Those formative years of your youth hold memories of a certain car that gave you a fuzzy feeling inside, kind of like that first romantic someone. But that’s another story for another time.
That certain car materialized for me during a visit to a new-car dealership with my Ford-loving uncle, who wanted to check out these new tiny English cars called MG and Austin-Healey. At the ripe old age of 12, I didn’t know what to expect and I certainly didn’t expect what I found. The gleaming little open-top two-seater, with its black leather interior and stubby little gear shift, had a dashboard so full of gauges (not idiot lights) that it could make a pilot envious. Sparkling wire-spoke wheels—instead of large, bland hubcaps—just set off the whole package. Somehow it looked all speedy just sitting there in the showroom. And a grip on the quick steering wheel let you know you had hold of something. Needless to say, I was hooked.
My uncle found the British Racing Green Austin-Healey Sprite too much of a squeeze for his long legs, but the bright red MGB was, as he put it, “more like it.” Also a plus, the engine was almost twice the size. Speaking of size, once seated in the cockpit, my legs had to stretch to reach the firewall. It was roomy.
The project began as a Craigslist-find 1970 Triumph Spitfire in need of completion. Floorpans had been welded in and the bodywork taken care of by the previous owner. While the basics were there, many parts were missing.
So that fuzzy feeling filled me until three years later, when my first car had to be an MG Midget, bright red and trimmed off with those shiny wire wheels. There’s been an MG or Healey in my garage ever since. My kids don’t know a time when Dad didn’t have a British car project taking up a bay in the garage.
Somewhere along the way, in the pages of Sports Car Graphic magazine, was an article profiling a Triumph Spitfire that consumed me with that fuzzy feeling all over again. With sexy-looking low-cut doors and a rounded tail, it sported cute little taillamps riding high on the fenders. I loved that look—it was stunning. I eventually had the opportunity to drive a couple of Spits owned by friends at school, but the Triumphs didn’t seem as solid as my MGs. Both examples I test drove vibrated and felt loose. For decades, I suppressed the urge to defect to the other side and stuck with my beloved MGs, but the lure of that sexy Spitfire stuck in my craw. “Maybe someday,” I thought.
Well, someday came in February 2018. An ad on Craigslist revealed a late-1970 Spitfire Mk3 worth considering, less than an hour south of me over the state line. The car was a hard-to-find, high-riding-tailamp model. It’s the typical song, one I’ve heard so often before: boy gets dream car, starts project, loses steam, project wanes, boy dreams car sells. The restoration included new welded floorpans and bodywork to get it beyond its rusted past. Soon the Mk3, and all its boxed-up parts, rode north on my trailer to begin yet another attempt at roadworthiness. Wifey thought, “Oh no,” as she reluctantly witnessed the trailer, loaded with a shell and umpteen parts, backed into the driveway.
I won’t lecture you on the do’s and don’ts of restoration. There are how-to books galore on the subject, by more qualified guys than me, to walk you through the process. On the web, there are endless links and tutorials, and endless supply sources, and endless opinions on getting it done. But the first question you must ask yourself before you start ripping into your nostalgic masterpiece is, where are you are taking this project? Are you concours bound? Well, that’s a deep-seated commitment and you’ll be chasing perfection there. Are you up to it? Then good for you. If local car gatherings are your thing, then a nice, clean, well-sorted car will make you proud. But maybe you’re just vying for a nice-weather driver to deliver that fuzzy feeling inside. If so, you’re probably more interested in cost and economics than factory correctness. You need to decide, but decide early because that choice will be your road map.
If you are the Pebble Beach or Amelia Island kind of person, this may not be the story you want to read. I admire those who strive to ensure authenticity in their restoration, to comb the continent for that exact, precise, genuine assembly line part.
As for me, I just wanted a fun little sun-runner to help me escape the daily grind. I wanted all the wind-in-my-hair feeling and throaty exhaust sound I could afford. I didn’t want the view across the hood to cost more than the car was worth.
There was no money in the budget for a new instrument panel, so a replacement was fabricated out of lauan plywood. The dash pad was given a makeover with vinyl purchased at a local fabric store.
So, my newly acquired Spitfire sat on the trailer in the driveway, under a tarp, until I convinced myself to sell my MGB and make room in the garage for another project… again. Then the fun began, and I have to admit it really was fun. For once, I had a project that truly was a labor of love. No yanking out a transmission because it left me stranded. No ringing pistons and honing cylinders because they burned too much oil. No forced ragtop renewal because the rain poured in. Those were had-to tasks: the Mk3 was a want-to.
My shop is nothing fancy. It’s not adorned with sophisticated, high-tech equipment (that would be nice, though). But a shade-tree mechanic discovers backyard means to get things done.
So, the fun began. As I inventoried the boxes of parts that made the trip home with me, I realized a few pieces were missing. Well, more than a few… like a bunch. As the project progressed, I sourced parts from catalog retailers, online bargain sites, and the always-fun swap meets. Being an MG guy, Triumph was new to me, so it was a different adventure.
I spent hours and hours and more hours chasing the Lucas gremlins in the Spit’s electrical system. Although some of that time was fitting customized (yeah, we’ll just call it customized) lights and switches, most of that time was spent on grounds. Fast fact: Always check the grounds. Old British cars are notorious for bad grounding.
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