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Of Beatles and English Cars

I’m not a car guy.  My friend Alix is a car guy.  Later, I’ll explain the difference.  But the New York Times picked today to run a feature tying the Beatles to British cars in America, and It got me thinking back to half a century ago, and especially about English cars.  (Did you know Stirling Moss is still alive?  That’s what comes of giving up racing in English cars, which is what Moss did, after a crash in 1961.)

I won’t say much about the Beatles, except that they saved rock and roll from three chords and the beat on 2 and 4.  Yet the five of us are contemporaries. I was even in show business, like them. When they first came to New York, I was a college kid, working summers for WOR-TV, and we had two special “maintenance days” at Shea Stadium because the promoters had sold out every seat in the house, including the Press Level, which is where the TV cameras were. RCA TK-40s.  Heavy beasts.  The viewfinder module alone weighted 50 Pounds, and we had to schlep them all down to the subterranean control room. That etched the lads into my memory.

At that time, my friend Jan had a Sunbeam Alpine and my friend Bob had a TR-2. (Good for Bob; not so good for Jan.)  I had a Dodge Lancer. (Red with 3 on the floor, slant six, and a bench seat in the front.)  Weird car all the way around.  The name (It became “dart” the following year), called up visions of boils. The change was not a big improvement.

There’s a story about how Bob talked his folks into letting him have the Triumph. He told them he had a line on a BMW Isetta that he could afford to buy on his own.  The Isetta was an enclosed three-wheel motorcycle with a single door that opened forward. Run into something like that and it would be like Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner.”  So negotiations ensued, and Bob wound up with the most awesome British sportscar ever.

On the other hand, back at college, every day for four years, my pal Smitty commuted sixty miles each way every day in a Renault Dauphine. Every few months, he would, as one had to do with the Dauphine, tear the engine down in order to install new cylinder liners.  With that experience behind him, Smitty bought himself a Triumph Spitfire for graduation.  The first year they were sold. Smitty was always a rebuilder, but over the years, he’s proven to have much better taste in antique airplanes than in cars.

It was the height of the “British Invasion” when I got out of college and went to California. It was also the height of the “brain drain,” where – get this – instead of sending jobs overseas, we brought the foreigners here, and made them pay taxes, and there were so many jobs that part-time “job shoppers” were clearing twice my take-home (sans benefits). That was when I bought the new Jeepster Convertible. (Just so you know that I’m no genius about buying cars myself.)

But I got to know a lot of young European engineers, mostly Brits, and their car stories. Robert was the one who explained to me how, if you were planning a car trip of 100 miles or more in the U.K., you would spend the weekend before taking the engine to bits and putting it back together again, just to be sure you could return to the place you started.

But it was Stan who was the genius. Eschewing the rinky-dink Robins and their ilk (And acknowledging the brilliance of the Mini Cooper), Stan created a family business in which he would periodically return to Blighty and purchase a used Bentley from the era in which they were built with aluminium bodies.  He would crate them up nicely and ship them to himself in Los Angeles, where the input duty was determined by the age of the vehicle.  Then he and Libby, his wife would spend several months of spare time detailing the cars to pristine quality.  The bodies themselves were in prime condition, and after Libby had had a go at the interior leather and cabinetry, the cars were just short of concours d'elegance condition.

Friends of the ex-pat engineers were also helpful.  Peter was a certified Jaguar mechanic and he just about saved my sanity when the tranny on that stupid Jeepster locked itself in second and reverse simultaneously.

So I never got close to the Fab Four, and I’ll never be able to play anything arranged by Paul or John, but I have fond memories of the era.

And I promised to say something about a real car guy like Alix and a not-really car guy like me. A month or so ago, Alix was out here for a conference and I picked him up for dinner one evening in my Prius. Now, Alix is nuts for cool, fast cars, but he has a broader interest in all kinds of vehicles. So when he got into the Prius, he asked how I liked it. And all I could think of to tell him was that it got ok mileage, but I didn’t care for the way the “A” pillars blocked my view of pedestrians in crosswalks.  We didn’t say a word about cars the rest of the evening.

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