The Land Rover Writer

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Return of the Spitfire

It took a bit for the Spitfire to make it home on the ferry.

A friend had driven me to Canton, ME, where I bought the car from a small repair shop. It started up, the brakes seemed to work and a missing wheel stud didn't bother me too much. I started on the 80 mile trip home, followed by a very patient friend in his pickup truck. 

After a few miles the car seemed to hesitate and stumble a bit on acceleration, so I pulled over on the side of the road and poured some Marvel Mystery Oil into the gas tank. I started up again and enjoyed the hilly, winding Rte. 17 drive back towards Rockland.

The drive reassured me that I might have found a pretty good example of the marque. The engine smoothed out and felt as though it had some punch - well, as much as the detuned, emissions-emasculated package might offer. As we approached Augusta and its downtown traffic, the temperature gauge rose to a 3/4 mark and then I heard the electric fan kick in - now that was another reassuring moment. 

The 40 mile drive to Rockland continued without incident. About 5 miles from the ferry terminal my friend called to say he would head north towards his home and leave me to my own devices. "No problem," I said, "I'm almost at the ferry terminal." 

The ferry line requires a U-turn to get a car in line, and as I made that turn, I went to push in the clutch. Nothing happened - it was as if the clutch pedal had frozen in its top position. Nothing would move it. So I had to admit defeat and roll back into a parking spot. Raising the hood showed me nothing at the master cylinder. Since I was against a curb and on a hill I could not jack up the car and look underneath.

Next came a tow to Copeland's Garage and a ferry ride home without the car. When I called Copeland's the next morning they told me the problem was a broken slave cylinder bracket, and that new ones were NLA. 

I lucked out when I called Tim Hutchisen at Penn Ridge Motors in Norway, ME. He had a Spitfire transmission on a bench with a slave cylinder bracket intact; he would mail it directly to Copeland's. Sure enough, a couple of days later the car was ready for the second try at returning it home.

Once home I began to assess the car by using it for errands around the island. The gas gauge would not go beyond 1/4, but Michael Crawford of British Motorworks in MA suggested more Marvel Mystery Oil - "lots of it" - to loosen up the float arm. Slowly but surely, after a few fill ups and MMO, the gauge will now go to 3/4. Resetting the trip odometer helps me be certain I won't run out of gas.

While checking the electrical connections for the gauge I removed the trunk panel and was reminded that Spitfires housed their fuel filters beside the gas tank. Changing out the very old one for new one helped the car run better under acceleration, too.

Next came a simple adjustment of the idle speed after warmup, reducing it to 800 rpm. I also replaced the alternator belt as it had a visible cut on it. 

Although the car had been "tuned up" with new spark plug wires the plugs themselves looked rather old so I bought a new set. Removing the old ones proved difficult; they were wrenched in hard and without much evidence of recent removal or Never Seize. 

The tires that came with the car showed a lot of tread but also some sidewall cracks. Rather than risk a problem I bought 4 new tires, sadly, more snow tire than road tire. It's tough to find narrow 13" tires anymore. 

The car came with a hardtop and a soft top, although the latter was in bad shape. The top was original [the diamond pattern on the fabric provided the evidence] and while the canvas had only one tiny rip, the windows were stiff, broken in spots and even with Gorilla Tape, incapable of keep rain out of the car. A Land Rover friend once owned a Spitfire and had an extra top sitting around; I traded Land Rover parts for it and had Erick Van Sickle of Leyland British in Kennebunkport, ME, install it for me (The car has sat at the Rockland ferry terminal this past week, and with lots of rain, I should find out tomorrow whether the new top is more waterproof than the old one).

While the car came with a soft top boot, it did not have a tonneau. Erick found a used one for me with a rusted zipper. I had a new one installed at Gemini Canvas in Rockland and it works quite well.   

The Spitfire tackled its second long drive for a work assignment and the installation of the new top. The 240 mile round trip demonstrated the following:

1. The Spitfire of that era needs 4000 rpm to run at 60-65 mph. Although the redline is at 5500, that's still a lot of revs for a small engine on highway drives. No wonder the electric overdrive is so treasured.

2. Spitfire seats offer less padding and less comfort than TR-7 seats.

3. Top down driving in a Spitfire is hugely entertaining.

4. Spitfires of this era came with electric fans that don't operate on until about 180 degrees, or 3/4 on the temperature gauge. That's disconcerting to see and while the gauge never pegged itself, nor did the car overheat, it made me nervous for a while (I've purchased Water Wetter for the next trip).

5. Combined highway and two lane fast roads, with some in town toodling, produced 29 mpg.

There's another trip tomorrow and later this month, a long drive to Vermont and back. Here's hoping I don't have to use the tool bag in the trunk.

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