During the past week or so, while I was working on “Antelope Hunting with Sir John,” I was also going around looking at cars.
Cars? you say.
Yes. Cars. Remember back when my wife asked me that “unexpected question?” Like that, cars.
Originally, I was looking at Morgans. A little Morgan Plus-4, preferably ’60s-era or earlier, would have been ideal. It didn’t take long, though, to discover that Morgans of any stripe were beyond my budgetary limits, unless I wanted a “project” car (which I didn’t.) So, no Morgan, but there were other low, bug-eyed little roadsters out there. The MG brand produced the TC, TD, and TF in the ’40s and ’50s, old-style cars reminiscent of the pre-war era. So I began looking at those.
On the weekend before last, we drove out to Maple Valley to see a 1946 MG-TC. It was pouring rain–the first major storm of the season–and was an inauspicious start to a convertible-buying trip. We drove for an hour through sheets of rain and rim-high draughts of standing water, the Google Lady keeping us on route and on target. Finally, we wound our way along a road that changed its name four times in the last mile until we found the place.
The owner–the second owner the car ever had–greeted us with an oversized umbrella and a hopeful smile. He was in his eighties and quite frail; too stiff with arthritis, he could no longer get into the driver’s seat and decided to sell the car that had been his for nearly three decades. His much younger wife looked on as he gave me a tour of the vehicle, her expression a mixture of love and sadness. The old gentleman loved this car–I could tell by the way he pointed out the original equipment (like the starter crank) and by the way he talked to it as he started it up. “Come on, girl. Don’t be fussy,” he said as he pulled the choke and pushed the starter. The car complied, coughing twice before she clattered to life.
It was a beautiful car; gleaming black and chrome without, a warm brick-red leather within. I would have dropped the hammer on the deal then and there, but there was one final test, a crucial test that the car had to pass before I could purchase it.
I had to fit inside.
The Acid Test
At nearly 6’2″, I’m not incredibly tall, but I have a very long torso and even modern cars are sometimes a challenge for me. In our old Triumph Spitfire, I fit only because of how far back the bucket seat reclined. It was like driving a recumbent bicycle–I was nearly supine–but it was great fun.
The seats in the MG-TC did not recline. This was a British car, built right after the war, and designed (with its right-hand drive) for small, reedy, ration-book wielding Brits fresh out of the service and steeled by the deprivations of national conflict. It looked tight, but I gave it a whirl, nevertheless. I put my left leg in, sliding it under the huge steering wheel, and awkwardly situated myself in the right-hand driver’s seat.
I didn’t fit. I didn’t even nearly fit.
Sitting in the driver’s seat, the top of the windscreen was under my nose. But I really wanted this car, so I tried to make it work. I scrunched down. Way down. I can fit I can fit I can fit. The best I could do was get it so the windscreen was just under my glasses, and in that position the 15″ diameter steering wheel was rubbing across my hipbones.
I did not fit. Period. End of report.
If my face was anything like that of the old owner’s, I looked miserable. He saw in me someone who had the love and the desire to care for his baby, his driving companion for 28 years, and he would have been happy knowing that his beloved TC was in such hands. But it was not to be.
For me, it meant my lifelong dream of owning an old-time, pre-war style roadster was dead. I was crushed, but I couldn’t deny the plain facts. We left with many thanks and a great deal of apologies. I was sullen on the way home, and stopped for some stout beer in which to drown my sorrows.
Uncharacteristically, I did not dwell on the outcome. My wife will tell you, this is immense growth on my part. I gave my grief space to grow, blossom, and fade, and then I got on with Plan C. (For those keeping score, the Morgan was Plan A (too expensive) and the MG-TC or MG-TD were Plan B (too small), so now I was on to Plan C.)
I thought about what I liked about the pre-war style. What was it that drew me to those older vehicles? Distilling it down, I determined that it was the low, French-curve line that swept up over the front wheel and down to the rear, followed by another curve that leapt up over the back wheels and down again. With this information, I found three marques that maintained these lines, albeit in a more modern, more limited style: the Triumph TR3, the MGA, and the Austin-Healey 3000. The Triumph was at the top of my list.
As luck would have it, a classic car dealership close to where I work had a TR3 for sale. It was about $8000 over the top of my budget, but I could go down and check it out. I could try it on for size, see if I fit, and know if it needed to be crossed off the list of possibilities. So, on Tuesday last, a work buddy and I walked down to the dealership. If nothing else, we’d get to see some real classics in their garage.
Cosmopolitan Motors is on a diagonal side-street near the border of one of Seattle’s two “platting disagreements.” When the original plats for Seattle were filed, the major real-estate players had differing opinions as to how the grid of streets should be oriented. Doc Maynard felt they should be organized in line with the cardinal points of the compass, as was the standard of the day. The fact that his bit of shoreline was oriented north-south made it an easy choice. His neighbor Arthur Denny, on the other hand, whose shoreline ran diagonally northwest to southeast, oriented his streets along that line. This caused a major problem along the border where the two grids met (Mill Street, which became known as the Skid Road, and is now Yesler Way). Mr. Denny and his northern neighbor, William Bell (whose bit of shoreline was at an even sharper angle), had a similar “platting disagreement” along their abutment, which is now called Denny Way.
Alongside these border streets, where the grids change orientation, it’s a mess. Traffic flows down the border boulevards, but to either side, eddies form little truncated blocks filled with misfit buildings and flat-iron triangles.
Cosmopolitan Motors is on such a side street, taking up the ground floor of an old, grey rhomboidal structure that’s part garage, part showroom, part alleyway, and part storeroom. Walk by the hazy, rough-edged windows and through the glass you’ll see specters of days gone by, shapes of chrome and metal too big to be believed, too stylish to be real. Walk in through the unobtrusive door and it smells of dust, oil, gasoline, leather, wood, and polishing wax. It smells like Car Heaven.
A young man who wanted very much to sound knowledgeable and sophisticated nodded at my request to see the TR3. He escorted my friend and me back into the garage and on the way he pointed out a new acquisition, a ’54 Nash with skirts all ’round. Farther in was a ’47 Buick the size of a small tank, with doors nearly a foot thick and more girth than could fit into today’s average garage. Over against the wall was a 1930 Cadillac, nearly 6′ tall and immensely long, looking like nothing so much as an old horse-drawn carriage with a V-12 added on the front instead of brace of horses. And then, there in the back, I saw a tiny little red car, its recurve fenders gleaming, its wire wheels a-sparkle.
I was afraid to touch it for a moment; it was so clean, so enamel-bright. The toothy, wide-mouthed grill gave it an expression of determination and grit. The lines of fenders and doors made it seem all bunched muscle, ready to leap forward. I leaned down–way down–to reach the door handle, and then tried to negotiate my way inside.
Unlike with modern cars, one does not “step inside” a little roadster. There are different methods, depending on your size, but there is no “sliding in.” Lucky for me, I’m still sufficiently height/weight proportionate to use the easier, slightly more dignified “butt first” entry: open the door, sit down on the seat, swivel, and pull your legs inside one by one.
I did this, settled in, and found that I still had a couple inches clearance between my head and the removable hard-top. I fit! Success!
The Blitz Method of Salesmanship
But it was still out of my price range. I had a few questions about the marque, specifically (as we looked in the boot), where was the spare tire? The young man didn’t know, so he went and got Evan, the owner.
Evan is a man of girth with a quick eye for his business, and his business is not cars; it’s people. He told me where the spare was stored (in a compartment behind the license plate) and we chatted about my recent trip to see the MG-TC. He knew I was determined to own a classic car, but also knew that I was serious when I said I was not interested in the little red Triumph because it was so far above my price range.
I lived in Jerusalem for a couple years, and while there I learned how to haggle for everything from a cotton shirt to a kilo of tomatoes. In the spice-laden alleyways of the Old City souk, I learned that you never pay the asking price, you start by offering half of what the proprietor wants, and you must walk out of the shop at least two, sometimes three times, only to be called back by the shopkeeper before you complete the transaction. Proprietors will claim the need to feed more children than they really have, while buyers will plead more poverty and less interest than they truly own. It’s a dance, bounded by tradition and filled with posturing and wink-and-nod communication, and as long as you are willing to walk away, you have nothing to lose.
I was willing to walk away–I had said so, in fact–and Evan believed me, but like most people involved with an esoteric, luxury item like classic cars, he also had an interest in finding a good home for his charge. I was committed to the project, was prepared and cognizant of the requirements of such a car, and would be bringing it all to fruition pretty soon. I didn’t realize I was negotiating with him until it was over.
“If you want it,” he said, “I’ll drop the price to your limit.”
It was, without a doubt, the most abrupt and effective haggling technique I’d ever encountered. He had me hooked. Then he reeled me in. “But it’s on auction on eBay and it’s already met the reserve. If you’re serious, you’ll have to move quickly.”
I called my wife.
She said two words: “Buy it.”
And I did. You can see a picture of it up top… That’s the one. We’ve named it Sergeant Pepper to honor its color (British Army Red) as well as its Carnaby Street heritage.
So, how am I going to wrap this back around to writing? Easy.
Think of the characters I met along this ten-day journey. The aged owner of a war-time vehicle and his younger wife. The youngish man who wanted to cover his lack of knowledge with diffidence. The shrewd dealership owner who saw an opportunity walking out the door and turned it into a sale with a few well-chosen words.
Think of the corners I visited for the first time. The ’50s bungalow tucked back in a wooded glen in a downpour. The indoor dealership packed with classic cars. The hodge-podge of streets along the belligerent plats.
Think of the emotions I saw or experienced. Excitement, disappointment, appreciation for a finely maintained machine, sadness, inner pain, insecurity, bravado, a wife’s tender love for an aging spouse.
It’s all fodder for the worlds, the characters, the inner lives I will craft in my stories and books. And as I take my little roadster out to the country, out along the backroads of Western Washington (and beyond?), I will keep my “writer’s eyes” open. Sergeant Pepper is a conversation starter, an ice-breaker, attracting the appreciative eye of men and women, young and old. Pepper will be my entrée, helping me learn new characters and new places from which to draw my own portraits in prose.