Questions and Answers by Jeff Burns
(Note: this article was originally appeared in the Austin-Healey Magazine in 1990 but still applies today. Adjust dollar figures accordingly)
dialogue is taken from a helpful and amusing little book written by Jeff Bums,
owner of Motorhead Ltd. British restorations in Arlington,
Virginia. With Jeff’s permission, we've
adapted some of it to the Healeys, though most of what he says applies to all of
the breeds equally well. Give it to a friend who's thinking about buying, or
let your spouse read it in the hopes of greater understanding of your commitment.
British cars unreliable?
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 100,000 miles offun, reliable driving at
a cost of about $100 a month.
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 slipping a car
is extremely difficult to accomplish, the
convertible sports cars don't easily forgive loss of control.
much does a British car cost?
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.
it need a lot of work?
first. Most British cars need an initial renovation and then thrive nicely on
normal periodic maintenance.
normal maintenance does it need?
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.
happens if it breaks down?
You fix it well or pay to have it fixed.
parts hard to get?
If you plan to renovate an MG, Triumph, AustinHealey or Jaguar, the suppy 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.
are. Most are not. British cars are still used as unique everyday
transportation and parts prices reflect the utility status.
well, why are shocks so expensive?
some British cars, the lever shock absorber is part ofthe 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 tube-type shock absorber.
it be in the shop all the time?
If the known defects are corrected and if a reasonable maintenance routine is
followed, your British car should have few unplanned shop visits.
I spend my weekends fixing it?
Only if you enjoy working on your car.
can I find a British sports car?
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. And, yes, buyers are still finding cars in bams
and pastures, though they aren't the bargains they once were.
can I know what I'm buying?
about the cars available. Choose your favorite. Join your local club and ask
for advice from other members. Look at more than a few cars before you go out
to buy your own. Hire a mechanic who knows the marque well to give it a careful
two-hour inspection. Buy the best you can afford. Look before you leap.
two hours, a reputable mechanic with experience in the marque you're buying can
tell you whether the car has any major hidden defects, and can give you a good
idea of what a renovation will cost.
is a renovation?
renovation deals with the 80% of results that cost 20% of a full restoration.
Typically it will include correcting all safety and mechanical defects in the
suspension and drive train, and a moderate amount of cosmetic work such as a
new paint job and interior. For most of us, that is more than sufficient and
the diminishing returns of a restoration are avoided in a renovation that
emphasizes function and safety.
is a restoration?
restoration, every part is separated from every other part, remade or replaced
to original specifications, and reunited. This approach costs at least $25,000
(not including the original cost of the car), unless you do most of the work
yourself. Costs can be considerably higher if special components
are missing and must be located or fabricated. Some experts consider that the
final 20% of a near-perfect restoration effort uses 80% of the cost. Very few
cars, except those of historic significance, are truly restored.
is it better to buy a car that's not rusty?
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. Buy the best non-rusty car you can afford.
do you say "the best you can afford"?
market for these cars right now is such that the quality of the car is more
than proportional to the cost. You won't have to pay twice as much to get a
car that is twice as good.
did the unfavorable reputation come from? 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 in this country to instill a
strong sense of ownership and value. These cars have tended to change owners
more often than 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. Then something breaks,
leaving the unwitting owner stranded and cursing the breed.
the electrical systems a problem?
not if the systems are properly maintained. Lucas Industries made most of the
electrical systems on British cars. The parts are well made and most problems
can be repaired by doing something easy like replacing the fuse box or by
removing the stuff in the trunk that is shorting the rear lights. Incorrect
diagnosis, corroded connections, and frayed wires have unfairly contributed to
also for poor radio installation and dirty battery connections. Proper repairs
good as an only car?
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.
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 systems. These cars run better and
last longer when driven regularly.
take it on a trip?
British sports are lots off un 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
is it in winter?
cold-natured. These cars will start after a couple of extra cranks and then
heaters are really fine. A hard top helps. Some need a winter thermostat.
Driving in snow is scary and driving on ice is unforgiving.
a good car for daily commuting?
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 two miles each
way, though, is rough on any car.
I own one?
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 supermarket checkout line, then perhaps a British car
wouldn't be appropriate just yet.
it appreciate in value?
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.
$100 a month?
represents an easy figure to use and can be compared
favorably to the cost of a taxi, bus, subway, or rental car. New cars will cost
$150 to $300 a month in depreciation and the top usually doesn't come
down. British cars, when properly repaired, average (over several years) $100 a
sell it for what I have in it?
not yet, but soon. However, since most new cars cost more than $10,000 and the
cheapest new convertible car is $15,000, 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 price of some cars, such as the Austin-Healeys should easily keep pace with
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 to repair if symptoms are examined through
diagnosis and testing before applying parts. Before giving the car to just any
foreign car mechanic, however, ask other members of your club for their recommendations.
work on it?
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 a job 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.
need special tools?
standard size wrenches and sockets are correct for the later Healeys. The few
Whitworth or other tools needed for the earlier cars are easily available. For
about $300 you can buy parts to complete
almost any repair. With tools, as elsewhere, if it's hard you're doing it
long will I have to wait for parts?
part that keeps your 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.
the carburetors a problem?
twin SU carburetors are a simple and efficient way to feed an engine and often
are blamed for 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 a different design when the
correct remedy is a rebuild of the original units. Even when understood, the SU
cars are still somewhat difficult to master. But when properly rebuilt, set up,
and adjusted, they are reliable and durable.
there design flaws?
A design flaw is an engineered characteristic that causes repeated
difficulties. Minor design flaws occur in every car. In the Healey, these
rangefrom the nooks in the rear fenders that collect dirt and water (leading to
the typical rust in the dogleg panels) to the lack of a fuse in the license
plate lamp circuit lj'requently leading to burned wiring and blown switches.)
Check it out before you buy.
about a new car; aren't they better than ever?
There seem to be more fun cars of quality now than ever before. They are also
more expensive, more complex, and less
convertible than ever.
about the lack of leaded gas and high octane gas?
scarcity of leaded gas may cause a problem after many miles, and research on
solutions is being carried on since so many cars are affected. Octane
deficiencies are less critical and can be overcome
in most situations.
often will I be towed?
twice a year. However, British cars usually give lots of warning about imminent
breakdown. Ignore a generator light for a month and you'll be towed; Neglect a
tuning this year and be towed; Telepathize the temperature gauge needle of 212
for a week and you'll be towed. Spend the cost of a tow on maintenance.
British sports car owners today?
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.
do people sell the cars if they're so good and so much fun?
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.
kinds of cars are there?
is a whole list of British cars. As far as Healeys go, the early six-cylinder
Healeys (3000 Mark Is and Mark lIs) are frequently available; the later convertibles
even more so. The four-cylinder cars appear on the market more rarely. Sprites
are still inexpensive and are fairly easy to find.
many were made?
than a million British sports cars were made, less than ten percent of one
auto production. About 75,000 big Healeys were made and nearly 150,000
Sprites. Most of this production came to America.
are the differences between them? Basically, styling, size, and cost. There are
the big Healeys with bigger prices, and the little Healeys-the Sprites-that
they go fast?
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.
cars were intended to have a basic form for general consumption. Special tuning
modifications are possible. Once you have decided not to have a totally
original car, you can change it in any way that makes sense to you. Most
modifications are costly and usually reduce reliability to some degree. They
may also reduce the resale value of the car-Healeys with VB engines appear
every so often, and sell for considerably less than the original and uncut
paint it a non-traditional color?
paint colors were not exotic; an interesting color on a British car is sure to
gain smiling approval in passing. But again, keep resale value in mind.
didn't they have automatic transmission?
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 separate the driver from road feel.
can I get for myoId British car which is only good for parts?
do you know it is only good for parts? The parts car, as defined today, looks completely
rotten and has at least one irredeemable fault, such as a broken frame. Such a
car can serve its highest purpose only in sacrifice to other cars. How much it
is worth depends on the quality and rarity of the parts on it that are still
the cars easy to steal?
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.
can I maximize my chances of enjoying a safe and dependable British sports
best car you can afford; fix its known defects; maintain it.
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 downside.
about Fiats? What about them?
that last answer smack of the same sort of flippantly ignorant commentary
that helped unfairly malign the British sports cars that are under discussion
in this thinly disguised advertisement?
Thanks and I apologize.
much will an engine cost to rebuild?
Installed, a pushrod engine rebuild costs
about $3,000 (4 cyl) to $5,000 to rebuild, including the variety of details
necessary to make the expense worthwhile. Costs may vary depending on the area
of the country and the quality of the original engine.
true you can open a bottle in the jack hole of a Sprite?
did they stop making inexpensive British sports cars?
last big Healey was built in 1967, having fallen victim-according to various
accounts-either to the political inf'9hting in British Leyland or to the
expense of bringing it up to the new pollution and safety standards of the
American market. The Sprite struggled on a little longer. Then in 1980, after
more than 30 years of Triumphs, MGs, Austin - Healeys and others in America,
production was stopped. In the end, the British carmakers lost faith. They
simply forgot that their contributions to world motoring were unique and
exceptional. But the tradition can return.
Magazine - May 1990