A Car Named GraceBy
I have never been one to name machinery. This is somewhat curious since there are few people in the world who likely have spent as much of their lives personifying machinery. Every ship I ever served in or boat that I sailed on was a she and while some of my cars have borne nicknames (the 61 Austin Healey 3000 BN7 race car which bears the moniker of “the Beast” springs to mind) none of them have ever held a proper Christian name. I have talked to cars, caressed them, lusted after them and occasionally cursed them, but never once decided to give one a name.
The car used in this drive is a 1953 Austin Healey 100 owned by Austin Healey Association of Southern California member Mike Newsome. He purchased the car sight unseen off of Ebay several years ago from Michigan. There are certain maxims in life: never start a land war in Asia; never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line; and NEVER buy a car without seeing it (I myself have violated this rule several times to my personal detriment). Upon delivery to Southern California it was clear that it was less than advertised.
It had been painted metallic grey directly over the original red with no thought given to painting the engine compartment, interior firewall or trunk. It’s body was comprised primarily of plastic filler and it ran like an asthmatic running uphill on a hot day through smog. Needless to say, Mike was nonplussed. He tried to drive the car a bit, but in its present condition it smoked like a convict on death row, leaked oil like a holed tanker and had the general reliability of an auto plant worker on the day after an all night bender.
Mike bought a 3000 BJ8 and eventually an outstanding 100-6 race car and the 1000 was shunted off to one side of the garage to whither away. Eventually, its delicate aluminum shroud became the preferred resting place for boxes and other detritus and its outer panels suffered the ignominy of ladder strikes and having crap fall from the rafters at semi-regular intervals.
There the car sat until a couple of months ago. California Healey Week was scheduled for Ventura and I wanted to go since my participation in club events has been understandably diminished by my lack of an operable Healey. Mike was kind enough to offer me use of the car and George McHarris and I set out to get it running well enough to make it to Ventura and back (about a 200 mile round trip). It had no interior at all lacking panels and carpet, the battery cover on the rear scuttle was just sitting loose letting in all manner of smoke and road debris) and it had dents all over the body.
George liberally applied several cans of Bondo and then rattle canned a similar grey finish over the patched areas and then pronounced the car good to go. the first time I sat in the car was when Mike (in his 100-6), George in his 100 and I left for Healey Week. It handled like a shopping cart used as an RV by the homeless which made sense because the 48-spoke wire wheels were all damaged and the bias ply tires dated from the Nixon administration.
Once on the freeway I discovered the overdrive was inoperable and I couldn’t coax more than 2800 RPM from the engine – it was a long drive but the car made it essentially trouble free and managed to return on Sunday afternoon without incident. Then things got interesting.
I wanted to show my appreciation to Mike for use of the car by getting it running better so I gave it a tune up where I found that the points gap was five times what it should have been (which explained the lack of revs). The plugs were oil fouled and the pressure was low. Every time I fixed something the car broke down on the side of the road. The distributor was shot, the battery connections ephemeral and the fuel system suspect. Over two weeks every single trip (usually of a mile or less ended in frustration). Then the head gasket blew – twice.
During this period that the head was off the car Mike found out that he had multiple myeloma. Mike was more than a buddy from the club. Over the past few years he has been my photographer, racing supporter and one of my greatest fans who it seems genuinely enjoyed watching me drive – especially it seems in this once derelict car.
The week following Mike’s first round of chemo I had decided to do something – thus the drive was born. The problem was the car was not running and it looked doubtful that it could be made to run in any reliable fashion. As we worked on the car with the guys from the club I told them that as unreliable as she was she always broke down somewhere safe and that in fixing whatever it was that had stopped her I uncovered something more serious that would have led to a catastrophic failure. When everyone called me crazy for wanting to make this drive – and make it in this car I had a feeling that she could if we just believed.
The day before we left (the car and I), Steve Kingsbury turned to me and asked whether I had had given any thought to naming the car. I thought about it a moment and gave him two choices – Hope and Grace. Hope is nice but to me represented something plaintive. Grace is defined as “favor from above” and one of my best friends shares the name. We named the car Grace. Over the next 7000 miles we would find out how appropriate that name was.