A funny thing happened to me about a few months before my 40th birthday in January 2000. I had the uncontrollable urge to find my first car again -- a signal red 1967 Triumph Spitfire Mk3 with a black interior.
You can blame Volkswagen for that. Volkswagen? In November of '99, my wife and I became the proud owners of a brand new, year 2000 New Beetle Turbo.
The New Beetle is such a kick to drive. I hadn't driven a car this fun and responsive since selling my '69 Porsche 911 T Targa 15 years ago. It was the first 5-speed I'd owned since then. In my enthusiasm, I even started a forum website for my new toy, The New Beetle MANIA Forum. The thing that really impressed me is the heartfelt way that people respond to the New Beetle. Old people love it, young kids love it, strangers smile and other NB owners wave or flash their lights. This is a feeling I hadn't experienced since... well... my first Spitfire.
As quick, quiet, smooth and enjoyable as my New Beetle turbo is to drive, something was missing. Something nearly intangible that was nagging at me as I drove. No, not expensive repair bills! That wasn't it... The first 25k miles are free dealer maintenance! Leaking oil? Nope. The New Beetle is tight as a drum. No, it was something different...Much more powerful than I'd realized at first.
Like a bolt of lightning, it all gelled one mild afternoon as I tooled down the road with the sunroof open and some good music booming on the stereo. I needed a convertible. Not just any convertible -- but a good old British convertible. One with a throaty rumble in the exhaust, carbs that require frequent fiddling (I've since abandoned that romantic notion) and a bumpy, low-to-the-ground ride. Just like my old Mk3 or '59 MGA roadster that I also owned. Yes! THAT was it! Now, if I could only convince my wife that we needed a another car -- especially this soon after buying a brand new one...
As it turns out, Kim was an easy sell on the idea of buying a project car to tinker around with over a period of a few years. I reasoned that this was a good father and son project for me and my eldest, who was 15 at the time. My son was even more surprised than I when I gave him the news that "mom said okay". Especially taking into account all the things around the house that need tending. As it turns out, my son never really became interested in the car, beyond helping me bleed the brakes a couple of times and taking a few rides. I didn't want to force my hobby on him, or be disappointed, any more than he'd be disappointed in me for not being interested in video games. Different strokes for different folks.
Once Kim green-lighted the project, I decided that I needed to immediately begin my search for another Spitfire. But not just any Spitfire would do. It would have to be a Mk3, preferably an early model like the one I used to own. I would settle for a Mk4 or Mk2 -- or even a later model Mk3 -- but I was really hoping to find a '67 like the one that I used to have or a '68 because of my preference for the center cluster for the gauges. I simply prefer their "vintage" look, even though they were designed that way as simply a cost saving measure (to make it easier to build LHD and RHD models)...
I've long held to the notion that it's much more desirable to own a nice classic sports car. Not only are newer vehicles prohibitively expensive (oh sure, they run better and are infinitely more safer to drive), but you can never own the latest and greatest car. As soon as you buy your new toy, the next model year will roll out with even more gadgets and gismos, or another manufacturer will one-up you. (Click the ad at right to see the full page version)
Buying a classic British sports car on the other hand, is special. I learned this lesson at the tender young age of 16 and repeated it when I was 20 by purchasing (and later selling) that '59 MGA roadster. A classic British sports car in nice condition will almost always gather more admiring and sometimes curious stares at the stoplight than a new car. Moreover, in the older British roadster, you'll receive as many thumbs up and smiles from strangers as you do in those New Beetles. Maybe even more. In a sometimes very impersonal world, these feelings of goodwill that are exchanged between motorists is truly a magical thing to behold. It's a very special, positive feeling that I can't adequately articulate. If you've experienced it -- you already know it. I also like the idea of driving a car that's not only rare, but that technically, was never designed to have survived this long.
I bought my first car in 1976 for $300 from my eldest sister Linda, who had purchased it brand new in San Francisco 9 years previously as her first car. I have fond memories of being scrunched behind the seats as a 7-year-old -- driving across the Golden Gate Bridge in the freezing fog, driving up to Golden Gate Park to feed apples to the herd of Buffalo that used to roam there... Parking with a hoagie sandwich overlooking the San Francisco Bay, listening to KYA and KFRC on the AM radio... My love affair with Triumph Spitfires began in 1967 thanks to my sporty young sister with great taste in cars and a limited budget. Linda was just 20-years-old when she bought her new car.
By the time I purchased it from her, my '67 Spitfire had covered roughly 54,000 miles as I recall, and came complete with the top boot, tonneau cover, owners manual, original AM radio and a recent set of carpets. My sister had the dealer install the optional AMCO locking glove compartment door that fits over the passenger side parcel tray. The car had factory fitted silver painted wire wheels with chrome knock-offs. Beginning with the next model year, British Leyland replaced the winged version with the octagonal "safety" knock-offs to satisfy federal requirements. The vast majority of Spitfires were produced, after all, for the U.S. market where sales were quite brisk. I greatly preferred the winged spinners.
My sister had taken very good care of her car through the years and it was in good original condition, but as a daily driver, it was in need of some work.
Upon acquiring the car, I had immediate need to install a new clutch. I was 16 and had very limited resources, but a senior at my high school who was good in auto shop offered to help me install a new clutch in my parents' carport for a total of about $200. I'll never forget finishing the job and taking the car for a test drive down the avenue that warm summer evening. The top was down, the motor was purring nicely -- emitting a melodious exhaust note -- and I was in heaven. A glance over my shoulder revealed the tail lights glowing in the night. Even at that age, I realized I had something very special. I had a sports car. A British sports car.
The kids at my high school loved to pick up the rear end of my Spitfire off the ground while I was in class and laugh at how the wheels would stay cambered in until I got in and drove a few feet. Once, I spun out while trying to navigate a left turn at an open intersection too fast. I wish I had known about the optional "camber compensator" attachment at the time. I could have used one. The Spitfire would be my sole mode of transportation for the next two years, before being sold under duress.
While visiting a friend attending Stanford one fall, my right front wheel fell completely off the car while I was exiting a freeway offramp at about 60 MPH. My wheel was recovered about a quarter of a mile away in a field, after narrowly missing several cars and nearly causing at least two accidents as it sped down the offramp in front of me and hit a center median, launching the tire about 15 feet in the air before crashing down and rolling down the street below and out of sight. About 1/4" of my brake disc had been ground flat by the asphalt. I was lucky to be alive, but thoroughly baffled by what had just happened.
I recovered my knock-off, found the tire eventually, and wheeled it back to my disabled car on the freeway offramp. The wheel looked fine. I jacked up the car, reinstalled the wheel and made sure to thoroughly tightened down the knock-off with several solid blows of my lead hammer. Then, I cautiously climbed back into the cockpit -- and buckled my seatbelt, cinching it tightly. I've worn a seatbelt without fail ever since.
To my astonishment, the brake rotor seemed to function just fine -- with one small problem. Every time I would apply the brakes, I'd hear a grinding metallic noise coming from the front right side - the knock-off was being unscrewed again!! It is only then that I realized the problem. My splines had worn down. Using my emergency brake (which only engages the rear drums), I limped to a stop, pulled out my tools and tried to decide what I should do. I couldn't afford a tow to San Francisco from Palo Alto (I was staying with my grandmother in SFO), and I couldn't afford to drive with no brakes. My first course of action was to tighten my handbrake so it would provide maximum stopping power in case of emergency. Then, being the brilliant 17-year-old I was, reasoned that if I could keep the hydraulics from working the front right brake, I could at least drive the car to my grandmothers' house, where I could get things repaired properly before heading back to Southern California (and my job) a few days later.
In 1978, spare parts for older Triumph Spitfires like mine were hard to come by -- and they were expensive. After severing the brake line to the right front wheel -- and trying (unsuccessfully) to crimp-seal the brake line (a small amount of fluid would stream out whenever I pumped the brakes), I drove to San Francisco, with the car pulling violently to one side every time I applied the brakes. Oops! I'd never considered THAT problem!
After getting the car back to my grandmother's, I made a few calls. Not only could I NOT replace the wire wheel and hub combo, I couldn't find ANYONE that could replace the brake line that I had just destroyed by cutting it. I bought a cheap pair of mag wheels to fit on the front instead, removed the splined hubs, bolted the new wheels on and ended up having to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a driving rainstorm with nothing to stop my car but downshifting, the emergency brake and the benevolent hand of God himself. That's twice in the same week that I could easily have been killed. Not only would have have ruined a perfectly good Spitfire, it would have prevented me from rescuing a second one years later. Nice how that worked out.
Less than a year after I bought the car, I was forking over $900 to the shop for a transmission rebuild. Ouch. That represented about two months of pay for me at the time. A short time later, I moved away from home for the first time and made my way north from Pasadena to Monterey, California where my first job in radio was waiting for me.
Finally, when I was just 18 years old, after two and a half years of glorious (and expensive) ownership, the transmission synchros were going out again. I also had a sizable ding in the bonnet from a hit and run in a parking lot while I was inside grocery shopping one day; and I needed a larger vehicle to transport all my junk to my next radio job in Ventura, CA. I had also purchased a motorcyle, which kept breaking down. So there was my poor Spitfire. No second gear, mags on the front, wires in the back, an ugly crunch in the front -- and I couldn't begin to afford repairing any of it. I was living in an apartment, had to park in an alley and was grossing a whopping $650 a month.
In anticipation of my next move, I bought an old VW bus (worst mistake I ever made -- it had a cracked block and blew up on my way out of town , requiring a complete engine rebuild), I left the keys to my crippled Spitfire with my roommate to sell for me and set off down the coast a few days later.
About two months later, my roommate managed to sell my Spitfire for $200. I wasn't happy at all, but I tried to shrug off the loss and move on. This was a very exciting time in my life, starting my broadcast career, and soon, I would be meeting and courting my future wife, so there were plenty of distractions to keep me from pining away for my old, battered Spitfire. I took this photo from the window of the radio station I was working for, 63 KIDD across the street from the Red Rooster Motel and Dennis The Menace Park, about a block off Del Monte. My Spitfire, my motorcycle and my "new", 1969 VW bus. I once saw Clint Eastwood emerging from his red Ferarri in the same spot. His dentist's office was directly below the booth I broadcast from. I could feel the vibration from the dentist's drill through the floor as I spun 45 RPM records.
Less than two years later, yearning for the fun of a British convertible again, I bought the aforementioned '59 MGA roadster off a used car lot for $2,500. I'd driven past the lot on my way to and fron work every day and the MGA really caught my eye with that FOR SALE sign on the windscreen. The transmission and motor had just been freshly rebuilt and it had new seats and carpet. I restored the body and paint and ended up selling it a year later for $3,500 (yes, I could kick myself NOW). I'd lost the garage space where I was keeping the car and after restoring the MGA to such beautiful condition, I couldn't bear to see it deteriorate on the street or get hit by a car backing in or out of a parking space. That was in 1981 -- and the last convertible or British car I owned.
Up until now.
Over the years, I'd experienced two or three dreams of finding my original Spitfire, sitting under a tarp in a backyard somewhere, waiting for me to restore it to road-worthy status. In these dreams I was always very happy to find that car again, but would inevitably wake up disappointed when I realized it was only a dream. I found it very odd that I would even have dreams about my first car, let alone two or three of them over the course of the last two decades. Once I realized that I had the ability to turn those dreams into reality again and my wonderful, understanding wife agreed to the idea...
The first thing I discovered on the Internet was that parts availability has greatly improved. I also was pleased to discover that the value of Spitfires really hadn't risen all that much, especially when compared to other marques, like the MGA I used to own for example. Today, an MGA in comparable condition to the one I owned (and practically gave away) would easily command $14,000.
With my decision to purchase another Spitfire reinforced, I set out to find what I was looking for. I scoured the Internet for every shred of information I could find about Spitfires. I was particular interested in seeing digital photos of the car. I placed WANTED ads in every on-line classified section and bulletin board I could find. I truly wish that a website like this would had been available to me during my search. Oh well, at least I can provide it now for you.
Two vehicles came to my attention simultaneously. A body-off restoral of a '69 Mk3 in Oklahoma and a '69 Mk3 project car in central California.
The body off restoral looked very nice, but beginning with the '69 model year, the main instruments (speedometer and tach) were placed in front of the steering wheel, instead of the center of the dash, which I wasn't crazy about. I really love the classic retro look of the instruments in the center of the dash. I asked the restoral owner a lot of questions and was generally satisfied, but it seemed as though he was too emotionally attached to the car after spending all the time restoring it himself to sell it for a price I felt was in keeping with a good, amateur restoration. Now that I've immersed myself in my own frame off restoration, I can appreciate that a bit more, but I still didn't want to pay more than what the market would consider the car to be worth. That market seems to be changing these days... and prices are going up.
Bearing in mind the significant transportation costs to bring the car to me, and after having received an in-depth report from a gracious TR Club president local to the seller who personally inspected the car for me (what a wonderful gesture that was), the deal fell through when my offer of $4,750 was rejected. I can't blame the owner, however after paying to transport the car, my total costs would have been close to $6k. If the car had been concourse and show-ready, I might have paid the $5,500 that the owner was insisting upon, but it wasn't. Had the instrument cluster been located in the center like my old '67 -- I probably would have paid him his price, regardless of the few imperfections. My emotional desire to acquire another Mk3 with the center instrument cluster and walnut facia panel surround was very, very strong. Two and a half years later, in the current market as I write this, $5,500 would have been a steal for that car, but aside from the price and dash issues, the seller had pop-riveted in floor panels and bondoed over some small holes in the coachwork.
Meanwhile, I had offered the central California project car owner $1,100 for his Spitfire, which is pictured below. He was wanting $1,800, but said that he'd settle for $1,500 -- a figure that he claimed to have paid for it not too long before. I decided to pass. A week later, he e-mailed to say that he would be listing the car for sale on e-Bay. A few days later after keeping an eye on the proceedings, I had the winning bid anyway -- $1,110. Talk about irony... This didn't make the fellow selling the car very happy, but since he had stipulated no minimum reserve on the auction and trades often on e-Bay, he had no choice but to follow through and sell it to me for the price I originally offered to pay him. Here's what the car looked like when it arrived (and when it left, shortly thereafter).
A few days later, in late 1999, I became aware of a 1967 Spitfire Mk3 that had been found in a small little newspaper ad on the Internet. The owner was friendly, knowledgeable -- and eager to sell the car to a real enthusiast with a passion for the car. The more we talked, the more intrigued I became... It seems that this gentleman bought the car from the original owner 20 years ago when he was stationed in England during his stint in the service.
A right hand drive car is a real rarity among Spitfires, which were manufactured primarily for the U.S. market and sold in much greater numbers here than in the United Kingdom. In the past 20 years, the car has been driven fewer than 7,000 miles, meticulously cared for and protected from the harsh Chicago winters by storage in an enclosed garage -- or so I thought. This 33 year old car had just over 86,000 ORIGINAL miles -- a statement certified in writing by the owner and confirmed by a paid appraiser that I hired to inspect the car for me. An appraisal that turned out to be worthless and a great deal more costly than I might have imagined. More on that later...
It had no soft top or frame, but had the original factory steel hard top that was in excellent shape. Once the car checked out and after several subsequent conversations with the owner (he also sent several Polaroid photos at his own suggestion and expense), we agreed on a price and I immediately arranged for transportation on an auto carrier. All told, I felt it was quite a reasonable sum for a car this rare, clean and with such low original mileage.
Not having the room or inclination to take on two restoral projects, I immediately decided to turn around and re-sell the $1,110 Spitfire I had just purchased through eBay by re-listing it for sale on the auction site with a twist -- a thorough and honest description -- I even disclosed the two rust holes in the rocker panels that the previous owner failed to mention before I bought it. He had emphatically claimed that it was "rust free". There was a lot of other things he failed to disclose as well, like the missing anti-roll bar in the front and various other items that made the car unsafe, but I felt comfortable that despite the deceptions, I still got a great buy for my $1,110 investment. It turns out the guy I bought the car from buys and sells old cars for a living, without knowing much about them and overstating their condition on a frequent basis.
The resale on e-Bay worked better than I had expected: I re-sold the project car for $1,625 -- over $500 more than I had paid for it, and received a strange, nasty e-mail from the guy who had sold it to me a few weeks earlier. I'm not a mean-spirited person, but I loved how he only made $1,100 by trying to present the car as something better than it was. I in turn, sold it less than three weeks later for $1,625 by revealing that the transmission pops out of third gear, among other things. What a nice turn of events. The car went to a very nice gentleman in Oslo, Norway who paid in cash and arranged to have the car transported to Europe. Wow!
In the end, I recouped the purchase price, plus the transportation fees and pocketed an extra $200 for my trouble. I also got to keep the roll bar that was never bolted down to the car (!) to begin with and was not included in my resale auction. That's another couple of hundred bucks saved, and an extra measure of safety for the '67 RHD I just purchased. I ended up using the surplus $200 to have the roll bar chromed for my current '68 project car.
My "new" '67 RHD Spitfire required an immediate master and/or wheel cylinder rebuild to fix a leak in the braking system; and at the same time, I converted the brakes to DOT 5 silicon fluid. I also took the opportunity while the car was on jacks stands to install a new set of gently used wire wheels in very good condition that I purchased from eBay.
The previous owner swapped the dual SU's and manifold for a two-barrel 32/36 progressive Weber DGV downdraft setup. It looked nice and although I wound up doing a carb swap with a set of four motorcycle racing carbs, when I recently sold Mrs. Jones, the new owner opted for the dependability and ease of the Weber setup as pictured. This is how the engine bay looked when I took delivery of the car.
...And this is how it looked when I sold it...
The hardtop was painted the original factory black and received a new coat of paint about ten years ago. Unfortunately, whoever did the job got sloppy and painted over the rubber window seal and chrome finishing strip as well. Rather than try and strip the paint from the old rubber, I'm going to investigate using a windshield replacement gasket instead, trimmed down to fit. The rear window seals on the factory hardtop are no longer available, but it's my understanding that the windshield gasket will work just fine, or better still, the gasket for the back hatch on a GT6. I never did get around to fixing the rear seal on the hardtop. The only time I ever used it was when I placed it back on the car to go to the new owner. Mrs. Jones was picked up by the auto carrier on May 26, 2002.
The custom touches that I put on the '67 before I sold her included Koni racing shocks, a chrome valve cover, wire wheels, a gorgeous tiger maple dash facia panel with a matching dash support and locking glovebox, electronic ignition, chrome 40k volt ignition coil, custom AM/AM stereo, wireless CD changer using a vintage radio to conceal the new electronics, speed bleeders for the brakes and lots more.
If you have any interest in the various projects and restoration operations I performed on the RHD, 1967 version of Mrs. Jones before sending her off for a new owner to enjoy and cherish, check the Spitfire & GT6 "how-to" projects forum on The Totally Triumph Network.
As mentioned above, we have two cats and a few fish as pets now. While I still owned Mrs. Jones, we also bid a fond farewell to our beloved yellow labrador, Willie (which ironically, was the name I had given my first Spitfire in 1976). Willie died the morning of January 20th, 2002 just a few months shy of his 14th birthday.
Be sure to visit my PROJECT LOG regularly for the latest updates to this site! By the way, I'm the one with the hat!
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