Twenty Years With My Spitfire!
[This article appears in the Spring 2001 edition of "Triumph Spitfire & GT6 Magazine", Vol. 2, Issue 1, Page 22.]
Others may have had their Spitfires longer than me, but itís hard to believe that twenty years has gone by since my Dad bought me this 1977 Triumph Spitfire from the original owner. Even though I have had to repair many things and broke down unexpectedly once or twice, I have still throughly enjoyed my twenty years with this Spitfire. Who else can say they still have their first car, twenty years later?
It started in 1981 when my Dad brought me to a manís house in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and showed me this yellow sports car convertible. I was 15-years-old and a month from my birthday. Dad asked me if I liked the car and if so he would buy it and we would fix it up. After climbing in and imaging driving it, ďSure!Ē, I said and Iím glad I did.
The original owner had run it hard and cracked the block. So Dad located a wrecked Spitfire to get an engine from. With the help of my cousin, Bob, we replaced the engine under a raised house on the coast of Waveland, MS, that we had finished building shortly before. I dented the front bumper slightly before even driving the Spitfire by backing a pickup with the replacement engine a little too close to the car! The bonnet was removed and the tailgate of the truck put a small dent in the bumper.
After finishing engine replacement and getting the Stromberg carburetor rebuilt, Dad taught me how to drive a standard-shift. I would later take small trips around the neighborhood to practice the shifting technique. Naturally I stalled it in first gear a few times or forgot to put it back in first after a stop. Donít we all when we first learn?
For the next six years I drove the car all over to high school and college, to Mississippi beaches on weekends and even delivered pizzas part-time. During high school a friend and I drove it from my hometown of Slidell, LA to Cape Canaveral, FL to watch the second space shuttle launch. On that trip the water pump blew there and had to be replaced before we could drive back. I had not learned much as yet about repairing the car, so we paid a mechanic for the job that I later learned how to do myself. Later on I did replace the rear leaf spring myself when it lost tension and also later the differential. Those jobs each took me a week.
It was impressed upon me forever to never, ever sell the Spitfire when I was 20-years old and working part-time at a gas station. During a yearís time, about 20 different men in their 40's, 50's, and 60's would notice my Spitfire on the side of the building and ask about it. They would say that they had one when they were my age or that they had an Austin Healey, or an MGB, or TR6 or etc. But they always ended their story with this: ď... but I sold it when I was in my 20's and I have regretted it ever since.Ē If it had been only one or two men that said this to me, no big deal. But it was about 20 different men who told me that they had ďregretted it ever since.Ē I did not want that regret so I vowed to always keep my Spitfire no matter what.
In 1987 I decided to join the US Navy and stored my Spitfire in Momís garage for a year during boot camp and training school. When permanently stationed in Jacksonville, FL, I used the Toyota Corolla sport coupe I had bought to tow the Spitfire 500 miles to Jacksonville and used a 24-hour storage unit as my garage because I was living in the barracks, so no garage.
On weekends that my squadron was not working, I would repair, improve, and drive the car around Jacksonville. One side of the front hubs began sweaking badly, so I ordered new inner and outer wheel bearings and replaced them on both sides following the instructions in the Haynes manual. After new spark plugs and a carb rebuild, my barracks roommate used to love the time that I let him drive the flashy yellow convertible and he said it was a blast.
The next year I moved into sharing a house with two other Navy guys and they let me use the garage for my Spitfire. It was there that I decided to replace the carpet. As we know, Spitfires are never completely waterproof with the top up. Mine is no exception. When I removed the seats and pulled up the carpet, I discovered the floor pans were quite rusted on the surface. So I proceeded to sand down all the rust and old paint, vacuum throughly, spray it with a rust-prevention treatment, and then seal it with undercoating compound. I did that last step because I knew that water would once again find itís way into the car again, so I wanted to protect the metal from further damage. Then the new carpet went in.
The day before I started my Christmas leave in 1989, the carb of my Toyota broke and I could not fix it in time to travel to Momís house, so I decided to drive the Spitfire. It was a nice drive there for Christmas, but it didnít make it back. About an hour into the return trip, the engine started banging loudly, so I pulled over an opened hood to check for damage. I saw no obvious external damage so I had to call for a flatbed tow truck to take me back to Momís house from Gulfport, MS, which was expensive. I was forced to return to Jacksonville without my Spitfire! Fortunately, my sister was returning to Orlando, so she brought me back to Jacksonville first.
My Spitfire sat in Momís garage for a year until I finished my tour and switched to the Naval Reserves. That was when my friend Tom and I were finally able to pull the engine and remove the oil pan. We discovered that one of the piston connecting rod bearings was damaged from that night after Christmas. Since I had no knowledge of internal engine repair and no special tools to do the job, we brought the engine to a professional in New Orleans who only charged me $150 in labor cost in addition to the parts and machine shop cost, all total $930. After installing the engine back in the car, I was back in the Spitfireís saddle with a rebuilt engine.
I moved to Pensacola, FL for my second college experience and had to leave my Spitfire again in Momís garage for a few years while I attended classes and worked part-time three weekends a month and Navy Reserve the fourth weekend a month. As a financially-struggling university student, I had no money and no time for the Spitfire. I needed reliable everyday transportation so my Toyota Corolla served me there, but I never gave up on my Spitfire!
After I graduated from the university and rented a house with a carport, my friend Tom used his Buick to tow my Spitfire to Pensacola. There I used heavy tarps on the side and front to protect the Spitfire from bad weather. I worked to recover it from the time in storage by first rebuilding the front and rear brakes, then the fuel pump, and worked on the electronics. I worked it into as reliable a car as a Spitfire could be. I drove it on a long trip from Pensacola to Seagrove, FL (2-hours each way) and back with no trouble. Then I joined a local club, the Panhandle British Car Association, and had fun going to shows and learning from the experienced guys.
But going to shows made me realize that my car was due for bodywork and paint. I also realized that I was tired of renting, so I looked for a house to buy with the Spitfire in mind and found a place that had a large shop behind the house. After moving in, I took the Spitfire apart. I removed the engine, transmission, bumpers, tail lights, turn signals, door handles, and all devices from the engine compartment firewall. I also removed the interior and then rolled the body onto a trailer to take it to the body shop.
I admire you guys who do your own bodywork, but because of my affection for this car I did not want to learn how to do bodywork on this car and not have a professional-looking good job. Also the original owner had an accident which was repaired with a lot of bondo on the right rear quarter panel. I decided that since this was a restoration job that the quarter panel needed to be replaced and I did not have the welding equipment or knowledge to use it.
While I waited for the car to be finished, I noticed that many car clubs had websites and I asked if our club had one. The answer was that probably nobody in the club knew how to make one. So I volunteered my services and designed a site, presented it to the club, was voted the official webmaster for the club, and I continue to improve and update the site for the club. I also have a personal Spitfire site with pictures of my carís restoration along the way.
When I brought the finished body back from the shop, it was only two weeks before my clubís annual show on Pensacola Beach. So I worked every night before the show to put it back together. I had the engine back in but not running yet and I also had trouble with re-connecting all the other wiring correctly. So I trailered it to the show and received 2nd place in the Restoration class.
Some time after the show when I finished the wiring enough to try to drive it, I discovered that the clutch would not stop the flywheel to shift into gear. There was plenty of fluid and the clutch line was completely bled. With the transmission tunnel cover off, I could see the lever that the slave cylinder pushes through a small space between the clutch slave cylinder and the bellhousing. When I pressed the clutch, I could see it move forward. But apparently it did not more forward enough to stop the flywheel. So after fiddling with it for two weeks, I decided to learn something and go to the mechanic. Bob Malcomson at Tartan's Garage in Pensacola discovered that it was the pivot pin sleeve that had worn down. When I would press the clutch and the push rod pressed one side of the bellhousing lever, the worn sleeve allowed the other side to fall back just enough to not give the clutch enough contact with the flywheel. It was an expensive lesson, but now I have learned something!
One thing I would advise all Spitfire owners to do is to rewire the hot source for the brake lights so that they work even when the ignition is not on. If your car quits while driving due to ignition, then the brake lights also will not work and the person behind you will not know that you are hitting the brakes to pull over and..... donít want to think about it! I rewired mine directly to the battery with a fuse for protection. Modern cars have this feature, so Spitfires should also!
Lastly, let me put a plug in for my clubís annual show, the Pensacola British Car Beach Bash on Pensacola Beach in April each year. We have a blast showing off our 90+ British cars and turning heads of the beach goers. People come to our show from all over the southeast and have a great time. Please visit our website for more details at http://www.geocities.com/pbca1 and view pictures of previous shows plus pictures of every car at last yearís 2000 show. Spitfire pictures are on the first row, of course! Detailed show information, directions and a map, and a registration form are also on the website or call Tom Schmitz at (334)961-7171.
Happy motoring and stay safe!Mike A. Japp