“Now, if you owned a classy car like that, I might consider marrying you,” my father-in-law’s future bride said to him as the pair walked by his gleaming red 1954 MG TF Midget. About half a century later, the car’s still in the family.
(Full disclosure: I wanted to share with you the history and driving experience of my father-in-law’s 1954 MG TF Midget, so I asked him if I could borrow it and damned if he didn’t say yes.)
This 1954 MG TF happens to be a 1250cc, and as I noted, it also happens to belong to my wife’s parents.
My father-in-law, Creighton, or Creig to his friends and admirers, was born and raised on the Chesapeake Bay in Eastern Shore Maryland. It was there that he developed his interest in all things mechanical, and from there it wasn’t hard for him to become a car enthusiast.
After doing a stint in the Army at the end of the Korean War he decided to ditch the East Coast and check out what prospects there might be for a young rake out in sunny California.
A number of cross-country trips ensued, the last few of which were undertaken in a 1957 Jaguar XK140 MC OTS which Creig had outfitted with a utilitarian trailer hitch.
In case you’re not up to the penny on your Jag models, that MC designation identified that XK140 as one with the C-type head and the more burly 210 HP power plant. That obviously made the towing all the more effortless.
Now as you would imagine, a five-year-old Jag that had that been wrung out on several cannonball-style runs across these United States—especially towing a small box trailer—is not going to end up being the most reliable of day-to-day transport options.
This was something that Creig would find out firsthand in 1962. It was while driving to class at Glendale Junior College, which sits just northeast of downtown Los Angeles, that the Jag crapped out in the middle of Verdugo Boulevard, just within sight of the campus.
This wasn’t entirely surprising as Creig has related to me the engine had been making forewarning noises for some time. Still, an expensive car versus a student’s income will invariably lead to sitting in the middle of a busy thoroughfare lamenting that you’re missing classes to inhale roadside soot.
What happened next was quite remarkable, in fact it was so unexpected that it could easily have been a scene out of some Hollywood screwball comedy. While Creig was sitting there, in the middle of Verdugo Boulevard in the now static art installation Jag, up pulled an MG TF—the very TF in these photos.
The TF’s owner sympathized with Creig’s situation and then said he’d always wanted a Jag, as he considered them to be the most beautiful cars on the planet.
Seizing the initiative, Creig told his new best friend that he would gladly trade him the 140 for the TF—and some cash—right that very moment. Amazingly, guy bit, and off they went to the DMV to make it all nice and legal. The Jag’s new owner had to deal with getting it towed and likely having the engine rebuilt. Still, pretty car!
Shortly thereafter he also picked up a little Triumph Spitfire, and soon after that he started dating the young woman who would eventually become my future wife’s mom. She was also attending Glendale college at the time, and was not someone easily swayed by a swain with little more than a smooth line and a bouncy, drafty Spitfire.
And as our story began, it was the TF, in fact, that finally sealed the deal and got her to accept Creig’s proposal.
It was after a date well into their courtship, while walking back to his apartment from the Spitfire that they had to park aways down the street that he brought up the question of matrimony. My mother-in-law to be stymied him by saying that she couldn’t possibly marry someone who didn’t have the means to provide for her.
In her mind a plucky little Spitfire wasn’t emblematic of a man of sufficient prospects to support a family. Walking past the TF, glinting in the late afternoon sun, she pointed at it and said, “now, if you owned a classy car like that, I might consider marrying you.”
Having not yet mentioned to her that the TF indeed already belonged to him, he reveled in the sweet, sweet setup. He stopped and, looking her in the eyes earnestly and with all the conviction he could muster said, “marry me and that car shall be yours!” A smoother line was never spoken, and shortly thereafter they were wed.
A year or so after that and my wife was born. Shortly following that however, the TF suffered an ignominious, and long-lasting fate.
By this time it was the late 1960s and my wife’s family was living in a canyon community of the rugged San Gabriel foothills known as Pasadena Glen. Their house sat up a short slope on the narrow canyon wall and below that was a riverstone and concrete garage cut into the hill. The MG called this building its home.
Now, Pasadena Glen has had its share of what could very well be considered biblical plagues. The homeowners there regularly suffered bouts of flooding, fires, mudslides, rattlesnakes, coyotes, and having hippies as neighbors.
It was in early 1969 that a deluge literally took the canyon by storm. The burbling creek that snaked its way along the one-lane road at the bottom of the narrow coulee was quickly turned into a roaring torrent by the downpour. That flood soon turn into a fast moving slurry slide, taking with it mother nature’s detritus— uprooted trees, boulders, and—mostly—mud.
This all proved bad news for our hapless little MG. The road-level garage was no protection from the fast moving flow as mud and sand quickly pushed into the open garage, and then under the car.
The mud and dreck was sufficiently solid enough to lift the TF fully off the garage floor. It lifted it so high, in fact, that that the car’s nose was crushed against the low concrete ceiling.
Further damage was caused by a little Honda motorcycle and a stand-up freezer pinballing around the unlucky car in the muck.
When it was all over, the jaunty British roadster was battered and bruised, and had been turned into the world’s saddest mud-encrusted pancake.
It took several days to free the road outside the garage of mud and debris, and even longer to dig, and eventually pull, the MG out of its temporary tomb with a backhoe.
The car was then unceremoniously moved to a spot next to a horse stable at the top of the canyon. There, insult was added to injury as neighborhood kids used the wrecked car for target practice, breaking instrument faces and adding dents and dings by throwing rocks at it from across the canyon.
That’s where the car sat, out in the elements, for 11 years untill my wife’s family made the move out of Pasadena Glen to a home in the flatlands down below in Pasadena proper.
The MG made the trip as well, sitting outside of the rickety garage that was originally part of their new property. It then kept watch as that was torn down (you should have seen the rats flee the collapsing building!). It stood by stoically during the construction of my father-in-law’s new garage, a nine-car shrine to all things automotive. Ten cars if you count the Lotus Elan stuck in the rafters
There the MG stayed until early 1992. Then, more than 23 years since the canyon’s pitiless attempt on its life, the TF was on the move once more.
This time it was to the city of Vista, a suburb of San Diego, just northwest of downtown. This was where a restoration specialist would take the car down to its frame, clear out two decades of coprolite-like muck and mud, and eventually restore the MG to its former glory.
In December of that year it made its way back home. There, sitting on the gravel driveway and wearing a large green bow, the MG was once again presented to my mother-in-law, this time as a Christmas gift. As you can see from the pictures, it’s held up pretty well over the course of the many years since, and has taken first place at numerous car shows across Southern California.
What’s it Like to Drive?
Now, take a gander at how pretty and, dare I say it, classy, this restored TF looks. The Tartan Red paint set off against a biscuit interior and cloth top proves an elegant combination and a nice canvas for all the chrome detailing.
The car rides on a 94-inch wheelbase and tips the scales at a modest 2,014 pounds. The chassis is a steel ladder upon which an ash-framed steel body is mounted.
The 1250 cc XPAG offers a full 57 horsepower in the TF and that makes the car capable of a top speed just shy of 80 mph. Zero to 60 romps take a sensibly-English 18 seconds, and there are drum brakes at all four corners that serve to reel all that in eventuall.
No, those are not the kind of numbers that serve to instill great enthusiasm these days, and you may in fact be wondering just what it was about MGs that U.S. service men found so appealing after World War II.
You know how you’ve always heard that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow? This car is a beautiful execution of that ethos. Driving the MG TF is totally like taking a happy little puppy out for a walk.
You start up the TF just like you would any other car: You swing open the rear-hinged “suicide” door, plunk your butt down, pull out the choke, twist the key to the on position, and then give a quick yank on the starter knob.
The plucky engine pops gleefully to life, offering more intake noise than any mechanical maelstrom. You do have to give it about half a minute to wipe the sleep from its eyes before closing the choke and blipping the light throttle to ensure everything’s ready to rock.
You tug on to the hand brake to release it as it’s a fly-away style. The first thing you notice getting underway is the clutch: it’s heavier than you expect, and takes up at about halfway through the pedal arc. Nonetheless it’s easy to master fairly quickly.
The same can’t be said for the four-speed. It’s a traditional pattern but the gate is narrow and the synchro on third on this one is a bit of bear. You have to really work on your cadence of foot and wrist to make it all work smoothly, but within a couple of blocks I think I had it down.
Steering is where the car really shows its mettle. The rack and pinion unit gives excellent feedback and the car just plain goes where you aim it.
With some real time with the car to myself, I discovered a couple of funny things about the TF. There isn’t a proper fuel gauge on the car, just a light that glows when the tank has gotten to a point where the nearest gas station is just beyond reach.
If you want to use the wipers, there’s a knob in each dash cubby to activate their sloth-like action. The one on the left serves as the wiper switch, and you have to manually park them once you’re done.
People get to see a lot of you working that wheel thanks to the car’s cut-down doors and open bodywork. That also provides for a unique experience from the driver’s perspective, and it’s about as close to the openness of a motorcycle as I’ve ever been while behind the wheel.
The predominate noise when driving is gear whine from the transmission just next to your calf, and the differential just under your right butt cheek. And yes, I know I look a bit trollish in that shot above... sorry about that.
But what you can’t see is how much fun I’m having in the low-slung driver’s seat of this thing. Turning the key ignites a cool piece of automotive history, and the history of my family as well.
The TF is pretty, and it’s a riot on the road. But what really makes this one special is how it’s been an important fixture in people’s lives for about half a century. It lived, died, and lives again. It brought my in-laws together. And as long as we have memories with it, it’ll never stop bringing joy.