The Pros And Cons Of Restoration
(This article was originally published in "Minor Matters" the official MMOC magazine.)
Matilda joined us 15 years ago when we moved house and needed a car that a young nanny could drive. She couldn't get into trouble in a Morris Minor we thought! So, off to Bath we went to see a man called Charles Ware
who, we were told was an eccentric running "The Morris Minor Centre". As we stared at the long line of vicars' delights we cast aside the memories of our university days and of the seven students who could travel home from parties in my 1954 series II. All the same, when we spotted TCD 409J (our old university, Trinity College Dublin) we knew that it was the one for us.
There was nothing special about Matilda: She was just an ordinary 4-door, 1970 maroon 1000 that had led a busy life, and we were to be her fifth keeper. The chassis had been welded properly, various bits replaced and four inertia-wheel seat belts fitted before we took delivery. It must have been a reasonable job because it lasted fifteen years with little further attention.
When the nanny phase passed we couldn't bring ourselves to part with Matilda. Such a reliable member of the family couldn't be pensioned off and eventually she taught our eldest to drive. Of late she had not been driven much and gradually had become "the Morris", without any of us really being conscious of the change.
With two children of driving age, and both my wife and I needing our everyday transports, I decided to make the supreme sacrifice and sell my Daimler Sovereign Coupe (42,000 miles and immaculate) to buy a modern runabout for the children. Actually it wasn't that big a wrench as I was only managing to find time for about 400 miles a year and the odd £1800 bill was taking some of the joy out of ownership! So the Daimler went and a Ford kA duly arrived (which incidentally is a quite brilliant little car).
But, I hear you all shouting,"What about Matilda? Wouldn't she have done just as well?" Er.., no, not really. When it came down to it I didn't feel altogether happy at the thought of my daughter, a new and not mechanically minded driver, travelling any distance on her own. Also it is not exactly a motorway cruiser and the children's' friends are spread far and wide.
Whilst not in bad shape, "the Morris" needed at least one new wing, a rear valance, attention to the chassis legs and the chrome was past its best. To repaint it ,however, would necessitate much more work. It was clear that the Morris was surplus to requirements, added to which, I was now having one of my periodic itches to buy a Bristol and was already deep into the literature.
However, I reckoned without Matilda's circle of friends and admirers: Sell Matilda - never! There were dark mutterings about "over dead bodies" and cries of "Judas" ringing in my ears, not to mention the silent reproach from madam herself every time I opened the garage. So Operation Bristol was put on hold and I set off for Bath once more.
"The Morris Minor Centre Ltd" had become "Charles Ware's Morris Minor Centre and had moved up the road. Many of the same staff were still there, though, and there were still the same rows of cars for sale. The fact that Tim Brennan (who looks after the restoration side) didn't look any older, I suspect says rather more about me than him! I had decided that if we were going to keep the car, I wanted to sort it out for the next fifteen years. After all at 165,000 miles she was just getting into her stride. I hadn't decided the full extent of what was needed but I knew it was not going to be cheap.
I had always felt that old cars should retain their originality, and to modernize them was to defeat the whole purpose of owning something with period charm. The Minor 1000 is a very usable car in standard guise. I have always enjoyed using Matilda for local runs: the precise steering and good handling (on our smooth roads) are a delight. However the low gearing and uncomfortable seats make longer journeys a pain. It was therefore, with a certain lack of resolution that I arrived at the "hospital".
The patient was wheeled into the operating bay for an assessment and in no time at all we had passed through my budget limit like Thrust 2 on a good day. At this point I began to wonder what I really did want. Did I want to spend the money to put the body in top shape without improving driveability? And if I did make changes would I be happy with a modified car? The cost was now way beyond my budget and several alternatives were examined. The car was not bad and they could attend to the essentials, get a new MOT and phase the expenditure over a number of years. I left the car in Bath and went home by train to consider the position.
After a lot of thought (mainly me arguing with myself!) I decided that a modest amount of upgrading would not change the character or appearance significantly and would make the car much more usable. I didn't want a "show" car but rather something to drive and enjoy.
In the end, it was quite a long shopping list! They attended to the underside, replaced the four wings with Heritage items, repaired all four door skins and boot lid, replaced the chrome and repainted in modern two-pack. Everything was removed inside and out and the body stripped to the metal. I had already decided to have an unleaded head and fix the leaking main seal at the back of the engine. However this made the cost of a new 1275cc engine look reasonable. It was just a short step to the 5-speed (Sierra) gearbox and the brake servo followed closely behind.
Be warned! Once you have decided that upgrading is OK the road to ruin is a pretty slippery slope. By now, a new leather interior with those nice reclining seats and new carpets seemed entirely in keeping! There was an obvious advantage in fitting the heated rear window as the glass was already out for painting. The four-way flashers and other bits and bobs were agreed with reckless abandon!
When it came to the radio I hardly felt any pain at all. We had intended over the last 15 years to put some sort of radio on the end of the aerial but had never got around to it. Now with hardly a second thought, we were ordering a Sony RDS unit with CD player to be concealed in the glove box and Kenwood speakers mounted in the kick-panels by the parcel shelf. The Sony device is ideal because it has an optional joy stick control, mounted unobtrusively under the choke control. With the glove box closed, it is possible to use the joy stick to switch between radio and CD, adjust the volume, change preset stations and a number of other things (that will only be used by those who know how to operate our video).
At this stage were into new car money but Mssrs. Ware and Brennan are pragmatists and offered an attractive package price for doing the lot.From start to finish the work took 8 weeks and the car was available when promised. They listed and confirmed in writing, in advance, all the work to be done. They agreed to make a photographic record and were happy to let me wander in any time I wanted. Tim Brennan was very patient and understanding throughout. For example, when I said I didn't think I could live with the gear lever knob, he refitted my Minor one instead. This in itself is a worthwhile anti-theft device since reverse is now top left and not bottom right.
I took the train to Bath to collect Matilda and by coincidence met a charming Sri Lankan gentleman coming out of the station carrying a large and very obvious Morris Minor part. It was non other than the local end of Charles Ware's Sri Lanka fabrication unit with his latest creation for approval/testing! We travelled together to collect my car.
Matilda looked very smart. The Maroon B paint had a surprisingly deep lustre and the Old English White wheels, grill and coach-line provide a good contrast. Under the bonnet the 1275cc A+ engine looks little different from the original and my stainless steel exhaust (already 15 years old) was reused. The brake servo fitted low down on the offside of the engine is not immediately obvious. The whole under-bonnet appearance is still very much "Morris Minor".
The interior is also very handsome with its comfortable new leather seats matching the existing vinyl door trim perfectly. Although, the higher front seat backs and head rests are non standard, they do not look out of place. The toggle switch for the heated rear window and four-way flasher switch have been fitted very neatly to the left and right of the speedometer and do not look like additions.The joystick control for the radio/CD player is wonderful and a perfect solution for fitting modern audio equipment to classic cars.Fitting the 5-speed gearbox has not altered the internal appearance to any significant degree, especially as I retained the old gear knob. The only time I noticed the changed profile of the transmission tunnel was when I tried to use the dip switch. It is now quite difficult to get a toe to the switch quickly, so I am open to suggestions!
Driving impressions? Well it's early days yet. I drove the 70 odd miles home at 45mph. How strange it is to have to "run-in" an engine! The seats are a vast improvement although I could do with some more thigh and lumbar support. (I have the same problem with the Ford Ka) The brakes, with the new servo, have a much more modern feel. The gear change is a little notchy but may ease with use. Thankfully the engine still sounds like a Morris Minor although less strained, I shall have to wait until its run-in to judge the improvement in performance. I am a little disappointed in the noise level as I expected the car to be quieter. I suspect the exhaust may need tightening so I will reserve judgement until after it has had the 500-mile oil change and they have attended to my "snagging list".
Was it worth it? It was a lot of money but then I am not someone who would consider the DIY approach and the work was well done. It is not a concours contender but I was not looking for a show car. My choice was to go either to a non-VAT, one man band, or one of the bigger Morris Minor centres. In the end I opted for the devil I knew. I am filled with admiration for those worthy people who read the Technical tips with a view to actually implementing the advice! Personally I am always relieved to get the bonnet open without pulling out the entire wiring loom. For me its wonderful that there are so many firms out there who can cater for both the everyday needs, and major repair work, of cars that are anything from 30 - 50 years old. Long may it last.