Sean Lea 1975 MG Midget

“The MG Test”

My father is a master storyteller. When we were kids, he would always tell my sisters and me about “The MG Test.” On a first date with a girl, he and his buddies would always pick up their dates with their convertible tops down. If the unassuming girl made it through the first date without complaining about her hair, she was a keeper. If she complained… well, you get the rest. Apparently my mom passed “The MG Test,” and that’s why we kids are here today.

In 1996 I was ten years old. One of my favorite things to do when the house was quiet was to sneak into the garage and slip behind the wheel of my father’s 1979 MGB. I would pretend I was driving a racecar, shifting the gears and flying through turns until “click!” My imagination would be interrupted by the steering wheel lock. At which point (not knowing what a steering lock was) I’d hope I hadn’t broken something and hoped it would magically heal itself (and it always did within a few days or a week). It was three years later, at age 13, when that same MGB became the first car I ever drove. In the vacant parking lot of a rural elementary school my father taught me about clutch “take up” and throttle control while shifting. At 13 I was seeing my 10 year old dreams come true.

One year later those dreams came grinding to a halt. My older sister was turning 16 and though she and I had both been squabbling over who would get the MG, we both lost. Admirably, my dad sold the MG to make room to purchase her a safe and reliable car.

It wasn't until the later half of my high school years that my dad began asking what kind of car I wanted for him to send me off into the world in. I wanted something unique and cool. And logically he wanted something reasonable and safe. So with every Chevelle SS and Ranchero I found for sale, it was countered with a “gas milage” or “too many ponies under the hood” rebuttal. As fate would have it, someone at his office knew he was an MG enthusiast and pointed him in the direction of something special. One afternoon, my dad got a goofy smile on his face and said, “Let’s go for a drive.” I had no idea what he was up to, but along the way he kept saying things like, “Now son, we aren’t buying anything today. This is just for fun, like window shopping.” We pulled into the driveway of a house a few miles from our own, and at the end of the drive sat a bright red 1975 Midget. It wasn’t restored. Rather it was a stunning survivor. Not a show car, but well cared for and bearing the patina of a well enjoyed classic sportster. There was no rust, a very clean interior and a shade of red that turned heads.

After all of my dad’s careful caveats on the way there, we went back the next day and brought it home with us. It became my sole daily driver from age 17 well into college. My dad was always supportive through numerous 3AM “out of gas” or “it just won’t start” calls. Regardless, I adored the car. It became something I was known by at school and around town.

Childhood years spent holding the flashlight for my father as he worked under the hood of his ‘79 had taught me one of the most important lessons of working on cars: “Don’t be scared of taking it apart. If it was built by humans, it can be fixed by humans.” However, at the time I wasn’t very mechanically educated and as I slipped into my early 20s, upkeep was becoming increasingly difficult. As a very broke and busy college kid I didn’t have the time to learn to diagnose and fix problems.

Eventually a career in music started keeping me out on tour 250 days a year. The car mostly sat in storage for the better part of my 20s, except for the 2 occasions the Midget came out to be a “getaway car” for the weddings of two of my best friends. Comically, both occasions took great effort on the parts of my friends to successfully “get away” in such a mechanically needy car.

While over half a decade she lay sitting in storage, life on the road was teaching me how to change brakes in a parking lot a thousand miles from home. As the Midget slept in a garage, I was learning to diagnose and change an alternator alone on the side of a Texas interstate in the middle of a tropical depression with no money or cellphone. Moving to a new city alone and ending up with numerous used cars with major problems quickly taught me how to work on engines and diagnose electrical problems. And after every mechanical milestone my mind would be teleported for a moment back to a silent garage in southwest Missouri where a little British car sat patiently and waited for me. It’s there the car would remain until 2018.

During four grueling years in Kansas City, as I built a recording studio from scratch (ironically with one of the 2 friends who drove the car off at his wedding), I met a woman who I was certain I would spend the rest of my life with. Over those four years we became best friends and in the spring of 2018 I asked her to marry me. I realized I it was finally time to make the car run again. The plan was to drive it away at the wedding, then sell the car to help us start our new life together on our feet. A decade later and finally, I would be the one driving the car off from a wedding.

When I finally made it out to that garage in rural southwest MO, enough time had passed I honestly couldn't remember many of the “terrible” problems that “plagued” the car so badly to keep her off the road. As I started to evaluate her wounds I was delighted to realized that problems that seemed ominous to a younger me were quite simply issues of routine maintenance to the average shade tree mechanic. A leaf spring and shackle bushing, a new distributor and coil, and a myriad of other small things and soon the car coughed back to life.

Though my future wife had heard stories and fables of the car since we’d met, she’d never actually seen it until that summer. We spent the entire summer and fall before our wedding driving everywhere we could with the top down. I started to notice just how in love with the car she was. After her first ride with the top down I was informed by her that I most certainly would not be selling the car after the wedding. And just like the old stories my dad told me as a kid, that’s how my wife passed the MG Test.

Fortunately, it wasn’t until the morning after our wedding that the exhaust pipe fell off going down the highway and we had to drag the muffler with deafening open exhaust to a nearby Walmart where baling wire and earplugs saved the day and our honeymoon. Too little too late for my wife to turn back now.

Future plans for the car include (wife approved): Complete suspension damper overhaul.  A 1:3.55 ratio rear end. ⅞” front anti-sway. Front Chrome Bumper conversion. Swapping the Webber DGV to a single HIF44. Light pressure turbo. A gearbox overhaul and an exhaust system that is FINALLY secured with something besides baling wire.