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1957 MGA High-School Cool: Hair-Raising Adventures in My Very First Car

by Gary Witzenburg
15 March 2024 6 min read
1957 MGA High-School Cool: Hair-Raising Adventures in My Very First Car
Photos: Gary Witzenburg

This story was first published on our US site. It has been edited for spelling and grammar but is otherwise as it appeared. – Ed.

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It was dark, with little traffic on my way home from a date when I dozed, briefly, at the wheel. I opened my eyes to see the two-lane road sweeping right and the double-yellow centreline flowing left-to-right under my MGA’s dim headlight beams. I jammed on the brakes, steered right and felt the car’s skinny rear tyres lose grip as its back end headed left. Whoa!

I quickly steered back left to catch the slide, and the rear end snapped back right. Damn! This, I later learnt, was what racers call a “tank slapper” as the car’s tail whipped one way, then the other. Then I realised that I was still hard on the brakes, and backing off that pressure enabled me to regain control. Whew – a near-disastrous lesson in car control at the tender age of 16!

I had just recently acquired my driver’s licence yet was hardly inexperienced. My expert-driver father had let me steer his car as a little kid sitting on his lap and had taught and trained me in safe driving most of my life. Then, from ages 14 to 16, I survived two years on a motor scooter as my all-season daily driver, and I learnt a life-saving lot about defensive driving, operating in traffic, and dealing with slippery conditions as the scooter’s brake cables often froze and left me essentially brakeless in Cleveland’s nasty winter weather.

At age 15, with no legal licence, I had stolen my mom’s ’57 Ford convertible nearly every Friday night, when my folks were away in a bowling league, and I had somehow gotten away with driving that cool car all over the place in all kinds of conditions without incident. I never got caught, and my folks never knew, since they would have punished me severely for that foolishly risky habit. So, when my car-guy dad surprised me with a well-used 1957 MGA roadster for Christmas three weeks before my 16th birthday, I could not have been more thrilled.

1957 MG MGA roadster rear three quarter

To be honest, my very first car was not actually that MGA. Instead, my dad had bought a goofy Lloyd 600, a tiny 23bhp German microcar, at a local import dealership, and it was to be my Christmas and 16th birthday present. But very thankfully, I never saw that little POS. The auto gods were smiling down on me the day he picked it up, because it clanked to a smoky halt just a few feet out of the lot. More than a little pissed, he then harassed the dealer into a friendly price on the MGA and stored it at a friend’s house awaiting the big Christmas morning presentation.

But my introduction to that red, wire-wheeled beauty was traumatic. Before hitting the sack on Christmas Eve, I noticed our garage full of white smoke. I rolled up the door to see the MGA with its hood up, my mom standing in shock, and my father frantically searching for the battery. We finally found two separate six-volt batteries behind the seats, but the electrical system was well cooked by the time we got them unhooked. “Merry Christmas,” grimaced my frustrated dad.

Once repaired and functional (I’d love to have seen my 6’ 4” dad’s second angry confrontation with that dealer), that MGA could not have been a much cooler set of high-school wheels. Thanks to years of hard work and Dad’s good job, we were comfortably middle class but far from wealthy. Some of my classmates were, but some had no wheels at all; a couple drove restored Ford Model As (pretty cool), but no one else had a sexy “poor man’s Jaguar” British roadster.

It was a little rusty (which didn’t show much thanks to its red paint); its first-gear’s synchro was history so was hard to engage without grinding a bit; its infamous Lucas electrics went missing in the rain from time to time – which required removing and hand-drying its distributor cap and a few other parts; and its cable-operated door latches were weak. But all that seemed well worth the trouble to a good-student, bad-athlete, car-loving, marginally likeable 16-year-old.

I did almost lose girlfriend Betsy out the passenger door when it flew open while I spun a quick U-turn after picking her up. Good thing she grabbed the windshield pillar to avoid meeting the street! She eventually forgave me, and the MGA, and enjoyed riding in it. Except when I wouldn’t stop to erect its top after it started raining. That was a clumsy, 15–20-minute operation, so I figured we’d get wetter while stopped to put it up than we would just driving in the rain. And the faster I drove, the more the rain swept over the windshield, and our heads.

The author and his girlfriend at the time, Betsy Ellis, circa 1960.

I also vividly remember some snow-related adventures in that car. On the very first night I had my licence, I drove over to Betsy’s house and offered her a ride. After a serious conversation with her dad, he agreed to let her go with me despite a fairly heavy snowfall going on. Thinking back, had she been my daughter, I probably would have said, “No way.”

And even though I was already a fairly experienced driver when I got my licence (much more than my dad knew…), he signed me up for driving lessons to get a break on insurance, which was pricey even then for teen drivers. It was snowing hard on the day of my second lesson, and the instructor climbed in and let me take him for a ride. Which I did … way out of town and back, in increasingly heavy snow. I was a ridiculously over-confident driver even then so gave him what must have been a hair-raising ride sliding around sideways on slippery roads. I thought he might be impressed by my car-control skill. But as I recall, he just sat there, probably terrified, and didn’t say anything at all.

That turned out to be my last lesson, so maybe the instructor refused to ride with me again and told his colleagues to avoid me as well. My dad never confirmed whether he got the insurance break after I failed to complete those lessons, but I’m guessing he probably didn’t.

Another snow-related incident started out as grins but ended scary. A friend and I were having fun driving around with both side window panels out and our door pockets full of snowballs. We were pitching them out at passing cars as we drove and managed to hit a few. Then one driver we hit came after us. I led him on a lively chase through snow-covered suburban back roads and alleys, but he hung right with us. When we finally drove into a blocked alley and had to stop, he and a bigger guy jumped out and caught us. They threatened to kick the crap out of us but just yelled, lectured us, and let us go. But not before tossing my car key into a snowbank. We scraped around in the snow for a while, found the key and headed home, one good scare wiser.

1957 MG MGA roadster front three quarter

I wasn’t a good enough (self-taught) mechanic to mess with the MGA’s mechanicals, but I did (for some reason) take off easily removable parts under its hood and spray paint them different colours. And one important modification was installing aftermarket seatbelts, since the car had come without belts from the factory. My dad had optional ones in his company car, a 1960 Thunderbird, and trained me to habitually use them – a habit that likely saved my life years later in my first new car, a 1966 Triumph TR4A.

Did I have the belt installed, and was I using it, when I so nearly lost control on that dark night? I honestly don’t recall. But I do remember that the MGA’s floorboard was wood, and that belt probably would have ripped right through it in a violent flip, despite the large washers I used to secure its anchors. Further, the MGA’s windshield frame was flimsy, to say the least. So, belted in or not, that was one of many times in my life when the driving survival gods were smiling on me.

That old MGA was truly cool for school if a bit rusty, slow, and unreliable. After a year with it, I was lusting for something more powerful and threatening to trade it for an older Corvette. I even checked out a couple of not-so-cherry ’54 and ’55 Corvettes. Then my dad (bless his car-loving heart), on a business trip to Detroit, found a nice ’57 Corvette for sale by a couple who needed the money and talked them down to (as I recall) just $1500. It was a black base car with a white convertible top, a detachable hardtop, a 245bhp twin-4-barrel 283 V-8, and a two-speed Powerglide automatic. He brought it home, and we sold the MGA.

That Corvette was even cooler, much faster, and potentially more treacherous. I somehow survived my high-school senior year with it, but that’s a story for another time.

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