Yesterday, I went to great lengths to justify a mud-caked trip to the local self-service junkyard last weekend. I followed that up the next day with a visit to the Chicagoland MG Club’s annual All British Swap Meet and Auto Jumble. I’d never been to any swap meet—let alone one for Anglophile gearheads—but I went with the expectation of finding piles of nearly indistinguishable British Leyland car parts accompanied by a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour from what I assumed would be mostly aging men with excellent, non-ironic mustaches. I was largely right, but I found some surprises along the way.
The swap meet took up two medium-sized exhibition buildings at the DuPage County Fairgrounds and as I paid my $5 browsing fee, I noticed a few hundred people milling about the tables and perusing everything from MG Midget doors to Jaguar badges to stacks of old British sportscar magazines. There was even a cutaway transmission for reasons that never really became clear.
While I didn’t see any full engines for sale, I found everything short of a block to build one from scratch.
In one corner of the exhibition hall, assorted heads sat stacked in a corner like massive Jenga blocks.
While a few tables displayed bright and polished aluminium valve covers, most of them (and most parts in general) were a bit more world-weary. British Leyland famously changed parts—both minor and major—in the middle of production year runs, which can produce maddening quests to things that fit on an MGB or a Morris Minor or what have you. I saw at least one fellow carrying a rocker arms assembly around and test fitting it under these valve covers.
By some strange coincidence, I met a man who runs a shop in not-too-far-away Newark, Illinois, which is fairly close to where I grew up. I talked with him a couple of minutes before realizing that he was the fellow whose Jaguar MK. X I wrote about for this very website (and it’s still for sale). He gave me a basic rundown on some parts interchangeability shortcuts and I bought from him a couple of parts catalogs that lay parts changes out as clearly as anyone could.
Before leaving, I quizzed him about a bad idea I’ve been considering, at which he laughed at and told me I was on the right path. He flashed a wry grin and waved his hand at the crowd in the room. “All of these people are here because of bad ideas.”
Unfortunately, many of my shots from inside the swap meet didn’t turn out well, but this table was fairly representative of the whole place. Need Triumph wheel caps? A box of Sprite bits? Speedometer or tach? Just sort through the pile(s) for a few minutes and you’re likely to come up with what you seek.
Need wire wheels? There were several stacks of them.
The wheels came with varying shapes and conditions, but you couldn’t walk 20 feet without finding a set.
A couple of racing shops were around, selling shiny bits like these shocks to bring Bugeye Sprites and Triumph TR6s alive on a racetrack. I ran into the Mike and Darren Besic, who have built a number of stunning Italian vintage racecars, including the fastest Alfa Romeo ever built. They run a shop from a nearby suburb that specializes in vintage racers, but I know the brothers from having built two of my favorite 24 Hours of LeMons cars: the super-sexy Launcha Splatos and the Ford Lima-powered Opel Breadwagon. I’d say “small world,” but they’ve undoubtedly built a few British racecars, probably while plugging their noses and squinting a lot.
It’s not all parts for sale, though. Several vendors had full cars (plural in some cases) for sale on trailers in the parking lot (more on this in a minute), but this MG Midget was tiny enough to fit into the exhibition hall.
While most of the vendors could build their respective cars without manuals, the sheer number of different available manuals circulating was reassuring for a first-time builder. If you couldn’t find the manual you were looking for somewhere in the assorted stacks, you probably couldn’t find it anywhere.
The Lucas Fault Diagnosis Service Manual was a lot lighter than one might expect, but then again, it takes few pages to print a one-word sentence for every situation: “Despair.”
This manual’s seller seemed (correctly) skeptical that I was an owner or British car enthusiast, but he assured me that once headed down that path, the addiction has no cure and even less reason.
Of course, had I made the investment in a topless British sportscar, I would have also needed a Sterling Moss model steering wheel and matching vintage race helmet with goggles.
For all the excitement inside the exhibition hall, the parking lot contained several of the Real Deal, examples of what those heaps of parts inside could become. This chrome-bumper MGB looked great with near-showroom sheen on its copious chrome.
The finish was mostly red, but it shone bright orange in the morning sun.
This early MGB-GT was also in fine shape. There are never enough pictures of the GT, a car I hope to own some day.
This Triumph Spitfire was one of several cars for sale, already loaded on the trailer and waiting for the first $1,500 to take it.
I’d never actually seen a Spitfire up close and this one seemed a bit rough with rust pockmarks and an interior indicative that it had been a driver.
Say what you want about British reliability; at least they design beautiful hips on their cars. The gold pinstriping looks great and, of course, British racing green is the colour to have for any British sports car.
This seller had a second Jensen Healey sitting at home for parts, but he said this one’s Lotus Twin Cam engine ran. He was asking $5,500 for the pair.
It wasn’t the cleanest car in the world, but the Jensen wears that black finish nicely, doesn’t it?
Some elected to bring non-British cars. This Buick hearse had a couple of swap meet stickers on the windshield. What a great means of hauling rusty British car parts to a variety of hooptie markets.
This mid-1960s Chevy C10 Fleetside was thoroughly clean with a sweet seafoam green finish.
This Volkswagen Rabbit was pristine, far and away the cleanest Mk. 1 I’ve ever seen.
The pre-TDI diesel motor must require some patience and planning to drive with somewhere around 50 horsepower and 75 lb.-ft. of torque on tap. Nevertheless, this little box must return enviable fuel mileage for its meticulously careful owner.
Back to the British cars, then. In this case, the Very British. This 1949 MG TC featured right-hand drive and looks that stopped ever single passerby in his or her tracks.
I remarked to some fellow admirers that I wouldn’t mind driving this (as visions of racing goggles danced in my head). One of the chaps looking over the car said, “You must not have ever ridden in one. If someone offered me a ride, I’d rather walk. The seats are insanely uncomfortable.”
I sensed that he himself owned a British car or seven (as is often the case) and was just offering up some signature self-deprecating humor. He shrugged and walked away.
Not too far away, one owner (black jacket) was showing off his rubber-bumper MGB Roadster whose running gear, he explained, was a hodgepodge of four or five different model years (which may very well have been seven or eight different years of parts).
The hardware was immaculate, but the real workmanship came from rewiring the car (visible inside of the fender) basically from scratch, adding relays all over for fans and the horn, among a half-dozen other components. Not every British car owner trusts the Prince of Darkness, apparently.
I’d expected to see a bunch of these, but I found only one Mini Cooper. It was gorgeous.
Did I say gorgeous already?
This Triumph TR7’s owner (red hat) had taken care of his green wedge.
Good luck finding a cleaner TR7 interior.
As I strolled through the parking lot, I noticed this tired-looking Toyota pickup, whose rear fender was completely gone, either from rust or simply from a hard life. A red nose poking out of the line of parked cars, however, caught not only my attention, but also those of just about all passersby.
It was an MGA, all bulging fenders and swooping lines. An MG club’s member talked nearby about this car and its owner, who drives it all the time. Four inches of snow on the ground? No problem; hop in and go.
It even tugged a small trailer that, while no Dysentrailer, brought to mind a certain former Hooniversal Car of the Year.
It showed signs of wear but not abuse.
The British certainly got curves right 50 years ago.
Without any clear agenda and only a few bucks in my pocket, I wasn’t up for a big purchase. However, I did root through a few boxes and came home with eight back issues of Grassroots Motorsports Magazine, a sweet vintage SCCA magazine, five MGB Driver issues, and a pair of MGB parts catalogs (so I can decipher part numbers for my eventual midlife crisis MGB-GT build). Total cost: $8.
Even if I’d come home empty-handed instead (again), seeing some of the greatest British car minds in the country and their hoarded collections gives me hope that a few Triumphs or MGBs will be around when I can plunk down the money and time for one. It’ll be worth it to tell my own wry jokes from experience.
[Photos copyright Hooniverse 2014/Eric Rood]