Helen’s Wheel: This MGA Kept A Grieving Gearhead Engaged
Photography by Shane Allen
For many, the teenage years are an odd time, but for Daniel Harrison the challenges of adolescent transition were sped up tenfold due to an unavoidable family tragedy that hit home hard. While most 16-year-old petrolheads spend their first unsupervised driving year in a state of auto-nirvana, Daniel grappled with the loss of his mother.
With his widowed father busy working, Daniel was forced to take on family responsibilities, accelerating his maturity from a teenage kid to an even-tempered, well-mannered young man. The hardships were heavy but thankfully Daniel had an outlet to keep his wheels going—something to drive him in the right direction in spite of the trials and tribulations.
Here’s Daniel’s story on how an old British sports car strengthened his passion for cars and love for his family.
Andrew Golseth: Daniel, when was the gearhead seed planted?
Daniel Harrison: It all started way back with my dad. His first car was an old Austin Mini—so he’s always liked cars—but I’m sort of the first in the family who got really drugged with classic car enthusiasm.
We started going to Pebble Beach and Carmel when I was about seven. One year we went and inadvertently got caught up in the 17-Mile Drive, which is a little concours tour. We were driving along in our Volvo SUV and somehow ended up on the road at the same time as all the staff, surrounded by all these amazing classics. That was a pretty impactful moment.
My good friend, Tim, had a 1980 Camaro in high school. He was, and still is, really inspiring to me. I was always going over and working on his car with him; he taught me so much about mechanics. Tim’s house was Mecca for our group of car friends, and that really got me into classics.
I’ve always liked old cars but the car that really got me into old British cars was the Austin Healey 3000. The lines, the fact that it’s a convertible, everything about its styling, I just love that car. So, when I was nearing driving age, that’s what I started looking for. Of course, I discovered a good Austin Healey was much too expensive.
But in searching for one, I discovered the MGA, which looks very similar in terms of concept and principle—it’s the same classic roadster style. The Healey had a bigger engine, more luxuries, and was a lot faster, but otherwise the MG was the same recipe. So, I started looking at MGAs.
AG: Beyond it being a British roadster, what was it about the MGA that drew you to the car?
DH: There’s just something about the looks of it. The rear arch—right where it meets the rest of the body of the car—there’s this crease, this curve that’s just totally sculpted. Right in front of the rear arch where it meets the rest of the car, there’s like a square foot where there’s all these lines coming together. I absolutely adore that. That square foot of bodywork is amazing. One of my close family friends said it looks like a women lying on her side. It probably has some kind of instinctual appeal or something, I don’t know. It’s just gorgeous.
I absolutely love the shape. I was obsessed with old things, a bit of a romantic I suppose. There was just something so appealing about it, something about old British cars in particular, and I wanted one that I could work on, that I could restore.
Neither my dad nor myself knew anything about classic cars. I mean, in terms of the details and the time involved, it was totally unchartered territory. Had we known a little more about what’s all involved with restoring a classic, we probably wouldn’t have chosen the particular MG that we ended up with.
AG: What kind of shape was it in? Was it driving or just totally depleted?
DH: I found the car listed online and it was pretty cheap. It had lemon yellow paint, so it was a lemon true to form so to speak. [Laughs]
It was drivable but the gearbox was pretty much garbage. All the synchros were worn down, so it didn’t shift very nicely. It ran and drove but the suspension needed redoing. The brakes needed redoing. Everything, really, needed to be restored.
My father and I went down to look at it with a friend of mine who was really encouraging about the idea. After we saw it, my dad kind of questioned my passion for it. On the way home he told me, “You know, I don’t think we should do this. It’s a huge deal. It’s a massive commitment.”
I didn’t know if he was trying to test me or if he was serious, but I was too infatuated with the car to get intimidated by the unknowns. Three weeks later on my birthday he showed up in it, which was a big surprise. It was just amazing. It was so overwhelming; it was one of those totally unforgettable life moments. Over the course of that first year, I rebuilt all the suspension, installed front disc brakes, and bought some 72-spoke wire wheels for it.
A friend and I did all that together, which kept us busy until Christmastime. Then in the spring, it went to the body shop which is when we discovered just how rusted it really was.
AG: How bad are we talking?
DH: Bad. It needed a ton of structural work. If you left the doors open on the car, the middle would sag so much you wouldn’t be able to shut the doors. The floors and frame rails were totally rotten, but I was determined to save it.
We had to replace all the floor pans, the rockers, and most of the body panels. In fact, I think the only body panel we kept was the trunk lid. I remember the whole boot floor had to be replaced, all the door skins, the bonnet, most of the wings, it was a complete mess.
It had to be basically rebuilt from new parts, which made getting all the panel gaps right a huge pain in the ass. It really took a lot of hard work getting everything to fit properly, but it was worth it. The car feels really stiff now, everything feels solid. It’s amazing the transformation it went through.
AG: This was all going on while your mother was sick?
DH: Yeah. The most important thing about this car, the reason it means so much to me today, is how it relates to my mom. We got the car in the summer of 2012 and my mother died in March of 2013. She battled cancer for six years before passing.
I was taking care of my brother while my dad was busy working. Then the MG came into the family and it was this amazing thing. It was being painted when she passed away. It actually took another year after to get it finished.
My mom never got to see the car done, but she did see it driving around. She did ride in it with my dad and I. In memory of her, I named the car Helen.
AG: That explains the “Helen’s Wheel” vanity plate.
DH: Yeah. She was an artist and painted all these pastel pictures of flowers and poppies. She would do these landscapes of all these different flowers, flower fields, scenic stuff like that.
When we were finishing the car and got to restoring the dash, there was this rectangular cutout for a radio. But instead of installing a stereo, I put a canvas print of one of her art pieces in place. It’s a red poppy field painting. I stretched it over some wood, and laid that in the dashboard.
I’ve never seen that done before and it’s just this really meaningful finishing touch. I love it. It’s sort of the centerpiece that holds the whole car together.
She watched me work on the car but never got to see the finished product. Being a teenager, working on the car, and losing my mom, it was just this whole massive growing period for me. Obviously, it was a lot of emotions but also a lot of growth. I was pretty young to be doing all this stuff without knowing what the hell I was really doing.
But everyone was encouraging about it, my mom and dad certainly, and all of my friends as well. My friends and I, we started this weird club of 16 year olds who had a classic car passion. My best friend has an Austin Mini and a couple of other friends have old American cars. It was a team effort.
My dad helped me work on the car a little bit, a lot of my friends have—it’s just a very significant project made possible by friends and family. It required a lot of time from a lot of people, which simultaneously brought a lot of people closer together.
You know, sometimes people get these cars and they sit around for years and many never get finished. I think she would be really proud of what it’s turned out to be. And, that I actually finished it.
AG: No doubt, she’d be very proud. Speaking of it being finished, what color is this?
DH: The paint is actually a Jaguar mix. It’s called Meteor Grey. Our family, being English, has a real love for James Bond, so naturally we like the Aston Martin gunmetal grey.
It’s a big decision, what color you’re going to paint your car. At first, I considered red, but thought that was a little too cliché. So, we went with this gunmetal gray. I’ve also got a weird thing for red interiors—I think they’re just the best. Grey paint over black and red leather, plus red carpeting, it just works.
I love the steering wheel as well. I’ve been dreaming about having a wheel like that for a very long time. There’s something about how stainless steel and nice dark wood melds together. I found this Moto Lita wheel and thought it was the perfect fit.
I like the dash, and everything that’s on it, how all the knobs are totally random and spread out everywhere. I love my mom’s painting that’s set in the dash. It’s just a really nice place to be.
AG: What about the powertrain?
DH: It originally had a 1500cc in it, but this isn’t a factory spec car, it’s built just the way I want it now. I went to start it one day and there was some rod knock. So, I pulled the motor out with a friend and over the summer of 2016, I rebuilt a new engine and gearbox and even installed a complete new wiring harness.
Those were the three biggest things the car needed to really be complete. I bought a 1975 MGB 1800 block and took it to a shop to have it cleaned up. I had everything balanced and put in a more aggressive cam and a lightened flywheel, fitted twin SU carburetors, and higher compression pistons. It’s a mild racy street engine, but nothing too crazy.
AG: Did you do the engine work yourself too?
DH: Yeah, I did. I built it on a table, and the floor in my garage, which was the first time I’d ever done anything like that. That being said, building an engine was a real pain, but I learned a lot.
I think the rebuilt engine had to come out three times to get it right, but now it’s in a state where it’s driving and I can take it to PCH and wherever without issue. I had some clutch issues too: after getting it running again, my dad was out driving it around and the clutch pivot bolt fell out. It literally blew a hole in the side of the transmission!
I’m going to school at UCSD, so when I go home to work on the car I’ve got to take the train up to LA after class. That time, I worked on the car all night and all day, got it working again. I go back to San Diego, and dad drives it the next day and breaks it. [Laughs]
AG: Normally that’s the other way around—sons breaking their dad’s sports car. Do you give him shit about that?
DH: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s all in good fun though. Anyway, the new engine set up is probably good for 100 horsepower, which isn’t bad in something that weighs a tad under 2,000 pounds. It cruises comfortably at 65 now too, which is fine with me; I don’t need it to be the fastest or the best handling through the canyons. I just want it to be able to get up the steep hill in our neighborhood so I can drive it around at whatever speed it wants to go, and it’s good at that. It’s good at being a medium-speed cruiser.
AG: Any particularly favorite thing about the car, any answers to the “If you had to name one thing” question?
DH: There’s one interesting thing about the car that you can’t see. When we were having the car painted, we had this idea of putting her name on the back of the car in red paint.
I wasn’t so convinced about the idea because I didn’t think it was going to look right. So before the clear coat was put on, this pinstripe guru came to the body shop and wrote “Helen” on the back of the car. When they clear coated over it, the paint reacted with the clear coat and it kind of diffused. The script just sort of melted.
So, they color sanded it down and painted over it. So, you can’t see Helen written on the back of the car now, but I think it’s kind of nice to know that beneath the paint it still says her name. It’s like this underlying trait. It’s still there even though you can’t see it.
AG: Is it safe to say that after everything you’ve gone through, continue to go through, with the loss of your mother, that this car is staying with you?
DH: Unquestionably. There’s something about the emotional connection it has, the way it brought my family together, and even brought my friends and I closer together. When you’re in those late teen years where you want good friends, and you want total support, that stuff—I think the car was absolutely instrumental in that stage of my life and it very much still is.
After she died I definitely think I was motivated to finish it. I was extremely sad. I still am sad. It was four years ago now, but it feels like it was just yesterday. There’s something about the way it has this deep, deep connection to me, to my mom, to my family.
There’s this sort of attraction that I feel towards the car. I was very attached to my mom. I think it’s fitting to kind of have this parallel where I was extremely attached to my mother and I will always be extremely attached to this car as well.
It’s so hard to put into words, but it’s totally bewitching and I love it so much. I will never sell it or lose it or anything like that. Now I’m just sincerely grateful when it works because I honestly don’t feel quite right when it’s doesn’t.
I’ll admit it’s been phenomenally unreliable, but at the same time I genuinely enjoy fixing it. I really, really wish I could show my mom what it is now because I think she’d be really proud. I would just love to take her for a drive. I think that would be the very best.