There's something about the pre-safety era of motoring. The toggle switches, the door pulls, the foot operated dip-switch. All evoke memories of a time before plastic fantastic, rocker switches and Safety over style. A time when the car was alive in your hands. Before brake servos. Before power steering. Simple carburettors and distributors. Ok, time to put the rose-tinted spectacles away!
But seriously, if you yearn for that Grand Tourer style with 60s appeal, is it possible to have it on a budget? Just look at the eye-watering prices that Aston Martins command. And reputedly the E-type isn't that easy to drive. So what are the alternatives?
If you are looking to avoid the rocker switches and flush fitting internal door handles, then not much. Maybe the Triumph GT6 with that gorgeous 6 cylinder upfront. The MGC GT, with the bigger engine? Sorry, that's got the safety features we're trying to avoid. We're talking serious money for these, anyway.
So, I give you the early MGB GT. No reversing lights. A three synchro gearbox. Basically, you have to be at a standstill to engage first gear. No brake servo. A massive steering wheel. The dip switch on the floor. Door levers to open the door. Simple door pulls. Seat belts, remember those static type? The ones that stop you reaching for the packet of fags on the dash?
The MkI is almost agricultural in its simplicity. Yet it seems, in my opinion at least, to be the pinnacle of the elegance of the MGB GT and its Grand Tourer aspirations. Whilst the late model MGB GT can be had for under £2000, it may come as something of a shock to learn that you can also stumble upon sub-£2000 MkI GTs. I know, because I did. Ok, it was a few years ago now. Thanks to Quentin Wilson and the fact there are very few MkI models left, values have risen. But even now, we're talking less than £5,000. MGs are not investments. Buy one and be prepared to, at best, get your money back on the purchase price. But maintenance is cheap. Parts are cheap. because everybody's got an MGB or GT. And therein lies the problem.
But if you can put the "belly button" association to one side, the MGB GT is a brilliant car to drive. Whether it is a MkI or later, they're the Toyota GT86 of its day. Not big on power, but big on fun; sideways fun! With 165/80 14 tyres fitted, roundabouts become a playground! Seriously though, there are plenty of suppliers, just about every part is available, numerous specialists cater for them; you can't go wrong. Unlike the MGF and TF, these are a DIY doddle. More importantly, driven properly, they can be held up by modern traffic, never mind keep up.
A few weeks before Christmas in 2010, I was sat surfing the internet and stumbled on an advertisement for a 1966 model listed on just the one website. This advertisement was a model of how not to sell your car, having just a few, slightly blurred mobile phone photographs with a minimal description and just the words: 'Open to offers.' I had a budget of £1,800 and he was looking for £3,600, but he said I was welcome to have a look. I arrived to find a smart looking GT hiding under the covers. In addition, there was a huge folder of bills including the original purchase receipt dated September 1966, along with matching body and engine numbers.
The car had been restored in 1994 and retained the original front wings with the indicator/side light units further from the grille but it had had very little use since. The 82,000 odd miles on the clock appeared authentic. It wasn’t all good, though. The clutch felt as if the slave seal was going, the leather seats were well past their best, and there were some minor imperfections in the paint as well as one or two minor rust spots in the doors. The seller admitted it needed a service and was running rich, but on seeing the ornamental pancake filters fitted the reason for that was obvious. The seller was obviously looking to sell as soon as possible so we shook hands and I went back to collect after Christmas.
Things didn’t bode well to begin with, the battery being so flat that it failed to start again for about ten minutes after stopping for fuel. Then that clutch slave cylinder seal went. But that was February 2011, and in the eight years since, and at the risk of tempting fate, it has never failed to make progress. Weirdly this is one car that seems to work with me rather than fighting me. Those that have been there will know that changing a clutch slave cylinder can be a real nightmare undoing the pipe, yet less than an hour after starting I was wiping my hands and putting the tools away. It failed its MoT in 2012 on a worn track rod end and again in 2017 on the rear brakes. So within 18 months, two new front tyres and a new battery. Later on, there was the need to sort a leak on the radiator, fit new rear springs and bushes, new rear tyres, and ultimately sort the rear brakes with new cylinders and shoes. Following a rolling road session a couple of years ago, I fitted new jets and needles on the carbs and had the distributor rebuilt by The Distributor Doctor. Yet that has been the sum total of expenditure to date over 7,000 miles or so of much fun on the North Wales and Cheshire roads. In terms of looks, I invested in new leather seat covers and foams etc., and the fitting of an original three spoke steering wheel and new indicator stalk. The chrome wire wheels are not original options but they do set it off especially after their annual clean.
It’s a constant battle for the engineer in me that wants to pull it apart and rebuild it versus the pleasure to be had from just knowing I can walk out to the garage, fire her up and go for a drive as she stands now. Like me, the car is showing all of its 53 years, but somehow it seems right to leave her as she is for now and just to get out there and enjoy the car the way John Thornley intended all those years ago!