Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

British invasion?

U.K. flavour spices up local auto scene

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Although the lion's share of vehicles on display at Manitoba car shows are typically North American models, more and more British imports are making the rounds in the local scene.

It may be a bit of a stretch to bill it as a full-scale British invasion, but there's no denying that the popularity of these sporty imports is gaining steam. The popular BBC television show Top Gear has certainly opened many North American auto enthusiasts' eyes up to the wonder of British cars and last Sunday more than 30 members from the Austin Healey Club of Manitoba and the Triumph Drivers Club of Manitoba displayed their unique vehicles at the Grant Park Pony Corral's weekly Sunday-night cruise.

In addition to vintage Triumph and Austin Healey cars, other British legends in attendance included models from Jaguar, Mini, MG, Austin and even Rolls-Royce.

Roger Morcilla is the president of the Austin Healey club and the proud owner of a stunning 1960 Austin Healey 3000. He purchased the car in 2005 and spent more than four years restoring it to better-than-new condition. "I remember seeing these cars in James Bond movies or old Elvis movies when I was a kid," said Morcilla, "they have beautiful lines and are small and easy to work on." Morcilla was quick to point out that restoring an Austin Healey can be an expensive proposition. He's been able to afford his car because he did the majority of the restoration in his well-equipped home garage. He did all of the work on the car himself except for the paint -- it was masterfully applied by Jamie Romanchuck of Warren, Man. "There are people who have spent more than $100,000 restoring similar cars," said Morcilla.

There is, however, no need to be discouraged if you want to get into the British car hobby. Although rare machines like an Austin Healey are expensive, models from both Triumph and MG can be restored for roughly the same amount of money as similar vintage North American cars, and the parts are readily available. In fact, many of the models built by both MG and Triumph were imported to Canada and the United States and are actually easier to come by here than they are in the U.K.

Peter Foreman, a member of the Triumph Drivers Club, had his ultra-clean 1976 Spitfire on display. According to Foreman, his Spitfire was bought new here in Winnipeg at Burnell Motors by a local couple in St. James, who passed it down to their son. Legend has it the car has travelled to California, British Columbia and all over Manitoba. "I had been looking for a Spitfire for many years and all the ones that I found were full of rust," said Foreman. "I was lucky enough to be able to pick up this car, it was in decent shape but still needed quite a bit of work." The factory-correct Inca Yellow paint was sourced out locally by Rondex and the car was painted by MC Painting here in Winnipeg. The interior was ordered from Moss Motors by Classic Motors of Winnipeg and the work was performed in Foreman's home garage with help from his wife Heather. The motor was in good mechanical shape and only required a new alternator and a tune-up. "Today, other than the Mini-Lites and a new steering wheel the car is back to original shape," added Foreman. "For the last four years it has been driven, mainly trouble-free, to different events and as a daily driver on sunny days."

Perhaps the most telling tale of the increasing popularity of British cars occurred when Piston Ring's World of Wheels car show chairman Bob Chubala selected Dennis and Sandra Watson's stunning 1959 MGA coupe as one of the four finalists for the coveted Cruise Night Challenge award. The finalists will all be on display at this year's World of Wheels and the lucky winner will receive not only bragging rights but a pile of great prizes and even a cash award. The Watsons purchased their MGA online from a seller in Oregon and were thrilled with the car's amazing condition. "We had it shipped to North Dakota and drove it home from there," said Dennis. It is best described as museum-quality, but this one hasn't been under wraps, thanks to the amazing weather we've been having, the couple has already driven it more than 2,000 kilometres this summer.

It was a nice change to rub shoulders with British car enthusiasts, and the knowledge these folks possess about their respective rides resulted in an impromptu history lesson.

"Often when we show up at car shows the crowd isn't familiar with our cars," added Morcilla, "but once we start talking about them, people's eyes light up and they remember cars like the old Austin their grandfather had on the farm. They were cheap on gas and easy to maintain and farmers loved them."

willy@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 2, 2011 F7

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