid is not going to be going out and buying a new MGA, nor any other car, new or used, for that matter. Instead, my first car was a father-chosen light green 4 door 1953 Chevrolet, which was literally owned by a little old-maid school teacher.

But the image of that MGA never was far from the top of my wish list. It was several years later, when shortly after finishing college, that I was able to obtain my first MG, an MG TD. It's a beautiful, classic pre-war design that got lots of attention, but frankly with its primitive brakes and under-powered engine, left a lot to be desired as a driver.

Fast forward to 2007, when I finally decided it was time for me to own my life-long dream car. After a year-long search, I finally discovered “my” MGA, a beautiful red 1959 1500 model with tan leather interior, just waiting for me at a classic dealer in California. I made arrangements to fly from my home in Austin to see the car first hand. Sure enough, “Cedric” (all our cars have names) was everything it had been described to be: it had a near-concours paint job, shiny and new chrome, a beautifully restored engine compartment, and best of all, the perfect color: Orient Red exterior, and camel leather interior.

There is certainly no short supply of MGAs in the world, with over 80,000 of these endearing roadsters built between 1955 and 1962. Yet, the “good ones,” those that haven’t succumbed to rust, or haven’t been abandoned out in a field, are becoming more and more scarce. It took just a short test drive and brief physical inspection for me to realize that Cedric was one of the “good ones.” I struck a deal right then and there, and Cedric joined the fleet.

I elected to drive our new (to us) MGA from Newport Beach, CA back to our home near Austin, Texas. Fourteen hundred miles and 4 days were sufficient for me to become acquainted with “Cedric”. In that time period a solid bond was formed between man and machine.

That little 1500cc engine was happy as could be buzzing along at 80 mph for long sustained stretches across the California and Arizona desert. The gear shift lever, as they say, “falls readily to hand,” and the solid 4-speed transmission shifts easily with a very short throw. As with many cars of the era, there is no synchromesh for first gear, necessitating a full stop before selecting it. This is never a problem, however, because the torquey little engine can pull away smartly in second gear from almost a standstill. The superb rack and pinion steering is unparalleled in quickness and precision. It requires minimal steering effort, in spite of the lack of power assist, and has virtually no play. A movement of a couple of inches or so on the wheel will steer the car right off the road.

And that glorious little 4-banger engine provides all the power any sane driver could want for enjoyment. Its hard-working 68 HP engine revs happily to its 5500 RPM redline, and sounds great all along the way.

The brakes, albeit drums all around, are superbly balanced, bring the car to a quick stop with light foot pressure required for the unboosted system (later MGA 1600s did come with front disk brakes).

On first glance at the cockpit, fitment for a guy of my height (6 ft 2) can seem questionable. Sure enough, ingress into and egress from the cabin does require a learned technique. But once situated behind the wheel, the car fits the driver like the proverbial glove. Pedals are small and closely spaced, demanding that the driver leave his field boots at home, in favor of more appropriate driving shoes. Departing from mundane technical specifications, one’s focus is naturally drawn to the sweeping lines of the MGA roadster. I submit there are few designs ever created that attract the eye more than the swoopy styling of the MGA. In an era when American cars were constructed with huge slabs of steel, the lithe MGA boasts aluminum doors, bonnet, and boot lid. The result is a car which weighs under 2,000 pounds, lighter than virtually any new car available in American today. Even the diminutive new Fiat 500 tips the scales at some twenty percent more.

The MGA managed to distill all the facets of the automobile down to the most primal and visceral basics. The car has everything needed for the ultimate man/machine enjoyment: a rev-happy engine, 4 speed manual transmission, true knock-off wire wheels, rack and pinion steering, dual carburetors, a sporty exhaust bark, a tachometer, and a folding convertible top. The non-essentials were left off: no door handles, no roll-up windows, no radio (an option, but rarely seen nor needed on these cars), no power steering, no power brakes, no air conditioning, no tire pressure sensors, no fuel injection, and no gas guzzler tax. Just the basics!

Any time British cars are being discussed in car circles, the subject of Lucas electrical components inevitably comes up, usually in derogatory tones. Having owned 9 British makes over the years, I have become convinced that poor Lucas has been unjustly maligned (does anyone want to argue the reliability of Marelli components?). My own experience has been that most Lucas components are robustly constructed, and are easily as reliable as their American counterparts. In fact, I am always impressed to find that most all vintage Lucas components are specifically designed to be easily disassembled, field repaired, and placed back into service. This is something rarely seen in today’s remove, throw away, and replace society.

One case in point: shortly after I received the MGA, I noted that the turn signal switch was not functioning at all. This switch is a timed, self-cancelling, bizarre electro-mechanical design, the concept of which I can’t begin to explain in twenty words or less. I was able to disassemble the switch, repair the inner components using a piece of leather from an old shoe, and that switch now continues to function perfectly some 7 years later!

More often than not, when electrical gremlins raise their ugly heads, the culprit tends to be in the British-style wiring techniques, rather than the components themselves. Many of the British wire connections are made using a terminal with a set-screw making contact on the exposed bare end of the wire. Over time, of course, these connections begin to fail.

It is hard to find fault with this car. It is perfectly proportioned for two passengers, handles as well as any other car I’ve driven from the era, gets great gas mileage, and always puts a smile on the driver’s face.

But if I were to have to name one item on the car that could use improvement, it would be the design of the rear crankshaft oil seal. Instead of using a traditional cork or rubber seal around the crank to prevent oil leakage, the MG engine employs a “spiral scroll” machined into the crank itself. The theory is that the spiral grooves would serve to move oil away from the rear crank end, and back into the oil pan. It doesn’t work well at all, and most acclaimed MG experts have thrown up their hands when it comes to finding a solution. The end result is that most of these cars definitely like to leave their mark wherever they are parked, and the slight oil leak always creates a mess under the carriage.

A typical drive in the MGA goes like this: Turn on the key, and wait a few moments until that electric SU fuel pump quits ticking, indicating the dual SU carburetors are primed and ready; Pull out the manual choke cable (unless it is a warm Texas spring day), and pull out the manual starter knob. Inevitably the engine will come to life almost instantly, with no need to baby the throttle (SU carburetors have no accelerator pump, nor do they need it, so “pumping” the throttle would be a futile exercise). Slip the transmission into gear, and off you go.

Don’t be afraid to run the engine right up to the redline in each gear. It is happy at these speeds, and such spirited driving is necessary to extract every precious horsepower from that little engine. You can accelerate right to redline through first, second, and third gears and still be below the speed limit. This is one of the most endearing features of this car. Just drive it like you’re mad at it, and you’ll still be street legal! Just take care to avoid making any sudden jerky moves on the steering wheel, as a very small movement translates to a big change in steering direction! Now just settle in and enjoy… let the feel, the sights, and the sounds of the MGA titillate all your senses! Any time it’s top down weather in the Austin area, without question the MGA is the car that gets taken out of the garage!

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