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June 10, 1996

Local Group Believes the British Had a Way With Cars
by Christi Daugherty

They're sleek and sophisticated, with soft, rounded edges. And they have an enthusiastic following, even on this side of the Atlantic.

British sports cars built after World War II, with their rag-tops and slim bucket seats, seem custom-designed for a pale English "mod" in straight-leg trousers and a skinny tie. The cars summon thoughts of Peter O'Toole, in his prime, and of James Bond, as played by Sean Connery.

At a recent exhibition at Longue Vue Gardens, members of the British Motor Club of New Orleans displayed their prized vehicles in an elegant line on the gravel drive in front of the estate.

It is easy to see what draws buyers to the cars: Based on appearance alone they would be great fun to show off.

But British Motor Club President Keith Vezina says it's not looks alone that draw collectors to the vehicles.

The cars handle quite well, are built to last and can be quite affordable, though some British makes cost more than $100,000. They are also relatively simple in design and easy to repair - once the elusive parts are located.

The value of British cars vary widely from the highly expensive - Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Jaguar - to the moderate - Austin-Healey and Aston Martin - to more affordable MG's.

The cars are an integral part of many Americans' associations with recent British culture.

Connery's James Bond drove an Aston Martin, for instance. Romance novelist Barbara Cartland frequently puts her heroes and cads in Austin-Healeys, Aston Martins or (for the more rugged characters) Range Rovers.

Fathers of the Two-Seaters
The British car industry after the war was a genuine cottage industry, Vezina says. Most of the cars were named after the men who invented and manufactured them. And it was in England that sports cars were perfected in the 1950s and '60s, he says.

"The British were the fathers of the two-seater roadster sports car," Vezina says.

The less expensive models, MGB's manufactured in the 1960s an early '70s, for example, can be had for several thousand dollars, Vezina says. This can be less costly than collecting vintage American-made cars from the same period.

For their money, buyers get a car they can drive everyday, if they chose, or keep garaged as collectibles.

Most who collect the cars can't help but drive them regularly, Vezina says, because MG's are just too much fun to leave locked up.

"The MG's have superb handling capabilities," Vezina says. "Although American muscle cars from the '70s have more power, British sports cars are light and nimble and a joy to drive. They really are a driving car."

Keith Vezina, 1996 president of the British Motor Club of New Orleans, says most MC collectors can't help but drive them regularly, because the cars are too fun to leave locked up.

Like most British car owners, Vezina's interest in the vehicles is a matter of coincidence. His mother owned a 1976 MGB, which she passed on to him five years ago when maintenance became a burden.

Vezina, an electrical and instrumentation drafting supervisor with Wink Inc., knew little about British cars. With a little research, he discovered the local British Motor Club, which has been around since the 1960s. He joined as a way of learning more about the car and has been hooked ever since.

"The cars are not expensive, but they require a lot of maintenance to keep them in running condition," Vezina says. "Most of our members are do-it-yourselfers."

The club holds regular technical sessions where they study different aspects of repairing and maintaining the vehicles. While repair work generally is not as difficult as work on modern, computer-equipped vehicles, replacing damaged parts can be time-consuming.

Club member Jim Jones says that, before discovering the club, he spent most of six months restoring a 1974 MGB convertible and found it tremendously difficult to find information and parts. The club offers an opportunity for members to pool their knowledge and experience, Jones says.

The Problem of Parts
It is the scarcity of parts that drives most of the car club's members to join up. For those in the network of British car aficionados, almost any part can be found for a price. But for those not in the loop, tracking down anything from a door handle to an axle can take months or even years.

Peter Brauen is the owner of a small automotive restoration shop in Bay St. Louis, Miss. His shop, Wreckstorations, works exclusively on British vehicles. He is considered a local expert on the cars, and he frequently serves as a judge at car shows.

Most of his clients, Brauen says, are members of the New Orleans car club. They come to him with jobs too big for them to handle themselves.

Or maybe for help in finding parts.

While some of the more expensive British cars are still in production - such as Jaguar, Rolls-Royce and Bentley - others, like the MG's are not. MG's (the full name is Morris Garages, but the cars are universally known by the initials) went out of production in 1980, Vezina says. This makes parts for those cars harder to find.

But the British have a soft spot in their hearts for cars from their automative manufacturing heyday, and they have continued to produce many parts for the vehicles.

Parts manufacturers in England have gone so far as to retain and use original tooling from the old MG factories which allows them to recreate entire body shells, Brauen says.

But buyers have to know where to find the parts, and all of the parts are pricey, Brauen says. Sticker shock has stopped many a car restoration in its tracks.

"Unfortunately, it costs more to restore a car than it does to buy one that's already been restored," Brauen says.

The Price of "Like New"
The prices of the renovated British sports cars underwent a boom in the 1980's after the MG factory closed. But the boom didn't last, and prices later plummeted.

Most of the cars restored 10 years ago can be had for far less than the work cost, Brauen says. Even the more expensive British cars, such as the Jaguar XKE and XK120 through XK125 models, are not valuable enough to justify restoring one from scratch for sheer monetary return, he says.

Thus, the only good reason to restore the vehicles is out of love for them.

Brauen learned to love the cars when he was a child. Born in England, his family relocated to America when he was young, and his father brought with him a 1939 Austin, which Brauen helped repair. "I was indoctrinated at the age of 10," he says.

He now collects the cars, mostly because he knows enough about the vehicles to know when he is getting a good buy. "I collect only because I run into cars I cannot pass up," Brauen says.

He is obviously not alone. The British Motor Club of New Orleans has more than 120 members. A search on the World Wide Web for "British cars" yields of hundreds of web sites, most of which are car clubs or parts clearinghouses around the country.

Locally, several clubs celebrate different models, known as marques, made in England. Vezina says many members of the British Motor Club have cross memberships with other model-specific clubs.

Jones, who edits the club's newsletter, says the members share one thing - their love of British cars.

"We have everything from federal court judges to attorneys to salesmen to helicopter repairmen, " Jones says. "Our club runs the gamut."

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