1979 MG Midget 1500

In early 1984 I was getting restless for a new car. My 1977 Chevy Luv was beginning to look dated and a bit battered. I was on shore duty now at a training command with plenty of free time. I was dating pretty regularly, and most of the other single guys I knew all had pretty fancy cars.

In the early spring one of my co-workers at my command brought in his son’s car to sell. It was a beautiful 1979 MG Midget 1500 convertible, red with gold pinstripe and chromed accents and appeared to be in perfect condition with about 32,000 miles. I was in love.

After some negotiations and false starts, my co-worker agreed to sell it to me. Financing proved to be a problem. Even though I had paid off one car loan and owned a condo, two major banks turned me down on the basis that I “lacked sufficient credit history.” Finally, the third bank I approached, a small local bank, granted me a loan.

I made the transaction on a Friday afternoon and drove the car down to my local insurance agent to do the paperwork. The MG would not start when I attempted to leave the office – a jammed starter motor. The AAA tow truck driver showed me how to free the motor explaining that this was a “common problem” with MG’s. It was an omen of things to come.

I initially thought about selling my Chevy Luv, but after several weeks of owning the MG I changed my mind. I realized my truck was extremely handy and extremely reliable, and owning an MG meant owning a reliable backup vehicle.

Over the next few months I made several – major – repairs. The first was a complete carburetor overhaul which also made me familiar with the San Diego MG specialty repair shop, “Octagon Motors.” Then I had to rebuild the brake system, a result of the previous owner not using correct brake fluid which caused the rubber seals to dissolve. The mechanical fuel pump failed and I changed to a more reliable electric pump mounted in the trunk (boot). I needed new tires and learned that when replacing MG tires all four had to be replaced at the same time; anything less than matching top-end Pirelli steel-belted radials would cause serious stability problems at highway speeds.

I decided to take an MG driving trip to Cheyenne, Wyoming to visit my friends Karen and Al, with stops in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Denver. It was a brave adventure. While crossing the desert outside of Las Vegas I learned about desert sun with the top down. I also learned about overheating the stock electronic ignition – the ignition began to cause problems by randomly cutting off late in the afternoon between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Outside of Salt Lake, I learned about high altitude and the MG’s 2 degree ATDC timing. Timing problems combined with random ignition failures made my trip extremely “interesting.”

On the flip side, driving through the western side of the Rocky Mountains in the early morning on a beautiful summer day, east of Salt Lake City with an empty road and the top down, was pure bliss. I also had a chance to cruise through the Wyoming town of Sinclair, home of Sinclair Oil and the 1964 World’s Fair “Dinosaur Land” exhibit that I’d seen as a kid.

I did make it to my friends in Cheyenne, but on the return trip home I had real problems by the time I reached Denver. I found a small repair shop there and had the timing retarded to compensate for the high altitude. This $100 adjustment didn’t really didn’t help much. By the time I hit Eisenhower Tunnel, elevation 11,158 feet at the West Portal, my car was running slow. By slow I mean floored throttle, in first gear, and passed by bicyclists going uphill.

I finally made it through the tunnels and it was all downhill into Golden and across the desert. Once back in the lower elevation desert the high heat again started causing problems with my ignition. I decided to drive all night when it was cooler and finally limped into San Diego after a straight 31 hour drive.

Then I needed to re-adjust my timing for sea level and replace my stock ignition with an Allison Electronic system.

Despite all the mechanical problems, on the rare occasion the car actually ran well it was one of most exhilarating thrills I’d ever had. I got to look at the underside of passing tractor-trailer trucks with my eyes at the same level as the truck hubcaps. On one trip up to Los Angeles, I played highway tag with a Mercedes full of college girls who were most impressed with my driving skills cutting in and out of traffic at speeds up to 90 m/h. Not smart, but fun. Driving with the top down really helped me appreciate the weather – and learned that rain with the top down was bad. I also learned than a lot of the women who rode with me did not enjoy having the top down; something about messing up their hair.

The MG became my only vehicle for the brief time my Chevy Luv was stolen. It cooperated by not breaking down for the time I depended on it but the effort apparently exhausted it. Within days of recovering my truck the clutch plates separated. The mechanic at the repair shop, with whom I was now on a first name basis (along with several San Diego tow truck drivers) explained that the clutches normally separated at about 50,000 miles, which was about the mileage my MG now had.

Replacing a clutch on an MG meant pulling the engine and transmission together, a job I decided to leave to the pros. I was buying a new house, getting ready to get married, and had several other major expenses so repairs had to wait. It took almost four months before I had the money and got the car to the shop. While in the shop, the mechanics discovered the crankshaft was worn and needed replacement – add several hundred more dollars to the bill.

After four months sitting broken in my driveway and over two weeks in the shop, I got the car home and running. My fiancée and I spent a Saturday washing, waxing and cleaning it, then Sunday morning took it out for a spin. We headed up to La Jolla, cruised along the beach and college, and then headed back south.

On the way home, in the middle lane of a ten lane freeway, the very expensive front left wire hub cap popped off. It rolled alongside us for a few moments desperately trying to keep up. Then, it veered off into the faster lanes, leaned over and fell down where it was promptly flattened by a tractor-trailer. We returned home and I put the car up for sale through the local Auto trader.

The ad came out a week later, and the first person who showed up with the cash got the car. The buyer was a man about my age just arrived from the mid-west who wanted to fully embrace the “California Experience.”

I wished him luck and he drove off.

Ron Charest

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