With a Little Help from his Friends: La Jollan restores, customizes 1947 Triumph

There are several features of the 1947 Triumph 1800 Roadster, owned by La Jolla resident Keith Wahl, which were common for its time and British origin and that make it completely unique in La Jolla today.

Among them: The steering wheel on the right side (and the gearshift on the left), British horns on the front of the car, a leather belt to hold down the hood, “suicide doors” with hinges in the back that open the opposite direction of American cars, a tool box in the engine compartment for quick repairs, and an optional rumble seat in the back known as a “Dickie Seat.”

Add the features that were installed to customize the car to his standards, and there really is nothing like Wahl’s car, named Trudy.

“My favorite response, which I often get when people see this car, is ‘whaaaaaaaat!?’ ” he joked. It’s the response Wahl himself had the first time he saw the car he now owns. “I’m 93 percent sure that the first time I saw this car was across from Sammy’s Pizzeria in La Jolla when it had just opened, sitting right on that corner. I thought, ‘what an unusual car – what is that?’ ”

Although curious, Wahl did not purchase the car at that time. Twenty years later, he saw the same car while it was being stored at a friend’s warehouse. “I watched it for two years and kept it in the back of my mind,” he said. “I eventually decided I wanted to get one. I went to my friend’s warehouse and ended up buying it. I think I was destined to get this car.”

In his inaugural drive, he could tell something was not quite right (having sat in storage, several features had gone stagnant). “I had a friend with a garage and we dismantled the car and started to re-wire it. We worked on the engine and the transmission. I didn’t get to appreciate all the nuances of the car until I put it together,” he said.

“With the original engine, which was of the same power as a tractor engine, you had to crank it up to get started. So we replaced the engine. The original car came with tools, and even had a shelf under the hood to hold the tools in case it needed to be worked on, on the side of the road,” he said. The shelf is still in the engine compartment, but is not as commonly used as it once was. The most-often-used tool is a prop-stick to hold the hood up if needed, which Wahl made out of the same wood as the tool shelf.

In the course of his work, Wahl found that several parts were missing, so he reached out to another friend, a toymaker, who made specialty parts for the car.

Once reassembled, he took it to a paint shop to replace the “greenish-yellow” exterior with a rich, two-tone gray. “I thought I could make it a better-looking car with the things I wanted to do to it. I also wanted to customize it.”

But the one feature he wanted left alone is the back seat. The very back seat. The car has an available “Dickie Seat” that occupies the trunk of the car. The back window can be lifted and the trunk folded back to make space for a Dickie Seat passenger, whose feet would slide under the backseat for a comfortable ride.

“I just thought that was so unusual, it really intrigued me,” Wahl said. Apparently not alone, during the course of the La Jolla Light interview, Wahl was stopped twice by passers-by with questions and comments. Some people, he said, associate the car with the 1980 British detective show “Bergerac.”

“When people see the car, there are a lot of double takes and a lot of dropped jaws,” he said.

To spread the wealth, Wahl has been on the La Jolla Concours d’Elegance car show committee, where he occasionally shows his cars and chats with other car owners to learn all he can. “I like the mechanical technical stuff and the history about the cars,” he said.

“I always have. I’ve been involved with cars since I was 6 years old, fixing them, painting them, helping to work on them, etc. My dad was a car guy and had interesting cars, and we grew up with interesting cars. One was a Jaguar XK120 which got passed down and … my brother sold the car to go to school, which I never really got over.”

As to what it is about the old cars that drives him wild, Wahl said, “They have personality.” As do their owners, apparently. “There are 88 of these cars in the United States; 15 are in California. There are another 500 in England. People come up to me all the time when they see one. I’ve made quite a few friends through this car.”

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