Days of Purring Thunder
Octagon Newsletter … July 2000
By Jack Baker
Once upon a time, I was the proud owner of a 1949 Monarch Convertible, which, for some reason, I traded it on a 1954 Anglia coupe. This little beast served me well until I saw that movie. It was called LeMans or some such thing … I'm not sure which of my heroes was in it. Perhaps Kirk Douglas, maybe Tony Curtis or it could have been Za Zu Pits. I went to see the movie at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver and was smitten by a TR2 on a revolving pedestal in the Theatre lobby. The write-up said it was a Tiny Rapid 2 just like the one in the show. Wow! I was impressed!. You actually mean I can drive a neat little car just like the one driven at LeMans by Za Zu?
A month or so later, I was at the Studebaker Packard Dealership of Docksteader Motors in Kerrisdale. Home of those driving menaces the Grey Lady Bridge Players. You should never drive in Kerrisdale after 3:30 p.m. While looking at a Packard Coupe with a beautiful chrome bird of some kind sprouting from its hood, I was overcome by the discovery of a car they said was an MGA. A vision in gleaming red. It was prettier than the TR2. Enraptured, I gladly paid $2235.00 for a brand new 1956 MGA. This was in September of 1955 and I had the fourth one sold in Vancouver. I was a bit surprised to learn the heater was an option that would be available in a few months.
During my Anglia days, I felt the need to keep the car stock, so I had a pair of SU Carbs installed by the garage that serviced the Ambulance Company that I drove for at the time. This was Gary McDonalds's Shell Service located just below 16th on Cambie. Gary and his crew were delighted with my new car and suggested I race it at the Abbottsford airstrip with them. I found they were into TR2s and TR3s and deeply involved in something called 'Road Racing' and it was supposed to be fun. By this time, I had enjoyed several adventures with the car, such as driving my kid brother home from Vancouver to New Westminster with my girl friend on his lap. We got him home all right, but had to carry him into the house because his legs wouldn't work. Then there was the trip around the Olympic Peninsula. I let my girl drive and was proud of the way she was gum-booting it until she pointed to the Tach and said "Look I'm only going 50 and it feels like I'm flying". Well it was nice to be making good time, it's chilly in winter when you are sans heater. They said it would be ready in the Spring and it was. I had gangs of fun roaring up and down the Fraser Canyon on weekends and on foggy nights tested the car for speed because the cops can't see you. Then there was that terrible event on the Cambie Street hill. I was (as usual) obeying the speed limit when two kids in a TR3 passed me as if I was stopped and yelled "Get a Horse". I wonder where young Jim Mills was that night?
Well, the big day came. The MGA and I arrived at the Abbottsford airstrip and, after a bit of confusion, we got lined up in the pits (not Za Zu). I had already purchased a lovely suede leather covered helmet and had a lap belt installed so we were prepared to drive. One of the course official's drove my car five laps around the circuit then rode with me for another five. When that was done I was a fully trained member of the BC Sports Car Club.
I met the owner of the only other 'A' around and he told me we should be partners in Tomcat Stables. We lined up for a 15 lap race with some really neat cars, like TCs, TDs, and a fancy looking TF or two. There were also VW Beatles and a bunch of little Porsches that looked like woodbugs. When I heard that the TF was the model just ahead of the 'A', I wished that I had heard of MGs sooner.
Even though I was not competitive in those days, either, I was chagrined to learn how hard VW Beatles are to beat. Well, the way it went was … this guy drops a chequered flag and off we go. The deal was to bring your Tach up to about 4500 RPMs and when the flag moves, drop the clutch and stand on the throttle. On this day, the starter came up to us and pointed out that the Porches had their wheels cut to go around, so why not give them a surprise? So I tried 5500 RPM and dropped the clutch and sat there in a cloud of burning rubber watching the Porches go streaming by. I had to get off the throttle to get the car to move.
There was all sorts of other stuff to learn, such as, if you are out of control, throw both hands straight up as a signal. I was going down the straight-of-way, at about 85 MPH, when this huge cloud of smoke and debris came up out of the dash and I thought I had blown the engine. Up went my hands and I let the car run off the track into the grass. A white faced marshal rushed over to see what was wrong. I told him "The engine has blown up". So we open the hood to see the mess … the engine is still purring mild thunder. I had pulled the air vent open and the rush of wind, at the speed I was going, moved everything loose in the car. So we got back in the race.
In one race, Gary McDonald tore a rear wheel off his TR3 and rode into the tall dry grass on his backing plate … that was the day we had the grass fire. TRs seemed to enjoy cocking one rear wheel in the air on hard corners, much like a dog at a hydrant.
Much enjoyed by all was the last race of the day … a 25 lap, all comers. What a hoot, the 'A' and I were running with TRs, T Series, VW Beatles, Healeys, even a Jag with a Healey engine. There were a couple of pricey Mercedes 300 SLs and some kid with his Dad's Impala. The Impala failed to finish because the brakes burned out after about five laps, the pads had turned brittle and just fell off.
From time to time, we visited other clubs … Bremerton was one and Bellingham airstrip was another. One twenty five lap, all comers race at Bellingham comes to mind because it could have been the first time I thought of wearing a beard. I was having a grand old time, duelling with a poorly set up TR3. He would pass me in the straights and I would go inside and take him in the corners. A car ahead of me was leaking gas and I was getting the odd spray of it, then someone spun out and hit a hay bale, so now I have a shower of hay to drive through. At the next hairpin, I catch a look at my grim visage in the mirror … dirty, straw covered, gritted white teeth, well at least I know how a beard will look on me.
Another well-liked event was the LeMans start, the foot race to the car and the rush when all the cars seem to start at once. The turn onto the track and the resulting wheel spinning traffic jam is amazing fun.
Was I a winner? Well, after a clutch and a set of tires, I did win a couple of cans of Bardahl for a second place finish, but the thrill has never left me and that is a big win.
The 'A' and I also had some blissful times, I well remember driving home from work just about Sunset, top down, the sheer joy of the exhaust note purring thunder going up North Road hill, sigh, eat your heart out Za Zu. Happy motoring you Lucky MGA folks.
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