The Trip to Los Angeles
Gary D. Smith
I had a nearly new car, but there was some magical quality to my fourteen year old ’57 MGA that beckoned what was then a teenager’s fancy in a way that only an English roadster could. It was a beautiful spring day, and I couldn’t resist the open air trip to Los Angeles. True, it would be one of the longest trips I had ever taken with the car, and there was always the risk that it would suffer some mechanical failure. But the temptation to take the MG with the top down was irresistible. So with the enthusiasm of youth, I headed out for an apartment hunt some 70 miles away, armed only with a map of LA, my checkbook, $19 cash, and no tools.
My 1957 MGA complete with stenciled graphics probably to warn other drivers not to get too close. It was a fun car to drive, but I remember the brakes faded easily.
My objective was the North Hollywood area. I had looked a couple of weeks before, but had failed to find an apartment that met all of the necessary requirements for student housing: covered off-street parking. Being fairly close to school would be nice, too.
The MG was running great. A few miles down the road, though, and I wished I had remembered my hat. I had forgotten how much wind buffeting there was at freeway speeds, and it would be nice to be able to shield my eyes from the glare of the morning sun. “I need to get those visors back on,” I thought to myself.
The car was BRG when I bought it and I discovered only later what bondo was. A neighbor backed into it, and instead of having just that dent repaired and painted, I had the body shop fix all the dents and just primer the car.
I could do some thinking in that car. I could be alone with my thoughts without distractions from the chatter of some DJ because the MG didn’t have a radio. Probably couldn’t have heard it anyway. Instead, as the wind noise finally blended into the background, I was free to let my mind wander to my future, the next semester at Art Center, and every little noise and pop that came from beneath the bonnet. The car seemed to miss a beat now and then as I drove, and it caused me to start taking inventory of whatever service I had recently performed. There was beginning to arise in my mind a nagging doubt about the car’s ability to get me where I wanted to go. Then it seemed to smooth out, and my mind drifted away to other things. That MG and I had been through a lot together. But that’s another story. I have several stories about this car.
Nearly half way to LA the engine sputtered, then suddenly quit. I coasted off the freeway and into a parking lot. There I sat there for a minute as reason attempted to conquer panic. I wasn’t out of gas, so it wasn’t fuel. Maybe the coil wire had come off. I was about to get out of the car and open the hood, but instead for no reason, reached down and hit the starter. The engine jumped to life as if nothing had ever been wrong. Even though this car didn’t have a reputation to be a self-healer, I convinced myself to go on to LA, believing that the stalling was an anomaly.
As the miles disappeared behind me, my worry changed to cautious optimism, and finally to relief as I convinced myself that everything was OK. Fifteen miles later it quit again in like manner as it quit the first time. Now having your MG quit on the outskirts of the city was one thing. Having it quit on the freeway in downtown LA is quite another. I’m sure I wasn’t in the slow lane when the engine stopped running. Maneuvering a coasting car to safety that is rapidly losing momentum through a maze of 75 mph two-ton missiles instantly became a situation. But I am here to tell the tale. I managed to coast off the freeway, and onto a side road. I let the car sit for a few minutes to evaluate my predicament, and what part of LA I had landed in. Then again, with hope against hope, I turned the key and to my shock and surprise the car re-started! It seemed to be running great, so off to resume the apartment hunt.
I had gotten my bearings and was headed for North Hollywood, but wisely decided to stay off the freeway. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later it quit again. I was able to instantly restart it, but this time it quit a block or two later. It began to dawn on me that I needed to forget my mission, turn my attention to figuring out what was wrong with the car and see what I could do about getting it fixed. This truth was starting to really sink in no doubt due to the fact that it was quitting every 100 feet by now. I’d be in real trouble if it was no longer able to be restarted. I couldn’t leave it anywhere, or there would be nothing left of it when I got back. There was no one to call. It had to be fixed.
I eventually painted the car silver.
OK. What is wrong with the car? What is different? Something is different. I turned the key on during one of the restarting episodes and was about to hit the starter button when… hey! I don’t hear the fuel pump! I turned off the ignition and back on again. I heard one click back there and that was it. OK. Now I get it. When I turn on the ignition it pumps once and that’s it. I need a fuel pump.
This is no time to fool around. Find a MG dealer. It’s getting late, and those in LA that are inclined to fix cars will soon be going home for the evening. I found a phone book and the closest dealer. I restarted the car all the way there, pulled in, and explained my predicament. For $39 I would be on my way.
I didn’t have $39. I was $20 short. No, we won’t take your check. Fine. I restarted the car out of the dealer and into an alley where it promptly quit again. It’s time Mr. American ingenuity met Mr. Lucas fuel pump.
As I sat in my car in the alley, I looked around me, and behold there was a hardware store a block away. Hmm. A few minutes later I returned with a roll of 14 gauge insulated wire, a pocket knife, a screwdriver, and some electrical tape. I disconnected the wires going to the fuel pump, and attached new wires from the pump outside and around the right rear fender and inside the car to a hot lead under the dash. Needing fuel more than light, I disconnected the toggle switch on the dash that operated the driving light and wired it up to the pump. OK. Toggle up. Click. Toggle down. Toggle up. Click. Toggle down. Toggle up. Click.
As I cycled the toggle, the pump reliably pumped one click at a time. My right hand had to do the shifting and the clicking. Quick shifts were the ticket to prevent fuel starvation, as it didn’t take much time for the engine to consume one click’s worth of fuel. I manually pumped fuel for an hour and a half, and was glad to finally get back. My arm was worn out, but it beat the alternative. It would have been a long walk home.
© 2003 Gary D. Smith