MG as First Car is Hobbyist's Cup of T
By John Gunnell
MG's postwar T-Series cars have the classic looks of expensive prewar sports cars at affordable prices. The MG TC, made from 1946-1949, is best known to car collectors for its upright grille, clamshell fenders and tall wire-spoke wheels. The MG TD, produced from 1950-1953, is a bit lower and wider and has a few modern touches like rack-and-pinion steering. The 1954-1955 MG TF has more streamlined looks adopted in a vain attempt to modernize it. It has a pressurized cooling system and the headlights are flared into the front fenders.
MG promoted the TC as the "sports car America loved first." More than a few American servicemen returning from World War II brought a TC home with them. The TD was designed to capitalize on the attention these cars got in the New World. The 1950 MG TD (a.k.a. "Midget") teamed the TC's basic drivetrain and traditional coachwork with a modified hypoid rear axle, an independent front coil spring suspension, smaller 15-in. disc wheels and bumpers with overriders. Unlike the TC, the TD was available with the steering wheel on the left side.
In 1950, the MkII model was introduced and sold alongside the standard TD. MK IIs had a "tuned" engine with larger twin S.U. carburetors, an 8.0:1 compression ratio and 57Â hp. Essentially a racing option, the MKII package also featured twin fuel pumps, double shock absorbers and a higher rear-axle ratio.
Nearly 30,000 MG TDs were produced in four years, including about 1700 Mk II models. Most of the cars were built for the export market, since the British economy was in a weak state after the war and needed an infusion of cash that car sales in other countries provided. Automotive historians say 23,488 of the cars were shipped to the United States and only 1,656 were sold in England.
By fall 1953, the Jaguar XK-120 and Austin-Healey A100 had changed America's perception of a real sports car. MG management spent about two weeks modifying the TD into the swoopier TF, which had slightly modernized looks. Starting in July 1954, U.S. buyers could get a new 1500 model with a larger XPEG engine. The old XPAG engine was stil used in home market cars.
Even today, the postwar T-Series MGs are affordable. Although they can cost over $50,000 to restore, collectors in the know can find excellent T-Series cars for $30,000. Nice TDs with an older restoration can be found for as little as $12,000. In general, a TC or TF will bring a little more than a TD in similar condition. Strangely enough, MG T-Series prices haven't changed much over the years. Older issues of a club magazine called The Sacred Octagon carried ads for cars for sale in the '70s-'80s that had asking prices close to modern values.
One factor that keeps MG TC, TD and TF collector values "affordable" is that the reality of owning and driving what is basically a prewar car is a bit different than the dream. T-Series roadsters are primitative, noisy automobiles that emit smells and can literally scare the pants off anyone used to cruising in a modern sports car. Driving one of these early postwar British sports cars on a modern superhighway with semis blowing by at 75 mph will change more than a few budding enthusiasts from "Brit car" fans to Corvette owners in a hurry.
Just figuring out how the little key and dashboard pull starter works is a challenge. Recently, a T-Series owner pulled up to the front of a motel where a few 20-somethings were lounging. "Give me the keys and I'll valet park it," joked one bright-looking and bold young man. With a wink, the MG owner flipped him the keys. "I'll be back after check-in," he said. "If you've got it running I'll give you a nice tip." A half hour later, the car sat silent and no money changed hands.
On the highway, a TD with stock gearing will be buzzing like a sawmill at 55 mph and probably run completely out of steam at 60. That's if the driver can tolerate the rattling of the gear shifter that long. Signal lights were not standard on TDs until the 1953 round-taillight models and many have no turn indicators, which can make driving exciting at times. There are no roll-up windows either. Some cars actually have accessory radios, but who can hear them at 4500 rpm?
Some people that buy postwar T-Series MGs as their first collector car sell them almost as quickly as they get them. They buy the cars as toys that look like they would be fun to drive. When selling, they probably walk away with a guilt complex if they recoup even 70 percent of their original investment. That's when the person who loves these cars will step up to buy at a bargain price.
Jim Grinney, of Hartland, Wis., is a typical first-time MG T-Series owner. In 2010, Jim purchased a nice-looking MG TD MK II. As usual, the car needed some work out, but Jim stuck to his goal and wound up with a well-sorted car thanks to the help he got from a shop owned by a man who loves T-Series MGs.
Shank Hanke (orange shirt) of Shane's Classic Sports Cars gives owner Jim Grinney a primer on MG TDs outside his shop in Manawa, Wisconsin.
According to inscriptions later found in hidden places on the vehicle, the creamy yellow MG TD MK II had last been restored in 1982. When Jim got it, the car seemed to be very well preserved, but when you looked at it up close its 28-year-old paint showed problems such as crazing and lifting of the old paint.
Jim did not get an ownership history along with the car. "The man I bought it from only knew that he had purchased it from a doctor in Illinois about 10 years ago and that it had undergone a minor restoration at that time," said Grinney. "The previous owner did not know specifically what was done to the car back then. I called a person who worked in the Illinois shop where the previous owner remembered having taken the MG, but he had no recollection of anything relating to the car. I would love to find out more, but I seem to be at a dead-end."
The rare TD had the radiator slats properly finished in deep red to match its leather upholstery. It had stock silver ventilated disc wheels, good Kumo radial tires (such tires work well on TDs) and a black top with matching side curtains. It was an authentic, numbers-matching TD MK II with all of the proper nomenclature tags. It had all of the MK II "competition package" features.
Jim first took the MG to a sports car shop to store it and have it checked out. That shop was recommended by enthusiasts in Southern Wisconsin, but the skilled mechanics there were more familiar with Italian exotics than British roadsters. Mechanically, the car seemed to be complete and in great condition. However, each time Jim drove the car, problems arose. According to the shop owner, every time the TD rode out of the shop, it came back on a flat bed tow truck! During this time, some new parts were installed. A brand new starter actually helped the car going, but apparently it did not solve the MG's problems.
Like many new owners of old cars, Jim had the good sense to join a car club to get some objective advice. He became a member of the Milwaukee & Great Lakes MG Motor Group, which is better known as MGMGMG or MG3. The Milwauke club is a chapter of the New England MG T Resgister, which is actually an international club for MGT owners. After paying his annual $15 dues, Jim was able to network with the other members by Internet and learned of a new restoration shop in Northern Wisconsin with a staff that had a passion for T-Series cars. Before long, a technician from the second shop went to the first shop with a trailer to pick up Jim's car and bring it to its temporary winter home.
Upon close inspection, Jim's car proved to be a better-than-average older restoration type ehicle, but not issue free. Right after the car arrived, the shop notice some minor brake fluid leakage, grease seeping from front suspension seals, broken and leaky exhaust system parts, some broken electrical wires, some details that weren't quite authentic and other typical wear items The overal assessment of the vehicle was still very good and it seemed to run very well.
Over the winter of 2010-'11 the car was disassembled, blasted, painted and repaired as needed. Here the fender and splash pan are being re-installed.
That initial impression changed a bit, after the first test drive of approximately three miles. After going only that short distance, the car warmed up and the engine konked out. It re-started a few times, but would not maintain idle. Then, it refused to start at all even though the battery was charged and it had been running well. The car was carefully pulled back to the shop with a rope.
It didn't take the second shop long to figure out that the answer to the sudden breakdown had nothing to do with the starter. The problem was caused by a bad rotor that looked like new, but was slightly undersized. As the car warmed, it made one part expand more than the other and created a weak electrical contact. After securing and installing a replacement rotor, the car's running problems appeared to be over and the shop moved onto the task of removing the old wrinkled and damaged paint and getting the car resprayed.
Since there is no way to properly strip the paint off an MG TD with the car completely assembled, Johnson's Auto Body Shop in Waupaca, Wis., was elected to blast off the old paint. Lowell Johnson's media blasting equipment removed the old finish, but first the restoration shop removed the radiator grille, headlights, front fenders, hood panels, windshield, running boards, rear fenders, gas tank and front and rear bumpers. The diassembly work was quite a chore in itself. The soft trim around the edges of the body tub had to be un-tacked and rolled back. Even the vinyl-clad plywood dashboard had to be unscrewed from the body, which meant removing all of the electrical connections behind it.
MG T-Series restorer Shane Hanke carefully attaches new chrome running board trim strips to the freshly repainted car.
After having its paint blasted away, the "naked" body was trailered to Beckman's Collision Center, also in Waupaca, where veteran body technician Ralph Beckman began the job of refinishing the body tub and all the parts that had been removed from it. Beckman took care of any minor body work the car needed, then sanded, primered and prepped each piece of sheet metal for the new paint. The Website http://www.mgcars.org.uk/mgtd/ was consulted for information about original finishes on various parts of the car, correct modern paint codes and other authentic details. The fender welting material had to be sprayed with special paint to match the body color, since the welting is no longer sold in a variety of colors by suppliers like Moss Motors and Abington Spares.
After it was painted, the car came back to the shop looking like a roadster that had been stripped down for racing or street rod use. The engine was exposed and there was no windshield, running boards or fenders. Everything had to be re-assembled again, in proper order, taking painstaking care not to ding the repaired sheet metal or scratch the new paint. The parts were carefully wrapped in blankets each time they were handled. If needed, new hardware was used. As the car was reassembled, no shortcuts were taken in doing quality work. Slowly but surely, the "hot rod" and pile of parts began to look like a classic MG again.
The dashboard was installed and the instruments were carefully wired according to color-coded illustration the New England MG T Register published in its bi-monthly magazine The Sacred Octagon. This late MG TD had a 3-bow top and the bows were refinished in the correct tan color, rather than the black they had been painted before. A new tan top and tan side curtains were installed in place of the black ones the car wore before. Below the car, a new, leak-free stainless steel exhaust system was hung. The car had come into the shop in good basic mechanical condition, so no major work other than tuning was done.
Jim Grinney slid behind the wheel of his 1953 MG TD MK II anxious to try it out.
In a short eight months, from Otober 2010 to May 2011, the classic MG had been transformed from what hobbyists call an "older restoration" into a show car poised to win its first award. When Jim Grinney picked up the car on May 27, 2011 in Manawa, WI, it was the first time he met eye-to-eye with the man who had restored the vehicleâ€”Shane Hanke. The proud owner was given a rundown of every aspect of the car from how to set the choke to what oils to use in the vintage engine with its flat tappet camshaft. Then, Jim headed south in his roadster and finished the three-and-a-half-hour trip to Hartland. Except for a door latch adjustment, he did not have to pick up a wrench or call for a tow truck
The finished car took a second in the MG T-Series class at British Car Field Days held on Father's Day in Sussex, Wis.
On Father's Day, Grinney entered the MG in the British Car Field Days event, an annual show held in Sussex, WI. Devoted solely to British built cars and motorcycles, "Sussex" is regarded as the state's premier venue for classics manufactured "across the pond." That afternoon, when the results of the voting were counted, it was announced that Jim's car won second place honors in the class for late T-Series MGs. With a little more detailing over this winter, he hopes to return to Sussex 2012 and move up to a first place award.
Don't get the impression that Jim is focused solely on winning trophies, since that is not what the hobby is all about. "Since picking up the car, I have had a great amount of fun driving it, too," he said recently. "The car runs perfectly and is a real pleasure to drive." He has noticed that the car does get warm on hot days! "I'm not sure what the critical temperature might be, but I suspect I have flirted with it," he noted. "Maybe I'll have Shane check the cooling system over the coming winter."
New England MG T Register, Ltd,
PO Box 1028
Ridgefield, CT, 06877-9028
Milwaukee & Greatlakes MG Motor Group
President: Dave Jefferson
520 Capitol Dr.,
Pewaukee, WI 53072
Johnson's Auto Body Shop
E 4274 Harrington Rd,
Waupaca, WI 54981
Beckman's Collision Center
E4320 State Road 22
Waupaca, WI 54981-9026
The Original MG TD Midget (Website)
Moss Motors, Inc.
440 Rutherford Street
Goleta, CA 93117
P.O. Box 37, South St.
Walpole, NH 03608
Order Phone: 800-225-0251
Shane's British Classics
E6110 Fuhs Rd.
Manawa, WI 54949
British car Field Days
Every Father's Day
Contact: John Stockinger @ (414) 550-9492