1967 MGB GT. Click image to enlarge
Articles and photos by Paul Williams
MG Being and the Quest for Fun
After reading about Irv Gordon and his famous 1966 Volvo P1800S, you might get inspired to do a long drive in a classic car yourself. After all, Irv has driven over five-million kilometres in his!
So a 1,500 km round-trip in a 1967 MGB-GT should be a cakewalk, right? That’s what I thought; just hop in and go. Leave on June 26, get back well in time for Canada Day. No problem.
The trip in my “B” would take me from Ottawa to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania for “MG 2008,” an annual MG gathering. Our convoy of two included me and Terry Haines (the Ottawa MG Club President) in his 1966 “B” Roadster, and as we had only four days, the route would be direct — Interstate 81 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike — rather than a leisurely meander along minor highways. But again, no problem, as both our “B’s” are equipped with overdrive (which although this sounds like the equivalent of an afterburner, actually does the opposite and reduces engine speed for a more relaxed highway driving experience).
To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what I was expecting from this trip. Fun comes to mind, although I hadn’t really considered the specifics of that. I just figured it would be fun to drive the car for an extended period, like they did “back in the day.” I’ve driven my “B” to local events and shows; even driven it 200 km for the big British Car Day in Kingston, Ontario. That was fun; this should be more fun, I guess is what I thought.
1965 MGB Roadster. Click image to enlarge
But it started raining soon after we left, and by the time we crossed from Ontario into New York State, it was absolutely pelting. The Interstate was packed with cars, tractor trailers, and a seemingly endless procession of Suburbans, Armadas and Ram pickups that hovered around us like predatory birds salivating over their next meal. Compared with vehicles these days – even compact cars like a Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra — an MGB is small, very low to the ground, and easy to miss (or hit, if you get my drift).
The single-speed wipers worked, however, although with the windows up, condensation formed inside the car and further reduced visibility. Opening the “quarter-lights” helped a bit, but let in the rain. The defroster (a term used generously for this device in an MG) directed an almost undetectable breath of air toward the base of the windshield in a lazy attempt to clear the fog. But at least the car was dry inside (the GT being a hardtop), a condition not enjoyed by my travelling companion in his MGB Roadster. That car, a pristine and fully restored example, was leaking like a sieve.
Remarkably, out spirits were still high. After all, we were mobile, and in an old British car, that definitely counts for something.
The rain eventually stopped, to be replaced by sweltering heat. Weather reports on the radio said 95-106 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 35-41 Celsius. Slowing as we approached Philadelphia, one-lane traffic became the norm through endless construction zones. Now I was stuck to my seat with perspiration, the clutch felt heavy, and the engine temperature gauge rose to an alarming 212-degrees. For those of you not familiar with the old scale, that’s the temperature at which water boils.
The trick when this happens (believe me, you don’t want this to happen…) is to turn on the heat. This causes the coolant to run through the heater core, thus lowering the temperature of the coolant by a few precious degrees. Of course, it also increases the temperature in the car, which is already just about unbearable. It’s a temporary fix; the next move is to pull over or catch fire.
Eventually we found our hotel, but it was tough. Valley Forge, or at least the general Valley Forge area that we occupied, is no quaint village filled with friendly innkeepers and welcoming Bed and Breakfasts. Valley Forge is a memorial park surrounded by a densely populated combination of malls, office buildings, parking lots, warehouses, corporate headquarters and the occasional home. It’s tied together with a spaghetti of multi-lane highways and six-lane feeder roads. There are no sidewalks anywhere, and getting around by classic car is, how to put it, intense.
The next couple of days repeated the familiar blast-furnace heat followed by torrential downpour cycle, with the MGB’s engine and primitive cooling system not taking kindly to the new demands being placed upon them. Life in the car was uncomfortable, and the best part of the day was simply getting out of it. Could this be the experience of owning one of these cars forty years ago?
Terry’s car had taken in so much water that it was now sloshing around on the floor. The carpets and upholstery were soaked, and stayed that way due to the extreme humidity. He had purchased a new canvas top from one of the event’s vendors, but it wasn’t much good in the trunk. The final indignity took place at the big MG car show held about an hour away from the host hotel. With about 350 cars at the park arranged by category and age, the skies darkened as if on cue, and grim-faced owners took cover under their porous roofs once more.
1967 MGB GT. Click image to enlarge
That evening, we selected a local eatery called the “Fox and Hound,” expecting (reasonably, I think) a pint of bitter, and some English pub fare. Turned out to be a sports bar featuring Ultimate Fighting, Tex-Mex and Coronas with fruit. I guess darts and Bangers and Mash didn’t go well in Valley Forge, and they changed the menu to something more lively.
The next day, Terry figured he’d try driving part-way home with the roof down, in a valiant attempt to finally dry out his car. We used Google Maps to get us from Valley Forge to Allentown via a scenic route, but all the roads in the Allentown area seem to be new, and Google Maps, along with both of our GPS units, were completely flummoxed by the development. Eventually we made it onto the 476, which is a heavily traveled toll-road whose north/south lanes are separated by an imposing concrete wall.
Going over the Alleghany Mountain range seemed more challenging for the cars on the way back. Engine temperatures were dangerously high when ascending, plunging by 40-degrees when descending. Both cars did this, which was reassuring or disturbing, depending on one’s point of view.
Annoyingly, at around mid-day the sun began reflecting on the period chrome instrument bezels and wiper arms. This so-called “brightwork” looks great at a car show, but on the road the effect is to temporarily blind the driver when the sun hits it just right (which it did regularly).
By this time, too, the seats in both cars had lost what little support they had initially offered. Far from being sporting, these bucket seats in traditional black leather with white piping simply provided a soft crevice into which the small of your back could slowly collapse.
You tend to sit forward when this happens, incongruously gripping the steering wheel at eleven and one, teeth bared, foot hard on the gas in an attempt to will forward motion as you climb yet another hill. The overdrive kicks in and out, the engine battles gamely, you find yourself listening to the increasing whine of the differential and the driver (that would be me), whose eyeballs are taking on the mad appearance of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink.
Are we having fun yet? The words echoed around the caverns of my brain as I wiped some more sweat from my face. What am I doing this for? I could be in a Honda S2000 if I want a nice sports car. Or a Mustang with leather and a V8 with automatic (and air!). Then I could drive to a classic car show in one of those vehicles, and check out the cool chrome bezels and white piping, the pristine engine bays and polished carburetors to my hearts content. I could admire the fancy wheels and flashy paint jobs of nicely restored classic cars without having to endure the extreme discomfort of actually driving one of the beasts 1,500 kilometres!
Now there’s a thought, I thought. That’s why people haul these cars over long distances; the so-called “trailer queens” that I’ve been so quick to deride. Or that’s why owners may take weeks to drive their classic to a remote event (significantly, most owners at MG 2008 seemed to be retirees, with plenty of time to do just that). Fact is, without modifications, these old cars are really not cut out for the long distance pace and volume of modern traffic.
After finally cresting the mountains, it was downhill then blessedly flat. And as we approached the Canadian border it became cooler (which you would expect, right?). But then it became downright cold and ahead we could see some unnaturally dark skies approaching from the north-west.
So we would end as we started: in the wet. Others pulled over but we pressed on, as they used to say, regardless.
Classic cars make nice ornaments, I reckon. They’re best appreciated close to home, where they don’t have to compete with anti-lock brakes, turbochargers, airbags, electronic stability control, ergonomic seating, automatic climate control, rear window defoggers and intermittent windshield wipers. They are, as a friend of mine succinctly observed, “great vehicles for getting from A to A.”