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God Save the Queen…

There is an old joke well known to owners of British automobiles of a certain age. It goes something like this: Question – Why have the Brits never developed an industry based on manufacturing a personal computer? Answer – They couldn’t figure out how to make the PC’s leak oil.

It’s still funny even as I look at the oil spot in the garage.

I once had a British car collection, which is another way of saying I had two British cars. You can’t have a collection with just one. I have, not unlike Picasso dispersing his masterpieces, downsized the “collection” to a single automobile, if you can call a 55-year-old Triumph TR 3 an “automobile.”

Volvo makes automobiles. So does Mercedes, or Chrysler. The Brits make cars.

The 1960 TR3

The 1960 TR3

Quirky and Lovable…

The TR3 is one of the most iconic cars ever made and one of the quirkiest. It has no windows but rather something called a “side curtain.” For a car produced in a country where it rains about 364 days a year, a side curtain is about as useful as a gag order on Senator Ted Cruz. With the side curtains fully deployed you may just get completely soaked in a rainstorm rather than drowned. The side curtain is not a practical answer to moisture in any form.

The car is a two-seater. Really. There is a little shelf behind the two seats that might be comfortable for a Barbie Doll or a small dog, but not for anyone taller than one of those Munchkins from Oz. The rearview mirror on a TR is mounted on the dash at a level that requires the driver to duck and cover to see that eighteen-wheeler bearing down just behind the gas tank. There is a knob on the dash panel to regulate the heater, but it works about as well as the windscreen wipers. The wipers, about eight inches long, are less effective than taking your index finger and flicking it back and forth on the windscreen. You might think a country that is predominately wet and cold would get the wipers and heater thing worked out, but if you believe that you just don’t appreciate the charm of the British automobile, er, car.

Lucas: The Prince of Darkness

Lucas: The Prince of Darkness

Much has been written about the electronics in British cars of a certain vintage. A company named Lucas did the wiring harness, the gauges, etc. Lucas is known among we owners as “the Prince of Darkness.” There is actually a website devoted to jokes about the Lucas “Prince of Darkness” problem. One of my favorites: “Alexander Graham Bell invented the Telephone. Thomas Edison invented the Light Bulb. Joseph Lucas invented the Short Circuit.”

A certain person I adore asked me recently what it was like to drive a car with “basically no electronics?” I declined to answer beyond saying that the TR has a gas gauge (mostly accurate, I think), a heat gauge (accurate), an oil pressure gauge (accurate) and an amp meter that must work because the battery stays charged. Oh, yes, there is a speedo that registers about ten miles per hour faster than the car is actually moving (probably a good thing) and a tach that seems to be reliable. Any or all could fail in the next few minutes.

Ah, that smell…

British cars of a certain age also have a definite aroma. They smell to me like equal parts oil, gasoline, age and burning $100 bills. When I had two British cars I had a mechanic on retainer. A gambling addiction might have been cheaper.

All the quirkiness aside, the TR is a conversation starter. Young males, cute girls and older guys – think PBR or Bud drinkers – tend to “get” the Triumph. They are smart enough to appreciate the craziness involved with owning a car without windows, that smells constantly of oil and that has the most unreliable electronics this side of Apollo 13.

Megan's Austin Healey

Megan’s Austin Healey

No one is likely to confuse a TR with a great car like, say, a Jaguar XK-150 or the sexy Austin Healy roadster slinky Megan was driving when she picked up Don Draper at the LA Airport in Mad Men. Draper was a Cadillac Coupe de Ville-type guy. Probably wouldn’t be caught dead in a workman-like sports car like a TR. Not many frills, these cars, just top down and a tight gearbox. The smiles and thumbs up you get while driving one are pleasant extras.

BMW now owns the Triumph “mark,” as they say and there have been rumors of the car making a return; rumors denied by BMW. Would that be a triumphant return if it were to happen? Maybe it’s the nostalgia or the quirks or that I’m a sucker for most everything British, but should there ever be a revival, I’ll still like the old smelly TR3 best. There was a long series of TR’s – all the way up to a TR7, but the old 3’s remain the classics. (The TR6 would be next best in my view.) After the TR3, the company went into a long, slow decline and produced some truly hideous cars before going out of business in 1981.

The Triumph Wikipedia page says it well: “It is alleged that many Triumphs of this era were unreliable, especially the 2.5 PI (petrol injection) with its fuel injection problems. In Australia, the summer heat caused petrol in the electric fuel pump to vaporize, resulting in frequent malfunctions.” Maybe that is what you deserve when you take a British car to a hot summer climate.

My own ‘special relationship’…

My TR3 nameplate - well worn

My TR3 nameplate – well worn

The nameplate mounted on the firewall says the car was built in Coventry, while Harold MacMillan was prime minister. How British. That combination confirms my own “special relationship” to the TR3 and to Britain.

Coventry, an industrial and manufacturing city north and west of London, got some of the worst of The Blitz in World War II. MacMillan, a conservative and contemporary of Churchill’s, was a great friend of the young liberal American President John Kennedy. Mostly forgotten in the United States sadly, MacMillan was brave, funny and politically talented. Wounded five times in the Great War, MacMillan nearly died in a plane crash in North Africa in the second, while serving as the top British official there. Unlike so many politicians today, MacMillan was also blessed with a marvelous sense of humor, once saying, “I have never found, in a long experience in politics, that criticism is ever inhibited by ignorance.”

British PM Harold MacMillan

British PM Harold MacMillan

There is no record of MacMillan’s views on cars like mine, but he might have had a TR3 and its owner in mind when he observed: “It has been said that there is no fool like an old fool, except a young fool. But the young fool has first to grow up to be an old fool to realize what a damn fool he was when he was a young fool.” How can you not love the Brits? Do you think he was talking about fanatics for cars from his homeland?

The TR’s boot – trunk to you colonials – is tidy, but will hold a weekend bag and you can (maybe) poke the golf clubs in behind the front seats. Your passenger will probably want to hold the picnic basket on her lap or risk the chicken salad tasting like high-test petrol. If it rains, just fasten on the tonneau cover (it won’t fit very well) and wait it out in a pub. Strangers will approach you with stories about how they “once had a car just like that. Damn, I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of it.”

Who needs windows or efficient windscreen wipers anyway and the oil spots on the garage floor seem a small price to pay for a love affair. God Save the Queen.


The Poetry of Cities

sandburgCarl Sandburg and Downtowns

It is the birthday of the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg born January 6, 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois.

Twice winner of the Pulitzer – The War Years about Lincoln’s presidency won the award in 1940 and his Complete Poems won in 1951 – Sandburg is often dismissed today as too much the sentimentalist. Perhaps that is why I like him very much.

I thought of Sandburg’s poems about Chicago and Omaha and other cities this morning while absorbing the news that downtown economic mainstays – big Macy’s department stores – in Missoula and Boise are soon to close. As Idaho Statesman reporter Tim Woodward noted, the Boise store was a fixture in the heart of Idaho’s Capitol City for decades; a meeting place, a lunchtime destination. Such icons are hard – impossible perhaps – to replace.

Boise once had five downtown department stores. Now it will have none. Boise and Missoula are still among the most attractive downtowns in the west, but big, old time department stores are magnets for people and help support other small merchants and one hates to see them close and you wonder what can possibly fill the void.

But, back to Sandburg.

The editor of a recent collection of Sandburg’s poetry, Paul Berman, told NPR a while back that the writer was inspired by cities: “His genius, his inspiration in [the Chicago] poem and some others, was to look around the streets, at the billboards and the advertising slogans, and see in those things a language,” Berman says. “And he was able to figure out that this language itself contained poetry.”

There is poetry in great cities and, yes, a yearning for the variety and uniqueness of downtowns where people gather, things happen and the look and culture is much different – and vastly more interesting – than a strip mall or suburban shopping destination surrounded by acres of parking.

In one of my favorite Sandburg poems – Limited – the narrator is headed to a city, or at least a final destination.

I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains
of the nation.

Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air
go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.

(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men
and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall
pass to ashes.)

I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he
answers: “Omaha.”

Read some Sandburg. This is a great site to sample some of his enduring work.

The Livability of Rocky Mountain Cities

Dan KemmisDan Kemmis – Sustaining the West’s Urban Economy Means A Focus on “Livability.”

I had the pleasure of introducing Dan Kemmis, the former mayor of Missoula, Montana and speaker of that state’s House of Representatives, at this week’s City Club of Boise luncheon.

The Kemmis speech and Q-A airs Saturday at 8:00 pm on KBSX (91.5) or you can catch he program on the City Club website.

Kemmis is the rare political leader who has successfully combined people and political skills with the ability to create new policy approaches – he’s a champion of civic engagement and collaboration – and then write about them with clarity and intelligence. He is now a senior fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources and the Environment.

As the Idaho Business Review noted, Kemmis made the case that the “real driver … of the new western economy has been the livability of our communities.”

Kemmis maintains that “livability is bigger, deeper and stronger as a driver than growth itself.”

He makes a pretty compelling case that cities like Salt Lake, Missoula, Boise and Denver have thrived, and will again, because they are essentially really decent places to live. (I could add a few more cities to the list – Portland, Bozeman, Coeur d’Alene, for instance.)

Think about Salt Lake’s good and getting better transit system, Missoula’s great parks and open space, Boise’s foothills and marvelous parks and greenbelt, and Denver’s revitalized downtown (and the Colorado Rockies).

As our region struggles to climb out of a deep recession, Dan Kemmis would remind us to focus on the basics of what makes cities great – intellectual infrastructue (libraries, for instance), open space, parks and outstanding recreational opportunities, ease of movement, and a culture of civic engagement.

I spent some time with a friend from the east coast recently. His business will allow him to live anywhere he likes and he and his bride spent a few days in Boise assessing the city as a potential new home. Searching for an alternative to the old rat race of long commutes and no sense of community, smart folks look West and have for ever. Like all young parents, they want good schools and a good environmental for the kids. I wasn’t selling paradise and I didn’t need to. Boise – and other good cities in the West – tends to sell themselves on the basis of “livability.”

Dan Kemmis is right. Livability, quality of life, whatever you call it, is an economic driver. The real challenge is not to screw it up or undervalue what we have and, perhaps too often, take for granted.