Friday, December 28, 2012

Smoke, Smolder and Ignite - Welcome to British Cars

I've had more than one British automobile worm it's way into my garage, and my heart.

It started in the Serengetti.  A Land Rover. So many switches, but fortunately, no matter which one I tried, the same thing happened. Nothing. It had all kinds of gauges, most there to fill up a hole in the dash, many unlabeled, which would be the automotive equivalent of "Door Number 3!"

I thought for a moment of flipping one labeled "FAN".  Rumors were a pilot had done that once and was never seen again. I knew better, getting back to base just as the light faded completely. For a moment I thought I'd light a match to see how much gas I had left before noting most of the vehicle was full of cans of gas (for when the gauge went in one nano-second from Full to Empty), I think not.

But I survived that little mission and the Rover wagon. . . .

Only to come home and find one in my garage Not a Rover, but a little Triumph in need of some restoring. OK. I hadn't planned on it. It was given to me for a little flying job I did that the person didn't have the money to pay for when his wife split. OK. It was worth  more than he owed me, even in the condition it was in, so why not?  It needed a new clutch plate, paint and some spiffing up, but really, everything works, it just needs a new battery.

New battery? Check. New clutch plate?  I can do that!  No, I can do that after pulling the whole $&#* transmission out with help. Then it was time to work on the wiring.  When you have a British car it's ALWAYS time to work on the wiring. I did not do it well. My entire wiring experience at that time, was the ability to draw the entire electrical system of a Boeing 727 on a cocktail napkin after 3 beers and old movies where someone with wire cutters  is saying "red wire, blue wire?" while sweat beads down their brow and something is ticking.

The automobile ended up as Day VFR only. I had figured the lights were the "blackout" version that was common during the War, and my car someone came with them standard.

I tried different things, including the familiar grey shape of rolled welding technology.  Once in a while the brake lights would blink at me like a firefly, but never when the brakes were actually applied.

Oh, but soon I was besotted, with bits and pieces of British car all over the shop floor and de-greaser in my shower, myself curled up in the Lotus position, wedged there under the dash muttering "OHM" as my meditative mantra. It wasn't long before I'd heard many things about Mr. Lucas, especially about him being the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper.

If you've not seen one, it's something to beyold. There's the wonder of the wiper trembling before you, hesitant to move, to break that spell, then suddenly, with a leap of faith, it flings itself upon the glass, back and forth in its death throes, then stillness and tears of rain against the glass for such a brief life. That sort of thing makes you believe in a higher power (and Rain-X and Triple AAA).

If you can't find one or afford one,  you too can have the experience.  Go rent the smallest car you can find and take it out on a completely isolated, uninhabited country road.  Turn down the radio so you can hear all the new sounds.  Roll down your window, turn off ALL the lights and start flinging new Twenty Dollar bills out the window while your passenger flicks a Bic lighter on and off somewhere near the dash as you attempt to maintain centerline at varying high speeds and sounds that range from "Woo Hoo! Autobahn!" to "is that a hard rubber dog toy in my crank case?"  It comes close.

So for my friends,

Miss D., who is coming to visit this weekend with her husband Peter, I present (with a hat tip to my friend Marty in Canada). . . .


Positive ground depends on proper circuit functioning, which is the transmission of negative ions by retention of the visible spectral manifestation known as "smoke". Smoke is the thing that makes electrical circuits work. We know this to be true because every time one lets the smoke out of an electrical circuit, it stops working. This can be verified repeatedly through empirical testing.

For example, if one places a copper bar across the terminals of a battery, prodigious quantities of smoke are liberated and the battery shortly ceases to function. In addition, if one observes smoke escaping from an electrical component such as a Lucas voltage regulator, it will also be observed that the component no longer functions. The logic is elementary and inescapable!

The function of the wiring harness is to conduct the smoke from one device to another. When the wiring springs a leak and lets all the smoke out of the system, nothing works afterward.

Starter motors were considered unsuitable for British motorcycles for some time largely because they consumed large quantities of smoke, requiring very unsightly large wires.

It has been reported that Lucas electrical components are possibly more prone to electrical leakage than their Bosch, Japanese or American counterparts. Experts point out that this is because Lucas is British, and all things British leak. British engines leak oil, British shock absorbers, hydraulic forks and disk brake systems leak fluid, British tires leak air and British Intelligence leaks national defense secrets.

Therefore, it follows that British electrical systems must leak smoke. Once again, the logic is clear and inescapable.

In conclusion, the basic concept of transmission of electrical energy in the form of smoke provides a logical explanation of the mysteries of electrical components especially British units manufactured by Joseph Lucas, Ltd.

And remember: "A gentleman does not motor about after dark."

Joseph Lucas "The Prince of Darkness"

So that's it folks, a little HOTR British Car advice. And remember, if you do fall under the spell of one, only to have to sell it,  just remember you can always install a dead battery and blame everything on that. - Brigid


  1. When you ask something of a gent at a Jaguar dealership as I did back in 2001 about a technical aspect of the car and get this: " Sir it is a "Jag U are", well that sums it up right there.

    I do love the thing but totally impractical. The perfect dichotomy of form vs function. When it works however it is sweetness and light! When not, well not so much.

    Enjoy the company this weekend.

  2. Luca, "Prince of Darkness".

    I have worshiped at his altar several times.

    Ya know why the British drink warm beer?
    They have Lucas refridgeration.

  3. How true. My dream at one time was a TR-6. I still love them. But a kindly God decided I shouldn't have one and instead I ended up with a Honda CB-750 motorcycle. Being a Honda, it was the opposite of Triumph. It NEVER broke. And I tried, I really did. So to this day I still love the looks of that TR6 sports car but I am grateful I didn't get it.

    Enjoy your weekend.

  4. As my nephew the electrical engineer say, "Smoke out, can not be put back in." What a sage guy he is.

    Have a great visit

  5. Back in the day I had been enslaved by an XKE coupe, which let the smoke out of sundry components, BSA scooters which dribbled anything liquid, Triumph scooters, dribbler and smoker, and a kool little MGB-GT that assorted nuts and bolts would shake loose.
    Fine, fun machines all.
    The MG refused to accommodate a very pregnant lady, so alas it turned into a station wagon....sigh.

  6. The only cure for elderly European cars is to replace every wire. Once had an AC Bristol that consumed dielectric spray by the case. (Dielectric spray was common in electronic shops to be applied to black and white TV set cathode ray tubes).

  7. I've a friend who used to cobble together bug-eye AH Sprites to run in road rallies.
    Taught me much about Lucas, Prince of Darkness.
    And Jesus pins...

    Fortunately, I've little mechanical or electrical aptitude - my usual function is to fetch the beer.


  8. Peter mentioned a persistent rumor by British servicemen that Lucas got their start making smokescreens in WWII.

    Ah, triumphs - the perfect date cars for teenagers. After all, they'll need to be home before nightfall!

  9. Assuming the "Lotus" position statement has dual meanings when speaking of British automobiles...
    Just ask Bond, James Bond.

  10. That IS a TR6 in your photos isn't it, I am so jealous and if I had nothing more to do with the rest of my life and nothing more to spend my money on then I'd buy one right now, however a thing called life dictates that I cannot do battle with a car all day long - owning a Triumph is like living with a real live wild Tiger, you know it wants to kill you every morning but you still keep trying to get in its cage and feed it by hand.

    The company I worked for in the 1970s had a Triumph Dolomite in its fleet and I would occasionally be fortunate/unfortunate enough to be handed the keys - driving it on anything less than a very straight road was always a lottery and watching the rear of the car move sideways around corners while only the front wheels were pointing in the direction you wished to go in was always a delight, not so to the drivers coming in the opposite direction.

  11. "Smoke out, can not be put back in."

    Balderdash. You just need a tiny funnel.

  12. Electrical Conduction via SMOKE ... I like it :)

  13. Good one and pretty much true... sigh... !963 Jag XKE would NOT start unless I threw water over the engine...

  14. People people having lived all my life in the UK yes i confirm this used to be like that, Triumph Motor bikes they leaked oil when standing so when at home you put a drip tray under the engine and you could always tell where one had been standing by the oil marks on the road we had cars that went round corners as our roads are narrow and twisty mind you some Italian cars rusted for a pass time and there electrics made Lucas look good.When Japenese bikes arrived i remember sitting in a cafe when a 650 Triumph rider
    came in and said in a very loud voice how he had been thrashed by a bloke on a 250 Honda.

  15. About a decade ago I dated an Anglophile and was informed that the mounting brackets on a Corvette engine and the brackets on a Jaguar engine differed by just one bolt. Therefore it was common practice among folks who wanted Jaguar luxury alongside, y'know, actual performance would buy a surplus Corvette engine, have it mounted in the Jag, and sell the Jag engine for parts.

    Because if you're going to buy a luxury car, why not buy a second car while you're at it?

  16. Back in 1975 my best friend and I bought a 59 MGA for $75.00 We never did get the wiring to work good enough to make it run and ended up giving it away. There is still a part of me that would like try it again.

  17. Know an Austin Healy owner who says Lucas wiring is why Brits drink warm beer.

  18. I well remember my 1968 Mk III Spitfire. It had the handy feature of the bonnet and fenders tilting forward so one could sit in the front tyres and tinker with the motor (frequently). The blinky lights made me think of an epileptic Christmas tree! Remember the TV ad with Ginger Lacy-"Like your first love, you never forget your first Spitfire!"

  19. I had a 72 MG Midget, fun because I am 6'4" think of a wearable car.
    On one occasion a large blue light lit on the dash, after consulting several book I discovered that it was an indicator that the dynamo had found earth. Lucas electric British Humor

  20. I survived two affairs, some people call them ownership, with two Land Rovers, who proceeded to give me , fits with electrical gremlins unknown quirks , no starts , no charge.

    One developed , a cooling problem even after new radiator , water pump , and full system pressure test. I chalked it up to having to have them , an infatuation, and should of known better.

    I still look longingly from time , time...... then I remember their true nature.

  21. Laughed so hard...I needed that.

    I was the unfortunate owner of a spiffy little TR6.

    Great car as long as you bought voltage regulators by the half dozen. I could change one in 45 seconds flat.

    I eventually traded it for a Renault. I didn't help myself much.

  22. Now we get to the real reason for having a British sports car. It is so that you have something to do in the shop on a snow day. Have fun tinkering.

  23. Amazing they survived the war. My brother had the parts of three in the back yard of which one was running at any one time.

  24. This holds true to the Fiats as well; I had a couple in the 70's, one a convertible that finally became a planter! Another a wagon with Fred Flintstone floorboard. Can't get too nostalgic about them except that I bought them cheap for winters, as I drove motorcycles 9 months a year.

  25. When I was a kid (in the 70's), our next-door neighbor had a TR-8. It had a bumper sticker that said, "Every part you see falling off this car is of the finest British quality."

  26. Very good commentary. I've been bitten by the Brit bug many times ! I owned (or did they own me ? a TR3, TR4, MGB and a Ducati 350 motorcycle. I did a lot of tinkering to keep them running ! The Italians weren't much better in the electrics department! I've tested the "smoke " theory many times over the years on my vehicles and at work at a telco and it's true !!

  27. I had a fling with a 67 MGB. Like other British cars of that era, it was a wonderful hobby if you like working on cars but terrible transportation. I tricked it up a little and eventually got the left turn signal to work, but only when the windshield wipers were on. When dating my wife she would get a 5 minute warning when I was picking her up as it echoed through the valley. But then there was marriage and then child so the MG had to go. That was 38 years ago and I still want one! I guess you never get over some addictions.


  28. Pshaw.

    Try a Fiat X19.

    The best memory I have of that car is when I coasted to a stop on I-95with thick black smoke rolling from the engine compartment.
    I ripped the license plates off, threw them in the woods, and stuck my thumb out for a ride.

  29. Way back in the day, the owner of the Ship Inn had an XKE V12 one of my housemates was his mechanic. He referred to it as my winter trip to Mexico.

  30. My favorite is a classic two-parter:

    Why do British cars have rear windshield defrosters?

    - To keep your hands warm when you push.

    So why do Englishmen wear driving gloves?

    - Because the defrosters are made by Lucas.

    This reminds me very much of a college road trip with a friend who had a Jensen Healey. All was well, except for the attitude of oncoming traffic when he forgot to dim the headlight (only one worked, so of course he used its high beam whenever possible), for the first few hundred miles.

    Then the engine got quiet.

    He suspected the fuel pump. I had a VOM with me (even then, people were getting into the habit of saving up knotty electrical problems when I seemed likely to visit) and soon enough figured out that it was probably a thermal intermittent. I ran the multimeter leads under the convertible top and, for the next several hundred miles, briefly reconnected power to the fuel pump every time the engine sputtered.

    Fast forward 35 years. A family member recently got a 3-liter Jaguar X-type sedan. A nice car in many ways, but nearly every day brings some new (albeit usually minor) gremlin.

    First the gas door releaser quit doing the one (1) simple thing it is supposed to do. After taking out a fair bit of the trunk liner, I determined that the tip of the far end of it had broken off... and that replacing it, if we choose to do so, will take laparoscopic surgery with the household fiber-optic borescope, as it is in a completely blind and barely accessible position.

    Fortunately pulling it free enabled the door to be opened with fingertips, so the car may continue to be useful beyond the range of the half tankful of gas that was in it when the failure occurred.

    The other day the radio decided to do everything except provide sound output, but engine restart cured that problem -- very fortunate, as the radio is elaborately integrated with the dash. The days of getting a generic unit from the store and slipping it into a standard hole in the instrument panel are long gone in that class of vehicle.

    The on-again/off-again traction control system is off again, as shown by an instrument-panel icon that looks like a Portuguese Man-of-War but is evidently supposed to represent a skidding car. Ah, well; I've been driving 35 years, and the owner 65, without it, and we are both none the worse for wear.

    What seems to be the hydraulic brain box for this system or the antilock brakes is mounted *over* the windshield-washer reservoir, which I know because the reservoir releases its contents into the wild and must be removed for repair.

    Oh, yes, and the air filter housing is held together not with wire bails or spring clips, as most non crazd car designers have been doing for decades, but with seven Philips screws.

    At least the car now starts after more than one day of sitting, which had something to do with taking the positive battery connectors apart, cleaning off the greenish-blue growths right out of Invasion of the Terminal Snatchers, and spraying the newly bared metal with anti-corrosion compound before reassembling.

    Admittedly, complaining about one's Jaguar is what a friend would call "a First World problem." However, it was designed and built in the First World and cost a good deal of First World currency, so it seems reasonable to expect that First World problems should be solved.

    Worse, a fair comparison falls readily to hand. In the same timeframe my wife got a Toyota Solara that is like a parallel-universe version of the Jag: each is a 2004 model, with about 50k on the clock, bought from a family member. The difference is that the Jaguar is from an alternate dimension where evil lurks behind every electrical component, whereas the Toyota is almost boringly dependable.

    Need I mention that the Jag drips oil and the Toyota does not?

    Ah, well; one could hardly be certain it was a proper piece of sporting machinery if everything always worked, could one?

  31. I had an X1/9. One of the best little cars I've ever owned.
    Mine was one of the later ones (1979) with the 1500 engine and five-speed transmission.
    I put 138,000 miles on it. The only things I had to replace were the starter, the four struts (put Konis in) and the pressure plate. I also put in a new throw-out bearing and clutch disk when I had it apart, as pulling the transaxle out of it was a real PITA.
    It had all Bosch electronics, and except for some minor rust, was running fine when I got rid of it.

    The early ones did have a penchant for going up in flames, though, due to the rotten fuel lines they used.

  32. I had a skipper that was fond of little British cars, he wanted to know why F/A-18 radar transmitters failed at such a high rate. We told him they were made by Lucas.

    He didn't think that was nearly as funny as we did.

  33. Love the look of a real wood dash and trim on a car.

    I just missed buying a '62 or '63 Jag Mk II in high school - about $1500 as I recall (it was over 30 trips around the sun ago).

    The summer I graduated, I bought a '71 Fiat 850 (rear engine) Spider CV (the 850:124 being as Midget:MGB, sort of), replete with an extra engine and transmission. The new top I bought from J.C. Whitney kept the rain out, and for the year or so I assumed the role of 'Tony', I satisfied its voracious appetite for ignition condensers, and replaced a stub axle whose splines were apparently made from pot metal.

    Despite a top speed, downhill with a tailwind, approaching 70 (!) miles per hour - the hinged turtledeck that concealed the ragtop in the down position added 2-3 knots to the top end - that car, with my ample supply of Boston, Kansas, Steve Miller Band, and Eagles cassette, conveyed a certain savoir faire.

    After college, I bought a 'poor man's XKE' - '83 Datsun 280ZX 2+2, 5 speed - loved that car.

    But I still think the Jag Mk II was, and is, a beautiful motorcar.

  34. Back in the 1970s when my friend got out of college and got his first real job he bought an MGB Midget.

    Great car for cruising the beach... when it ran.

    It spent more time in the shop than on the road.

    A few years ago, yearning to relive his youth, my friend bought a 1997 Mazda Miata.

    It rides every bit as rough as that MGB, but it never fails to start and nothing leaks except occasionally the top.

  35. I still have the hubcaps from my fathers 1958 Bugeye Sprite he raced in the early 60's. I also have a 1964 Sprite that has tortured me for over 25 years.I now know deep in my heart why they call Lucas the Prince of Darkness. There are two! fuses on this car, period, and neither one of them is for the rear lights.

    Can you say melted wiring harness?
    I can. From the drivers tail light, all the way across the trunk, up the passenger side of the car and all the way across the back of the dash when it shorted out. It's a small miracle the thing didn't burn to the ground.

    I have quite literally had every single nut bolt and screw out of this car and it is still a POS. Back in the early 80's you could drive one off for a hundred dollars, no joke.
    Now, they want $450.00 for a new brake master cylinder.

    That is not, a typo.

    $700.00 for a new fender!
    Now all of a sudden they think these rotten little rolling junk piles are Rolls Royces when it comes to buying parts.
    If you still have dreams of an older British sports car, forget them, you will sleep better at night. Trust me on this.


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