1960 MGA 1600
A long life led in the land of solid rocker panels made reviving this Dove Grey roadster a breeze
Feature Article from Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car
April, 2007 – Jeff Koch
When the MGA launched in 1955, it was a far cry from the bicycle-fendered T-series roadsters: The integrated body and voluptuous curves were an immediate hit with the sports-car-buying public. More than 101,000 MGAs were built from 1955 to 1962, according to www.british-cars.org, though just 31,501 were the three-year-only (1959-’61) 1600 models, and 12,503 were North American LHD exports which made it to the States. Even the name indicated a new beginning: This was the MGA, the first in a new series of modern MG sports cars.
The Dove Grey MGA seen on these pages desperately required a new beginning of its own when owner Bruce Perry found it languishing beneath a Tucson carport. Its back-to-basics approach was a plus for Bruce. “It was such a simple design. You can’t even lock this car. I love the door pull cables–without door handles, the body looks really clean. To start it, you pull a knob on the dash. I love the little things like that which make this car unique. And when I saw this one, I knew it was a diamond in the rough.
“My girlfriend’s father had it for 15 years, along with a second parts car. I bought both for $2,000, and his wife was so glad they were going! The one I was going to rebuild was old and tired, and missing the brake calipers, the cylinder head and the trunk latch, but it wasn’t rotten with rust. The strong point with this one was that it has the original rocker panels. MGAs rust out like you wouldn’t believe. When people pull them off the frames, the bodies literally come off in pieces. But this one was solid, and from that alone I knew I was way ahead of the game.” Such are the joys of working with desert-based cars.
The parts car, a 1500, was largely junked save for the engine and transmission, which we’ll talk about shortly. So the remaining MGA had never been apart before, but it was wearing its fourth paint job. “It was originally blue, someone painted it white, then green, then white again. It was just paint on top of paint. No one ever took out the fender welting either.”
Beyond that, the only surprise was that so little work would be needed to make it look good. “There was some surface rust, but once we sandblasted it, everything was fine. One of the rear fenders at the lower dogleg needed a piece of metal in the size of two silver dollars. Another critical spot on these is where the wooden floors meet the L-frame; those lips rust out. On mine, the floorboards were in pieces, delaminating like you wouldn’t believe. You’ll see restorations on them in print, and you see the bare wood. That’s just gonna suck up moisture and cause more problems. I grabbed some wood primer from Home Depot and some regular exterior wood paint for the floorboards.
“And the frame was really nice in that car–no pits. I’ve seen restoration photos in magazines, and you can tell where rust has eaten the frame, and they just ground it out or covered it up. This was smooth.”
Bruce sorted out the body, in its entirety, save for the actual exterior color coats. MIG welding stitched up the various rips, cracks and tears in the bodywork, but the only body panel that required a total replacement was the driver’s side door skin, sourced at Moss Motors. “I brought it to the sandblaster, he blasted it to bare metal, and I primed it with Val-Spar gray self-etching primer. I gave that to the bodyman, he ran his hands over it, he checked for any imperfections, then one coat of Mar-Hyde Ultimate 2K urethane yellow primer/surfacer. Then I got the panel back, blocked it with 200-grade wet paper, primed it again, let it dry, then blocked with 400-grit. Then it was ready to paint.” Bruce reports that his 60-gallon, 5-horsepower compressor blew 22 to 25 pounds through a $99 special paint gun, but that the p.s.i. range “varies–depending on the temperature, whether I’m mixing it thick or thin, that sort of thing. I avoided shooting in the 100-degree heat of the summer, and I used all medium thinners.”
Bruce also jambed the fenders and all of the body openings before sending it to JJ Auto Body in Tucson for three coats of RM Dove Grey (BMC code GR.26) single-stage urethane, then recovered it in time to pull off a 1500-grade wet-sand on the top color coat. “I did all the color sanding here; I literally sanded till my thumb bled.” Fitting body panels became the toughest task during restoration: “These were hand-built cars back in the day!” Bruce says.
Along the way, while everything was blown apart, Bruce made a couple of performance and styling modifications: Electronic ignition, a new AutoZone fuel pump replacing the original SU pump and silicone brake fluid increased reliability; urethane suspension bushings front and rear firmed up cornering a touch, while style choices included a wire wheel conversion (including the spindles and rear axle from the wire-wheel 1500 parts car–wire-wheel cars and steel-wheel cars had different axle lengths and parking brake locations) and polishing the domes of the SU carbs.
One choice that was already made for him was the engine: a 1,622cc Mark II engine had been fitted to the parts-car MGA 1500. Swapping blocks meant that a substantial power increase–93hp, up from the correct 1600’s 80hp–would be both possible and invisible. The additional .8mm bore over the 1,588cc block helped (as would Bruce rebuilding the engine, balancing out the bottom end, and boring out the cylinders .030 over), but it was the new cylinder head, allowing an 8.9:1 compression ratio, that was responsible for the lion’s share of the power bump. But since the MGA was discontinued in 1962, finding the missing cylinder head became a challenge. “Typically, guys will put on an 1,800cc head and block out the emissions stuff, but I wanted the correct head. I called a wrecking yard back East. And someone there knew someone local to them who had a correct, uncracked 1,622 head just lying around. Bought it for $200. I couldn’t believe I scored one. For that money, it was a good core–I had it resurfaced, installed hardened seats, stainless valves, new springs, and even found modern valve seals to replace the originals.” He also sourced a crankshaft, which ran him another $300. Chris Machine Shop in Tucson refurbished the head to working condition.
The standard-issue four-speed trans was known for rapid synchro wear, resulting in all manner of odd noises while shifting, but even though Bruce rebuilds transmissions for a living, he lucked out here, too. “I disassembled the parts-car’s gearbox, and I saw that the cluster gear was fairly new–a sure sign that it had been rebuilt. So I put new bearings and synchros in it, and freshened the seals, but it was solid. I run regular 20/50 Castrol oil like the manual says, and it shifts fine. They’re known to wear out their second-gear synchros, but I don’t use it as a daily commuter car.”
Bruce also restored and re-installed the entire interior, including the rugs, door panels, dash, a new wiring harness, and broken odometer and fuel gauges. He’s particularly proud of fixing the fuel gauge: “I took it apart, went on the MGA guru’s Web site, and step by step, he taught you how to fix the fuel gauge. Mine had a broken lead … the wire was so thin it looked like hair. I unwound it on a Planters peanut jar, reattached it, put it on my drill, spun the spool and wound it back on. And now it works!” Only the red leather seat covers (which he was shocked to pay $700 a pair for) were wriggled onto their frames by an outside party. “It was such a nice car that I wanted to keep it looking right–it had leather when it was new–but I thought it was ridiculous money.”
Most surprising, perhaps, is the time in which the restoration was executed: just 11 months. “I put in two full days a week, and some nights also,” Bruce admits. “I’m really happy with the way it came out. I wouldn’t change a thing, except for using different types of gasket sealers. I’d also like a five-speed conversion. I’d recommend anyone who wants to undertake a job like this to get all of the restoration and mechanical books you can find. Also hit the Internet and find Barney Gaylord’s MGA Guru Web site (www.mgaguru.com/mgtech/).” He gets to drive it every weekend (“except in summer, when it’s 110 degrees outside”), and has put around 1,500 miles a year on it since completion.
Bruce has restored a variety of European machines over the years–his latest is a 1966 VW Beetle–and he’s also done an MGC. But the MGA will be his last British car effort. “After I did the MGA, I said I’d never do another British car again. They’re beautiful, I love the design, they’re fun to drive, but they’re a pain in the ass. It’s a love/hate relationship. Lots of oil leaks, and little finicky stuff. They’re really high maintenance. On my MGC, they want you to grease the kingpins every 3,000 miles. Read the maintenance schedule, and they want you to do stuff weekly–tire pressures, check oil, get the headlights readjusted every 6,000 miles. Crazy! And the seat covers for the Beetle I’m doing,” he notes, “are $225 for a set.”
This article originally appeared in the April, 2007 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
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