Feature Story

NOSTALGIA-OWNING BRITISH CARS LONG AGO

by Bob Hagin

September 11, 1998

Being a true-blue car guy, every month I get half a dozen or more auto magazines that range from the very swanky "Automobile" to an occasional and extremely one-dimensional "Lowrider." But my favorite of all these periodicals is titled simply "British Car." The reason that I'm so fond of it is that reading it is like reliving my early days as a mechanic and a British car enthusiast.

In the late '40s and early '50s, owning an British car of any kind made us very special people - at least in our own eyes. In most cases, other drivers on the road couldn't even recognize the brands of cars we were driving and were only aware of the fact that they were "different" and usually very small. The little MG sports cars were called "Migs" by those curious enough to check the octagon logos on their upright radiator grilles. The sleek XK120 model Jaguars that were equipped with quick-change wire wheels were often misidentified as "Undos," the word etched into to knock-off nut that held the wheels in place. "Undo" and the arrow that accompanied the word actually identified which direction the big chrome nut was to be turned to loosen it.

I was first hooked by imported cars in general and British cars in particular when I took a job as a "pump jockey" at a local gas station after I graduated from high school. In those days, auto dealerships that handled the domestics wanted nothing to do with "foreign" (the word had a negative connotation then) cars and in desperation, distributors of the imports would sign up hardware stores, auto repair shops and gas stations to sell these off-shore vehicles.

Les Harkins owned a combination gas station and repair shop which also housed a small prefabricated showroom in my home town. Les had always been interested in unusual vehicles (he was still riding a Kawasaki motorcycle at age 70) and took on several different English makes, among them the MG and Jaguar lines. And since owners of sports cars viewed themselves as "special," they tended to congregate at the dealerships that sold and fixed them, a sort of ad hoc club for aficionados. This was especially true on the weekends and on Saturdays it wasn't unusual to see 15 or 20 MGs and Jaguars parked around Les' dealership with an occasional Riley or Hillman convertible thrown in.

Les considered all the cars and showroom activity on the weekends a boost for business that would attract passersby to come in to see what was going on, become enthusiastic and buy a car. In actuality, I think the place was crowded with hangers-on and enthusiasts with time on their hands who would distract Les and keep him from taking care of business. I never really saw many cars being sold.

But the shop did very well. Les always had five or six journeymen working during the week as well as a lube man (me) on the weekends. The shop was run by Vern Williams, an aloft service manager who had the knack of making owners of ailing British cars believe that he was doing them a great favor by having his mechanics nursing their vehicles back to health. Parts were often in short supply (especially for odd-balls like HRGs, Morgans, Vauxhalls, etc., none of which Les handled) so each night we'd have to push in half a dozen "hanger-queens," some of whom had been waiting for spares for months.

Besides the informal "clubs" that formed at British car dealerships (and each dealership had its group of weekend regulars), there were several more formal sports an foreign car clubs in metropolitan and suburban areas. These would be open to anyone but it was de rigueur to own a foreign car of some sort. Porsches were beginning to appear along with an occasional Jowett, Dellow, Riley and Simca. Our local Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) region was high-society at the time and membership was by invitation only so less prestigious clubs for enthusiasts were organized. In my case I joined the Four Cylinder Club of America (I still have the enameled badge that was attached to the front of my Singer Nine) and monthly meetings were held simply for the sociability and camaraderie. Being the grand-host type, Les arranged for our monthly meetings to be held in his showroom. He'd supply snacks and coffee and we'd all have a grand time telling each other how well we drove our cars and how "unconscious" drivers of big American "boats" were. We'd organize some sort of monthly rally or tour as well as attend the regional SCCA road races en mass. Les' rationale for providing a meeting place for us was that he'd sell cars to members but I think the real money making aspect for him was in his shop. British cars were very fragile then and where better a place to take them for repair than to our Godfather.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself in this life when I received my draft notice early in 1953. I was gone for a bit more than two years and when I returned, things had begun to change. The national president of the Four Cylinder Club had absconded with the club funds and was nowhere to be found. Les had closed his dealership and retreated to his other business, a profitable brake shop across town. Vern Williams had been killed in a road accident and Les's mechanics were scattered to the four winds.

Ownership of a foreign car today is not a big deal and Toyota owners certainly don't hang around dealer's shops on the weekend. MG is gone along with most other British cars except for a few high-ticket makes.

But as long as I get a copy of British Car each month, I still have a connection to those innocent, happy days when you only had to buy a foreign car to feel that you were "somebody."

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