ONE FOR THE ROAD: In response to an invitation to classic car owners to share their vehicle love stories, more than a dozen car buffs contacted La Jolla Light to be interviewed about their prize possessions. In this series, we present their delightful roadster experiences.
Howard Macken is, by his own admission, a bonafide car nut. The 10-year La Jolla resident worked on classic cars in his youth and, for more than a decade, raced cars on weekends. So when he retired, he started collecting old cars to restore them. Now, in addition to a 1974 Porsche, he is the owner of a rare 1954 Austin-Healey 100, a model that was only produced for three years.
As such, it was worth the effort for Macken to track the car down and bring it home, despite the “horrific” road trip involved.
“My wife Tona and I were living in New Mexico when we retired, and I was looking for a modified Austin-Healy with a newer engine. I found it online in Seattle and I bought it sight unseen because it was what I was looking for at the time,” he explained.
“So I flew out with some tools; fixed it up just enough that it could be driven and I drove it back. It was a horrific trip because the gas pedal had been modified so my foot was at 90 degrees the whole time, and the seat was completely vertical and there was no top. It was agony. I had to stop every 50 miles to stretch.”
Once it arrived in New Mexico, Macken set out on the careful repairs needed to get the car in top shape.
First, the paint job. “It was orange when I bought it, and it was a dark green before that, and there was rust and it was dinged up. But I took it apart and put the whole thing back together myself,” he said.
Then, there was the delicate work needed to get the car to its current glory without “over-restoring,” which is frowned upon by Austin-Healey enthusiasts. “People now are so hung up on having era-perfect cars to the point that they become over-restored. For example, a lot of older cars had nickel chrome, but modern chrome is shinier and looks better, and the paint is better now. But purists don’t like to see a car that has modern work,” Macken said.
On the other side of the coin, he said some die-hards would prefer if a car isn’t restored at all and is basically falling apart because it proves the car has not been altered. “I know someone with one of those, and that car is probably worth more than mine because it is totally original,” he said.
Part of the interest in keeping the car in its historic state comes from the car’s roots in bringing the sports-car phenomena to the United States.
Macken said, in the course of researching the car, he learned when American soldiers went overseas, they found these small, sporty cars that were unlike anything they’d ever seen.
“They didn’t have anything like it in the States,” he explained. “These cars were designed so they could be raced, so they have features like a windshield that is lower-able (to nearly flat). This would reduce air resistance to lower the angle of the windshield. … Manufacturers only did this into the mid-1950s and then they installed a fixed windshield. The U.S. soldiers bought them in England and brought them back. This one must have been like that because when I was restoring it, I found some English coins that had fallen in between the seats.”
As to what Macken gets from restoring the 1950s vehicle, he said, “It’s a gear-head thing to try to make the car start better and stop better.”
To help find the parts needed to keep the car in circulation, he said there are “tons” of online resources, “You could make a new one of these just from parts. It would cost a heck of a lot of money, but you could do it.”
Not needing to go to such lengths, Macken was able to restore the car to his liking so he can show it and drive it when possible. A “popular conversion” when restoring an Austin-Healey, he said, is to change the engine from the heavier originals to more speed-conducive lighter V8s. And while his car does not have a name, he refers to it as the “Little Bastard” (as in 1950s actor James Dean’s Porsche “Little Bastard”) because it has an Austin-Healy body and a Chevy engine.
Seemingly striking the right restoration balance, Macken said when he takes the car out, “I get lots of thumbs-up, especially from the Old Timers. At auto shows, they tell me stories of when they had one, or if their brother had one, or when they were in the Army and saw them there. There were only so many made and I hate to see them go away forever.”
Editor’s Note: In response to an invitation to classic car owners to share their vehicle love stories, more than a dozen car buffs contacted La Jolla Light to be interviewed about their prize possessions. In this series, we present their delightful roadster experiences.