Friday, January 2, 2015

A Refresher Course in British Automobiles

I've had more than one British automobile worm it's way into my garage, and my heart.

It started in the Serengetti.  A Land Rover. So many switches, but fortunately, no matter which one I tried, the same thing happened. Nothing. It had all kinds of gauges, most there to fill up a hole in the dash, many unlabeled, which would be the automotive equivalent of "Door Number 3!"

I thought for a moment of flipping one labeled "FAN".  Rumors were a pilot had done that once and was never seen again. I knew better, getting back to base just as the light faded completely. For a moment I thought I'd light a match to see how much gas I had left before noting most of the vehicle was full of cans of gas (for when the gauge went in one nano-second from Full to Empty), I think not.

But I survived that little mission and the Rover wagon. . . .

Only to come home and find one in my garage Not a Rover, but a little Triumph in need of some restoring. OK. I hadn't planned on it. It was given to me for a little flying job I did that the person didn't have the money to pay for when his wife split. OK. It was worth  more than he owed me, even in the condition it was in, so why not?  It needed a new clutch plate, paint and some spiffing up, but really, everything works, it just needs a new battery.

New battery? Check. New clutch plate?  I can do that!  No, I can do that after pulling the whole $&#* transmission out with help. Then it was time to work on the wiring.  When you have a British car it's ALWAYS time to work on the wiring. I did not do it well. My entire wiring experience at that time, was the ability to draw the entire electrical system of a Boeing 727 on a cocktail napkin after 3 beers and old movies where someone with wire cutters  is saying "red wire, blue wire?" while sweat beads down their brow and something is ticking.

The automobile ended up as Day VFR only. I had figured the lights were the "blackout" version that was common during the War, and my car someone came with them standard.

I tried different things, including the familiar grey shape of rolled welding technology.  Once in a while the brake lights would blink at me like a firefly, but never when the brakes were actually applied.

Oh, but soon I was besotted, with bits and pieces of British car all over the shop floor and de-greaser in my shower, myself curled up in the Lotus position, wedged there under the dash muttering "OHM" as my meditative mantra. It wasn't long before I'd heard many things about Mr. Lucas, especially about him being the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper.

If you've not seen one, it's something to beyold. There's the wonder of the wiper trembling before you, hesitant to move, to break that spell, then suddenly, with a leap of faith, it flings itself upon the glass, back and forth in its death throes, then stillness and tears of rain against the glass for such a brief life. That sort of thing makes you believe in a higher power (and Rain-X and Triple AAA).

If you can't find one or afford one,  you too can have the experience.  Go rent the smallest car you can find and take it out on a completely isolated, uninhabited country road.  Turn down the radio so you can hear all the new sounds.  Roll down your window, turn off ALL the lights and start flinging new Twenty Dollar bills out the window while your passenger flicks a Bic lighter on and off somewhere near the dash as you attempt to maintain centerline at varying high speeds and sounds that range from "Woo Hoo! Autobahn!" to "is that a hard rubber dog toy in my crank case?"  It comes close.

So for my friends,

Miss D., who is coming to visit this weekend with her husband Peter, I present (with a hat tip to my friend Marty in Canada). . . .


Positive ground depends on proper circuit functioning, which is the transmission of negative ions by retention of the visible spectral manifestation known as "smoke". Smoke is the thing that makes electrical circuits work. We know this to be true because every time one lets the smoke out of an electrical circuit, it stops working. This can be verified repeatedly through empirical testing.

For example, if one places a copper bar across the terminals of a battery, prodigious quantities of smoke are liberated and the battery shortly ceases to function. In addition, if one observes smoke escaping from an electrical component such as a Lucas voltage regulator, it will also be observed that the component no longer functions. The logic is elementary and inescapable!

The function of the wiring harness is to conduct the smoke from one device to another. When the wiring springs a leak and lets all the smoke out of the system, nothing works afterward.

Starter motors were considered unsuitable for British motorcycles for some time largely because they consumed large quantities of smoke, requiring very unsightly large wires.

It has been reported that Lucas electrical components are possibly more prone to electrical leakage than their Bosch, Japanese or American counterparts. Experts point out that this is because Lucas is British, and all things British leak. British engines leak oil, British shock absorbers, hydraulic forks and disk brake systems leak fluid, British tires leak air and British Intelligence leaks national defense secrets.

Therefore, it follows that British electrical systems must leak smoke. Once again, the logic is clear and inescapable.

In conclusion, the basic concept of transmission of electrical energy in the form of smoke provides a logical explanation of the mysteries of electrical components especially British units manufactured by Joseph Lucas, Ltd.

And remember: "A gentleman does not motor about after dark."

Joseph Lucas "The Prince of Darkness"

So that's it folks, a little HOTR British Car advice. And remember, if you do fall under the spell of one, only to have to sell it,  just remember you can always install a dead battery and blame everything on that. - Brigid


  1. I was keeping it together until the "flinging new twenty dollar bills out the window" sentence. Then I was lucky I was not holding a cup of coffee.

    My cousin owned a British sports car, maybe a Triumph way back when. He told the story of driving locally and seeing a large trailer from a tractor trailer parked in the lot of a shopping center. The idea of driving under the trailer sprang into mind and he tested the idea very slowly and carefully. He drove under the trailer with lots of room to spare. Next step was to get a friend. As my cousin nears the parking lot he tells the friend, "I need to stop at the store." Then he says, "Say, I wonder if we could drive under that trailer?" My cousin heads for the trailer and begins to speed up. Just before driving under the trailer my cousin yells. "We're not going to make it!" I imagine cleaning the passenger seat took a while. I thought about the story when I owned a Fiat 850 Spyder, but I was sure my wife would kill me.

    Thank you!

    John in Philly

  2. I remember going to a shop to get some part for my Datsun 1600 ("Fairlady") and wandering about the shop with the owner. He showed me a Jag on the lift and said, "Don't feel bad, to replace a starter in a Jaguar, the book says: Step 1. Pull Motor.".
    After that was the Fiat 850. Then the Cortina.
    But I got help ("Hello, my name is Ed...", and stopped buying headaches.

  3. Not only do you have too much fun you also have way too many toys, and I wish you a lot more of both in 2015.

  4. Heh... 1963 Jag XKE in Texas in the summer... Carried a spray bottle to spray down the underhood area just so it would make enough contact to start. 60 miles and it'd overheat...

  5. Strewth!!! All of my European cars were either German or Swedish [Rust or Bondo]. I have, however had friends who had English Cars, and have seen this theory of 'smoke' in action personally. That dead battery idea is a good way of keeping the smoke in the wires.

    Rich in NC

  6. Whether you realized it or not, you have also described old Jeeps as well. It's never good when the smoke gets out! The only thing missing is noting that when it stops leaking oil, it's empty!
    The things we get into in the name of fun....

  7. "curled up in the Lotus position." I see what you did there...

  8. AHH yes, the Prince of darkness!!!

    In my senior year of high school I acquired a 1959 XK-150 roadster.
    It was a pretty thing, in British Racing Red and those BIG 16" wire wheels wearing Dunlop Road Speed 4 tires.

    Bitter lessons started right away - where can I find Whitworth tools? What kind of oil do I put in the three SU sidedraft carbs?

    It was the most temperamental thing I ever owned. Spill a cup of water 100 yds upwind and it wouldn't start for a week! And getting parts in 1965 rural PA? Yeah, that was fun too!

    The heater was a joke. Wide open on defrost it would barely melt the ice from the inside of the windshield - don't even worry about the mist. Doesn't it get cold in England?

    Nevertheless, I loved/hated that car - I wish I had it back!!!

    Thanks for the memories!!!


  9. I once had a Datsun that thought it might be British. It's major leaks came from the cooling system, however.

  10. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING is easier than fixing British Car wiring... Except for British built Fords, the wiring colors are consistant up into the 80s. The vendor of choice sells connectors in single and double configuration, with the other oddball multiples usually available. Replace them all. Sand the bullet connectors, and use a wee bit of dielectric grease. Brighten and tighten the 1/4 inch spades at the switches, and 90% of your problems are gone...The last 10% is what tests your patience....But who needs *everything* to work anyway...And I feel for you on the clutch swap. Even on a lift that is an awful job... I have stories....

  11. I so wanted one of those British prince of darkness cars, til a co worker said her husband was a mechanic for prince of darkness cars and he couldn't even keep the damn things running. My American mcyver skills where more applicable to old pickups.

  12. Roommate had a Jag. We spent TOO much time tracing the electrical system.

    So ou know why Brits drink warm beer? Because they have Lucas Refrigerators!

  13. In the 1980s I wanted a convertible, so I purchased two TR3s to make one good car. I should have bought 5. It was entertaining for the neighborhood as the acrid clouds of smoke would slowly and artfully drift with the wind. Look! There's Mount Rushmore! The only time the pick of the litter would start was if it was a 100 degree Oklahoma day.I bought my new parts from a pirate in Houston and they came on a Greyhound bus. I sold both cars to the next sucker in line.

  14. I owned three Brits, a MGB that I drove from Louisiana to Sebring, Fla. to watch Steve McQueen in the LeMans, "68 or 69 ! Also had a TR3 and a TR4 ! Lots of fun ! I was traveling in the TR4 and the crank broke, in Arkansas !

  15. I've never owned a British car, but when my buddy George and I ran the sports car shop, we worked on plenty of them, to the point where I actually owned a set of Whitworth spanners.

    And every time it rained, we could count on seeing the same two Triumphs being towed to the shop.

  16. That was amusing even though I am not sure what half of it

  17. John in Philly - great story, but I'm pretty sure your wife WOULD kill you :-)

    Ed - I didn't know there was a 12 step program. I may have to look up their phone number. .

    old oakie - life's too short not to have a few toys - you just have to pick good ones. (we're probably the only house on the block that doesn't have a big flat screen TV but we have his and her lathe's).

    Excelling in Mediocrity - thanks for stopping! You're right, I hadn't thought of that. I do like the old jeeps though.

    Rev Paul - :-)

    Merle Morrison - the SU carbs can be a princely pain. Not to say the Stromberg's don't have their share of PMS.

    Jennifer - I've flown a couple of round engines like that, fill up the oil and check the gas - always a part of the preflight.

    J Bogan - good tips to have. Thanks.

    Brighid - I've had about the same experiences with a horse. At least you've got a good handle on that method of transportation :-)

    TXGunGeek - too funny!

    sortawitte - "purchased two to make one good car" THAT sir, is funny right there.

    Davidc - that would have been something to see. I will still playing with match box cars that year, but the love of anything that moves came early to my brother and I.

    drjim - they return - like elephants to the elephant graveyard.

    Linda - hope you are having a good weekend. Thank for stopping!

  18. No personal experience on British cars or Lucas wiring, however we have owned a '93 flood vehicle (Honda) that must've thought it was a Lucas car...

    My own problems with Magic Smoke are related to GPS units and Avid disc brakes (BB5-BB7) on the bikes. That's why I bribe my favorite LBS mechanic!

  19. We got crafty over here in Engand if you had a UK sports car we used to take it to an inderpendand work shop give him the car and keys and ask how long if he said two weeks you would go back in two weeks pay what he asked and drive off it just worked i never asked what he fitted but after he and his boys had done the car no more electric troubles ever,brakes clutches engine well that was a drifferent story.

  20. Well I owned a '76 Fiat 124 Sport Spyder; Got told by a Fiat Mechanic (He was Italian) to reset the points every 3000 miles because they close up. Then there was the wiring; I asked about a diagram/color code and he said they were NO GOOD, because well, Tony, he be making up the wiring harness and it CALLS FOR Red with White stripe. MERDE !! the spool she is EMPTY !! AH WELL, Blue with a Black stripe works just as well and Tony has PLENTY of that !!

    A large Vocabulary of Curse words works wonders with Fiats.

  21. I was fortunately inoculation against English cars early on, when a Triumph TR7 tried to kill me on a test drive.

    The sales-scum's nonchalant explanation of the complete brake failure with a Coventarian shrug and "It's British" did it for me.

  22. I remember an MG that followed up around for at least three of our moves when I was a kid. Mom finally put her foot down when we moved to the northeast.
    Don't remember seeing it after that. ;)

  23. Early sixties, TV repair places used a dielectric spray to degauss picture tubes. Had an AC Bristol. Used a can every day just to get it started by spraying every wire and connection. This was in Denver during the summer. Moved up to something more reliable, a Fiat Abarth Zagato. Only needed to spray the Italian wiring monthly.

  24. And again - thanks for sharing your memories and stirring up some of mine!

    I had a short series of British 'sports' cars. A 1972 Midget, brand new, and me 22 years old! How cute we were together, me and little 'Kar-ma'. For I don't name everything, just those things I love. And sometimes hate.

    Learned a lot about auto-mechanics owning that little car, and the 'B' that I bought used a few years later. That was a 1968, worked great! Well, except those leaking shocks and well, the fuel-gauge pegged at full... NOT!! I was always under the hood, or under the car, scratching my head or turning a wrench, sometimes both. .But the experience helped me explore the full range of emotion. Of all the cars I've owned, even that incredible T1986 1/2 Toyota Supra (the best British sports car ever builtt ;->), the MG's are the ones I miss the most.

    What fun! I was always happier with grease under my nails than in high-heels anyway. I loved your "Lotus position" Har, har, har!! I'll use that, see who gets the joke and claim it's mine!

    Fair Winds,

    Cap'n Jan
    Aboard Doublewide
    The boat is rockin' and rollin' tonight, straining her dock lines - wind is about 25 knots, temps dipping down to the low 30's. Always makes me a little nervous as the movement is a lot like someone stepping aboard. Always have one in the chamber.


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