By Dwight McCullough – I was a young man of 19, just coming home from my six months of active duty in the Minnesota Army National Guard in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Getting back into the swing of civilian life, I did chores again on the family farm, and worked with my Dad building houses and other odd jobs.
Then I met Ross Pugsley, a year or so younger than me. He was the son of my Dad’s friend, Donald Pugsley. The Pugsleys had taken a job running a farm in Texas, with millionaire/philanthropist /earthmover manufacturer, LeTourneau. They had worked there for about two years when they decided to return to Rush City, Minnesota.
Ross had bought a 1961 Austin Healey Sprite in Texas and drove it home. When he returned, he had picked up some Texas slang. Quite a bit in fact, as he called the Sprite, a Spraat. When he told me what he had bought, I had to question him several times before I could understand what kind of car it was.
Back when I was still in high school, and they were building I-35 near Pine City, a road construction worker had driven his early ’50s Austin Healey Le Mans into town where I had a chance to see this car and talk to him. As a young man I had seen and talked about owning and driving foreign sports cars like MGs.
Then later, in high school, I read the book The Red Car. (Note: The Roadster Factory says they have copies of this book on sale for $15 but I can’t find it on their website.) The book was about an MG TC that had been wrecked, rebuilt, and raced. This was far from my life growing up, riding around, and getting my drivers training from my Dad, in 1950’s Dodges with fluid drive clutches, or non-synchromesh transmissions in his 1952 3/4 ton pickup. I was really hooked.
To get on with the story of my first LBC. Ross’s car needed an engine rebuild, as it was smoking, leaking oil, and not running well. So he pulled the engine and sent it off to a friend who worked for one of the city’s dealers. This friend proceeded to rebuild the engine in his basement. And while Ross waited for this to get done, he kept pestering me to give him a hand putting it back together when he got it back. Being the car nut I am, agreed
When the engine finally came back, we got ’er back together and running. But it was leaking fuel from those awful cork glands on the jets, and the water pump was spraying water back onto the ignition wires and cap. Needless to say it ran terribly. Ross’s solution was to do what Phil Ethier calls an Italian Tune-up. This means revving the engine to high rpm’s and driving like mad. Well a few days later, Ross let me know that he had skidded off the road into a telephone pole, breaking it off at the bottom. And as he couldn’t get it to run right and was very disappointed that it didn’t have a bunch more power, he decided to bail out of the car.
He offered to sell me the car!
Shocked and surprised, I didn’t think I could afford it, nor was I capable of rebuilding the wreck, to say nothing of getting this complicated foreign sports car running right. After all, Ross told me those S.U. carburetors were the closest things to fuel injection that you can get. Wow! In addition to the sophisticated S.U. carburetors, the car had rack and pinion steering, a four-speed transmission, a tachometer, and other gauges!
I gave it a couple of days, and told Ross I’d take it on the condition that I could pay him over a period of several months, store it in his Dad’s pole barn and let me work on it there. His Dad agreed to those terms, and promised that he wouldn’t let my Dad know. Whew! I knew my Dad would never go along with this, and as I understood the law, couldn’t sign for the car myself, as I was not 21 years old yet. (Don’t know if this was true or not in 1964)
The left front of the bonnet was pushed in quite hard, the lower control arm was bent, but the steering seemed to be OK. I proceeded to tear it apart, and to assess the total damage. And then made my first trip to The Cities to buy parts from the dealer and look for a used bonnet. Well Han’s Auto parts had a bonnet that had been smashed in on the right side. So I drove down to Washington Avenue, at their old location, and brought that home in the trunk of my first car, a red and white 1956 Plymouth two-door hardtop with the two-speed pushbutton drive automatic and a 270 c.i. V8.
I started to collect parts and plan how to get this all done. I found a body shop in Pine City that said they would work on it, and brought it into town worried that Dad might find out. This shop was located near the south end of town by the railroad tracks. It sat and sat there for what seemed like months to this then 20 year old. Finally, I asked them if they would do it, and they said they were too busy. So across town to another shop near the Plymouth dealer behind a service station. They got to work on it, and even let me help some. I did some of the sanding and other trim work. [What little there is on a Bugeye.] They cut both bonnets in two, and welded them together. Welded over the old antenna hole, and sanded and painted the car.
If only I could remember how much they charged me. If memory serves me, I think I paid $225 for the car, and still had less than $800 in the car when it was done. But please don’t quote me, that’s just too many years ago.
Well here’s where the story gets exciting. One day I told my folks I was going into town to take care of some business. Dad followed me to town, and as I was working on the Sprite, he pulled in and got out of his car. He asked me, “What are you up to?” I answered, “Working on a car. He said, “Whose car is it?” I answered, “Mine.” So he came in, took a look, and said, “A Fool And His Money Are Soon Parted.”
I don’t remember if he asked me how and where I bought it. My growing up and becoming independent was difficult to say the least. Dad really wanted to control much of what I did, thought and believed, and owning a foreign car wasn’t in the plan. After all, he was a Dodge Man. But to his credit, he didn’t make too much of a fuss. Mom was much more accepting.
By this time, my 21st birthday had come and gone. I had the car out by the freeway, south of town at the Sinclair station, [Hwy 70 & I-35], replaced the water pump, and the fuel leak stopped. By October, in frustration at not having any say in the farm and arguing with Dad about various things, I decided it was time to leave.
So it was off to The Cities where I found some college friends of my brother in-law & sister to live with in a big old house between Portland and Park Avenue in south Minneapolis. $100 a month rent divided between 5 guys was cheap. Got a job driving truck/fork lift, throwing mailbags at Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Whole $1.25 an hour!
A few months later a friend from work rode with me and drove the Sprite to Minneapolis. In the mean time, I’ve sold my 1956 Plymouth, [wish I hadn’t] and bought a 1961 Dodge Lancer. Which was virtually the same car as a Plymouth Valiant. It had the 170 c.i. 6-cylinder engine and a 2-barrel Stromberg carburetor, similar to what hot rod Ford V8s had. An adaptor pushed the carburetor up to the hood insulation so it didn’t need an air filter, nor was there room for one. Needless to say, the gas mileage was awful. And a three speed transmission with a floor shifter. [Really sporty eh?] The shifter would hit reverse when shifting from first to second no matter how hard you tried to avoid it. Ggggrrrriiiiinnnnnddddcahink… But it was transportation, and a little warmer than the Sprite.
Early the next year, in February of 1966, I traded the Sprite for a year old ’65 MGB. That car had wire wheels, was red and had about 12,000 miles on it. The salesman at B&K Imports was John Nardi, who sold cars for Downtown Jaguar until his retirement at age 85 in 2007. (John Narducci, his real name, died July 6, 2010.)
When spring of ’66 came along, I really liked that MGB. Is there more to this story? Yes, there is! Will I tell more about later? Only if I can remember.