A Guide to British Sports Cars in America

Welcome to the second lifetime of British sports cars. We love these cars and want to help the remaining ones get into proper hands. This section is a random walk through issues that may help your decision to commit time and money to a worthwhile cause.

Have fun,
Jeff

Save an Endangered Species - Buy one

 

SO YOU WANT TO BUY A BRITISH SPORTS CAR?


Questions?

 

1. Aren't British cars unreliable?

No, not inherently. The designs are intelligent. The technology is simple and well proven. The cars are well constructed. The parts are durable in a manner consistent with the light nature of a sports car. When renovated and properly maintained, a British car can provide a 100,000 miles of fun, reliable driving at a cost of about $100, month.

  

2. Are they safe?

Yes, inherently. In a small responsive sports car, one is able to avoid dangerous situations. Of course, sometimes the exhilaration allows maneuvering beyond one's ability. In an accident, when shoulder belts are worn, the cockpit of a British car is rarely deformed, and injuries are minimal. While flipping a car is extremely difficult to accomplish, the convertible sports cars don't easily forgive loss of control.

  

3. How much does a British car cost?

Not much. Compared to new cars of similar ability, most British cars are inexpensive, fun and mostly convertible. A good used one driven daily can cost from $4500 to $8500 to buy and about $100 a month thereafter. Although, you can own, renovate and maintain a car on a reasonable budget, there is almost no limit to the money you may spend if you choose to restore it.

  

4. Won't it need a lot of work?

At first. Most British cars need an initial renovation and then thrive nicely on normal periodic maintenance.

  

5. What normal maintenance does it need?

Once a year it needs a major tune-up, oil and filter change, and a complete lubrication. Change the oil every 3000 miles, watch the oil and temperature gauges, listen for odd sounds, and be aware of changes in the car's behavior.

  

6. What happens if it breaks down?

You fix it well or pay to have it fixed well.

  

7. Aren't parts hard to get?

No. If you plan to renovate an MG, Triumph, Austin-Healey or Jaguar, the supply of parts to make it run, stop and light-up is better now than when the cars were new. Some trim and detail items can be tough to track down. Any part that keeps the car off the road is usually available within two days.

  

8. Aren't parts expensive?

Some are; most are not. British cars are still used as unique everyday transportation and parts prices reflect the utility status.

  

9. OK, well, why are shocks so expensive?

On some British cars, the lever shock absorber is part of the suspension. Although this design is simple and maximizes road feel, this type of shock is a machine and costs more to manufacture than a conventional one. Surprisingly, it also lasts longer.

  

10. Won't it be in the shop all the time?

No. if the known defects are corrected and maintenance routine is followed, your British car should have few unplanned shop visits.

  

11. Will I spend my weekends fixing it?

Only if you enjoy working on your car.

  

12. How can I know what I'm buying?

Learn about the cars available. Choose your favorite. Look at more than a couple of them. Get a 2-hour inspection before you spend money. Buy the best one you can afford. Look before you leap.

  

13. What is a 2-hour inspection?

This is a way to inspect your car and test for defects. We encourage it when you're about to buy a British car and recommend it when you're contemplating a renovation.

  

14. What is a renovation?

A renovation deals with the 80% of results that cost 20% of a restoration. For the most of us the diminishing returns of a restoration are avoided in a renovation where function and safety are emphasized.

  

15. What is a restoration?

In a restoration, every part is separated from every other part, remade or replaced and reunited. This approach costs at least $25,000, unless you do most of the work yourself. Some consider that the final 20% of a restoration effort uses 80% of the cost. Very few cars are truly restored.

  

16. Why is it better to buy a car that's not rusty?

British sports cars are responsive, strong and light. Because they have less metal to start with, they have less metal to lose. All cars rust. Rust can be fixed at great expense. But the best non-rusty car you can afford.

  

17. So, whence sprang the unfavorable reputation?

In the United States, we have been taught to value the image of our cars without appreciating the machinery. Most British cars didn't cost enough to instill a strong sense of ownership and value in our country. These cars have tended to change owners more often then they received maintenance. Repairs were often postponed beyond fairness to the vehicle. A lack of proper care creates problems that stay with a car until a knowledgeable approach corrects the damage. British cars will run for a long time in an abused and neglected state.

  

18. Aren't the electrical systems a problem?

No. Not if the systems are properly maintained. Lucas Industries made most of the electrical systems in British cars. The parts are well made and most problems can be repaired easily by replacing the fuse box or by removing the stuff in the trunk which is shorting the rear lights. Incorrect diagnosis and corroded connections have unfairly contributed to Lucas folklore. Watch also for poor radio installation and dirty battery connections. Proper repairs stay repaired.

  

19. Is it good as an only car?

Yes. When properly attended to, it is as reliable as any other well-built car and its fun factor means that all of your driving will be more enjoyable.

  

20. What if I only want to drive it occasionally?

These are good cars to drive occasionally -- every week or every few days. Long periods without use can affect basic systems, such as brakes or electrical. These cars run better and last longer when driven regularly.

  

21. Can I take it on a trip?

Yes. British sports cars are lots of fun to drive. A couple of hours in a nice one will leave you tired and refreshed at the same time. Know your car and have it serviced before a long trip. If it works well in town it should be great on the open road.

  

22. How is it in winter?

A bit cold natured. These cars will start after a couple of extra cranks and then function normally. Working heaters are really fine. A hard top helps. Some need a winter thermostat. Driving in snow is scary and driving on ice is unforgivable.

  

23. Is it a good car for daily commuting?

Yes. Once you have repaired all known defects and had an annual service your car can be relied on to work well and give fair warning as normal wear occurs. Daily commuting of less than 2 miles each way, though, is rough on any car.

  

24. How long should I wait for parts?

Any part that keeps the car on the road is available within two days. With few exceptions there is no single part that can strand your car for more than two days. You should, of course, wait as long as necessary for competence in repairing or replacing said parts.

  

25. Should I own one?

Possibly. There is a range of temperament that seems to accommodate British car ownership. It does help to appreciate the beauty of the styling, understand the simple elegance of the machine, enjoy the feel of the road and to be calm and thoughtful when it needs repair. If you have difficulty amusing yourself in a long bank line then perhaps a British car wouldn't be appropriate just yet.

  

26. Will it appreciate in value?

Yes. If you buy a good car, repair its defects, and maintain it properly, it will be worth more than you paid for it. Any car is worth $100 a month in utility so subtract from your total expenditures (purchase and repairs) $100 for each month you've driven to figure a minimum value for it.

  

27. Can I sell it for what I have in it?

Not yet. Since most new cars cost more than $12,000 and the cheapest new convertible car is $14,000, renovated British cars are comparatively inexpensive. They are as yet, generally undervalued. It is helpful to rationalize the finance of ownership by using the $100 a month utility figure. The prices of some cars, such as Jaguars, Aston-Martins and Austin-Healey's easily keep pace with renovation.

  

28. Why $100 a month?

This represents an easy figure to use and can be compared favorably to the cost of a taxi, bus underground or rental car. New cars are $250 or more a month, and the top doesn't come down. British cars, when properly repaired, average (over several years) $100 a month.

  

29. Can my mechanic work competently on it?

British cars are mostly uncomplicated. Their simple engineering is within the grasp of any good mechanic. The essence of competent repair is diagnosis. These cars are low-tech in appearance and easy to disassemble, hence the availability of "basket case" cars. Some parts and a few systems like dual carburetion are unfamiliar to most mechanics. What's needed is an understanding that these are easy cars to repair well if symptoms are examined through diagnosis and testing, before applying parts.

  

30. Aren't the carburetors a problem?

The twin SU carburetors are a simple and efficient way to feed an engine and often are blamed for the problems caused by air leaks, low compression and defects in the ignition system. Often, too, old original carburetors will be replaced with new and poorly matched carbs of different design when the correct remedy is a rebuild of the original unit(s). Even when understood, both SU and Zenith-Stromberg carbs are still somewhat difficult to master. But when properly rebuilt, set up and adjusted, they are reliable and durable.

    
31. Are there design flaws? 

Yes. A design flaw is an engineered characteristic that causes repeated difficulty. These range from the MGB door scar known since 1964 and uncorrected throughout the production, to TR6 frame rot which showed up long after the last ones were completed. Minor design flaws occur in every car. From 1975 to 1980 a few major correctable flaws were introduced while trying to comply with U.S. safety and pollution standards. Check it out before you buy.

  
32. Aren't new cars better than ever? 

Yes. There seem to be more fun cars of quality now than ever before. They are also more expensive, more complex, anti less convertible than ever.

  
33. What about the lack of leaded gas and high octane gas? 

The scarcity of leaded gas may cause a problem after many miles, and research of solutions is being carried on since so many cars are affected. Octane deficiencies are less critical and can be overcome in most situations.

  
34. How often will I be towed? 

About twice a year. British cars usually give lots of warning about imminent breakdown. Ignore an alternator light for a month and you'll be towed; neglect a tuning this year and be towed; telepathize the temperature gauge needle off "H" for a week and you'll be towed. Spend the cost of a tow on maintenance.

  
35. Why do people sell them if they're such good cars and so much fun? 

One reason owners, even those who neglect their cars, sell them is because of family obligations. Spouses and kids vs. the sports cars. Confrontations with mortality are character building and British cars appear to understand this. Not everyone who buys a British car should, and the lack of vibrational parity eventually becomes unbearable.

  
36. Can I work on it? 

These cars look easy to repair and the temptation to attempt repairs beyond one's limits is strong. If you can manage clean careful work and agree that there's not enough time to do it over then you can enjoy working on a British car. Did you ever take apart a clock or a watch and not get it back together? So have I. Lots of people have although that has almost nothing to do with working on these cars. I just wondered, that's all.

  
37. Do I need special tools? 

American standard size wrenches and sockets are correct on most British cars. The few metric and British Standard tools needed are easily available. For about $300 you can buy tools to complete almost any repair. With tools, as elsewhere, if it's hard you're doing it wrong.

  
38. What kinds of ears are there? 

Mostly MGB'S' and Midgets, Triumph Spitfires, 6's and 7's and Austin Healey Sprites, 3000's, and Jaguar XKE's. The real list of British cars in America, however, contains lots of names: Morgan, TVR, Sunbeam, Morris, Jaguar, Lotus, Rover. And lots of models, Mini, Minor, XK120, XK140, XK150, +4, Tasmin, Metropolitan, Alpine, Tiger, Esprit, Eclat, Elan, Europa, +8, Seven, 2000, 88, 109, TC, TD, TF, A, C, 100, 100-6, 2, 3, 3B, 3A, 4, 4A, 250, and 8. There's a lid for every pot.

  
39. How many were made? 

More than a million and most of these came to America.

 
40. What are the differences between them? 

Basically styling, handling and cost. Curves or angles, light or strong steering, under $10,000 or over $10,000. Each has its own character and, if well maintained, will be enjoyable to own and drive.

  
41. Do they go fast? 

British sports cars have a rich racing heritage and many are still being raced today in SCCA, club racing, or vintage races. All of these cars can exceed legal speed limits. One great attribute is that these cars give the illusion of high speed at any speed. You can thrill to "safety fast," as MG used to say.

  
42. Can I modify it? 

These cars were intended to have a basic form for general consumption. Special tuning modifications are possible. Once you have decided not to have a stock car, you can change it in any way that makes sense to you. Most modifications are costly and usually reduce reliability to some degree.

  
43. Can I paint it a non-traditional color? 

Factory paint colors were not exotic; an interesting color on a British car is sure to gain smiling approval in passing.

  
44. Why don't they have automatic transmissions? 

These cars are meant to be light, simple, and responsive, and to promote the feel of the road. Automatic transmissions are heavy, complex, and slow to shift -- they seem to separate the driver from road feel.

  
45. What can I get for my old British car which is only good for parts? 

The parts car, as defined today, looks completely rotten and can serve its highest purpose only in sacrifice to other cars. Most common parts cars are worth from $100 to $500.

  
46. Are they easy to steal? 

These are attractive cars with simple electrical systems and probably are easy to steal. Steering locks help and a pedal-to- wheel lock is a good deterrent.

  
47. How can I maximize my chances of enjoying a safe and dependable British sports car?

Buy the best car you can afford; fix its known defects; maintain it.

  
48. What's the down side? 

Often you're buying someone else's errors, neglect, and abuse. Since there are no more of these cars being made, each one remaining ought to be bought out of interest and caring appreciation. If you can enjoy being part of the solution for this endangered species, then there is no down side.

  
49. What about Fiats? 

What about them?

  
50. Doesn't that last answer smack of the same sort of flippantly ignorant commentary that helped unfairly malign the British sports cars which are under discussion in this thinly disguised advertisement? 

Yes. Thanks and I apologize.

  
51. How much will a new engine cost? 

Installed, a pushrod engine costs about $5000 (4 cyl) to $6000 (6 cyl) including tuning, a clutch and the variety of other details necessary to make the expense worthwhile.

  
52. Why do the plastic window cranks break? 

They are supposed to. So are the steering column switches. They are made to break in an accident and the same qualities that insure this safety feature also make them prone to break when they are old. Recently, however, a batch of crummy window cranks has been particularly fragile. Keep the faith.

  
53. Is it true you can open a bottle in the jack hole of a Sprite? 

I'm so sure.

  
54. What British cars are still made and imported? 

Land Rover, Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Morgan, Lotus, Aston Martin and if you think it's British... the new Mini.

  
55. When did they stop making inexpensive British sports cars? 

In 1980 after more than 30 years of Triumphs, MG's, Austin Healey's and others in America, production was stopped. In the end, the British car makers lost faith. They simply forgot that their contributions to world driving were unique and exceptional. But the tradition can return.

  
56. Who are British sports car owners today? 

Mostly people who have owned a British car before. We try other cars and our lifestyles take various twists and turns until we come back to fun driving. It's not easy to describe a typical owner.

  
57. Where can I find a British sports car? 

In nearly every town in America. Although they first arrived at the large coastal ports these cars quickly spread across the country in capillary fashion through many owners and circumstances. Yesterday's parts cars are being renovated today so don't overlook auto salvage yards.

  
58. Is MOTORHEAD the only repair shop? 

No. We tend to know the correct approach to maintenance and repair, however, and can help you educate your mechanic to obtain similar results with your car. Please ask questions prior to experiencing frustration.

  
59. Is MOTORHEAD the only place to get parts? 

No. We specialize in the convertible British cars made since 1958. If you drive a Sprite, Midget, MGB, TR 250, TR6, TR7 or Spitfire, we should have, in stock, all parts you would normally need for your car. There are other shops, each with its specialty, throughout the U.S. and England. Buy from people who have high quality parts at fair prices and who give you advice before you buy. Support a good parts shop by trying to do all of your business there.

  
60. Is MOTORHEAD the only place to buy a renovated British sports car? 

Probably not. We provide solid cars which have had known defects corrected and service them under our warranty for one year. Such a car can be built to your requirements and usually costs at least $9500. We can, similarly conduct a renovation of your car.

  
61. What are some funny things to say about a British car? 

Put it up on blocks. 
Throw in a clutch. 
I do all my own work. 
Isn't BMW a British car? 
You know that Lucas electrical system. 
It just needs a carb adjustment.
I think the timing chain slipped a tooth.
Damn this car, for years I didn't have to spend a dime and now this.
Damn this car, I've had to rebuild the master cylinder 3 times.
Damn this car, my new car doesn't need this much work.
I'm spending so much to buy this car that I can't afford a two-hour inspection.

 

 


Copyright June 1991 MOTORHEAD Ltd.

 

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