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  • Writer's pictureJim Cathey

A Vintage Vision Brought Back: My 1976 MG Roadster Restoration

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

I graduated from South Whidbey High School in the class of 1983. The same car I drove during those high school years and to graduation, a 1976 MGB Roadster, accompanied me to Linfield College. It's still with me, having recently completed a lengthy 10-year restoration process. Yup, you read that right, 10 years!

After a fruitful existence, the Roadster was primarily stored in barns. It became unrivaled, acquiring dents from passing tractors and gathering dust, dirt, spiders, and mice. At some point, I resolved to fully restore my former high school ride. I'm not sure what sparked this decision, but it set in motion a decade-long journey that became a story about more than just restoring a classic car; it was a tale of cherished memories and unwavering determination to see the project through to completion.

The restoration began at Loma's Import Car Service in Boise, Idaho. It was crucial to determine the mechanical condition of the MG and make it drivable before addressing the bodywork, interior, and other aspects I had yet to consider. Loma, a vintage MG specialist, approached the project with the "if it's not broken, don't fix it" mentality. Given my uncertainty about the project's scope, this was likely the right mindset initially. However, as time passed, this philosophy was replaced by "replace it before it's broken." There's ample evidence to back up this latter approach. Regardless, Loma replaced the transmission with overdrive, repaired a few seals, performed a tune-up, installed new brake pads, swapped the infamous "gulp" valve, fitted a new muffler, attached a new battery, mounted new tires, adjusted the wire wheels, and replaced some wires the mice had found delicious.

Following the mechanical work, I felt confident and promptly arranged for bodywork and painting at Parks Royal Auto Body. Royal stripped the car down to the bare metal and addressed rust spots in the quarter panels and a crack in the doors just below the mirrors—common issues for MGs. There was no rust elsewhere, likely because the car had been stored in Idaho barns. Dents were also repaired, including one my son James and I accidentally caused on the driver-side rear panel while towing the car. The car was primed and painted in its original "Damask" red, resembling burgundy. Royal reassembled the car, replacing nearly all gaskets, seals, chrome parts, lights, and trim. The exterior looked great, but the interior still needed work.

At that stage, I needed more time for the MG and struggled to find suitable interior restoration services in Boise. The car was stored in various locations and occasionally moved. Eventually, a friend recommended San Diego, where I could access top-notch restoration experts.

The MG was retrieved from storage but en route to a staging area when, to my astonishment, the engine caught fire in Middleton, Idaho! Instead of finding a fire extinguisher, like any rational person 😊, I opened the hood and used handfuls of snow and ice from the roadside to extinguish the blaze. It might not have been the most brilliant move, but it worked. With the fire out, I gazed at the scorched hood, which had a perfect paint job just moments before and pondered over the smoking engine. Thankfully, my daughter, Ashlie, had been watching from a safe distance and towed me to the staging area on a farm with a full shop. We pushed the car into the shop, disconnected the battery, left the hood open, inspected a few things, and then walked away; I couldn't bear to look at it.

I was close to abandoning the project. But then Gary Jamrog, a lifelong friend and ingenious mechanic, stepped in. He examined the engine and concluded it was merely a surface fire, so it was still in good shape and just needed a few replacements. He also shared some wisdom on the effectiveness of fire extinguishers versus snow/ice from the roadside 😊. Gary had the MG running and ready to be shipped to San Diego quickly. We weren't sure what had caused the fire at first, suspecting a mouse nest drenched in oil or something similar. But later in the project, we discovered that the vintage Zenith carburetor had been leaking onto the manifold intermittently due to the original fuel pump and possibly debris in the fuel lines. Once we installed a new fuel pump, fuel lines, and filters, it became apparent that the Zenith carburetor was the culprit. A massive thank you to Gary.

Transport the MG to San Diego, no problem; call Tab Hunt, the owner of SOTG Transport. Tab loaded the MG, and off it went. Thank you, Tab, for transporting so many things for us, including the MG.

The MG had now arrived at a professional restoration facility with significant projects in the works; it was the big leagues, and I was excited. I was a low-budget player in that shop but found a way to get my project in the system (thanks to a good friend), and we started.

The mechanical upgrades aimed to enhance handling performance and safety by modifying the front-end suspension with coil-over shocks, adding a sway bar, using wider wheels and performance tires, and installing larger disc brakes up front. Simultaneously, the interior was stripped, and a new one was designed, featuring a leather-wrapped dash, center console, panels, and seats. Electrical upgrades, such as new wire harnesses, were also undertaken…and then bam! The restoration company ran into a snag and was soon defunct. That happens; trust me, take a good look at the restoration companies you select and ensure they can endure.

The number of stories I have heard where the restoration companies do not finish is more than you think. And like me, you will have your project in boxes, picked up and towed to the next restoration place if there is one.

In my case, no place was available for at least a year, so the MG with many boxes went to storage via a tow truck.

Fortunately, project mechanic Zane Gersley was determined to keep working on the MG. I hired him directly and set up a makeshift workshop in a storage unit with power, lights, fans, jacks, and tools. This was an actual test of perseverance since the car was in pieces, undrivable, with no wire harnesses and a wholly stripped interior. If it weren't for Zane's commitment, the project could have been delayed for a year or canceled. As the mechanic and project lead, Zane worked on the car during weekends and occasionally on weeknights. While my hands-on contribution to the MG was minimal, I excelled in ordering parts, primarily from Moss Motors. This process was seemingly endless and tedious. I ordered parts during the week, and Zane installed them over the weekends, a routine that continued for months until it was time to start the MG and commence test drives.

Starting the car for the first time in nearly a year, after being scarcely used for nine years prior and with numerous new parts installed, was a significant milestone. We felt confident that it was time for a test drive. With a wholly stripped interior, a sanded and prepped burnt hood awaiting paint, and only one seat, Zane drove the MG, which resembled Frankenstein, down the road and into the early evening. However, the first test drive ended abruptly when the accelerator cable broke, necessitating another tow back to the storage unit. This incident reinforced the motto, "Replace it before it's broken." Despite a few setbacks, the MG was soon ready for delivery to the interior team and, subsequently, the audio team.

Hernan Lopez, the owner of Stuttgart Upholstery, was already well-acquainted with the project and eager to install the interior components he had previously created. He first removed more of the interior before applying sound-dampening material and thermal insulation in the cockpit and trunk. This was followed by carpet installation, seat rebuilding, and numerous cockpit panel and fitting replacements resulting in a cockpit and trunk with virtually no plastic or vinyl, all hand-placed and custom-stitched leather. Hernan also allowed Zane access to the MG at his Stuttgart shop, where Zane continued preparing an upgraded electrical system for the audio shop, cabling, and various mechanical tasks. This was very helpful to keep pushing the project forward.

The MG was soon ready for San Diego Car Stereo. Junior and his team conducted an initial design review, suggested component upgrades, and developed a plan to provide top-notch audio performance with a factory-like appearance. This proved challenging due to the MG's small size and the desired audio system performance. While confident in the audio design, there were concerns about seamless integration.

The impressive work by San Diego Car Stereo can be seen in two previous posts, showcasing their solid audio design and fabrication skills. All 11 Focal speakers are housed in custom-made cabinets that blend seamlessly into the cockpit, and the amp bar's detailed, organized wiring appears as if it shouldn't be concealed by the trunk's "beauty bar." The team also successfully integrated components like JL Audio Amplifiers. Installation, performance, design, and craftsmanship exceeded expectations.

The exceptional result can be attributed to the collaborative efforts of Hernan Lopez and Junior, who both excel when given the freedom to apply their artistic creativity and expertise. Their combined talents produced a result that far surpassed expectations. Many thanks to Junior and Hernan.

Check out photo gallery and the video: I captured some beautiful vintage-inspired images. Swipe through the gallery to see my favorite shots featuring retro fashion and styling. The coastal views and golden light provided a perfect backdrop. I'm really happy with how these photos turned out and wanted to share a sneak peek here! Let me know which ones are your favorites.

Credit for the number plate goes to my wife, Robin, for her patience and finding me this fantastic one.

Zane was the last to complete this phase 1 restoration. The final stages involved numerous tasks, such as installing a supercharger, replacing engine components, addressing drivetrain issues, and conducting electrical, mechanical, and engine tests. Zane's unique talent and dedication to the project resulted in a remarkable restoration. Thank you, Zane, for stepping up on this project and delivering a fantastic result; your talent will serve you well.

A few interesting tidbits about the restoration project car

1. Dice in the car: While restoring the car and stripping its interior, one die from a pair of dice was discovered. This die has sentimental value, as it was from a trip to Nevada with my mom during college. We won big at the craps table and took the dice as a souvenir. I considered embedding the die in the gear shift knob but let it ride free in the glove box, honoring the luck it brought during that unforgettable trip. Thanks, Mom!

2. Fixing the burnt engine hood: The hood remained an eyesore after the engine fire, even when prepped for repainting. A complete front-end repaint would typically be required, but I needed more time to be ready. Luckily, Hernan suggested his brother's auto repair shop, which used computer imaging for paint matching. This technology has significantly advanced over time, driven by insurance companies desire to lower repair costs. Hernan's suggestion perfectly matched without considerably disrupting the schedule or budget.

3. Audio consulting assistance: Whether you're a DIY enthusiast or simply seeking advice on your car audio system plans, online resources such as Car Audio Fabrication and Crutchfield can provide valuable guidance. I used several sources and even paid $75 for Mark from Car Audio Fabrication to review my car's audio system plans. While most of his input matched my ideas, his emphasis on a skilled fabricator was beneficial given the extensive customization needed for the 11 speakers, 2 amps, 3 batteries, and a high-resolution source in a convertible. Investing time and money in such consultations are well worth it, regardless of whether you're a DIYer or working with an audio shop.

4. Super Charger Mayhem: The MGB Super Charger was not a drop-in-and-go project. We honestly struggled to integrate that into the engine and it was not for lack of contacting knowledgeable players like John Twist of University Motors, Mechanic members of the San Diego MG Club, Moss Motors supercharger specialist, and finally, Darrin of Darrin's MG Service.

Ultimately, we replaced 2 failed distributors, made modifications to the new carburetor float bowl, installed a fuel pressure regulator, replaced a failed coil, fitted a missing O-ring for the supercharger pressure release, checked the timing chain, and replaced key components, modified the venting of the engine case, adjusted the valves, tested engine compression, 2 sets of spark plug wires and endless spark plugs.

Towards the end, Gary Jamrog flew into San Diego for a day. Gary and Zane went back and forth for a few hours and Gary was convinced it was the timing. I even argued that it's hard to believe the distributor must be fixed. After all, it was a new custom part designed just for this project and by a team with an excellent reputation; before replacing that, we took the easy path (NOT) of checking the timing belt. We tore down the front of the engine and the timing chain was as perfect as it was in 1976. Then Darrin of Darrin's MG Service in LA and the maker of the MG race car in the movie Ford vs. Ferrari gets involved in the project. Getting Darrin involved was not easy. He is busy but has extensive experience with Super Chargers and MG's, which I discovered is rare; only a few have installed an MG Super Charger. Darrin sent a backup distributor and coil before our scheduled call. During the call, Darrin was meticulous about the history of the engine and its performance during the restoration and after the installation of the Super Charger. He had several suggestions but ultimately said to go after that distributor and replace it with the backup he had just sent.

Zane put the engine back together, installed the new distributor and coil, made other adjustments, and then turned the key……WoW! That is all I can say. It was running and not with a bunch of up-and-back firing. We adjusted the distributor and a few other items and as I write this, the MG is driving down the roads of San Diego for what should be a final mechanical shake-down test. Ultimately, the Super Charger challenge was a combination of multiple faulty parts, access to vintage knowledge of the MG engine, and a non-stop effort with many backup parts.

What's next – Planning for Phase 2

Though many parts have been replaced, the original engine block remains intact. A complete engine block restoration and engine bay cleanup is planned for Phase 2, a winter project. There's a possibility of using a second block so the MG can continue to be driven.

Due to modifications in the rear cockpit, the folding soft top's frame must be re-engineered for attachment and functionality. However, it's still undecided whether to opt for a soft top or maintain it as a permanent convertible. Another aspect of this decision involves restoring a removable hard top, a more straightforward project. Hernan already has a complete solution in mind for this task.

Final Thoughts

This project was much bigger than I had initially planned. Some of the delays and frustrations allowed new ideas to come into play, ultimately making for a superior finished MG.

It was possible because of old and new friends, companies wanting to do great work, and a bit of persistence. Ultimately the high school ride is back with an upscale style and memorable tunes.


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