MG Midget is a mechanic’s dream

This story from the San Francisco Chronicle….

Richard Haas is a marketing consultant based in the Peninsula. A Bay Area native, he was brought up in the United States, South America and Europe.

I grew up with British motorcycles and cars – BSAs, Triumphs and MGs. My first motorcycle was a 650 side valve BSA with sidecar I bought with an older friend. I remember my Mom’s black MGA fondly, and my first college car was a Sunbeam Alpine.

One day in 1996, my future wife and I were driving past a gas station on Camden Avenue in San Jose when we spotted a green MG Midget with a “for sale” sign. We called the guy who had left it there – it was a repo (thanks to too many traffic tickets), and he wanted $1,600 for it. It looked pretty ratty, but it was all there, down to the tonneau cover and ripped ragtop. He took $1,500 and we drove away in it.

The MG Midget is a classic British sports car that developed a cult following due to its unique styling, small size and association with the “mod” fashions of England in the 1960s. The model was first introduced in 1961 and managed to stay alive until the last few cars trickled off the assembly line in 1980. Despite the cool look of these two-seaters, the Midget was plagued with the mechanical problems that affected so many British cars of the era. In fact, devotees of British cars and motorcycles refer to Joseph Lucas as the “Prince of Darkness,” because of the shoddy electronic components made for the U.K. car industry by the company he founded.

The first thing I noticed was that none of the gauges worked. I popped the hood and started looking around and could see that it had been repainted cheaply in a sort of imitation British Racing Green, with a worn metallic accent to it. I saw a partially painted-over original sticker that read “Negative Earth.” I also looked at the battery, which had been hooked up backwards by some backyard mechanic. I hooked it up properly, and, voila, the gauges all worked again. Other than that, the Midget ran pretty well, despite smoky and noisy exhaust, drippy SU carbs, suspect electrics, hard tires and no brakes.

We took our first extended trip down Highway 1 to Carmel with it and had no problems at all, except for an obvious lack of speed. On the day of our wedding we drove around with a cardboard “just married” sign taped to the luggage rack. A Mexican couple outside of City Hall gave us a rosary for good luck. We hung it from the rearview mirror, and it brings us good mojo to this day.

The Midget has let us down a few times, of course. Several times with my wife driving, it couldn’t make it past Volvo corner in Palo Alto. There was a curse there: We had to have it exorcised by a Swedish priest. Another time Prince of Darkness Joseph Lucas tried to end my days on 237 by igniting the wiring harness. I nearly suffocated with the top up! Luckily, I made it to the side of the road and called AAA after yanking out what was left of the wiring.

My brother and I replaced the motor with a fresher one in an afternoon – gotta love the simplicity of these old vehicles. Another time my brother helped me troubleshoot a cracked distributor cap by phone from San Diego. And I recently stopped by Kragen for some oil, got back in the car, started it, heard a “snap.” I knew right away the original 40-year-old throttle cable had just given up.

The Midget is an ideal vehicle for local trips, because it’s small, economical and I can park it anywhere. It’s not so good for those yard sales, or those long boring trips up and down Interstate 5. It’s best to belong to AAA, and know good nearby car mechanics who specialize in British cars. I don’t think we’ll ever sell it – the car is way too much fun, and we probably wouldn’t get much for it anyway!