The List Your dream drive made real “It makes me want to delve deeper into the genre”. Despite a lifelong obsession, Colin Napton has only recently dipped his toe into the waters of classic car ownership. Today we send him back to his Fifties heartland in an MGA Roadster. Words Russ Smith. Photography Charlie Magee.
The List Colin Napton steps from his Mercedes into the spartan world of the MGA – having never driven a traditional British sports car before Can an MGA seduce a Merc owner?
There’s a moment of doubt as I watch Classic Cars reader Colin Napton unfold himself from the driver’s seat of his classic Mercedes-Benz 500SL R107. He’s a pretty big lad – is he actually going to it in the rather more confined cockpit of the MGA Roadster he’s come to drive today? Like a glove, it turns out, albeit with his elbows and knees bent to angles that are a little more acute than might traditionally be considered the sporting ideal.
With that rather important detail out of the way we can relax and focus on why the MGA is on Colin’s dream drive list, at least half of the entries on which stand out as being intriguingly modest requests. Though it does also contain a Gullwing and a Ferrari to reassure that he can also dream big like the rest of us. So, the MGA?
‘In my formative motoring years, pre-driving licence, when I could only look but not touch, the roads seemed awash with MGBs. Which was nice enough and something to aspire to, then one day I saw an MGA and straight away I knew that was it – here was a car I could really fall for. Even forty years on that feeling has never gone away, though I’ve never managed to get behind the wheel of one. Or, to be honest, many other examples of what I consider “old classic” rather than “modern classic” cars like my SL. So far my hands-on old classic experience has been limited to drives in a Jaguar Mk2, an E-type Series I and an Austin-Healey 3000 MkIII – all of them thoroughly enjoyed but sadly none of them owned. I’ve been a fan of classics for a long time and a reader of Classic Cars for about six years, but for various reasons I only got around to actually buying a classic recently.’
So what are Colin’s first impressions of what he considers a proper classic? ‘The big steering wheel in such a small cockpit is a tremendous thing – I love it! Already I want one. And this is my first car with a separate starter control [a knob on the dashboard that you pull out after turning the key] – it adds another bit of theatre to the whole experience.’
We head out of town in search of suitably quiet and winding Hertfordshire roads which, armed with some local knowledge, turn out to be pretty close by. Colin’s first big adjustment involves restoring the co-ordination needed to shift gears for himself again. ‘The MG’s owner, Tom Johnson, had me sussed out as a motoring softie in seconds. I must have “last 250,000 miles driven in modern automatics” written on my forehead. Also, it didn’t help that I’ve never encountered a fly-of handbrake before, though it’s easy to get the hang of. But with a bit of wisdom and guidance from Tom I was soon in the swing. If I’d had time beforehand I would have done a bit of homework, but I hadn’t so I knew I was going to be embarrassed.’ There’s a large dose of self-deprecation in there – to the outsider Colin’s gear-wrestling looks no worse than anyone else jumping into an unfamiliar car. And anyway, he’s quickly in the groove.
‘To be honest, it has been a pleasure getting back in a manual car. I’ve not used one on an everyday basis since 2004 and it’s nice to get involved in gear-changing again. They might make the daily slog easier to cope with but the truth is that autos make you lazy and remove you from the driving experience.’
Confidence and speed rising, a familiar ‘I’m driving a classic car’ grin starts to spread across Colin’s face. ‘It’s fab, a hoot! You really know you’re driving an old car. I’m lucky to have driven those other classics I mentioned but this is a step further back; a different experience – but in a good way. The car’s older than I am yet doesn’t feel as “distant past” as I had expected it to. The more I drive it the more at home I feel and the further I want to take it. ‘It feels very easy to drive for an old car. That’s a bit subjective, I know, but that’s how it’s coming across. It makes me want to delve deeper into the genre, to drive other classics from the era for comparison. I’m really enjoying being so fully involved in the driving. No part of me came to this wanting to drive quickly, which might sound a bit odd but with a car like this you don’t need to. The MGA is as much fun at 20mph as my SL is at 80mph, though I realised just as I had that thought that I hadn’t yet once looked at the MG’s speedo. It simply didn’t matter.
‘It might “only” be a 1600 but the power that provides is more than adequate. Don’t let its size make you believe the car is lacking in grunt – it isn’t. Press the pedal and of you go, no hesitation at all and it provides endless fun. Besides, if what I’d wanted from my turn in these pages was 450bhp and 0-60mph in 3.5 seconds I wouldn’t have asked to drive an MGA, would I? Or a MkII Cortina.’ Mention of Cortinas takes us back to how Colin became a car nut in the first place. ‘It’s all the fault of my late father, Doug. Back in the Seventies, for father/son entertainment and bonding we used to tour the new-car dealerships of Cornwall checking stuff out, maybe having a test drive. Through this he wound up changing his car seven times in nine years.
‘That started with Cortina MkIIs, followed by a couple of MkIIIs, then as Ford prices increased at a rate Dad didn’t like he switched to Datsun and started a run of four Datsun 120Ys – I know, you’re starting to wonder why I like cars now, aren’t you? Such was the influence of all these cars on my psyche I can still remember the registration numbers of all but the first, and I can be forgiven that one because I was only three at the time. Dad’s almost decade-long buying spree was only curtailed in 1979 by us moving house to a money pit that swallowed all his earnings for about eight years. ‘The excitement those experiences created around cars has never left me and is probably responsible for my period of interest being largely stuck in cars from the late Fifties to early Seventies.
Those were the cars that were around at that time in my life. Sadly we lost Dad 20 years ago; he’d have loved today.
‘My memories from that time are so vivid – let’s not go into the tale of the sales manager at the Datsun garage who went to jail for embezzling the garage. I can still recall his first name and how he dealt with Dad as a regular buyer. Yet I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night.’
Back in the MGA it’s clear from our wandered conversation that Colin now feels completely at one with the car. Well, apart from one small and curable detail – the infamous Lucas self-cancelling indicator switch is far too keen on performing its self-cancelling function. ‘It’s perhaps not the safest way to drive,’ he says. ‘You try holding the indicator switch to the left or right while steering and changing gear at the same time!’ He has a point, but it seems to be the roadster’s only black mark as far as Colin is concerned.
After all, he can hardly be blamed for not realising the wiper switch is on the far side of the dashboard above the fuel gauge when it was needed in a hurry. Otherwise, he appears to be in automotive heaven. ‘Hertfordshire’s B-roads are offering just the kind of twists and turns I had in mind in advance of today. The feel you get through that huge wheel – the novelty still hasn’t worn of – is fantastic and I love feeding it through my hands. It’s easily a match for the feel of my SL’s wheel. What I was looking for out of my time with the MGA was a view back into a different world. One where I might actually have to put some effort into driving a car. And that’s exactly what awaited me.
‘But in many ways it’s even better than that; the MG has been so easy to get the hang of. Even the brakes – that was one of the things I’d wondered about beforehand – like the rest of the car are perfectly adequate, you don’t have to make any allowances for them. In fact I’d go so far as to say that I’ve driven modern cars with worse braking than this. Perhaps that’s down to the MG’s light weight.
‘Then there are all the little touches that are making the day in the car such fun. Things like the dashboard-mounted indicators and wipers [which I’d more readily think of as being on the steering column], the pull-cord door openers which I love – all of these are things that must had mostly disappeared by the time I was climbing into a 1970 Cortina as a small boy.’
We take a break and poke around under the MGA’s bonnet. Colin confesses to being a relative stranger to the mechanical side of classics but is surprised to see how little space the B-series engine takes up in the engine bay. And he’s amused to see what’s on the other end of the cable from the starter knob he was so keen to play with earlier. With a little more time I’m sure we could start the process of getting his fingers dirty.
Then it’s time to head back and return the car to Tom’s garage, which it shares with a Morgan three-wheeler and a pre-war MG. Colin is still buzzing with enthusiasm. ‘For me what really does it is the physical stuff. There’s the glorious sound it makes – noises like that will be gone forever once everything goes electric. And the judder and shake that’s all part of how the car does its thing; it all adds to the pleasure of being in it, touching the past.’
Over a warming cuppa at Tom’s, after being introduced to the ex-Nigel Mansell Harley Davidson that sits in the corner of his dining room, Colin ruminates, ‘I was thinking just for a second earlier, “Damn, I’m going to miss out on the other nine cars on my list.” But I’ve driven one of the ten and that was brilliant. Anyway, leaving aside maybe the three most exotic cars on there, I could probably arrange to drive the others at some point if I wanted to. That’s worth thinking about. I’m definitely getting the taste.
‘Without hesitation I’d drive the MGA home preferably crosscountry – it’s wasted on the M25 – to Wiltshire and tuck it away in a garage. I’ve been cosseted in my previous motoring life with company cars and modern executive cars, and the MG gave me the taste of the past I had hoped for. I see no reason for not using one regularly, either. That said, freezing winter temperatures didn’t allow for dropping the soft-top today, so that pleasure will have to remain for another time.
‘Is there an MGA in my future? In a heartbeat, yes. This car has absolutely charmed me – it’s a true English gent of a car. I’m limited by space where we live at the moment but you have to dream and my dream is of one day escaping from the rat-race and moving to a farmhouse back in the West Country where I was born. Somewhere with a barn, of course. And with no shadow of doubt there would have to be an MGA in it.’
Thanks to Tom Johnson and the MG Owners Club
Tech and photos
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1961 MGA 1600 MkII Roadster
Engine 1622cc in-line four-cylinder, ohv, two SU H4 1.5in carburettors
Power and torque 86bhp @ 5500rpm / SAE 97lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Cam Gears Ltd rack and pinion
Suspension Front: independent by wishbones, coil springs, Armstrong lever-arm dampers and optional anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs and Armstrong lever-arm dampers
Brakes Discs front, drums rear
Weight 901kg (1985lb)
Performance Top speed: 101mph; 0-60mph: 13.7sec
Fuel consumption 27mpg
Cost new (1961 UK + tax) £963
Classic Cars price guide (UK / EU 2018) £13,000-£32,000
COLIN’S DREAM DRIVE LIST
Triumph TR6 ‘Thought about buying one years ago but never saw it through. What did I miss?’
Volvo P1800 ‘When I was working in Dublin one of these was in the underground car park. It left its mark.’
Bristol 410 ‘I’m hopelessly in love with this car but have never driven one.’
Ford Cortina MkII 1600 ‘A doff of the cap to Dad, my motoring influence. The first car I remember was his 1967 Cortina – from the year I was born.’
Mercedes-Benz 280SL Pagoda W113 ‘My car’s predecessor. Their prices have run away from most of us.’
Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia ‘They always put a smile on my face, and I’m not about going fast.’
Gordon Keeble ‘I’ve got this thing about wanting to ride about in a stately home.’
Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing W198 ‘The start of the SL story, and I’m afflicted with SL disease. The noise they make is phenomenal.’
Ferrari 456 GT ‘I’ve never driven a Ferrari and this seems like a practical one – a car I’d genuinely like to own.’
‘The big steering wheel in such a small cockpit is a tremendous thing – I love it!’
‘It’s as much fun at 20mph as my SL is at 80mph. It provides endless amusement’
COLIN NAPTON’S CAR CV
Colin’s classic CV may be short but that’s down to lack of opportunity, not enthusiasm
MERCEDES-BENZ R107 500 SL‘The only classic I’ve ever owned is the 1987 500 SL that I bought from The SL Shop six years ago. It’s wonderful and has still only done 79,000 miles, but I struggle to think of a car with power everything and heated seats as a view back into the previous generation of motoring.’
MAZDA MX-5 I’m not sure it counts because we owned it from new, but it sure was fun.
1990 NISSAN BLUEBIRD This was Dad’s last car, which I inherited. It’s long gone but I kept its number plate, which still rides around on my Jaguar XF daily driver.