David Evans’ first meeting with his 1956 MG Magnette reads like something from romantic fiction.
It was late 1967 and the retired police officer’s head was turned by a “stunning” car driving in the opposite direction between Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury.
On returning to Bury later in the day, David spotted TRT 218 sitting outside Botwoods, a Standard Triumph dealership, and he was drawn inside to find out more.
“I went in and spoke to someone in there, but they weren’t very interested in me,” he says. “The owner was in there, seeing what deal he could do on a Rover 2000.
“I waited until the chap came out, and then bushwhacked him. He wanted £400 and I said ‘sorry, that’s out of my league’.”
That seemed to be the end of that, but the course of true love never did run smooth, and the owner – a Mr Humphries from Ipswich – later got in touch to let David know he’d traded the car in to a dealer in Sudbury.
“I went down there and got it for £220,” he smiles. And, despite a number of mechanical issues – the car is on its third engine – the pair are still together more than 50 years later.
“I do attach myself to things,” says David, sitting in his garden a few miles south of Norwich. “I never throw anything away if I can help it.
“I’m proud that it’s got to this stage and it hasn’t been put on the scrapheap as it were, so there’s an achievement there.”
The Magnette ZA was launched in 1953, the first monocoque car to wear the MG badge and effectively a badge-engineered, sporting version of the Wolseley 4/44.
With lowered suspension, leather seats and wood trim, the car was also given extra oomph with the new four cylinder, 1489cc B-series engine fed by a pair of twin-choke SU carburettors.
The legendary Motor Sport magazine journalist Bill Boddy, writing in 1958, described the car as “delightful to drive” and imparting “a sense of quiet luxury” that added up to “a car of which the owner can be justifiably proud”.
Those sentiments are echoed, more than six decades later, by David, who was 25 when he bought the MG and says: “It was a top of the range car in its day, a stylish car and well made.
“I don’t think it was a bird puller, but it was a standout luxury car, and it still is.”
Born in the grounds of Belvoir Castle, near Grantham, in 1942, where his father was whipper-in to the Belvoir hunt, David’s family moved around eastern England to find work in the post-war years.
The family was settled in Lincoln when David left school, his first job in a foundry for Foster Gwynes, a company which manufactured pumps and threshing machines.
When his father suffered from ill health, the family decamped to run a pub in Bury St Edmunds, where David dabbled in “wood spoiling”.
“Some called it carpentry, but it wasn’t,” he says, opting to join the police in 1961, starting off in single men’s quarters at Newmarket police station.
“Good old days”
“Six of us lived in the station, and a woman used to come in and cook my grub and I just had to go downstairs to work. They were the good old days, but you had to like horses.”
David’s first ‘car’ was a BMW Isetta bubble car, which he drove on a motorcycle licence by disabling the reverse gear.
“It was quite an experience, and I wish I still had it,” he says, remembering with a shudder the severe winter of 1963.
“I was going home from the pub and this narrow country road had got these ruts in it. I went round this bend and, of course, it’s got a single rear wheel, which jumped on this bit of ice and I stuffed it straight into the snow drift.
“The door opens forwards so I couldn’t get out, but luckily I could get out of the sun roof, push it backwards and on I went.”
A Mini van followed, then a VW Beetle, before David’s first brush with an MG Magnette, this one a later ZB, which had oil consumption problems and, after being stripped of its engine and some other parts, was consigned to the scrapyard.
Enter TRT 218, first registered on March 14, 1956, and originally a grey / green colour.
Soon after buying it, David met his wife Jane, and the MG became a trusted family car between 1967 and the early ‘80s, often towing a caravan.
With children Alex, Stuart and Jolie, now all in their 40s and 50s, they travelled to Wales and Cornwall on holidays, not that the MG always enjoyed the experience.
“It didn’t like towing the caravan,” says David, now 78. “It overheated a lot and I was forever having valve inserts put in because of cracking.”
In the end, the engine suffered a cracked head, so David swapped it with the “spare” engine he had from his ZB, intending to repair the original.
David and Jane had moved to Doncaster, and one long trip to the south west caused more issues with the replacement engine.
“We were down in Devon and Cornwall and something wasn’t right – there were tinkling noises going on,” he remembers, making it to London to visit Jane’s grandparents.
“We left there and it was still making this noise. We got to Jane’s parents, who lived just outside Bury, and I thought ‘no, it’s not going to get back to Doncaster’.
“So we left the caravan and one of the kids behind and off we went, got somewhere approaching Sleaford and there was an almighty bang – the piston had shattered.
“The conrod was going up and down the bore, making a hell of a noise. I managed to get to a layby, and we had to get a bed and breakfast for the night and hire a car in Sleaford, a Fiat 500 as I remember, which got us home.
“I then came back with a mate and towed the car back home and rebuilt the original engine.”
While the Magnette was off the road, David rode around on a Honda 50cc moped, with the South Yorkshire bus service used for longer journeys.
“You could go all over South Yorkshire for something like sixpence,” he adds.
After about 1,000 miles on the reconditioned engine, it was back out to have the crank reground and then pressed back into service.
After about 15 years as the family car, the MG was taken off the road and, according to Jane, “stood out there slowly sinking”.
By then, they had moved to Norfolk, and as time passed the car had gradually deteriorated.
“It was getting a bit shabby and it wanted work doing, so it ended up standing here doing nothing for a good few years,” says David, who retired from the police in 1989.
“People in the family would say ‘what have you got that thing there for?’ and ‘when are you going to get rid of it?’
“But I was always able to explain it away and say ‘one day, you’ll see’, and that’s what’s happened, it’s very nearly complete.”
Restoring the MG to its former glory has been a long road with the odd setback along the way.
“Eventually, I thought ‘I’ve got to get it fixed’,” says David. “Anything that rusts on a car had rusted.”
Not only that, but a further replacement engine was required, the original again showing signs of a cracked head.
Fortunately, Magnette specialist John Shorten is based not far away in Lenwade, and he was able to supply a B-series unit with good oil pressure. The original engine was once again removed and stored in a shed, where it remains to this day.
Shorten also supplied David with sills, inner sills, and wheel arches, fabricated at his Lenwade workshop.
“What he doesn’t know about these MGs is not worth knowing,” says David. “Luckily I’ve got him on one side of Norwich, NGT Motor Services in Ipswich, and then there’s another bloke in Kent. “It’s amazing how many of these cars are about and the bits you can still get for them.”
For the welding and paintwork, a new Westminster blue colour, the MG was entrusted to Jason at Kilbourn’s garage in Hempnall, who returned it for David to finish off the interior.
“Jason had done all the work he could, and done a first-class job of the paint,” says David, who reinstalled the seats and fitted a new carpet himself, along with new door cards and trim, and a fully reconditioned dashboard bought from someone who had abandoned their own project.
Back in action
After more than 30 years off the road, the MG has now been back in action for about six months, although David admits he’s only taken it for short test drives over the summer.
Getting behind the wheel for the first time in so long was “rather strange”, he says, “to have a bonnet going out in front of you, no power steering and a slightly sticky clutch.
“But the car was already like that, you had to muscle it round, as it were. Even looking at it in the garage, there’s a sense of nostalgia. I’m more than happy I’ve kept the car.”
He says it was never the intention to produce a concours car, just a usable classic that will probably forever be an “ongoing project”.
“There are still odd jobs that want doing on it,” he says. “I’m sure there’ll always be something going wrong.”
One of those odd jobs is the leather upholstery, which has dried and cracked over the years, and would cost £2,000 for a professional reupholstery.
A healthy dollop of hide food, plus some serious elbow grease, may be a better option.
A keen amateur footballer in his younger days (he played until he was 47), David now plays golf a couple of times a week, and his friends from the fairway are anxious to finally see the car they’ve heard so much about.
“People are always saying ‘when you are going to get it on the road’? I say ‘a couple of months’ – ‘you said that a couple of months ago, when are you bringing it in?’,” he laughs.
“It’s yet to make its way to the golf club, but I’m sure it will.”
All worth it
As for the cost of the restoration, David “daren’t look”, but says it’s all been worth it to have the car he drove in the ‘60s with his kids in the back seat back on the road.
“I haven’t got a clue what I’ve spent,” he adds. “But they’re personal things, cars, and it’s been with us a long time, so I’m glad I’ve stuck with it.
“It will stay here for as long as I can drive it. It’s not in the way. It’s got its place in the garage.”
David intends to use the car for leisurely drives out, and possibly some classic car rallies such as the annual MG Magnette meeting at John Shorten’s Lenwade premises.
“I’m not one to be judged alongside some of the concours cars about, it’s just interesting,” he says. “As long as other people are interested, I don’t mind showing it off.”
As to the future, David – a grandfather of seven – is unsure if the MG will one day find a home in the family.
“I do tend to hoard things, and I fear if anything happens to me they’re just going to get a skip in here and throw it all in,” he says. “I think Alex might be more interested in taking it, as he’s the one who used to be in it the most.”
For now, David has only one thing on his mind: enjoying the car that he’s owned for more than 50 years and to which he’s given another lease of life.
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