Keith’s Blog: Does Having a Correct Engine Matter in an Affordable Classic?

First of all, this whole discussion is really the fault of Miles Collier, columnist for SCM and provocateur extraordinaire when it comes to making collectors actually think about what they are doing when they buy and sell old cars.

Prior to meeting Miles, my criteria were simple: I can afford it, and I’ve never had one. And maybe even better it’s red. That buying logic has stretched from a 1962 Thunderbird convertible to three MGBs to a Mercedes-Benz 219 to a BMW 633 CSi to a Volvo 1800 ES to a SAAB Sonnett III to a Range Rover Classic and on and on.

But one day, over a glass of wine, Miles asked me, “Have you ever thought about having a theme to your collection?”

I tried to pretend I didn’t hear him.

But over time, the intertwined notions of “theme” and “collection” began to sneak into my buying habits.

One Possible Theme

So I started thinking about the cars I’ve owned. My first, bought the day I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, was a 1959 Bugeye Sprite. Next, at age 17 in 1968, I bought an MGA and tried to drive from San Francisco to the Democratic National Convention, leaving broken connecting rods and shattered blocks littered across the country.

Then at 18, I bought my first Alfa, a 1963 Giulia Spider Normale. From then on, there has always at least one Alfa in the garage.

So, it would be straightforward for me to have a collection themed “My First Cars.” It would have a Bugeye and an MGA, and the rest would be Alfas — which I already own, making the project a simple one. I decided to explore this idea and see where it took me.

Knowing full well just what horrible cars Bugeyes are by modern standards, I thought I’d begin by looking for an MGA. To enhance driveability on today’s roads, I asked my friend Dave Stewart, an MG guru here in Portland, if he could find me something with an 1,800-cc MGB engine and some sort of 5-speed conversion.

He said those mods are common, and it shouldn’t really be difficult to find something to fit my needs. But, he added, “Do you really want an incorrect car in your collection? The MG gang would not think highly of your decision.”

Which led me to think about my Alfas. My 1958 Sprint Veloce is absolutely correct in terms of drivetrain, as is my 1965 Spider Veloce. My 1967 GTV was fitted with a 1750 engine many years ago, replacing the original 1600. The same style 1750 was installed in the Giulia Super – it was a common upgrade.

Alfa guys are pretty accepting of a 1750 engine replacing a 1600; It’s nearly a bolt-in conversion. Upgrading to a 2-liter is more complicated, as the clutch is hydraulic on the 2000 and mechanical on the 1600/1750. Also, the characteristics of the 2000 engine are different from those of the 1600/1750, which tend to feel more responsive and easy-revving.

And upgrading from a Weber-equipped 1600 to a Weber or Dell’Orto 1750 doesn’t mean changing the essential nature of the engine the way replacing a Solex-fed 1300 or 1600 Normale engine with a high-performance Weber 1300 or 1600 Veloce engine does.

Nonetheless, two of my Alfas aren’t correct. I no longer have their original blocks, so the best I could do would be to get a date-correct block and install it. (On the GTV and Super, there is no way to tell what the original engine was outside of a date range.)

And it would cost me at least $7,500 each to get correct engines, have them rebuilt, and install them. So today, at least, my vote is to leave them alone.

The MGA Question

But back to the MGA. I view MGAs as “affordable classics,” cheap and cheerful, common and simply fun. If I were going to have one, would it really matter if it didn’t have an original 1,500- or 1,600-cc engine in it? If the proper-looking gearshift were installed, would it really matter if it had a 5-speed conversion?

Because MGAs are not a part of my collector car heart and soul, it wouldn’t bother me. I think. I don’t think I would cringe every time someone asked me to open the hood. But maybe I’m wrong.

And then there’s the whole Bugeye Sprite question, where upgrading to 1,275-cc engines, later gearboxes and front disc brakes are the norm rather than the exception.

Why is it okay to upgrade a Bugeye and not an MGA?

Essentially, is trying to make a car correct more important than enhancing its driveability? And do you have more latitude, in terms of value and collectibility, when you modify affordable classics than you do when you start considering modifications to more expensive cars?

I’m pondering these questions, and I welcome your input.

Keith Martin

Keith Martin has been involved with the collector car hobby for more than 30 years. As a writer, publisher, television commentator and enthusiast, he is constantly on the go, meeting collectors and getting involved in their activities throughout the world. He is the founder and publisher of the monthly Sports Car Market and bi-monthly American Car Collector magazines, has written for the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, Road & Track and other publications, is an emcee for numerous concours, and has his own show, “What’s My Car Worth,” shown on Velocity.

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