Confessions of a Sports Car Bolshevik

I SOMETIMES MARVEL AT THE ENERGY and passion I poured into the cause of the sports car day after day for years. “Get a life,’ indeed. But I guess you had to be there.

Honor demanded a showdown. Purring new MGA and lumpy-idling Morgan Plus Four met side by side on an unopened twenty-mile stretch of the new Highway 401 one blustery Sunday afternoon in December. It was a rolling start in a flat-out straight-line duel from standstill to valve float. And may the car with the highest maximum speed win.

The torqueier Morgan shot ahead, but by 70 mph Mike’s MG had drawn abreast. I mashed foot to floor and held it there. One car length, two car lengths; the MG receded. My engine’s rising scream now leveled off to a steady shriek, and the speedometer reading leveled off at 90 mph. Had it only been in working order, the Morgan’s tachometer needle would by now be nudging into the red zone. Suddenly a vicious, ripping noise and howling cockpit turbulence. The weather-beaten canvas roof had just sheared itself in two, straight down the middle, and co-driver Hugh grappled with the flapping remnants. Then seconds later a shudder, a clatter, and only the sound of the wind and the co-owners blubbering as the speedometer needle arced backward from 80 to 60 to 40 toward O, and the powerless Morgan rolled to a stop.

The damage assessment was the Morgan’s autopsy. “She’s thrown a rod,” explained Bert, the kindly Yorkshireman proprietor of British Sports Cars Ltd. Resuscitating it would cost quadruple what the corpse was worth. Bert, a master mechanic and the local authorized Triumph dealer, had by now become a father confessor in all things automotive. We withdrew to the corner desk in his Hogarthian pit of a garage to mull our options.

We emerged an hour later the co-owners of a brand-new 1956 British Racing Green Triumph TR3. Avuncular Bert’s willingness to extend generous terms and our ability to rationalize when it came to cars had lofted us from the slums to the near pinnacle. The penury threatened by the monthly payments would be worth it. The new-car smell alone rendered Hugh and me almost dizzy. We drove home in triumph in our Triumph, insisting that even Dad take it out for a ride. He came back shaking his head, of course, but what in hell did he know? Not that the TR3’s gutsy two-liter, four-cylinder engine cracked the mystical hundred-horsepower barrier. Not that it out-accelerated his beloved mushy Plymouth, with a lusty growl, and topped out at an exalted 110 mph. It sat so low that your fanny was mere inches off the road. It was pugnacious to the point of brutality—the two-liters-and-under racing king. It could eat MGs for breakfast. A day with a brand-new TR3 was better than a night with Ava Gardner. How could two guys be so lucky?

Twenty-four hours later, with the brand-new TR3 a crumpled ball of wreckage steaming in a cornfield near London, Ontario, second thoughts had occurred.

I’d decided to celebrate the dawn of this golden era by driving to Toronto for New Year’s Eve, leaving Hugh behind at home. I’d made it almost halfway, tiptoeing along over roads glazed by black ice and powdered with windblown snow, when a car towing a trailer slowly lumbered off a side road on the left and into my lane only a hundred feet ahead. I reflexively stomped the brake pedal just as the Triumph hit a patch of glare ice and started a long, lazy spin, and an oncoming Oldsmobile did the rest.

That I was lucky to have escaped alive, much less uninjured, and that Hugh would have probably been killed if he’d been with me—the Oldsmobile impacted the passenger side and smashed through it right up to the transmission tunnel—was of scant solace; the Triumph was a total wreck. I felt as if a newborn baby had died.

BUT LIFE HAD TO CONTINUE. SPORTS CAR LIFE , that is. The insurance check bought Triumph TR3II—the improved 1957 version, with Girling front disc brakes. Hugh and I dressed it to the nines, adding Plexiglas wind wings, screwing little metal Union Jacks onto the cowl sides. We’d just been to Watkins Glen for a spectacular Formula Libre race and our first encounter with the Ferraris and Maseratis of legend; I’d regularly steal away in the TR3 to maraud over the back roads of Essex County, emulating Phil Hill in his Testa Rossa Ferrari. I sickened myself with fear, careening along far too fast and too hard for my skills, preserved from harm only by a merciful deity and those big fade-free disc brakes. But speed is narcotic to the young, and I became a full-time addict. What an obnoxious jerk I must have been to my fellow drivers, what a pathetic showoff, what a public nuisance. But a sports car driver was supposed to be. And the stiff cost of that TR3 was being at least emotionally amortized. The Anglia and Morgan days seemed innocent, distant, kid stuff. I was now a certified top-down-in-December, foot-to-the-floor, give-and-ask-no-quarter, bravura sports car driver.