35 Years On, This Shop Endures in an Improbable Location
Photography by Josh Clason for Petrolicious
When Bernie Sloan and Jeff Taw first opened British European Auto for business in 1980, everyone advised them against setting up shop in San Pedro, an out-of-the-way harbor enclave tucked at the end of the 110 freeway between Long Beach and Rancho Palos Verdes in the South Bay region of Los Angeles.
“To an extent,” says Jeff, smiling as he reminisces, “they were right. Maybe we would’ve done better had we gone to Redondo Beach or Torrance, but hey, all the guys we knew with shops there are gone now and we’re still around.”
Both Jeff, a native of Great Britain, and Bernie, a transplant from New Zealand, had apprenticed as mechanics in their respective homelands, and both were recent arrivals to Southern California. Like so many twentysomethings before them, they had been drawn to Los Angeles by the sun and by American Graffiti-inspired fantasies of the area’s car culture.
“Growing up in Britain, we aspired to your low-riders,” says Jeff. “American cars were like gods to us, but they were also completely foreign. After I’d been [in the United States] for a while, I was restoring a 1968 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and I had to buy another one just to figure out how to put that one together.”
No surprise, then, that Bernie and Jeff elected in their professional lives to specialize in British cars. Over next three-plus decades, British European gradually transitioned from a garage where owners had their new, daily-driver 1980 MGBs tuned up to a full-service restoration shop for vintage British cars.
British European Auto now resides in a barrel-roofed garage that dates to 1937 and which, until Jeff and Bernie bought the place in 1995, housed a Soderstrom and, later, Colleto Ford dealerships . Passersby, strolling down San Pedro’s Pacific Avenue, can’t help but notice the assembly of Austin-Healeys, Jaguars, and Lotuses displayed for sale in the original glass showroom, where British European handles consignments for its customers.
In selling a vintage British sports car, however, Jeff and Bernie inevitably encounter questions about the cars’ reliability. Jeff is quick to dismiss such concerns.
“Quite honestly, it’s the way they’ve been repaired in the past that makes them unreliable,” says Jeff. “All too often, these cars were previously owned by someone who bought them when they were cheap, before they were collectible, and then relied on some Mickey Mouse mechanic at the local gas station to repair them.”
Asked about the special qualities of a vintage British sports car, Jeff is quick to point to the lines of the cars – a Bugeye Sprite will never be mistaken for a German or Italian car – as well as to their legendary handling. They are also, notes, Jeff, “incredibly clever compromises.”
“The engineers who built these cars would borrow the suspension from one car, pull an engine from a truck, and somehow create a sports car,” says Jeff. “The TR3 has a Massey-Ferguson tractor engine, while the Austin-Healeys mostly had commercial six-cylinder truck engines. Somehow, it all worked.”
Thirty-five years on, Bernie and Jeff are still working, too, though Jeff points out that this is very much a labor of love and certainly not the right line of work for anyone worried about their hourly wage.
“But it’s a very rewarding job,” says Jeff. “You’re always solving puzzles, making things fit, and there’s a lot of satisfaction at the end of each day.”