I have always been a car guy, dating back to when, at age 15, my brothers and I bought a neglected 1936 Ford from my uncle for $50 (we never could get it to start on its own power, but had a lot of fun pulling it behind a truck to start, then bombing around our ranch in the old beast).
At last count, some 80 cars and motorcycles have resided in my garages over the years. Of these vehicles, just a few stand out as my all time favorites:
When “Best of” lists come to mind, my MGA is always my first choice. My currently-owned 1959 MGA remains my all-time favorite car to drive, and will be the last car I ever sell. I have owned an MGTD (cute, but a horror to drive) and vicariously experienced a love-hate relationship with an MGB (through a close friend). But no, the “A” is indisputably the crowning achievement of the Morris Garage progeny.
My own MGA experience began several years ago after purchasing “Cedric” from a California owner, and driving it solo back to Austin from SoCal.
I honestly can’t think of a car with more beautiful lines than the MGA (well, okay, maybe I’ll give points to a Ferrari 275GTB). The design and mechanical implementation of this car was a significant departure from its predecessor, the TD. At just a bit over 2,000 lbs, the car is a featherweight compared to today’s sports roadsters (A new Miata with all aluminum engine weighs in somewhat north of 2,300 lbs).
The bulletproof OHV 4 cylinder engine generates just 72 HP with its beautiful twin SU carburetor setup, but that is more than adequate to propel the car down the road at an easy all-day-long 80 mph, with a book-specified top speed of around 100.
What intrigues me most about the MGA is its minimalist design. Just the basic gauges and controls that are needed, and nothing more.
The starter is activated by a pull cable on the dash, eliminating the need for a solenoid;
although a provision exists in the panel for a radio, such an unnecessary distraction is rarely seen;
the dash mounted turn signal switch self-cancels after a predetermined time delay;
the Brooklands style steering wheel is a thing of beauty in itself;
the door latch is a pull cable located in the inner door panel (no external door handle needed);
the boot and bonnet are both opened by pull cables/rods hidden inside the car;
no roll up windows are necessary (after all, this car screams “top down motoring”).. just pop-in side windows, stowed behind the seat, stand by for protection from that unexpected downpour;
the top itself, representing a deal with the devil, stows completely behind the rear seat.. once the 20 minute driver cursing session is over, the top does indeed become erect, and adds an air of completeness to the car.
The best part of this car, however, is in the driving: once the ingress process is mastered (a task especially difficult with the top up), there is ample room inside, even for 6 ft 2 in. guys like myself. Driver in place, it is nothing but smiles per mile. That little engine revs freely to its 6,000 RPM redline, smooth as glass. The 4 speed tranny snicks into each gear with a minimum of wrist movement, and the gear shift lever falls “readily to hand” as the Brits like to say.
A tight rack and pinion steering system offers the quickest steering I’ve ever encountered, without a hint of slop. Turn that steering wheel a quarter inch, and you are heading off the road. Of course, with the light body (enhanced by aluminum boot and bonnet), steering effort is minimal, even at parking speeds.
I like being able to drive the car like I’m mad at it.. run it up to redline in the first 3 gears, and you are still in legal speed range. Yet, the car can be happy cruising all day long at 80 or more.
The MGA is the only car I’ve ever owned that seats the driver so low in the cockpit that a long-armed guy like me can literally touch the ground with my outstretched hand.
And, of course, the final frosting on the cake comes with that million dollar view over the bonnet, from the driver’s seat. Long live the Queen!
XKE SERIES 1 COUPE
It seems that, with most car models, the original iteration becomes the best and most sought after over time. Such has surely been the case with the Jaguar XKE cars. The original Series I cars sported the beautifully sculpted covered headlights, minimalist bumpers, and true propeller-style knock-off wire wheels, all of which disappeared with the Series II version (thanks to an overzealous US DOT).
I can then consider myself fortunate to have been the custodian of a beautiful 1965 Series 1 coupe, which I managed to purchase as a young junior Naval officer, back in the early seventies:
What could have been better for a single guy stationed on Coronado island in San Diego bay? A light grey coupe with red leather interior.
I loved that car, and the temperate Southern California summer weather was a perfect match for an un-airconditioned, prone-to-overheating car.
The Series I offered features found on no US manufactured car of the time.. 4 wheel disc brakes, independent rear suspension (with inboard discs), that most-beautiful-of-all engines, the 3.8l double overhead cam 6 cylinder, triple SU carb, mated to a fully synchronized 4 speed transmission. Nothing shouted European sports car like the view from the driver’s seat of an XKE:
Of course, no “best cars” list could possibly be complete without inclusion of an XKE. Even Enzo Ferrari purportedly declared the XKE to be the most beautiful car ever designed.
I certainly enjoyed driving mine, in spite of frequent mechanical and electrical issues, leaking oil, and overheating. All these were small prices to pay for the thrill of going through the gears behind what was a quite powerful engine for its time, accompanied by the glorious sound of the true dual exhausts of that inline six.
The XKE sat on a relatively narrow wheelbase, and on even narrower tires, so handling in the curves was anything but perfect, but who cared when seated behind the wheel of this beautiful creation!
When Porsche introduced its cheapest model, ever, the Speedster, in 1955, little could anyone have known that this humble vehicle would be in such strong demand in current times, with less-than-perfect examples routinely commanding six figure prices.
Granted, the engineering in the Speedster represented no technological tour-de-force. The Volkswagen-esque air cooled engine offered a paltry 59 horsepower, and the car’s recirculating ball steering and torsion bar suspension didn’t contribute to precise handling.
Perhaps the worst feature was the swing arm rear suspension, combined with the engine mounted well aft of the driveline, surprised many a driver with its dreaded trailing throttle oversteer characteristics. Enter a corner too fast, lift off too quickly on the throttle, and you’d find yourself suddenly facing the direction you came, in a blink of an eye. My own female companion of the time (1970’s) experienced this devilish “feature” first hand in my 1965 356SC coupe, rolling and destroying the car, but fortunately surviving the adventure unscathed.
Bad handling, anemic power, a marginal heater that offered up more gas fumes that warmth from the engine… what was to like? Well, everything else. This beautiful little creation just attracted attention wherever it went, and the extremely low seating arrangement allowed the driver to cruise in stealth mode, and great style. The simplistic design was an asset too, as the VW-derived engine was reliable and maintenance free, and parts were generally readily available.
My own Speedster was somewhat of an “outlaw” version as they like to say these days. Mine had been revised with the later, and much more powerful 356SC engine and transmission, and fitted with disc brakes all around from the same era. Save for the nerf bar bumpers in place of originals; later year chrome wheels, and an outrageous show finish in metallic golden copper, the remainder of the car was bone stock, and a pleasure to own and drive. Nowadays, that $3,000 I paid for mine sure looks like a bargain! If only…..
LEXUS SC300 TURBOCHARGED
The SC300/SC400 series was introduced by Lexus in 1991, and was met by rave reviews, including being named Motor Trend Import Car of the Year for 1992. The SC represented Lexus’ first foray into the sport coupe market.
Although the design is decidedly dated by today’s terms, the styling was innovative and unique in 1991, and I had to have one. My SC300 was one of the rarer models equipped with a manual transmission (The V8 SC400 model offered no such manual option), and I loved it. Beautiful leather and real wood interior, incredible sound system, and all the options one would expect from a top of the line luxury car.
The SC300’s only failing? The bulletproof inline 6 cylinder engine only provided 225 horsepower. Adequate for cruising, but certainly not enough for spirited driving.
I began doing research on options to upgrade the power train in my Lexus, and discovered that the twin turbo 3 liter engine from the Lexus’ cousin, the Toyota Supra, shared an identical block; would bolt into the Lexus engine bay, and bolt right up to my Lexus transmission. The twin turbo engine generated 320 horsepower out of the factory, a good 40% power increase over the Lexus engine.
I sourced a used Twin Turbo engine and associated parts, rebuilt it (see below),
and set about on the task of transplanting the engine. It was a daunting task. The Supra uses an entirely different master engine computer (ECU), and the engine management would definitely need that ECU. This required cutting the 40-50 wires and connectors from the Lexus ECU and splicing in the Supra ECU. None of the wire color codes, functions, or connectors matched between the two cars.
Thanks to the incredibly detailed factory shop manuals available for the two cars, after some 6 months of studying the electrical schematics, I accomplished the electronics transplant, and the engine came to life in its new home. Wow, is all I can say of the performance! I had modified the exhaust for better breathing, and adjusted the turbo boost significantly beyond the stock settings, to create a 450HP monster. And that twin turbo engine fills one of the more beautiful engine compartments.
The car truly became the Ultimate Lexus, and provided me many happy hours of driving enjoyment.
My personal experience led to publishing of a book detailing the engine transplant, and has spawned a whole group of several hundred SC300 owners who have embarked on their own Ultimate Lexus project. More details at: www.UltimateLexusTT.com
1972 FERRARI 365GTC/4
The C/4 was one of the last truly classic V12 Ferrari’s built, and was a contemporary of the Daytona. For years, the C/4 languished under the radar on the market, albeit being extremely rare with less than 500 examples ever built (compared to some 1,400 Daytonas built). And, in many respects, the C/4 was superior to the Daytona.. air conditioning standard, as well as power steering.
And the interior is pure classic Ferrari:
Then, there is the engine bay.. enough you make all you late model car owners want to rip those plastic engine shrouds off:
In recent times, values of this beautiful model have skyrocketed, hovering now around the half million mark and rising (sadly too late for me to cash in, as mine went to a new owner some 7 years ago!).
There is nothing that can rival the sound a Ferrari V12 exhausting through 4 separate pipes. Many aficionados swear that the 365GTC/4 exhaust sound is the best of the V12 classics, and I don’t disagree.
We even made a short movie featuring our car, racing through the streets of Paris. You can view it here: FERRARI IN PARIS
LOTUS ELAN S3 ROADSTER
Colin Chapman’s beautiful creation was nothing if not innovative for the mid-sixties. The Elan’s all fiberglass body was mounted on a centrally located box beam, and offered independent suspension at all corners.
The beautiful 1600cc engine produced around 115 horsepower, sufficient to give brisk acceleration for the time. It was also a beautiful thing to behold, with its full complement of Weber DCOE carbs, crossflow head and tuned exhaust manifold.
And the car exuded British styling cues, from the knock-off steel wheels, wood rimmed steering wheel, and real wood dash, to the standard Smith’s gauge package, there was no doubt of the heritage of this little screamer.
I loved bombing around San Diego in my little yellow Lotus. The 1600 lb body allowed for exuberant performance from a small displacement engine.
The car did have a few objectionable features: the fixed door window frames gave a rather homemade look to the car when the top was down; the fiberglass body provided no metal grounding points, so keeping all the lights and other electrical components working was a full time job.
The most onerous feature of the car was the rubber joints used in the independent rear drive axles. The rubber would flex and “wind up” during partial throttle acceleration, causing a pulsating departure that was less than desirable!
Nevertheless, the Lotus was and remains to be an important and innovative piece of automotive history, and likely one of Colin Chapman’s best design implementations.
Honda S2000 Roadster
When the Honda S2000 roadster was introduced in the year (well, uh) 2000, it set the automotive journalism world abuzz. This little Japanese screamer was everything the Miata wasn’t.. fast, incredible handling, world-class 6 speed transmission, and beautiful styling.
I bought mine brand new while living on the island of Hawaii, and likely never had the top up more than 3 times during my ownership. I chose the white color because I loved the ruby red leather interior available in that combination:
The S2000 borrowed heavily from Honda’s then-active Formula 1 parts bin. The DOHC 4 cylinder engine wrung 240 HP from a mere 2000cc engine, and with a redline of 9,500 RPM, driving it truly felt more like a race car than an everyday grocery-getter. The car featured electric-assist rack and pinion steering, power top, and an engine mounted aft of the front axle to obtain a near perfect 50/50 weight distribution.
I can honestly say I’ve never driven a car with a smoother, or shorter throw manual transmission. And somehow, with a simple flick of the wrist, whether upshifting or downshifting, that little lever just seemed to know exactly where it should go for the next gear.
Braking was incredible, as was the neutral handling. Amazingly, even my tall frame fit nicely within the driver’s “pod”. Both occupants, once seated, were given the impression of having the car fitted around them, rather than sitting “in” the car.
What’s the old saying? “power corrupts”? It seemed that after the new wore off, 240HP just wasn’t enough to satisfy my need for acceleration. So.. a bit of research turned up a supercharger kit, sourced from Vortec, and designed specifically for the S2000 application. I wasted no time getting my kit on order, and found the installation to be relatively straight forward. The Vortec supercharger utilized a water cooled intercooler to maximize the air charge. Water was circulated through the intercooler via an auxiliary electric pump.
The stock engine utilized a fairly high compression ratio of 11-1, so I felt it prudent to not try to increase the supercharger boost level beyond that originally programmed by the kit manufacturer. Although there was no dyno facility on the Big Island to personally test engine output, Vortec claimed the kit increased horsepower to a whopping 350, and I don’t question that! Not bad to haul around a mere 2800 lbs of pure adrenaline!
If the S2000 had any fault, it was the very narrow power band of the engine. To achieve any reasonable acceleration required getting the engine up beyond 6,500 RPM or so. But this little car just screamed “hurt me!” from the moment you hit that big red starter button, so it was a pleasure flogging that willing engine through the gears.
Honda sadly ceased production of the S2000 in 2009. Not surprisingly, the motoring public still recognizes the value of these incredible cars. A recent perusal of eBay listings shows that mid-mileage/mid-year cars in good condition still command between 80 to 90% of their original purchase price, some 16 years after this model was initially introduced.
NASH HEALEY LEMANS COUPE
A casual observer might be forgiven for not recognizing this car. After all, a mere 62 examples of this specific body style were every built.
The Nash-Healey came about as a result of a chance meeting between Donald Healey (of later Austin Healey fame), and George Mason CEO of (you guessed it) Nash Motors Company. The two met on the Queen Mary during a transit sailing from Great Britain to the US. From this meeting, the Nash-Healey sports car was conceived. Nash sent its top of the line Ambassador complete engine and drive train to Healey in England, where a bespoke aluminum head, sporting a pair of properly British SU carburetors, replaced the original head.
The drive train was then installed in a custom chassis designed and constructed by Healey. The chassis featured a very unique and beefy aluminum trailing arm front suspension, located at the upper pivot by a classic British lever-arm shock absorber:
Rumor has it that Healey discovered boxes of unused World War II bomber landing gear parts in the hangar where the Healey shop was set up. He decided to repurpose those parts, and adopt them as the front suspension of the Nash Healey. These massive aluminum castings certainly look strong enough to support a multi-ton bomber.
If the finished body and interior look suspiciously Italian, it is because the chassis was shipped from England to the Pinin Farina factory in Turin, Italy, where each individual body and interior was formed from raw metal panels by Italian craftsmen.
Except for slightly modified stock Nash gauges, the remainder of the interior just shouts Italian design at its best, with fitments shared by other prestigious Italian makes such as Alfa Romeo and Ferrari:
The diminutive but functional shift lever controlled a Borg Warner manual transmission with overdrive, giving an effective 5 forward gears, with driver-controlled downshift. The virtually bulletproof Borg-Warner overdrive was utilized in a number of Detroit-built cars of the era, including (of course) Nash, Studebaker, and Ford. In most installations, the driver selected the overdrive gear by merely lifting off the throttle momentarily at any speed above roughly 30 mph. To downshift, the driver would press the gas pedal all the way to the floor, where an electrical switch provided the downshift signal to the transmission.
The Nash Healey was unique in that respect, as the downshift function was selected by pressing a button in the center of the steering wheel (labeled “O” for Overdrive).
These engines were virtually indestructible, and a roadster was entered in the 1952 Le Mans 24 hours, where it finished first in class, ahead of Luigi Chinetti’s Ferrari and several Jaguars. The Nash Healey won 3rd overall, trailing only two Mercedes 300SLs. The engine delivered a 13 mpg average throughout the race, and was said to have used NO additional oil or water during the 24 hour race.
Rather than bucket seats as was more common for sports cars of the time, Pinin Farina opted for leather fitted bench seats in this clearly 2 passenger body, and they are surprisingly comfortable:
We searched for some 5 years before finding our own Nash Healey coupe (as pictured above). We loved this particular color combination (black exterior, with grey metallic dash and maroon leather interior, and found the car’s condition to be near show quality. Our car came indirectly (via a dealer) from the original owner, a family that had owned a Nash dealership (back in the day), and the car has won national AACA class championships.
Of course, “pretty is as pretty does”, and the Nash Healey is no slouch in the handling and performance department. The steering is light and agile, brakes are superb, the car handles beautifully, and performance from the 252 cubic inch straight six (140 HP) is more than adequate to propel this 2,400 lb vehicle with grace.
Sadly, shipping costs (US to England, England to Italy, Italy to US) combined with higher than anticipated production costs, all conspired to require a sales price that was excessive for the market of the time. The sticker price at stateside Nash dealers was just shy of $6,000, while the newly introduced Corvette was priced at just $3,513. Exclusivity wasn’t enough to sustain such a significant price differential. Therefore, in 1954 Nash discontinued the companion roadster it had been selling alongside the coupes, and produced just 90 coupes of a slightly different body style from the previous year, at which time the Nash Healey became no more…