I was introduced to the Lagonda motor car when I was a college student in Edinburgh, Scotland. A friend invited me to her family sheep farm south of Edinburgh. Passing through one of the large stone barns, she pointed to a rusting automobile chassis cobwebbed to the wall.
"A Lagonda," she commented in a tone of reverence. Sensitive to tests of the depths of American ignorance, I said nothing.
Half a century later, I recalled that prescient moment while meditating over the pages of The Hemmings Motor News, the Bible of antique automobilia. The advertisement was for a 1953 Lagonda. I opened the website and there it was, on my computer screen, transported from central Pennsylvania through the miracle of electrons. It was a drop-head coupe, a convertible. It had been elegant. but large areas of aluminum bodywork were visible where paint had peeled away. The rusting front bumper, bent up on one side, pleaded for care. It appeared more neglected than abused.
We all know the warnings against buying a car without kicking its tires, but I had no time to fly out to see it. The dealer sent me a roll of photos that was encouraging. It was risky, but there is always some element of risk to romance, and I had fallen in love. I don't use the word casually. Love is an absolute starting point in automobile restoration. And it must be a deep, abiding love to sustain one through the dirt, sweat, toil, and tears necessary to the task. For, not only will the depth of your love be tried, but also the love of those around you. And in addition to love - you have to be a little crazy.
I had a 1948 Triumph roadster that was splendid in its new cream-colored paint and bright chromework. It had red leather upholstery and a dickey seat, a rumble seat, and a fold-up windshield that fascinated everyone. It was one of many British cars that had left an emotional imprint on me during my impoverished student days in the early 1950s. It ran fairly well and always got smiles and prizes in our local Rotary auto show. But I never felt safe driving it. Experience confirmed inadequate brakes and a propensity for the rear end to swivel around to overtake the front. In a reprint from an early Motor Magazine article, a test driver concluded with the warning, "It's a death trap." It was time for a change.
The value of my car seemed equal to the asking price of the Lagonda. I called the dealer and proposed to swap - my desirable, running, sellable roadster for his, Lagonda is not well known, and even among those that do have a high regard for the marque, the postwar cars are regarded as "really not top drawer." The car's most obvious need was a bankroll to bring it back to life.
When his trailer arrived, the dealer had trouble starting the car to back it out. It wheezed slowly up my drive, wreathed in an ever-growing cloud of oily smoke. We turned the engine off to let the smoke dissipate before pushing it into my shop. Such is the intoxication of a new love that I drove my glittering roadster into his trailer with no sense of loss.
Lagonda is not an Italian car, as some suppose; rather, the name is Indian. Wilbur A. Gunn spent his childhood in the village of Lagonda, near Springfield, Ohio. Gunn carried the name with him when he began building small marine engines and established a factory in Staines, England. In 1904 this became The Lagonda Motor Co. Ltd.
Lagondas were hand-built - meaning that the body shell, fenders, etc., were not stamped out on presses. Sections were formed individually, welded together, then bolted into position. Exotic woods and leather upholstery completed the interior. To prove their mechanical excellence, Lagonda track team cars competed against Alvis, Aston Martin, Bentley, and the famous European cars of the 1920s and '30s: Bugatti, Mercedes, and Alfa Romeo.
Even before World War II, many British car manufacturers were in financial trouble. Bentley Motors failed and was taken over by Rolls-Royce. Its founder, W.O. Bentley, joined Lagonda. After the war, the Labour government taxed the aristocrats of the motor industry mercilessly. Many proud marques disappeared. Aston Martin had been bought by the David Brown Group, which then bought Lagonda, allegedly for my 2.6-liter overhead-cam engine. The engine was installed in DB series Aston Martins that gained notoriety in early James Bond movies. Loaded with high-tech weaponry, it was shamelessly abused by 007.
Restoration is a fairly solitary process, but it begins with joining a club. I am a member of the Lagonda Club, both the English and the American. I have been a member of the Packard, Hupmobile, and Triumph clubs. The clubs often provide a monthly publication with sources of spares. Meetings and events throughout the year are published. The wealthy clubs, Packard for example, produce a magazine with ravishing color photos of restored cars. You don't have to own a car to become a member. There are also articles of sympathy and inspiration for those members in need. The club publication also serves as a marketplace. Being a member of the club is essential and fun.
Strategy is important. "Don't fix what ain't broke," unless you have unlimited finances to pay an expert to do the work. I trusted the 71,000 miles registered on the odometer. Such an engine should generate another 30,000 miles before an expensive overhaul. Most antique cars cover less than 200 miles a year, so that translates into 15 years of inexpensive pleasure. Another costly repair would be the gearbox, but the gears seemed tight and functional.
I decided to concentrate on the cosmetics and restore only the crucial mechanical component. I removed the gas tank and had it cleaned, had the radiator rebuilt, the brake cylinders and linings restored, and the carburetors rebuilt. Specialty shops are expert at this. I do the work that requires little skill or intelligence, like the careful removal of half a century of grease and dirt. As I removed the doors, fenders, and hood for painting, I was relieved to find no hidden rust. This is the first all-aluminum car I've restored. A very competent restoration shop smoothed all the dents, welded the cracked and torn metal, and painted the car. I chose a warm British racing green. When the bumpers and grill had been replated, I reassembled the car.
The providence that guides the affairs of antique automobile clubs proved benevolent. A year from the swap, the car is now beautiful. W.O. Bentley's engine is a thrill to start - quiet and powerful. With rack-and-pinion steering, torsion bar suspension, and a light aluminum body, it has the handling quality of a racing car. It is majestic in appearance, not as head-turning as my Triumph roadster was, but no anxiety attends the application of its brakes.
Great cars are mobile works of art. They objectify engineering, technology, and craftsmanship - combining metals, glass, wood, leather, and fabric in a creation both sculptural and practical. Museums exhibit classic cars as objects of veneration. And in a less-tangible sense, the cars transport our dreams and imagination.