After the Morris Commercial had finished its job I moved onto a series of new cars. These were great, well kind of. They were faster, air conditioned, radio, stereos and generally a little less maintenance. I was nearly going to say more reliable. Well I suppose they were, they didn't need to be nursed around, little things didn't go wrong. But, they still needed maintenance. Like most people I was working flat out and didn't really have time to maintain my own vehicle. But, looking under the bonnet of most new cars if something went wrong I wonder if I'd even know where to start. So, take it to a workshop for servicing and any repairs, sounds simple. Drop it off this morning and pick it up this afternoon. It never seems to work out that way.
”It's been a busy day, we didn't get the chance to make a start on your car, leave it here we'll get to it tomorrow” the mechanic would generally say. How many times have you heard that? To make it worse I'd go back the next day only to be told the part didn't arrive or they were short staffed.
“Come back again tomorrow” they’d say. Why am I leaving myself at the mercy of these guys? I ‘d think to myself. I need my car! I can't live without it!
But these frustrations fortunately weren't going to last forever. In 1996 I was forced into semi-retirement. Time to acquire another Minor! A simple piece of machinery, I could fix myself. I started the search, this time I wanted a low light, tourer, with a side-valve engine of course. I came across two specimens about 5 kilometers from each other. Both had never been restored, the first one I checked out had far too many modifications and areas of rust, although it did have a side-valve engine. The owner knew it was a rarity and wanted $5000 for it. I moved on to have a look at another, just a few kilometers down the road. This one was in a shed and had obviously hadn't been used for a few years. But it was in an excellent un-restored, well cared for condition. The hood was new, reasonably new paint, no rust and a fully reconditioned engine. That was what the owner told me over the phone. I somewhat believed him, the engine ran smoothly with no smoke and had a tight new sound to it. I never spoke to the real owner. I instead dealt directly with his wife. It worked out that he’d left for a younger woman and by selling his dream car she wasn’t just getting back at him, but also was freeing up some garage space and putting some extra cash in her pocket. He'd done some of the work the car himself, which included fitting an ugly an inch and a quarter exhaust pipe and replacing the standard Morris Minor SU petrol pump with something off another car.
“Why did you fit such a big exhaust pipe? Minors were known for their funny little exhaust pipes, why change? I asked him over the phone.
“When I had the engine reconditioned I had it bored out slightly bigger to try to get a bit more power out of it. To help improve the performance I put on a larger exhaust pipe”
“But did you get any better performance from it?” I asked.
Another problem was a slipping clutch. He said that after he dropped the engine in after it came back from the workshop the clutch started to slip. It seemed he'd spent a lot of money getting the engine reconditioned but had lost interest in the project. From that day he left it sitting in his garage slowly collecting dust. His wife had convinced him to sell it, she wanted the money. We agreed on the price of $5000, she wrote out a receipt while I called for a truck to take it to its new home.
Once in my care I pulled out the gearbox, put in a new clutch, pressure plate and throw out block. On close examination of the old clutch I came to the conclusion that it was actually in good condition. I compared the throw out block to the new one I'd just bought from the Morris Minor Center in Sydney. They both looked different. I put it back together with the new parts, started her up and drove away. The clutch was as good as new again. As I have mentioned previously, he'd also tried to modify the petrol pump as the old one started cutting out when it got hot. So instead of just replacing it he'd gone and replaced it with a non standard pump which he installed just forward of the fuel tank. It didn't work properly - it continually flooded the carburetor. I purchased a reconditioned version of the original part. How could anyone own a Morris that didn't have that familiar tick, tick, tick when you turned on the ignition.
The old trafficators hadn't worked for years. They'd been replaced with those junky indicators that are fitted onto trailers. I took the trafficators out and just cleaned all the dust out of them and they worked fine. I took the indicators off and patched up the screw holes with some fiberglass and colour matched some cream high gloss and painted over where the holes were. Last job was to replace all the brake shoes and slave cylinders, the master cylinder was in good condition.
With everything ship shape and Bristol fashion I drove her into the inspection station. The inspector went over her with a fine tooth comb. He wasn’t real sure about the legality of the trafficators, but in the end he passed her as road worthy. The law in the state of New South Wales states that whatever a car is born with, it’s allowed to keep. Before I took her in for inspection various people told me that I’d need indicators, but their guess was wrong. The same goes for seat belts if the car was manufactured without them you don’t need to install them. But, try taking them out of a car that came with them when it was new and you’d probably end up with your head on a chopping block.
For the first couple of years I only used her for shopping trips and occasionally a trip to Brisbane from Byron Bay where I lived. I often took her for a run 50 miles south to visit my parents. But this was all, I felt a little guilty about driving her on long distances. I felt that I was using up a part of British motoring history by wearing her out. But I soon realized that parts were easily obtainable. What couldn’t be bought new could easily be sourced at Morris Minor clubs or just looking in magazines. There were numerous people selling new or used parts. In a local newspaper I found this advertisement;
Morris Minor 1948 model.
Good for parts $100
I picked up the phone and called.
“Has it got a side-valve engine?” Was the first question I asked.
“Sure has, and it still runs like the day it was made. She has been sitting in the garage for about 8 years. I bought her to do up. But I’ve not found the time. About two years ago I needed the room in the garage. My wife made me move it around the back. I put a cover over it but that didn’t stop the rust from eating away the body. The body is beyond repair, but the motor and gearbox are still like new. Come and have a look,” he said.
I drove just a few miles down the road and found it sitting in the owner’s driveway. It was Sunday morning and he was out mowing the lawn. It was a highlight model. My guess about a 1952 or maybe 1953 model. When he saw me coming in the lowlight tourer his eyes lit up.
“What a bloody little beauty you’ve got there, mate!” he said.
We went over to the old Morris in his driveway, turned the ignition and pulled the starter and she kicked over first go. The engine seemed to run smoother than the engine in my car. It was a later model side-valve engine and it had an oil filter where as mine didn’t.
“How much do you want for it?” I asked.
“Look mate, if you can use it, take it, you can have it for free”
“Sounds like the right price. I’ll take it” we shook hands.
“Kerry’s my name, and yours?
It couldn’t be safely towed by my Morris, so I called the local tow truck operator. He came down and loaded it on the back of a truck and delivered it home for me.
“That’ll be eighty dollars, thanks mate.”
So in the end it didn’t come for free, but still it seamed like a good deal. With a second engine and gearbox in what seemed almost new condition, I soon stopped worrying about using up British motoring history and started doing trips here, there and everywhere, including runs to Sydney from Byron Bay, over 500 miles each way. Other trips included weekly runs to the Gold Coast which is a return trip of 150 miles. I’d sit on between 40 and 45 miles per hour. Often on downhill runs she’d get up to 55 mph. On occasions like this I was really having fun. I could never get her to reach the 61 mph top speed that is listed in the official Morris Minor manual. Downhill, foot flat to the floor with a gale coming from behind, the best I could get was about 57 mph.
Over the next few years I continually ratted parts off the old highlight until it became too much of an eyesore. With no place to hide it I took the engine and gearbox out and called a rubbish removal company to come and take the shell away. There was little left. one of the doors was still in good condition, but that was about all. I advertised the shell for free. People called but when I told them the engine and gearbox were missing they quickly lost interest.
I stored the engine and gearbox in a plywood box which I built from scrap plywood. Before nailing down the top I filled each cylinder with oil and turned her over. Well oiled I nailed the top on the box and put it in the corner of the garage until the day when it may be needed.
The lowlight continued to rack up the miles. At one stage I went overseas for five months. While there I spent most of my time driving around in new hire cars. But the excitement of driving a new car didn’t last long. I was soon longing to take the lowlight for a spin. You can imagine the first thing I did when I arrived home. I dropped my bags at the back door and went straight over to the garage too kick over the Morris
Upon reaching 30,000 miles she started to become very sluggish. I’d been running her on unleaded petrol with a lead substitute. I’d never taken the head off but I knew she needed a de-coke. I kept on driving until she finally blew the head gasket. One of the first things I’d done after driving her home the first time was to tighten the head bolts down to 45psi using a tension wrench. Not long before she blew the gasket I noticed that oil was leaking out of one of the bolts on the head. I thought to myself that I must tighten down that bolt. But I never did until she finally stopped at around 35,000 miles after having blown the head gasket between the second and third cylinders.
I was living in an apartment and didn’t have a workshop to do the repairs. I took the lowlight to a mechanic. He took the head off and we found a few of the valves were not burnt as I had expected but had worn out Normal wear and tear had flattened them out. Apart from the usual deposit of coke and moderately worn rings, the engine still had a few more miles left in it.
I left the lowlight with the mechanic; he ground in new valves and replaced the gasket and head. The old head had developed a small crack. I warned him that there were two types of head. The early model like mine the head had small lugs on it to hold the generator. The later model didn’t have the lugs as the generator was held on by a cast bracket bolted on to the side of the engine. He assured me that he knew all about side-valve Morris Minors, having restored one about 40 years ago. I went back a few days later after he’d finished the work.
“How’d it go” I asked him.
“I only replaced two of the valves, because the rest were OK. The rings are worn and the pistons wobble around a bit inside the cylinders. The hardest part of the job was bending over and grinding in the valves by hand. Hard on my back, especially at my age, I’m nearly 70.” he said.
She’d become hard to impossible to start in the last days before finally blowing the head gasket. This time I got in, turned on the ignition and listened to the petrol pump tick over . I pulled the starter and she kicked over first go. Just like a Morrie should.
I paid him and drove off down the road – what a difference, she now felt like the day I bought her. She had power!.....well, she now had close to 7 horses. Before the repairs she only had about 4.
To celebrate the occasion I headed out on a trip to Sydney which resulted in a 1,500 mile round trip. I added up the fuel and oil costs as she was starting to use a reasonably large quantity of oil, nearly a liter every 100 miles. It would have been cheaper to fly there and back. But why would anyone want to fly when they could go via a side-valve Morrie? Don’t answer that question.
The rings were worn out more than I had expected. Furthermore fumes from the sump were starting to come up into the car. This was made worse since I’d removed the carpet and replaced it with a few mats. Oil fumes and half burnt petrol fumes came up between the brake and clutch pedals. Carpet in the convertible was a nuisance. No matter how much I tried to keep the carpet dry it still end up getting soaked on occasion. The carpet would get a damp smell to it and start to rot. I took it out and painted the floor with an expensive, anti rust marine paint. Before painting I removed the old paint and surface rust with the use of a circular wire brush fitted to an electric drill. After getting it back to as close to bare metal as possible I then covered the floor with a commercial rust dissolver. I let this sit and dry for two days then ran over it again with the drill and wire brush again. When the floor was dry I applied the anti-rust primer. The primer left a hard surface. I then took the car to a spray painter who painted the floor the same colour as the body. That was over 3 years ago and it is still in good condition. At least there was no apparent rust, on the inside.