I was 16 when I bought my first car. Of course, it wasn't in my name. I was too young for that. I bought it from my soon-to-be brother-in-law of the moment. Let's call him #4, which was his position in the list. About midway into it, though we did not know that then. That list is another story for another time. This one is about a car. Not the Studebaker that I bought then but the third car I purchased in my life.
It was a 1961 MG Magnette. This was not the sexy sports car, it was the little sedan.
The one in the upper left. A nice shiny black with a red leather interior. with walnut burl trim. A 4 Speed gearbox with a nice, tight, pattern that whined as you went through the gears.
The price was only $600. A sum I did not have but which the car dealer and HFC (Household Finance Corporation) were willing to lend me at a 6% rate (which turned out to be more like a 36% annual rate) because I was employed. I was, after all, in the Navy and they knew they could make me pay.
And I did. Pay, that is. All of it. Just a few short months before I sold the car to a shipmate.
The car was an engineering wonder. And I did wonder. It had a little idiosyncrasy. The starter motor would not turn at times. This was not a major problem. All one had to do was leave the car in neutral, set the hand brake, get out and open the hood ("bonnet" is the proper word). Then reach in, turn the shaft on the starter motor a little bit, maybe a quarter turn, and then press the button on the starter solenoid. Simple. The car would then start easily. An alternative method was available if the car was parked on a hill. Just let it roll down the hill, turn on the key, and pop the clutch.
It had one other endearing trait. There were times you could have the lights on or the engine running but not both at the same time. That one did not have a simple work around.
There came a time when my ship was spending a bit of time, about 60 days, in San Diego. However, being stationed in Long Beach (about 100 miles north), I had found a girlfriend in that area. Having a car made commuting on weekends simpler. Simpler than taking a bus, that is. And cheaper, too, when a shipmate who needed a ride back to Long Beach chipped in for gas.
And so it came to be that Tom and I were headed back to San Diego one Sunday evening along I-5 as it began to grow dark. I pulled the light switch on, the headlights came on, and the engine shut off.
I was in a quandary. I could have lights and be stuck on the side of the road or I could travel but have no lights. I rightly suspected that the California Highway Patrol would frown on my driving without lights. I also rightly expected that my ship would frown on our showing up a couple of hours late in the morning if we sat it out. Fortunately, I was near an access ramp. Leading to Huntington Beach Blvd, as I recall. Unfortunately, there was a cement median between us and the ramp. I drove over it, without the lights, and headed down the ramp. It was also the On ramp, not the Off, so I would be facing any oncoming traffic with my lights off... in the dark... in a black car.
As luck would have it, no one came our way. We made it off the ramp, onto the roadway and up the half block or so to a gas station. In those days, gas stations were usually service stations. There would be tools, a flashlight, maybe a mechanic. Two out of three turned out to be true. No mechanic. I knew a few things about cars. After all, my first car needed constant maintenance and I had no money to pay anyone else to do it.
I located the regulator box, a set of relays that controlled the electrical system. I found the wires loose, barely connected, going into it. Borrowing a screwdriver and a pair of pliers from the gas jockey attendant, I tightened everything up. Crossing my fingers, I started the car and pulled on the light switch. The engine stayed running and the lights came on.
Acting like I knew it all along, I gave the attendant a buck in thanks, gathered up Tom, and headed back onto the freeway.
Try that today...
A Night Unremembered
6 years ago