4NORMY: One Woman’s Saga of Adventure on the Road-Part 1

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When I was very young, and long before I could legally drive, I found an abandoned MGA roadster and coupe on the edge of a farmer’s cornfield in Kansas. I convinced my father to take the bullet riddled and now rusting pile of cars home and over the next few years we spent countless hours restoring the roadster using the coupe for parts.

Some of my best memories in life are the ones I spent with my father and the roadster. In my memories my dad is often scratching his head at the jumbled mess before us, but always smiling at me as another restored piece went into place. Nearly 50 years later I can still recall my father’s look of determination and the sound of his laughter as we put the roadster through test drives at a deserted airfield. “Give ‘er some gas little girl” he would yell as we screamed down the runway, top down, our hair on fire, and so very much alive with it all.

I’m much older now and my hair has been grey for many years. I’ve done all the responsible things like going to college and being a successful professional. I married the love of my life and our dream was to own an MGA roadster and tour someday. My husband Norman became ill and after a long and insidious journey, died before we could pursue our dream. He made me promise that I would buy a roadster and “take a drive anyway”. A year after Norman died it was time to start the engine so to speak and I began looking for a roadster. I’ve lost track of the number of people that looked at me with concern when I told them I was going to buy a roadster and take a road trip. An even greater number gasped when I cashed in my life insurance to get the money for a car. Most just shook their heads when I got a second job to finance what the insurance money wouldn’t cover. Through it all I kept going, looking for a roadster, and never telling anyone about the little car in my dreams that beeped plaintively in the night.

In December of 2010 a man e-mailed me in response to my constant web searches for a ’58 or ’59 roadster. Gerard sent pictures and histories, when known, on every roadster for sale that he knew of and even some he had just heard about. Through it all he was patient and somewhat understanding. He wrote once that he was not sure if I was a scam artist or not, but the story about the promise to my dying husband was a nice touch. Eventually I suspect he believed me and one day sent a picture of a roadster he knew about in Texas. It was the car in my dreams, but I did not share that with Gerard. He put me in touch with Brian, the man in Texas that owned the car. Brian sent more pictures and two e-mails and one phone conversation later I put a substantial down payment on my AMEX card to hold the car until I could get to the bank. By this time most of my friends were avoiding me and, I believe, were secretly thinking of having me committed.

January of 2011 was busy with roadster business and plans for the trip. I bought a one way ticket to Houston for May, assorted items from Moss Motors (hoses, belt, points) I thought might come in handy along the way and a 1911 model .45 I decided to take in “any event.” I put together an emergency fix it kit that included among other things, black electrical tape, bungee cords, a metric wrench and socket set, assorted battery operated warning lights, electrical wire, silicone caulk, a few flashlights, my Gerber knife, and because I’m an Alaskan, two rolls of duct tape. I had a chrome boot rack sent to Houston to be mounted, had Brian install an alarm system for the car, and generally pestered the poor man over one thing or another on a weekly basis. Brian agreed to start the roadster and let it run for a while along with everything else. Mostly, he kept telling me that I should not, under any circumstances, try to drive the car from Texas to Alaska. He would tell me that the car was only for show; to be transported on a trailer to a show and then trailered home. He was vigilant in reminding me that something terrible could happen if I broke down at night on some deserted stretch of highway. I would reply that bad things could happen in broad daylight and that I didn’t get to be my age from too much stupidity. By the end of January the Alaska vanity plates “4NORMY” arrived at about the same time as my new passport. I removed more clothing from my little duffle bag to make room for both, trying to keep not only space but weight to a minimum. My ferry ticket arrived and Brian continued to e-mail his concerns about my safety. He resorted to including reminders that Gerard did not think it was a good idea either. I spent the next four months annoying my coworkers with pictures of my car, deciding and re-deciding what to pack, going to the range with my .45, and generally walking around with a smile on my face. I had no plans except to head north from Houston and eventually get to Bellingham, Washington where the roadster and I would take the Alaska Marine Highway home to Alaska. I did buy a TomTom GPS so that I could find Red Lobster and Olive Garden restaurants along the way as well as auto parts stores for oil and lead additive.

The heat in Houston nearly made me pass out as I waited for a taxi outside the terminal and the next two hours became a blur. I remember seeing the car for the first time as the giant warehouse door opened and running my hands over the cool surface of the fenders. At some point I gave the man that met me the Alaska plates and while he put them on I sat behind the wheel staring at the dash. My hand on the gearshift I mentally went through an H. I remember starting the engine and taking my husband’s necklace with his wedding ring from around my neck and hanging it from the rear view mirror. From somewhere in my memories I heard “it’s ready to go” and I drove away.

A few blocks away I found a shady parking lot where I could stop until my hands stopped shaking and face my first problem. I couldn’t reach the pedals well enough to shift without grinding let alone brake when needed. Sliding down in the seat I could manage the pedals but couldn’t see over the dash. When being short is your normal you have a tendency to forget that well, you’re short. I made pedal blocks out of discarded cardboard I found in a trash can and arranged my clothes on the seat until I was tall enough to see. This arrangement worked well enough to see me safely to a variety store where I purchased two chair cushions that worked nicely for the remainder of my trip.

I drove most of the first night trying to escape the heat. The car temperature gauge teetered on overheat and any stop and go traffic sent it into extremes. Every fifty or so miles I stopped to top off the tank (gas gauge didn’t work) and check the oil and water. I used my TomTom to calculate my speed (speedometer didn’t work) at 3700 rpm’s (if the tach was right) I was cruising at a nice 57 mph. I was averaging 26 mpg, if the odometer was tracking correctly, and oil consumption was one quart every 200 miles. If the mileage was correct (28,864 at pick up), and after sitting for so long (four years I was told), I was sure the rings and seals needed some time. As I drove along the dark and quiet highway, I learned the sound of the engine. New little rattles always meant that another nut or bolt had come lose someplace and needed to be found and put back tightly.

Diboll, Texas began the first of many engine no starts after getting gas. The attendants in the stations those early hours were always willing to lock up long enough to help give me a push start. Eventually I found a safe place with an incline and waited for dawn. In the morning I discovered that the starter and connecters had rattled lose, but I could not reach them with my short socket set. At every oil and gas stop the little car attracted attention. An old woman tinkering under the bonnet increased the curiosity level considerably. A woman with a van full of children stopped to show her kids the “toy car.” She told me about a friend that had a garage just down the road and with a roll down the incline to start the engine; I followed her to the shop. Without a moment’s thought, the garage owner said he would take the car in right away. One half hour later billed $5.00 for labor and $14.97 for extra oil the starter was tight and the car started easily on five test runs. Clear skies, heat, and easy starts continued for the remainder of Texas, north across Arkansas, and into southern Missouri. Some days I drove only a few hours during the relative coolness of the mornings. There were frequent stops for cold drinks and to let the car rest and cool down. At every stop people came over to talk and ask about the car. There were shady places to relax and enjoy the view and a lot of the time was spent reading my car manuals and back issues of MGA! The engine was still idling too high at 1300 rpms, the wipers still didn’t work despite my tinkering, and the spare tire was flat.

I spent a few days revisiting the Lake of the Ozarks after a 40 year absence and found that much had changed. In Osage Beach I drove along the lake, stopping at stations and auto part stores, inquiring if anyone could help with my wiper problem. They all said no but if anyone could work on the car, it would be Lance and they gave me his number. Lance Hedrick said he could look at the car right away, to come to his shop, and once there, he had me pull immediately into a bay. Within minutes the engine was running smoothly and idling at 900 rpms and the wipers were working! The rest of that day and half of the next was spent replacing hoses, running bench tests on the generator and starter, replacing the battery and cables, and eventually installing a remote starter relay as the random no starts had returned and with a long weekend approaching, a new starter was a week away even with express mail. Once in a while I handed Lance tools and was ever ready to start the engine when needed. I hovered when not pacing about the bay but Lance didn’t seem to mind. He talked about the engine, refreshing my memory for parts and the function of each as he went over each item in detail. A radiator cap gasket was also found missing and promptly replaced. When I drove away from Lance’s shop, I knew that the roadster and I had found another, very special friend.

North and through St. Louis the car ran well. Oil consumption was down to one quart each 400 miles and mileage was up to nearly 36 mpg. The car started with little effort and the rattles were nearly gone, signaling that my efforts to tighten bolts and nuts was paying off. A light rain near Decatur, IL however, proved to be an interior flood. An examination of the hood front seam disclosed broken stitching and a small gap between the header rail and windshield top. Duct tape and cloth torn from a t-shirt packed along the windshield kept the majority of rain outside the car and only a few places continued to drip down upon the dash. Near Gilman, IL a large thunder storm with high winds forced semis to pull over and huddle under an overpass with other travelers, including me. I spent ten or so harrowing minutes hanging, with my arms locked in the hood frame and my knees wedged up under the dash for leverage in an attempt to keep the hood from being ripped away by the winds. Wet and exhausted after the storm, the little car and I limped into the next rest area where dry clothes were put on and additional duct tape and bungee cords were employed to secure the hood. An hour was spent simply composing myself and thinking about ways to address the hood before the next rain and certainly before any more wind. I’ll also admit that a considerable amount of time was spent remembering scenes from The Wizard of Oz and promising myself I was never going to do anything as stupid as lock my arms in the metal framework of the car for any reason, ever again…really.

In Chicago I spent four days visiting with a friend and taking short drives into Indiana and along Lake Michigan. Chicago also saw the return of the no starts which prompted a call to Moss for a new starter. New duct tape and three small c-clamps along the windshield and header rail resolved the ill-fitting hood. Silicone caulk worked into the front seam stopped water from coming into the interior after repeated tests using a garden hose. With the new starter installed and the flat spare tire finally fixed I was ready to begin the more westward leg of our trip home to Alaska.

Days were spent driving across Wisconsin and Minnesota. I kept the top up “just in case” most of the time, but gave up on the windows as they had been drilled and re-drilled until they just didn’t fit. Duct tape along the front had kept them from flopping in the wind over 40 mph and more duct tape kept them under the hood but it was an unsightly affair and besides, it was too hot. I packed the windows away in the boot and prayed it wouldn’t rain.

Twenty miles west of Sioux Falls, South Dakota with my portable radio blaring and cruising at my usual 57 mph, the car simply died. I made a quick call to my insurance company road service number and spent my time standing by the car watching buffalo graze along the fence, waving back at passing motorists, convincing everyone that stopped that I was indeed fine (.45 in my belt at the small of my back under my shirt), and generally getting blown into the ditch by passing semis. An hour later the roadster was placed on a large truck and together we headed back into Sioux Falls. The first garage said they could not look at the roadster for possibly a week but knew of another garage that might be able to help. A phone call later the roadster was on its way to five sets of experienced and caring hands at the Subaru dealership. Within minutes of our arrival, I knew that the car was in the very best care and in turn, I was finally sure I was going to keep my promise. The owner of the dealership once owned an MG dealership in the 50s and early 60s and Terry knew his As! As two mechanics under Terry’s direction systematically checked out the roadster’s electrical system, another mechanic tackled the windows and still another carefully checked hoses, fluid levels, tires and the transmission. Just before closing that evening, they found that the regulator was shot....

……. To be continued

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Reader Comments (1)

Picture of David Pyle
David Pyle (Houston, TX)
on January 28, 2012 1:03pm
I just met Brian who sold Debi her MGA and he elaborated how he had tried to convince her not to leave civilization which in this case was greater Houston.

Debi...I understand and applaud your determination. In the first six months of my newly 'restored' 1958 I have had similar "road dead" experiences and am still timid about making the first real trip. You should call Brian and give him the full report: 832 606 9952. Mine is HDL 43/54586. NAMGAR 7362

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Last updated on January 28, 2012.