Alas Dear Reader, I’m digressing ever so slightly from the malaise era owing to the inescapable fact that my 1971 MGB was built just prior to the dawn of the smogger. Now, some of you will be quick to point out that my MG, being destined for the former Colonies left Abingdon on Thames with a smog pump. This is true, however, it also left the old MG works with enough compression to muster a creditable explosion in its modest combustion chambers and a pair of SU carburettors (note British spelling) bolted onto the Weslake fettled cylinder head. The smog pump detaches easily and the air injection ports in the head can be plugged in a matter of minutes with any bolt of the correct dimensions. What I’m saying is, in short, what little malaisery the car was saddled with could be undone in about half an hour and it well predates the ungainly rubber appendages, increased ride height and greater emissions strangulation the poor MG was eventually subjected to. Rudimentary smog gear not withstanding, definitely not a malaise era car.
So, not a Malaise Era car, then why am I writing about it ? Very simple, I postulate that fanciers of Malaise Era cars are like myself in that they can get off on damn near anything with wheels. I can have as much fun in a lumbering land yacht as I can with a buzzy little sports car or an exhilarating quad-carbed, multi-valved, Japanese road burning motorcycle.
To wit, the MG. Even in pre smog tune with twin carbs the old 1798cc BMC B series lump is something of a tractor motor. Traditional British long stroke (for the torque Old Boy, harumph harumph, a habit ingrained from designing engines under an arcane tax system based on cylinder bore) a camshaft that lives downstairs in the servant’s quarters and communicates with the valve gear in the attic via lengthy pushrods does not add up to a powerplant that zings with Italian brio nor pulls with American grunt. But, that misses the point. For its simplicity the old tractor motor has charm and character, its a willing Midlander that does yeoman service, and with a little prodding from the Special Tuning department can muster a surprising turn of speed. Never mind that cast iron simplicity allows a hamfisted halfwit like myself to wrench on it. The engine in my car is stock, so it’s tractable and emits a pleasant raspberry out the tailpipe, but it’s no ball of fire. Suspension is likewise simplistic, consisting of a live axle on semi elliptics out back and twin control arms and king pins up front, the lever arm shock acting as the upper member. Braking is accomplished with an unassisted disc/drum arrangement. All pretty straight forward, indeed, rather prosaic.
This unfiltered simplicity adds up to a car that must be DRIVEN and not just steered. The thin rimmed and flexible steering wheel speaks to you in an English accent of the roads the car was built for. Long straight stretches were few and far between, instead thoroughfares snaked irrationally over the landscape in unpredictable fashion. The steering wheel was connected very directly to the road wheels without the intervention of any mechanical assistance to dilute the messages it telegraphs to your fingertips. You know precisely how much grip you have to exploit when cornering because the basic suspension system is hardwired to your buttocks and the windows are rolled down because you’ll boil alive otherwise and you can hear the tires as they just begin to surrender their grip, benign understeer transitions to oversteer, a dollop of opposite lock then a bootfull of throttle gets you through that bend. Are you going fast ? no. Are you engaged ? Yes, you have limited performance potential as compared to a modern ride and you must exploit it to make progress, but dammit you’re DRIVING ! You’re mentally keyed to keep an eagle eye on the temperature and oil pressure gauges, you’re listening for pinging, you’re constantly sniffing for the smell of antifreeze or the cooking iron of an overheating engine. This is what motoring is, knowing your machine, how it will behave under given circumstances and being subliminally aware of its mechanical condition at all times. And, let me tell you, there is much MUCH satisfaction to be had in DRIVING as apposed to simply steering your faultlessly competent 2016 Benignmobile up the mountain. I spoke to my car during the drive, congratulated it as it pulled up grades without overheating, smiling benevolently as my car, my steed completed its journey.
This was the legal high I got to experience this morning taking the old MG on a shakedown run in the foothills above Fresno. When you’re engaged in your driving, you get to be disengaged from everything else. It’s a joy to disconnect at time when you’re constantly plugged in to the all encompassing internet with its infinite rabbit hole of diversions. I’m not saying the internet is a bad thing, indeed, if I felt it were I wouldn’t be sharing these thoughts with the whole world. But, it’s really, really nice to be yourself for a couple of hours piloting some old hunk of iron through some remote place to test your work and the old car’s endurance. If you aren’t convinced yet pick some ancient transportation artifact, or any motorcycle, take it to some random place you’ve perhaps only heard of and see if what I’ve said isn’t true.