Memoir: It Was Love at First Shift

Dad paid $500 for my first car, a used 1965 MG 1100. It was a little two-door number the Brits called a "sports saloon," a slightly larger follow-up to the Mini. Like most English cars, the MG 1100 brought to mind some kind of small animal from the Lake District, four tiny wheels for legs and big headlights as eyes. Foreign cars were just coming into vogue in the United States then, the early '70s, and most everything about my five-year-old, nicely broken-in nut-bucket was certainly foreign to me. Its engine was mounted sideways to more easily provide front-wheel drive—a freakish concept at the time—and in lieu of shock absorbers, my new friend handled bumps with some-thing called "hydrolastic liquid suspension." I should have thought: beware.

There were other quirks. I soon became familiar with slipping clutches, leaky master cylinders, balky starter solenoids, peculiar electronics (flip headlight switch, observe windshield wipers move). All these things were easily fixed if you had a full set of spanners (wrenches), a three-inch-thick official British Motor Corp. MG 1100 Workshop Manual and an array of specialty items like service tool No. 138 for extracting a worn generator bushing.

I loved this car. Was it because she was a quirky foreigner, or because she was my first? Bucket seats, genuine four-on-the-floor transmission, wooden dash ... she hugged the road like a go-cart. At high school, I parked my MG where I could see its chrome grille from the library window during study break. I didn't mind that its World War II-vintage-design four-cylinder engine overheated in summer or that it misfired in inclement weather when road water interfered with the spark plugs.

The best thing about my MG was that she was all mine. No one else was allowed to drive her. Soon I was buying pricey accessories, like a walnut shift knob with MG insignia, and a high-capacity ignition coil. I mounted twin 500,000-candlepower halogen driving lamps on the front bumper. At night, my car looked like a 727 on final approach into La Guardia.

How well I got to know this fine auto. Not just the unintentionally cute blinking green light at the tip of the turn-signal lever or the reassuring squeal of the front (disc) brakes, but its inner workings. I was attuned to my car's vibrations, such as the one that arose in the gearbox when the speedometer hit 57mph. I could not only tell when something was wrong, like a suddenly shot U-joint, I could predict when something was about to go wrong. That faint hissing sound? Not a radiator-hose leak (fixable with duct tape), but the water pump about to explode (again).

My MG was a moody companion. On cold winter mornings, her undersize battery could barely turn the engine over. I took to parking at the end of the driveway, pushing the car onto the street for a rolling jump-start (turn the ignition key, pop the clutch in second gear). Despite the problems, never once did my first car fail to get me where I needed to go, never once did she strand me in the dark in the middle of nowhere (except that time on Interstate 95 outside Bridgeport).

Things began to go bad when I went off to college and had to leave my 1100 at home. During Christmas vacation, the MG refused to start at all, even after I sprayed WD-40 inside the distributor cap. I went out and bought a top-of-the-line Sears Die-Hard battery. But that only staved off the inevitable. Days later, the driver's-side door handle broke, causing me to carry around a Craftsman 1/8-inch flat-head screwdriver (with pocket clip) to pop the lock for entry. By spring break, the 1100's tires were flat and field mice had taken up residence in the back seat. It smelled a little.

I started eyeing a '67 MGB-GT, British Racing Green, wire wheels. By the end of freshman year, my first affair was over. The new, sleeker sports car was in the driveway, polished, the 1100 relegated to a corner of the barn.

Every now and then, I flip through the 1100's shop manual and think of the time I rebuilt her twin SU carbs and we drove all the way from Boston to Rochester, N.Y., on New Year's Eve. It sure was fun while it lasted.