Road Trip: The Spring Thaw in My Father’s 1967 MGB

Originally published on on May 4, 2015 (Road Trip: The Spring Thaw in My Father’s 1967 MGB)

The road is perfection, a twisting ribbon that follows the path of the river, flowing along its bank with much the same jounce, wriggle, ripple, and run. Across the way, you can see the main road, the straight route, fast-moving traffic pulsing along it in bunches. Here though, we're alone, and together.

This is my father's 1967 MGB. A particularly good year for the breed, but that's not what makes it special. Special to me, I mean; this car is not unique because of serial number, or vintage, or provenance, but because it's been a constant in my life since before I could pronounce the word “car.” Dad's owned this car for thirty-six years, I've ridden in it as an infant, have worked on it with him as a young man, and now I sit at the wheel as a father myself.

We're at the start of a long journey together, the longest the MGB's run in more than three decades. The road is perfection. The weather is clearing. We've put miles behind us since morning, and our way unfolds out ahead in front of the MGB, waiting to for us to write our story.

Naturally, at this point, the god-damned thing breaks down.

Day 1

Classic Car Adventures is a small company in BC that organizes affordable multi-day rallies for (you guessed it) classic car owners. The founders are Warwick Patterson and Dave Hord – you've met Dave's fantastic rally-Beetle in a previous Final Drive.

Dave and Warwick are nuts, but they are sociable nuts. Thus, the idea behind CCA's runs, which gathers together a cluster of like-minded lunatics to cruise very long distances on epic backroads in elderly and somewhat fragile machinery. First one of the season is called The Spring Thaw, and that's what we're signed up for.

When Dad and I arrive in Hope, we round the corner to find 80 classics of all possible shapes, sizes, and descriptions. There's a replica D-Type Jaguar. There's a pre-war Bentley and a '37 Rolls. There's a huge, red 1950s Ford F-series and a whole gumball machine's worth of brightly coloured Mini Coopers. There are French cars, English cars, Italian cars, classic American muscle, coupes, convertibles, sedans, pickups, a Lotus Super Seven and a Mini Moke.

Warwick's day job is as a motorsports cameraman and photographer and he's away. Not to worry: Dave produces a cutout version attached to a lollipop stick. He then runs through a brief driver's meeting, complete with ceremonial artifacts like the plaid shirt he's worn at every Spring Thaw for the past seven years, the entrusting of a small Ernie doll to the youngest participant of the Thaw (a toddler), and a brief explanation of the yellow card system. Drive erratically and you'll find a tag under your windshield wiper at lunch time. There's also a brief caution against being too enthusiastic on the throttle, as the RCMP are always out there, eager to give out what Dave refers to as “Performance Awards.”

Class is dismissed just as the sun breaks through cloud cover and begins to dry out the sodden morning. With a blatting of vintage engines, the convoy begins trickling out of town, headed up the Hope-Princeton highway, in search of the really twisty stuff. Helpfully, the route book is filled with distance markings in both miles and kilometres. Unhelpfully, the MGB's odometer is out to lunch.

Off we buzz, following and soon passing a 2CV and a Traction-Avant, right back into the pouring rain. Miraculously, the MG's roof holds off the deluge, but as we march up the pass towards Manning Park, the snow-line starts looking closer and closer.

When we get to Allison Pass, the snow is flying, but it's oddly warm out. I grab a couple of shots and we head out again – a few of the cars are experiencing teething troubles in the first going, and we're treated to the sight of the big Ford truck surrounded by a pack of Minis, looking like some kind of mother hen.

The route today has a side trip up to Tullameen, an old mining town Northwest of Princeton. The run is a there-and-back, and that means we run into a few of our co-adventurers returning the other way. It's pretty thrilling to see and hear them fizzing along the road, a parade of yesteryear's delights.

On the way back down the mountain, I swap into the driver's seat and we head east on the side-road to Hedley. The MGB is running beautifully, a perfectly syncopated tickata-tickata-tickata of valves and pistons, with plenty of power. Dad's been working like a madman to get the car ready for this trip, and she's got new hubs, new rear brakes, fresh wire-wheels, and countless other improvements and upgrades.

Unfortunately, the Brit-built MGB apparently doesn't like the sight of two Irishmen having this much fun, so she begins spluttering like an indignant maiden aunt. Cough-splutter-dead-coast. I get her over to the side of the road and we sit in silence.

Almost immediately, an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Speciale pulls over to check on us – there are two of these rare beauties here on the trail, one the same car that sat at the Alfa booth at the 1957 Geneva motor show. “Are you all right?” they ask. We've got the hood up: is it electrical? Fuel? Nothing seems loose or looks wrong.

“What should we do, Dad?” My father sits silently. I can feel the disappointment radiating off him, the heartsink and the frustration. He turns the key and the MGB fires to life. Great, a mystery problem.

We drive on, heading for Penticton. The roads continue to unfold in beauty, but we're on the edge of our seats, waiting, listening, can't relax. As it turns out, the MGB will die twice more before we get to the night's hotel, but we make it.

At supper, the word goes out about our intermittent woes. Folks keep coming up to the table, experts on Lucas electrics, people who've had similar gremlins. I'm pissed at the car, sure, but there's a sense that we're not out here on the road by ourselves. This collection of enthusiasts, this community, are willing to pitch in to help us complete our trip.

Working late into the night is Robert Maynard of RWM restorations. He's driving the sweep car for the event, repairing and replacing as he goes along. After helping the owner of a BMW 2002 get a broken return spring fixed, he scratches his head over the MGB's problem. At this point, the car's running fine. It's a bit lean, Maynard figures, so after changing out a suspect-looking electrical connection, he retunes the carb. The 'B sounds great and pulls hard. Bedtime.

Day 2

After a couple of missed turns, we find ourselves humming along one of the wriggliest bits of road in BC, Westside Road, running along the West of Lake Okanagan from Kamloops to Vernon. Seriously, it looks like somebody got drunk and stole a paving machine.

Dad's at the wheel and the MGB is flawless. It's much happier with the extra fuel, and with the new wheels and a well-tuned suspension, it sets into a rhythm along Westside like it was on one of the English B-roads this car was meant to dance along. Mile after mile passes under the bonnet, and Dad's grin gets bigger. A straight stretch, foot down and – trouble.

The MGB dies again. Pass me that lead hammer.

First on the scene is Rob Fram, a guy I interviewed some months ago who happens to be a master mechanic and part of a team that restores million-dollar prewar cars with wins at Pebble Beach and Villa d'Este. We pull some fuel hose, tap a few connections – it's an intermittent fuel pump. “Well,” Rob says, “I know the MGA up ahead has a fuel pump that'll fit. I guess you'll just have to wait to see if anybody else has a pump for an MGB.”

A Peugeot 504 pulls in behind. “Got a fuel pump for an MGB?” my Dad asks with a laugh.

“Oh sure,” says the driver, Keinan Chapman, “I've got something that'll work.”

Fifteen minutes later, there's a jury-rigged auxiliary fuel pump duct-taped to the air-cleaner, running off juice from the fuse box and feeding fuel to the carbs. The MGB is running super-rich, but she's running. We can't have been on the side of the road for more than twenty-five minutes. “You're getting the full Spring Thaw experience!” Dave grins, having happened along in his rally-Beetle. Toolboxes are closed, boots shut. We all head off.

The evening sees us passing through Kamloops and heading down the 5A towards Merritt – we'll be looping back up again – the rain is coming through in drifting sheets between dry patches, and the sky is a brooding contrast to the brightly lit grasslands. You can see the snow falling on the far Western peaks, and the broad-shouldered hills roll out towards the horizon in endless loneliness. It is unutterably beautiful, and one of the few roads my Dad hasn't driven in the near half-century since he immigrated to this province. We sit in companionable silence, words of no importance now.

Day 3

Dad digs the MGB out of underground parking early on, wisely not wanting to be in the garage when eighty definitely-not-green machines sputter to life in clouds of improperly combusted hydrocarbons. He parks the MGB outside, we huddle up to listen to today's driving instructions, and we return to the car to find a puddle of fuel beneath it. Oh you cantankerous b… ahem. Oh you naughty car.

As it turns out, one of the carb floats sank and jammed, but it's Fram to the rescue once more. Deft hands zip open the offending part, button it together, tweak the blend to deal with our overrich mixture, and the 'B purrs like a stroked kitten. We join in the convoy.

What follows next is an odd blend of the instantaneous future, and the echoes of the past. We're headed West to Lillooet, and then down the Duffy Lake road to Whistler, our ending point; I lived in Whistler in first grade, and I remember riding down this very road when it was dust and gravel. I remember sliding down the back hill of our house with my brother, remember my dog running away the day we moved. I look over at my Dad, his hands on that thin 1960s steering wheel, and I know he's running through his own set of memories.

We hit Whistler just after noon, rolling in to Nicklaus North to join the rapidly filling parking lot. The sight of so much classic sheet metal in one place draws a crowd, but the drivers are mostly inside, filling up on lunch and sharing stories from the road.

We've got a little ways yet to go still, so it's back in the 'B and on down the Trans-Canada. Traffic's busy on a Sunday evening, but we cruise steadily, the MGB's engine turning at high revs thanks to its four-speed gearbox and short gearing.

After more than two hours of constant din, we reach our off-ramp, and at the foot of the hill where my parents live, I pull the car over, knock her into neutral, set the handbrake, and reach for the seatbelt. “Why don't you take her up the hill? Close the circle, Dad.”

“It feels like a long time since Friday,” he says, setting off up the windy, tree-lined road. We've got the windows down, and the air is charged with the freshness of a spring evening.

My little golden-haired daughter waits for me at the end of this road. My mother is there too, and my brother and his wife, visiting from the city. Then it'll be back into Vancouver to pick up my wife, the next member of our family kicking up a storm beneath her navel.

But for now, there's a few more minutes left for just me and Dad. One more memory to be folded into the metalwork of this tiny car, one more glittering, momentary ripple in the ever-moving river of time.

My father downshifts for the last corner, brings the revs up. Together, we drive home.