Why British Cars?
I don’t remember who gave it to me, but a Matchbox Jaguar E-type coupe came into my possession when I was just nine years old. For many of you reading this, that might explain everything. As a kid I spent countless hours collecting and playing with Matchbox cars. I owned many, my favorite, however, was always the E-type. To this day it is the only one of those original cars that has survived. It is very well worn and has now long since been retired to my wife’s curio cabinet. I did own an actual E-type for many years, fourteen to be exact. It was a 1966 Coupe and was everything I had ever imagined in a car. We had a great time together, lots of great stories for another time. After I had had my time with the car and entry /egress became more than challenging, I decided to let her go to a very nice gentleman in Switzerland who is taking great care of her.
My dad had an Austin Healey Sprite, which my mother relieved him of one day when he took a turn in our neighborhood too fast and jumped a curb. I do remember riding around in it when I was very small. On cold days, dad would put me under the tonneau and all I could see was the shifter and the gauges. I never forgot the smell of the interior or the sound of that little engine. Dad loved to drive fast, so I come by most of my faults honestly.
In late 1976, at the end of my fourteenth summer, my mother picked me up at the train station near our home in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I had been staying with my grandmother in Vermont for two months helping her out with her daily routines. As we pulled into the drive, my mother explained that she and my dad had purchased a Jeep for me as a reward for staying with Mimi. I was very excited until the garage doors opened to reveal two separate large piles of what looked like a military vehicle that had run over a land mine and been blown into a thousand pieces. On top of one of the piles was an old Army manual on how to assemble a 1943 Willis/Ford MB Jeep. I remember wondering if I were being rewarded or punished. As it turns out, my dad had found it as surplus in the paper for $50.00. I did not know one end of a screwdriver from the other, but all that was about to change. Dad taught me what he knew, which was a good bit. But most of what I ended up learning about cars is self-taught through a seemingly endless series of mistakes. That same fall, I landed a job disassembling cars and cleaning up at Chalmer’s Import Car Restorations, a British car specialist.
Chalmer’s is where I learned how to properly sweep a floor and clean a bathroom. I also learned a lot about how to take things apart without hurting the parts or myself. Although the reason for working at Chalmer’s was to fund my Jeep project, it is the place where the seed for my love of British cars was planted. One afternoon, I was helping to wrestle a V12 E-type engine from the clutches of a 2+2 that had been totaled. We were out in the junkyard in the middle of winter. The hoist slipped in the mud and the engine lurched against the sub-frame, pinning my hand. The hoist was repositioned, engine lifted and my hand freed. It did not hurt much as I had lost most of the feeling in my hands earlier to the cold. I had one good gouge in my palm with a nice glob of English grease smeared in. We finished pulling the engine and then went inside to dress my hand. That English grease has been circulating in my blood ever since, or so says Mr. Chalmers.
Anyway, I finished the Jeep project on my sixteenth birthday and have loved old cars ever since. By the time I was a senior in high school I had bought a 1963 Studebaker Lark and my family and I had moved to Snellville, Georgia, outside Atlanta. In college, the Studebaker was succeeded by a series of Opel GTs and Mantas. I always remembered MGBs fondly from my days at Chalmer’s. So when a chance arose to swap a guy my Manta for his 1972 MGB roadster, I jumped on it. At the time, I was managing a tire store and sometimes helped out on the owner’s farm. One morning my boss, Phil Griffeth (who was a hell of a man and taught me a lot about life), challenged me to a race from his farm back to the store in Athens twenty-five miles away. He was driving a new 1982 Lincoln Continental. I got by him early on by passing a tractor on the shoulder. He got mad and caught up with me. He stayed with me but could not get by. When we hit real traffic in Athens, he disappeared from my rear view mirror. I pulled into the tire store parking lot and pulled right up front. No sign of Phil, I was grinning from ear to ear. When Phil wheeled his big Lincoln into the lot, he stepped out, took a look at the stupid grin on my face and started laughing. He said, “Hell, I felt like a hound trying to catch a God damn rabbit!”
Though I am much older know and only marginally wiser, that wild eyed sports car driver still lives within. Among the lessons I learned growing up, the most important one has been that unless you can do something right, there is no point in doing it at all.
Alan Johnson has always had a passion for cars. He began his automotive career washing cars for the Chevrolet/Oldsmobile dealership his dad was the sales manager of in Marietta, GA at age 14. At 16, he began working as a mechanic's apprentice. After college, he began working as a mechanic at an independent shop that grew into an Alfa Romeo/Peugeot dealership. During his career, he has also worked in dealerships for Ferrari, Maserati, Aston Martin, and Ford.
His first car was a 1966 Austin Healey Sprite. That was followed by a 1964 Corvair Monza (which he credits for teaching him many useful lessons that have made him the extremely skilled driver he is today), a 1965 Mustang Convertible, a 1967 Buick Wildcat, two 914 Porsches, a Porsche Boxster, and a Ferrari 308 GT4.
He, like almost everyone at Speedwell, is the proud owner of an MGB GT (a 1967 model, like Mike's). His current stable also includes an E34 BMW Wagon, a restored 1974 Chevy Blazer, a 1966 Chrysler 300 project, and a Ford Flatbed.
For relaxation, Alan has has given up racing motocross for shooting sports.
Bob Windham is a retired PhD scientist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Richard B. Russell Research Center in Athens, Georgia. In this capacity, he led a team of agricultural engineers. When he was not glued to a computer screen, he worked on many car projects in his own shop. After a forty-year career with USDA, Bob retired from there and joined the Speedwell Team. That was three years ago and Bob is enjoying his new job immensely, as you can see.
Growing up in Macon Ga., Bob has always had a passion for British sports cars. He obtained hands-on experience and training from his father on repairs of Triumph TR3 and TR4 as well as restoration of classic Chris-Craft wooden power boats.
At Speedwell, Bob conducts Road Readiness Inspections, performs routine service operations, and makes repairs on classic British cars including repairs to suspensions, brakes, clutches, starters, axles, carburetors, cooling and electrical systems. Bob is also highly skilled in interior repair and the installation of complete new interiors.
Bob owns a nice 1974 MGB GT driver and is currently restoring his own 1963 Triumph TR3B and 1964 Triumph TR4 in his home shop.
Chris has always had sports cars around. His dad was the president of the Riverside Foreign Car Club in the 1950s, and was friends with John R Bond, Phil Hill and Dan Gurney. His earliest memory is being at Riverside International Raceway as an 18 month old spectator! Chris used to ride with his sister and brother in the "back seat" of his parent's 1957 Triumph TR3 under the tonneau cover to stay warm. It was a simpler time! Later they bought a 1968 BMW 2002, which was much more comfortable for the kids.
Chris' dad never took a car to a mechanic. He did his own brakes, rebuilt his own gearboxes, ported his own heads, and rebuilt his own engines. Chris started working on his own cars when he bought his first one at 17 years old. Chris built his own race engines when he began racing in the 1980s. It never occurred to him to do any different, thanks to the example set by his dad.
Chris' automotive career started at Hardy and Beck. It was during this period that he started racing with the San Francisco Region of the SCCA. He forged many close ties in the Alfa Romeo community during this period and Alfas became a life long passion. He has also worked in BMW, Ford, Kia, and Chevrolet dealerships as well as managing independent automotive repair and restoration shops.
Chris has owned 2 Fiats, 1 Lancia, 9 Alfa Romeos, 4 Volkswagens, and 2 BMWs. His current stable includes a 1993 VW Eurovan, a 1976 Alfa Romeo Spider, an Alfa Romeo Spider racecar project, and a 1982 Yamaha Seca 650.