Pulling left a lane to pass the lumbering parade of trucks on the gently curving slope, I tap just a touch more gas in, and the little MG jumps like I’ve cracked a whip. I’m winding my way northbound on the Redwood Highway with the top down on. The wind is in my ears, and it’s a day like the one this car was dreamed for. Low to the ground and close-coupled, the MG Midget lets you feel not only the sun, wind and sky, but the road, too. Every blessed crack, bump, pothole or groove in this ribbon of asphalt and concrete that threads its way from the Golden Gate Bridge, through the Marin Highlands, and out into the fertile Sonoma Valley.
I’m bundled up in my grad school bomber jacket – leather seems to be the only thing that really cuts the wind – and slung down with the Midge’s recling seat as far back as it’ll go. The rumble, no, whine of those little four cylinders drives the soundtrack of this roadtrip; asphalt rushes by just a few feet below, as I chart course and navigate the flotilla of land yachts and SUVs towering above. They glance down with surprise from their perches, enclosed in air-conditioned steel and glass; I look up with a toothy grin, not quite getting beaten to death by my own hair. I can read the nearly-universal response in their faces: damn, that looks fun!
And it is. Wouldn’t want to cross the country this way – there’s a lot to be said for quiet, smooth, air-conditioned enclosures – but on a day like this, there’s no better car to be driving.
I think what I like best about the Midget is its lack of pretension. It’s the anti-Ferrari. Not that there’s anything wrong with a Ferrari, but it’s an agressive vehicle. It exudes attitude and positively demands respect. You see a middle aged guy like me driving a Ferrari, and you can’t help but wonder if he’s trying too hard. Trying to make up for some deep-seated insecurity, trying to chase down the fleeing memory of youth, trying… I don’t know – just trying to be something.
When you pull up next to the guy in the Ferrari, you pause and try to think of something to say. Something that will show that you, too, are cool, that will endear you to the privileged elite whose world has, for this moment, drawn close to yours.
(In all fairness, though: offer me the keys to your Ferrari, and I’ll bet I can be tearing down 101 in it before you’ve had the chance to blink.)
The Midget, on the other hand, says “Hey, I’m comfortable with myself.” When you pull up next to someone in an MG, it invites a different kind of communion. Old guys in mile-long Cadillacs, young toughs in their bling-spanked cruisers. Sometimes it’s just a smile. Sometimes they roll their windows down and call over: “Sweeeeeeeet, man!” And there are always questions – “What year is she?” “How long have you owned it?” – and sometimes reminiscence: “Oh man, my first car was an MG. I remember when…”
On the road at 60 mph, there’s no chance talk, but people still try to connect. An old Chevy locks into position, one lane over and 15 feet back; I know he’s checking me out. When he finally pulls past, he’s smiling ear-to-ear, waving at me like an old friend, and gently shaking his head like he’s remembering a summer day like this from many years ago. I smile and wave back – yeah, I remember that summer, I do.
By now, the Marin Hills have played out into farm country, and three buzzcut boys – on leave from the army? – in a massive farm-hauling pickup truck, pull up to the left and and roll the windows down. I’m eye-level with their hubcaps as one leans out the window and gives a war-whoop with his thumbs-up. I take that as fraternal approval and return the gesture with a salute and a smile.
It’s tiring work, though, driving this car. Twitchy as it is on the road, the old rack and pinion steering is a little sloppy, so you’re constantly making a thousand little corrections to nudge it around, keeping it centered as roadway imperfections and gusts of wind bounce you around the lane. Two hands on the wheel, pretty much all the time, except when reaching for the shift. But it’s exhilirating – it demands your presence, and it rewards you by putting the raw elements of earth and air in motion at your fingertips.
Too soon, the ride is over. We’re in Santa Rosa, where I’m leaving my trusty Midge in the hands of Brian Hall, of Thunderstruck motors for a couple of months. When I get her back, she’ll be different. I’m not going to dwell on the details, because I get too damned sentimental, but we’re converting her to all-electric. No more rattling roar as I floor it down the onramp, no more staccato tailpipe drumbeats on the shift to 4th. No more quiet rumble while waiting for the green.
What I’ve got now is a beautiful little time machine, I know. Some part of me (and plenty o other people) tell me that it’s an awful thing I’m doing. But we bought her with this in mind. Even told Tom and Katie, her former owners, and got their blessing (not only am I a nostalgic fool, I’m an anthropomorphising nostalgic fool).
Rolling into the parking lot at Thunderstruck and pulling in next to Brian’s electric Geo, I drop her into neutral and just listen to the quiet purr for a bit. Just a little more, to say goodbye. I’ve been second-guessing myself the whole way up. It isn’t really goodbye – I’ll have her back in a couple of months. She’ll just be different. Quiet. Clean. Eco-friendly. “Altered”.
If not now, I’m never going to be able to do it. Switch off, keys in the pocket, and out I go to find Brian…