I have owned my 1949 MG TC since 1967, buying it with help from my mother when I was only 16. It was in such a poor state that my father negotiated to buy it for £60. When he had driven it home, he said “you are not driving this, it’s a death trap”. Working as a mechanic’s assistant for my father, we stripped the car down to the chassis, made good all the running gear and re-wired it. A brush coat of paint, but still with a clapped-out engine, I had a car that looked reasonable and at least steered and braked OK.
By 1976, I was working as a Researcher at Manchester University and had earned sufficient money to rebuild the engine and do a better job on the body. My mother stripped all the paint. I spent a few weeks with an adze and spoke shave replacing the rotten timbers, finally respraying it with an electric paint gun. My TC was now a more reliable car I could use every day.
That summer, while on a European holiday, I saw a Triumph TR4A driving along with UK number plates. Two very happy looking occupants were enjoying driving with the hood down.
Some readers may remember that back in the 1970s, there was rivalry between MG and Triumph owners. The MGs were the first sports cars and had led the drive to sell 2- seater sports cars in America. From a MG owner’s perspective, Triumph had “jumped on the bandwagon” and their cars lacked the MG’s prestige. Without a visible chassis, they were not properly “bolted together”. Triumph owners, perhaps with some justification, felt that the MGs were outdated and had not moved with the times. As a MG owner, my first thought on seeing this TRIUMPH in Europe was, “how has it managed to drive so far without falling to pieces”. My second thought, “if a TRIUMPH can make the trip, certainly a solid, reliable MG TC can”. This was the motivation for my European tour.
The following year, I managed to persuade my wife-to-be that touring Europe in a nearly 30-year-old, open top sports car was a really good idea. Needless to say, her father was vehemently against the idea. Fortunately for me, she agreed to come with me. To Christine’s credit, over the years, she has travelled many miles in the TC on various tours and trips. Her only complaint is that I never put the hood up, unless it is pouring with rain.
In 1977, the European Union did not exist. Countries all had their own currencies and driving rules. In France you still needed yellow headlight adapters. You also had to be very careful on the roads because of the “Priorité a droite” rule. In Italy, tax on petrol was so high, that as a visitor you had to purchase “vouchers” in the UK to use when you bought petrol.
I still remember the argument when buying these vouchers from the Post Office. In Italy they had 2 grades of petrol. “Cheap” about 88 RON for their motor bikes and Apes and 95 RON for the cars. With little money, (we were saving to get married), and before I realised the difference between MOM and RON, I tried to buy the vouchers for the “Cheap” petrol. At the Post Office, I argued, “my car will run on 82 octane petrol!” (oops! MOM that is, about 92 RON!), “running on the Cheap grade will wreck your engine”, was the response, “in all honesty, I cannot sell you them”. In the end, a compromise, 50/50 cheap and normal vouchers. Very lucky for me. Read on to find out why.
Ed’s note: The “Apes” referred to in the text, one of which is pictured, is the Piaggio Ape, a three-wheeled light commercial vehicle manufactured and marketed by Piaggio as an adaptation of the company’s Vespa scooter and introduced in 1949.
In 1977, there were no mobile phones, credit or cash cards. You had to order currency and traveller’s cheques from the bank. When you collected (or cashed them in), you had to arrive with your passport and sign them all in front of a cashier; something I do not miss! To make matters worse, in 1977 there was still a limit in place on how much money you could take abroad with you. So, we started our European adventure with a relatively meagre, fixed budget.
Armed with expensive European breakdown cover, a carefully stashed wad of currency notes, traveller’s cheques and petrol vouchers, we were ready to go. Saturday morning at 5am, luggage rack fitted and part loaded with my case and a tent, I set off to collect Christine. She was ready with her small suitcase, as ‘instructed’, but had a large pillow under her arm. “There’s no space for that”, I protested. “No pillow, no me”, said Christine. I reluctantly accepted. Christine travelled all the way sitting on her pillow.
We were booked on the afternoon Hovercraft crossing, reached by travelling from Manchester to Dover on the M1, North Circular, Dartford tunnel and A2. No M25 in those days. A journey I would not consider now, even with my 5-speed gear box.
For those who have never used it, the Hovercraft was a real experience. You were treated like aircraft passengers and greeted by stewardesses as you got out of your car. The one meeting us, peered at the number plate and said “it is a really old car, it does not have a letter at the end”. By 1977, most cars had a letter K or one later in the alphabet at the end of their number plates. It is somewhat ironic that an “old fashioned” car has outlived, what was then, leading technology, the Hovercraft!
Half an hour or so later, we disembarked in France. Back in 1977, very few people in Europe attempted to speak in English. To make matters worse, neither Christine nor I spoke Italian, French, German, or for that matter any European language. Our only hope was a smattering of “school French” and a stack of phrase books. The first problem arose when we tried to get accommodation for our first night. A mistake with our currency conversion and the tendency of the French to use a “,” rather than a “.” to denote a decimal, made us think one night would cost most of our meagre allowance.
We soon realised our error and settled down to a pleasant (and dry) drive south through France. Stopping at hotels. Christine, an excellent navigator, quickly managed the art of folding large maps in the slipstream of an open car. Keeping us on the small scenic roads, avoiding motor ways was a real challenge, especially in the towns. SatNavs did not start to appear for another 20 years.
We occasionally found ourselves on roads with the sign “chasse deforme”, not easy to drive along with the TC’s legendary steering. We did not realise at the time, that some 40 years later, it would become a feature of most of the roads in the UK!
We reached the Alps – the TC performed impeccably, climbing the St Bernard pass with little difficulty.
We had calculated the cost of the petrol in Italy, with the vouchers, was cheaper than in France. With a nearly empty tank we coasted most of the way down into Italy. Something, not recommended with modern cars as you lose both the power steering and servo assisted brakes.
Aren’t old MGs wonderful?
Our first real problem of the trip came when we coasted into an Italian petrol station. It had two attendant operated pumps, “cheap” and “normal”. I stopped next to the “cheap” pump, opened the tank and gestured to the attendant to fill it up. No luck, not even when I showed him the vouchers. Just a torrent of Italian, accompanied by a great deal of hand waving. Even Christine with her phrase book achieved nothing. Eventually, he strode over to the “normal” pump, took the nozzle out of its holder and rather forcefully indicated I should reverse the car. I followed his instructions and he filled up the tank with petrol, no problem. Fortunately, thanks to the man at the post office, we also had some “normal” petrol vouchers we could use. The “cheap” and “normal” petrol vouchers were not interchangeable! That evening we decided he had been telling us that a “beautiful car”, like a MG TC, “should only be run on normal petrol”.
This was not the last encounter we had with the “excitable” Italians. At one camp site we had parked outside the café waiting for the site to open. As we were sitting there, drinking our beer, a group of Italians gathered around the car. It soon became clear an argument was brewing. A great deal of hand waving and shouting. Attracted by the discussion, the group became bigger. When it had got to about 20 people, somebody pointed at us through the café window. Yes, two English people in Italy do “stick out like sore thumbs”.
And yes, a large posse came over to the café and almost dragged me outside to the TC. One of them pointed at the bonnet and signaled for me to open it. I felt I would be risking my life if I did not. I obliged. A large, ferocious looking man pointed at the air filter and shouted “compressore”. The, more friendly looking man he had been arguing with, shook his head and said equally forcibly, “non compressore”. They both stood and looked at me expectantly. Guessing they meant “supercharged”, I meekly said “non compressore”, fearing the worse. All that happened was the second man patted me on the back and the group dispersed, apparently now discussing the benefits of Italian sports cars over classic MGs. We had been warned the Italians could be quite excitable, even so, it gave us quite a scare. We did not know it then but the worse scare was still to come!
The next problem was in Rome. I’m sure you have heard the phrase “All roads lead to Rome”. Well, yes, they did when we visited….even from the centre!
The picture shows the TC parked outside the Coliseum. Despite Christine’s best efforts at navigation, we must have gone around the same junction in the centre of Rome 5 or 6 times! Finally, we gave up and based our navigation on the sun (fortunately, there were no clouds). At every turn we just kept the sun behind us, eventually emerging from Rome to the North East.
I am sure the “oldies” amongst us will remember the problems with traveller’s cheques. You had to pay a fee to cash them in, and you got a very poor exchange rate. Any notes left at the end of your trip could be changed back to £££s, at an equally exorbitant rate. The net result was you could easily lose a considerable percentage of your money in exchange costs. One way to counter this, was to get low value cheques and only change the minimum into local currency. A good strategy? Normally, yes – except when you have used most of your petrol driving round and round Rome and you are getting low on local currency. Even though it was a Monday, all the banks, petrol stations, shops, indeed everything, was closed. A religious holiday.
By the time we left Rome, the 2.5 gallon warning light had been on for some time, coupled with very little Italian lire, we were getting more than a little concerned. ‘Mr Confidence’ (me) said “we will be OK” and we drove on. Amazingly, we found a camp site before we ran out of petrol.
Lesson number 2 in Italy… the cheapest item on the menu is not always the least expensive! At the restaurant we ordered a steak to share. The menu suggested it apparently only cost a few lire. Problem was that it was horse steak and the price was per 100g. As we chewed our way through what was apparently half a horse, we worried whether we had enough money to pay the bill. In the event we did, but it only left us with 50 lire, (about 30 pence).
That evening we were stranded. No petrol, no money, in a camp site just North of Rome. Remember, no credit or cash cards to bail us out. To be continued…