by Peter Brav
I’m not really sure when and where the initial connection between a red convertible and a life of opulence or excitement, or both, came about for me. Seems like Adam West may have driven one in the old Batman television series, but I wouldn’t swear to it, and James Coburn’s Our Man Flint and all spies like him either had one or seemed to have one. Even in the black and whites of the forties, fifties and sixties, you knew that the gray was red and you didn’t need to know if it wasn’t. But in real time, the connection became unnecessary when I arrived at Cornell in the early seventies and noticed how the university was wheeling out a red British MG Midget at halftime in a determined but fruitless effort to get that fiftieth fan into his seat at varsity basketball games. I never missed a game but also never got to take the halftime 47-footer that might have meant the keys to the car. Cornell rarely won and that lucky fan never did, not while I was there anyway.
When I arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 1980 with a newly-minted law degree and eight thousand dollars to lease an apartment and buy a car, the hot Alfa Romeo ($11,000) and Fiat ($8,500) were out and the MG was in. The Midget would only seat, well two midgets, so I went with the MGB ($7,100 including pinstriping), in red of course, and was left with enough money for the first month for a studio on Overland Avenue. I was 25 years old, full of energy and hope, three thousand miles from the part of the country I had always called home, and ready for anything. The shiny red car seemed to suit.
Two weeks into my real world dreams, having spent another day trying to figure out how to look and sound like a real attorney and not just someone who plays one on television, I pulled into an open parking spot in a crowded lot. A brusque man with a defined New York accent even heavier than my own yelled from his blue convertible to inform me that he had been waiting for the space. (Yeah, I know, unlike Ithaca, everyone seemed to have a car without a top but I didn’t mind.) I informed him that he was mistaken, that I had arrived first, and with the naiveté of youth I departed after making an easy mental note of his DA ACTOR vanity license plate. When I returned to the car a few hours later, there was a 6-inch key gash across my trunk, courtesy of Joe Pesci for all I know.
California wasn’t what I thought it might be. Maybe I didn’t give it enough time. Cruising the few miles from my apartment to my office in a CenturyCity tower, I met no one, although my top was always down. A 30-second red light was never a great conversational opportunity. Too much pressure and not much to talk about other than upcoming traffic light changes to green and the too consistently fine weather. I tried to explain to anyone who would listen that New York was different, that I missed the E train, the crowds, the struggle to exit those spiky turnstiles without being impaled or crushed by the throng behind you, even the coffee spilled on me by fellow commuters. And I missed the rain, if not the frustration of being splashed by a city bus speeding through curbside puddles. They looked at me strangely, of course, and let me know that it would take time, that anyone who made it past a year never went back home.
If there was one thing that was going to help me make it through that year, it was going to be my girlfriend from back east. She was a particularly beautiful young lady with whom I had spent many cold law school nights. The last few months we had spoken every day, budding advertiser to budding lawyer, and sworn undying love and loyalty to each other. It was December when she announced that she was going to come out for a visit so we could tour the coastline and northern California. My mind was spinning with excitement. The MGB, to that time relegated to four-mile commuting duty, was going to bust out along with its owner. Two weeks up and down the famed Pacific Coast Highway, from Santa Barbara to Monterrey and on to Napa and Yosemite, car top down, raucous sex at as many beautiful indoor and outdoor spots as we could locate, a young man’s finest dream.
The trip sucked. Driving north a thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean on a narrow road with a guardrail designed for a tricycle taught me about agoraphobia, among other things. As other drivers doing 70 flew by, I kept my eyes nervously riveted on the road in front of me and don’t remember one whit of scenery other than that blue vastness below to my left I was afraid of driving into. As for the woman on the seat beside me, I learned that things had changed between June graduation and December holidays. Everything. We fought more times than we refueled, always about nothing, and before we could ever patch things up we were onto another subject and another fight. I do recall us having sex exactly once, not particularly good sex because we were both anxious to finish up and get onto our next fight, although it is entirely possible that I have fictionalized even that one romantic afternoon. When we stopped, I did manage a few pictures from those ten days, gorgeous shots of Yosemite valleys and Pacific Ocean blue and downtown San Francisco and wine country, and only the MG seems to be smiling.
I lasted in California until February 1981, not quite the magical year the pundits said I needed to make it through. I got a job at a Wall Street law firm and managed to talk them into shipping the MGB to New York as part of my compensation package. The car made it east without problem but didn’t seem too happy about having been uprooted from the sunny and spacious parking lots of Los Angeles to a life in Manhattan searching for alternate side of the street parking opportunities at 7:55 in the morning.
At this second law firm, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Bennett, an old friend from a Port Jervis camp during middle school summers, had an office down the hall. 1981 was a depressing time in downtown New York and mid-morning breakfast breaks with Bennett proved to be a critical survival tool. One day, Bennett asked if I would be interested in an impromptu ski trip to Vermont. Not only was I interested, I told him, but I had a car raring to take us there. I was now all of 26, still eager for adventure, and what did I know about Vermont mountains in cars designed only for circling beachfront parking lots? We made it to the southern Vermont border without incident but on a particularly icy stretch of deserted mountain road, the B spun out of control, circling four or five times before coming to rest on the right side shoulder of the road. Emerging from the car unscathed, we gaped down the cliff a few thousand feet, looked at each other, screamed, and then laughed.
I nervously drove the last hour of the trip significantly below the speed limit and listened to Bennett give me the details on the expensive metallic silver ski pants he was wearing, manufactured with high tech material from genuine NASA spacesuits, able to withstand the frigid extremes of any ski area. We arrived at Killington in the wee hours of morning and Bennett emerged to unload the trunk. While I fiddled with the ignition, Bennett was having some trouble closing the small car trunk which operated with a fairly primitive sliding latch mechanism. Unfortunately, he was also standing in front of the B’s exhaust pipe the whole time. By the time I got back there to help, the trunk was broken and NASA’s finest ski pants were completely melted into a silver puddle wrapped around his right leg.
Soon thereafter I would meet a wonderful woman from New England working in Manhattan. Back in those early days of courtship, Janet and I took more vacations, by air and by car, than we have in the busy decades since. That summer of ’83, we decided that Prince Edward Island sounded like a pretty nice getaway in the B. The joyous trip was the antithesis of the first and only other road trip with a woman I had taken in the B, that northern California debacle. We took three days to get there, stopping off for nights by the ocean and lobster rolls and outlet stores in Maine, boarding a scenic Canadian car ferry in Nova Scotia. The B made the 800 miles without a problem but just as we arrived on the small Canadian island, the B elected to rest, and we spent a week together in a one-room oceanfront cottage while the B went in for a radiator overhaul. Realizing a leisurely drive south would now have us both late for work, we drove straight home with stops only for gas and food, arriving late Sunday night at the front door to our Eighth Avenue apartment building. We were still unloading when the B decided to break down. Engine. And electrical.
The B was proving to be about as reliable as the kit radio I made in fifth grade and becoming a very expensive car with a repair record as long as one of the Dead Sea scrolls. Yet I couldn’t fault its timing or its heart. The Prince Edward Island trip, with breakdowns at both ends of the road but never along it, proved to me that this was a car that cared.
Janet and I married and moved from Manhattan to Long Island and then to Princeton. We picked up two children, three dogs, a cat, two frogs. And a few cars along the way, nondescript Subaru, Mazda, Honda, and Toyota vehicles, all of which serviced our commuting, leisure and burgeoning family needs well and virtually without repair. Janet sometimes wondered aloud when I would get rid of the B, which had moved from Manhattan streets to my father’s Long Island garage, its odometer barely moving over the years, most of its fifty thousand miles accumulated during those early glory years in California, Vermont and Canada. When my father added his voice, it was time for the B to relocate again.
We towed the car in 2001 from Long Island to Princeton and I shared a two-hour ride with the pleasant Princeton local driver, reminiscing about cars worth reminiscing about. Only the B had stories for me to tell and, if they were fading a bit in a mind nearing fifty, they were still stories. A few thousand dollars of repairs in Mercerville later, the B was pronounced fit for driving. But it wasn’t. After only a few weeks of use, it wouldn’t start, it would overheat, it would leak oil, its electrical system was shot. It took its place in my own garage where it’s been for the better part of another thirteen years.
They made the last real Bs and Midgets in 1980 when the Abingdon, England factory closed although they continued to brand Austins and Rovers with the MG and even began mass producing new MGs in 1995. Ownership of the MG brand has proved to be as unstable as the car, moving from British Leyland to British Aerospace to BMW to MG Rover and into receivership. The older cars are all over EBay, with low bids from folks who all seem to know what I know. Parts for the cars are difficult to obtain and over the years, the number of mechanics able, or more importantly, willing to work on MGs has been dwindling. Rumors abound about skilled MG mechanics in faraway places, eccentric gurus booked months in advance in a way that a savvy restaurateur or special surgeon might envy.
I had collected the repair bills in a box, the written evidence of the many rehabilitations of the alternator, carburetor, thermostat, electrical, brakes, tires, and who remembers what else, but eventually I pitched the box. It is safe to say that I have spent more money on the repairs of the B than I did on the repairs of all of those other nondescript vehicles combined. This, all the while aware that the $7,100 invested in almost any mutual fund in that summer of 1980 would be worth a hundred thousand dollars today.
It’s February here in Princeton, but spring will be here before you know it, 70-degree days and rainbows of flowers that will put this polar vortex and another northeast winter back on the shelf. We will sweep the garage and carry out the outdoor furniture and turn the water for the hoses back on. The kids are grown now and moved out and we’ve got room but we’ve got to start downsizing somewhere. So Janet will stop me in the garage, I can assure you that, look up at me with her beautiful green eyes and make a nodding motion towards that red testament to British automotive idiocy, and hopefully I’ll just smile.
Hopefully, life will still seem promising, as it always does in April and May. I will shrug off the now 41 years since a skinny kid dreamed of winning a car he would have trouble climbing into these days, 34 years since I left law school. I will stare at the B, its tires flat, its red paint fading and rusting in spots, its engine with no chance of turning over. It is tired, just like me, without the excuses of having raised two children, chased the mortgage money and watched some dreams dissipate into reality. I will stare at that car and try to think of one good reason for holding onto it and I will come up empty. But it won’t matter. In fact, I might even ring for a tow truck to take the B to that shop in Lambertville someone just recommended.
You see, hope, like the MGB, is eternal.
PETER BRAV of Princeton, New Jersey is the author of the novels SNEAKING IN
and THE OTHER SIDE OF LOSING