CONVERTIBLE CRAZY: Confessions of a bonafide out-of-control car fantatic

By BENNY HORNSBY,

Next Saturday is Homecoming at William Carey University. As I have for several years, I will supply four convertibles for the campus parade. Since I own a total of 14 convertibles, I could actually provide the entire parade around the campus.

I’m not bragging; I’m really ashamed, and I know that I need an intervention. 

On the face of it, my compulsion to own every convertible I see is unexplainable – like what Winston Churchill said about Russia: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” 

Perhaps it is an asymptote: what we know yet never will know. On the other hand, as a former chair of the Psychology department at William Carey, I know many of the clinical explanations: I wanted a convertible as a boy and couldn’t afford it; I drove convertibles overseas as a young man and this is just a nostalgia trip; I’m in my “second childhood,” etc. 

In reality, I’m just an example of runaway consumerism, of rampant materialism; just a cog in the grinding wheel of capitalism; a poster boy for the imposition of the “democratic socialism” that we hear so much about lately. 

But Margaret Thatcher was right: “socialism works until you run out of everyone else’s money.” 

As a matter of fact, Britain’s fling with socialism in the 1960s and 1970s is what killed my favorite automobile marques: MG, Triumph, and Austin Healy. 

They are all dead. BMW now makes Minis; Jaguar and Land Rover are now owned by Tata, an Indian company, reverse colonialism, for goodness sake, and the Chinese made 750,000 “new” MGs last year.

The global economy aside, I try to rotate the parade cars every year. This year’s lineup includes an Austin Healy Sprite, a Triumph Spitfire, a Fiat 124 Spider, and a Citroen 2CV “deux chevaux-vapeur” (literally “two steam horses”). 

I only own one American car, a Mustang Cobra; the rest are old school, four on the floor, carbureted European classics. No rice-burning Mazda Miatas or automatic transmissions for me. 

The Sprite is a clone of the MG Midget; the Spitfire is named after the British Royal Air Force airplane that helped win the Battle of Britain and thwart the Nazi invasion across the channel; the Spider was probably the most popular foreign sports car ever imported to America; and the 2CV, also known as the “umbrella on wheels,” was the French version of Germany’s Beetle.  

I bought mine from a farmer in Nice, France, and it cost me more to ship it home, through Jacksonville, Florida, than I paid for it. 

The cars that didn’t make this year’s parade are interesting in their own right. You want a turbo-charged, 180-horse power Fiat Abarth that wakes up mad every morning because it’s not a Ferrari. 

I got it. 

You want an 18-horse power Fiat Cinquecento (500) that weighs 1100 pounds and might outrun your Snapper lawnmower? 

Piece of cake. 

I bought it in Sicily. In Rome, I used to see similar cars loaded down with a couple, two children, a mother-in-law, and a dog barreling down the Via del Corso in a cloud of smoke. 

Mine doesn’t smoke since I installed electronic ignition.  

You want an original Mini Cooper, right out of the first “Italian Job” movie, 80-horse power, running dual, side draft SU carburetors? 

I’ve got it, but I wouldn’t recommend doing a Michael Caine impersonation and actually using it to rob a bank. It’s fast, but it won’t outrun a two-way radio. You want to go “commando?” Take that Mustang Cobra. I once had it up to 150 mph with lots of accelerator pedal left. 

But I wouldn’t do it again. 

What about a 1962 Volkswagen Beetle?  40-horse power and still 6 volts. It’s not actually a convertible. I got it out of Nevada; someone had rolled it, and the bondo on the roof started to crack, so I cut the top out of it and installed a large California sun roof kit which reaches past the back seat. 

I chromed out the engine, and something about it reminds me of Cheech and Chong. 

And then there’s the MGB, my third, that a nice man in my church gave me. I’ve just got to figure out how to get it out of his field with the four flat tires, no clutch, and the wasps. Probably like I got my 1953 Nash Metropolitan out of the field in Seminary – with a backhoe.

I always regretted every car I gave up: the 1951 V8 Ford Victoria that I found in a junk yard in the Kiln; I had it running like Robert Mitchum’s ride in the seminal moonshine movie, “Thunder Road;” the 1962 Triumph TR4 that got repossessed while I was in Vietnam; the 1956 Cadillac Coupe de Ville that I bought from a Poncho Villa look-a-like in Tijuana, Mexico, whose reassuring departing words were: “I’m giving you my famous five minute or five mile guarantee.” 

His words proved prescient as it broke down in San Juan Capistrano on my way home to Naval Station, Long Beach, CA.  

I eventually had to sell it to pay my boy’s college tuition.

But, all in all, I’m getting better. I really am. 

 However, is there anyone out there with an old MGB gathering dust in your barn? What about an Alfa Romeo Quadrifoglio? Or maybe a Triumph TR4, or even better, a GT6? 

Call me quick!

Light a candle for me.

 

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: bennyhornsby.com