As the ClassicCars.com Journal launches Import Car Month, each of my 'foreign' sports cars provides its own variations of wonder and woe
Editor’s note: November is Import Month on the ClassicCars.com Journal. Get all the news you could ever need about Italian, German, English, French, Japanese and lots of other cars at our dedicated page.
Two little red sports cars share space in my garage these days, serving to bracket my lifelong obsession with agile two-seaters that you can fling along winding roads.
The one I’ve had the longest is a 1970 MGB roadster, which I bought in 1979 after years of craving an MG; I’d seen MGTC and MGTD sports cars running around when I was just little. To me, they were simply “sports cars,” and I would call them out whenever I spotted one.
My dad, a Chevy guy, would roll his eyes and mutter his usual short comment: “Back in the old days, cars had wire wheels and running boards. Now, you have to pay extra for them.”
The other car is a 1962 Porsche 356B Super coupe, which I’ve owned just over eight years. It’s my first German car that I’ve consistently enjoyed, having had a couple of disastrous Volkswagens in my past. But this one is a definite keeper.
So there it is, my earliest and my latest sports cars, hanging out together in the garage in some spirit of international détente. Except, of course, when one of them is out for a drive.
While many people believe that an English car is a maintenance nightmare and that a German one is as reliable as sunrise, I find neither concept to be totally true. The MG has never given me an undue amount of trouble, and the Porsche does require consistent upkeep, although not much more than the usual old-car issues.
The MG traces back to the beginning of my car craze. As a teenager, one of my best buddies had an MGA roadster, which we drove all over the place. It looked cool, sounded cool, and it was too much fun to drive. Later on, I knew a girl who had a spanking new MGB, and that was it for me.
Sure, I had some brief relationships with Italian cars and German cars, but British cars were my thing. That, and British motorcycles, my favorite being the 1965 BSA 650 Lightning that I rode to college.
Since I was chronically of limited means, my British sports car lust went unfulfilled for years. Mostly, I drove American compacts – including a memorable 1963 Dodge Dart convertible – or inexpensive Japanese cars that were stone reliable but rusted out badly in the Northeast winters.
Finally, I achieved Nirvana and bought a used MGB… and it turned out to be a total heap. So much for Nirvana. But I slaved over it and nursed it back to health, repaired its rusty bits, and turned it into a reasonably reliable daily driver, much unlike what you’d expect from the terrible reputation of British cars.
My MGB never let me down (although there were a couple of roadside repairs) and never really had a serious breakdown. The infamous Lucas electrics are troublesome, naturally, although mostly confined to the cheaply made plastic switches that were forever going bad and were expensive to replace.
My headlight switch went out so many times, I replaced it with a dune-buggy toggle switch that fit in the space and looks much cooler. Oh, and it never broke again.
Yes, my MGB drips oil despite every gasket and seal being replaced in the rebuilt engine, and most of them in the transmission. The solution: a large drip pan on the garage floor.
The thing about British cars and motorcycles is that to truly appreciate them, you have to learn to accommodate, and even enjoy, their idiosyncrasies. It goes along with the self-effacing humor of the British.
I really do love some of the interesting and anachronistic engineering solutions of these vehicles. Real vintage car stuff. You have to understand how to take care of these cars or they will fail you.
And then there are the jokes:
When does a British car not drip oil?
After it all runs out.
Why do the British drink warm beer?
Although, those more-well-heeled British-car owners with pristine Jaguars, Aston Martins, Bentleys and such don’t find their cars to be particularly amusing.
The highest I went up the English-car food chain was a 1967 Austin Healey 3000 Mk III, a totally cool car (with much of the same issues as its brethren MGs) that I owned for a number of years. Until one day in 2010 when I traded it with a classic car dealer friend for the Porsche 356.
My Brit-car friends were aghast, thinking that I’d gone over to the dark side.
The Porsche is a different trip from that of the MG, although it also has an oil pan on the garage floor under its flat-4 engine. Its Teutonic solidity and innovative engineering makes its garage mate seem rather Stone Age.
But as my biker friends liked to say when confronted with an unfamiliar machine, “It’s all nuts and bolts.” Although in this case, switching from the SAE nuts and bolts of the British cars to the metrics of the Porsche.
While I’ve always liked and admired 356s, owning one was never on my radar. Until I spotted this Ruby Red cutie and knew it was meant to be.
Like the MGB, the 356 was something of a train wreck when I got it. But as it turns out, that introduced me to something else I really like about the Porsche: the club support. Our local club, with the creative name of the Arizona 356 Outlaws, is welcoming and includes knowledgeable members who are more than willing to help out.
One of them, a professional mechanic named Brian Lum (well-known in the Porsche community), absolutely pulled my fat out of the fire with this car in my early days of ownership, when it turned out to need some serious engine and transmission repairs. He made it all better.
Other handy members of the club are available for whenever I have questions about maintenance and repairs. Some of it is mysterious and arcane, as Porsche stuff tends to be.
I did have an MG guru for a number of years, who helped me out immeasurably, but he was forced to close his shop. Now I’m pretty much on my own, aside from the blessings of YouTube.
Comparing ownership of these cars is not quite apples and oranges. They are both made purely for fun with no pretenses of practicality (the Porsche does have a rudimentary back seat, but fit only for small children), they both run well (with occasional ministrations), and they both have their own variety of foibles with which you have to deal.
One thing I like less about the 356 is how often you have climb underneath it to fix anything. Not having a full-on lift in my garage is a problem. I just replaced the brake master cylinder in the Porsche, which required lying under the car and was much more awkward than replacing the one in my MGB, which I have done.
The electrical system on the 356 is not exactly a problem, but is it 6 volts, which has its own challenges. I need to be in the habit of going around and cleaning off the contacts of such things as fuses, light bulbs and push-on connectors, which will not conduct with corrosion blocking the way of the feeble current.
Otherwise, the 6-volt electrics work quite well. I did have to install a voltage converter to put in a 12-volt vintage-style radio. The MGB is 12 volt and, thankfully, not positive ground as in earlier models.
But otherwise, the Porsche appears to be an altogether superior car. Granted, these were far more expensive “luxury” sports cars in their day, compared with such British competition as the MGA or Triumph TR3. You can tell that the car is better built and that its components are well-engineered and made to last.
The Porsche is far more valuable today, having about doubled in value during my time with it. Actually, that’s one of the prime reasons I still have the MGB; these cars have never been worth much, especially for one in driver condition like mine. My feeling was: why sell a perfectly good MGB for a few thousand dollars?
I would trust either the MGB or the 356 on a road trip, although the Porsche rides better on the highway and seems less likely to break down without warning. The Porsche is therefore the go-to car in most instances.
One major caveat here. The MG is a convertible and I do like driving with the top down. Although in true MG fashion, the top is an ordeal to erect if the weather calls for it.
Like the MG, there is an element of humor in the 356. Their inverted-bathtub styling earns them Tub nicknames, and their simple air-cooled, opposed-4 engines are not exactly powerhouses, unless seriously tweaked.
Unlike most classic cars, 356s are still acceptable even when looking just this side of “barn-find” condition, and while there are concours queens, most 356s are driven and enjoyed in every sort of condition, good, bad or ugly.
While I still admire cars from the UK, I’ve pretty much bought into the Porsche world, and the cars and people that inhabit it. I’m not a total Porsche zealot (I now know a bunch of them), but I do think that from my experience, a nice 356 or a well-sorted early 911 is about as good as it gets when it comes to classic car ownership.