International Car of Mystery – with bullets, baby!

Is it possible somebody died in your car? Peter Grove replies, “possible? Possible.”

The north Brisbane retiree is the owner of a 1969 Rover 2000 TC, which left the factory the year after the Steve McQueen movie “Bullitt” gave us one of the most exciting car chases in film history, with a Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger slamming the streets of San Francisco.

However, Peter’s British car – with a clever bolt-on body design and a 2-litre twin carb engine – could arguably suit the “bullet” nickname more than Steve McQueen’s ride: because it has 2 bullet holes, which begin at the front driver’s side and finish at the rear passenger wheel arch.

Peter bought the car on the internet in 2011 and decided to have some rust looked after, around 3 years later. The lifetime engineer stripped the car of body panels and interior in his own homemade “rotisserie” before sending off the skeleton to the body shop. And that’s when his classic car turned into a conundrum.

“I got a phone call from the people doing this and they said ‘umm, got a slight problem. I think you’d better come down and have a look’,” he said.

“When I got down there, somewhere they had got hold of some police tape, taped it off. All part of a bit of a gag on their behalf. They put this dowel rod in (to the bullet holes in the rear wheel arch).”

“It came back, straight through about where the driver’s head would be,” he said. “The trim on the two seats was different to the back seat, so I think it’s been redone.”

I put it to Peter: “It is possible somebody died in the car.”

He replied: “Possible? Possible. But there is no other damage – superficial damage – around the car. If that had happened I’d expect it may have gone off the road, rolled over, you would have found major structural damage. There wasn’t any.”

I asked, “so that doesn’t worry you?”

“No, you can’t confirm it, it is just one of those things.”

There were two holes in the rear wheel arch, and the dowels provided evidence that their journey had begun through the front windscreen, fired from some height. The body shop also found lots of glass fragments in the heater core area under the windscreen.

The exit point was under the rear passenger wheel arch, so the bullets missed the wheel rim and tyre.

With the trajectory solved, the bigger question was how a Rover gets a couple of bullets, obviously aimed at the driver?

Owner’s name edited out – but very Anglo

Peter already knew from the car’s books that the Rover’s first owner was in Belgrade (Beograd), Yugoslavia, with a notation that the person’s address is “Austral. Embassy”. The first ‘free’ service record makes reference to “authorised services in Yugoslavia”.

“I know the car was sold direct to a person. Right hand drive (in Belgrade) is not the norm,” he explained. “This would be ideal for driving over there. The driver could get out very quick and open the back door, straight on the side the passenger would get out onto the pavement.”

At the time, Yugoslavia was known as the “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”. But just when you think perhaps some European Cold War spy games could be behind the bullets, the action moves to Africa.

Peter explained: “Then somebody said ‘well this car was in Sudan at one time’. How do you know that? I haven’t been able to verify it. The only thing I’ve had the verification of, is when I was doing the rotisserie and turned it, and took the back axle housing out, I got showered in sand – a hell of a lot of sand. Which I don’t think is normal (for Belgrade).”

Obviously the car was imported to Australia as a used vehicle at some stage, and then spent time with various owners (at one point, forgotten in a shed), before Peter had it restored and available for daily use whenever his more modern vehicle failed him. He says the Lucas electrics and the Rover engine haven’t failed – touch wood.

It’s this somewhat frequent use which brought the Rover to my attention. Peter parked it in a commuter car park and someone scraped the side of it – the rear passenger corner, in fact, where the car had already seen those battles with bullets.

He took it to the same rust and body wizard I use, and I first heard the story about the “spy car” from the body shop owner. It’s a fitting car for Peter. He’s worked as an engineer for everyone from VW to Ford to Massey Ferguson to the railways. And he also helped with the dish installation at the Pine Gap US satellite surveillance base near Alice Springs. He knows where the dishes are, under those spherical screens, but he has to keep it a secret – just like his car’s past.

Watch my video on the bullethole Rover here

Serendipity city, part 2: Toyota Corolla

Here I was, thinking serendipity simply meant “happy accident”. But as The Teknologist writes, there’s also the educated guess side of it. Serendipity was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, based on inspiration from the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip”. The Princes make some very good guesses, in their travels. There’s also a story in there, about dividing up eggs with a Queen, that Benny Hill would have been proud of. Let’s just say testicles are mentioned.

I wrote previously about how repairs on my Subaru Vortex XT were helped by a serendipitous sunroof. Well, just a few weeks earlier, the legend of the three princes helped with a Toyota Corolla that was running rough.

The 1.6 litre engine (carburettor, no EFI) in the 1991 Seca seemed like it was missing, with fuel not being burnt in one cylinder. So I had my mechanic take a look at it. After inspecting the distributor, he figured it must be the leads or spark plugs playing up.

Cylinder-by-cylinder, he got me to start the car while its lead was disconnected. The problem seemed to be pointing to (I think) cylinder 3. So, as a final test, he changed the plug and lead for that cylinder – and found that the problem remained.

Just as he was about to throw his hands up in the air and curse an automotive mystery, he was visited by a very old memory: that Toyotas from 30 years ago often had a diaphragm in the carburettor break, and this allowed fuel to get into an area where it shouldn’t be, causing what seems to be a misfire.

He said it was something he hadn’t through about in many years, as fuel injection is so common now. He dismantled the carburettor and sure enough, the diaphragm had just a tiny tear in it. It was barely visible, but enough to allow fuel through.

The solution was to order a carb kit for the Toyota from the auto store. He got on the phone and was told it would take a day or so to arrive. This prompted him to recall how, decades ago, auto stores would have carb kits sitting on the shelf because they were in demand. These days, not so much.

On arrival, it was but a small part of the carb kit that was needed. I’ve kept all the rest of the kit in the glovebox, for future use if required. Unlike the Princes of Serendip, I can keep those eggs in the one basket.

Serendipity city, part 1: Vortex XT

Sir Richard Branson ran crying down a London road. He’d just sold Virgin records for a billion dollars in 1992, to found his airline, but was upset over saying goodbye to it. Despite the serendipity of a fortune to fly planes, Reuters reports he felt like he’d sold a child.

Selling my automotive baby wouldn’t take a billion dollars (I have had offers recently) but it would have to be a healthy figure, considering it’s only a few years ago that I finally achieved my childhood dream of owning a Subaru Vortex XT, albeit the stock standard version.

Along with the strikingly shaped car were some standout patches of rust: in the left side chassis rail, around the boot and on the edges of the sunroof.

The Vortex on the day I bought it

I had repairs to all 3 areas in 2018 before getting the car back on the road, but in the last 40+ months they’ve all begun bubbling again. They were repaired quickly at a somewhat low cost, and now it shows. Let’s just say chassis rust was simply covered with new metal.. and body rust was just moved aside for filler putty.

Therein lies the problem – it seems that in neither case was the rust properly removed, with the metal then sandblasted and fully sealed. I’ve been learning a lot about oxidation this week, by studying the skill that another local body shop is putting into repairing my ride. The man behind the operation grew up in a cold country, repairing rust on cars which drove on salted roads. He knows how to stop the rot.

Previously repaired chassis rail, eaten out by the rust that was simply covered up in 2018

After a day at his workshop, the chassis rail was renewed and will be sealed inside with a particularly noxious substance, which has many warning labels. So that’s the underside done.

New chassis rail, with evidence of some other repair at the front – but we’ll keep an eye on it

New rust spots around the body are also being revealed under plastic trim and will get the sandblasting treatment. There’s one nasty outbreak under the rear glass, perhaps caused by a hasty previous windscreen removal, with a sharp tool, that scratched the metal surface which was then left untreated. Add to that oversight, insufficient sealant – and rust will come. That’s a lot more glazing knowledge than I had last week.

Rear right hand side windscreen rust spot

Which brings me to my serendipity (apart from finding this very thorough body shop). The sunroof is a heavy metal lid, which has been gradually rusting on the passenger side.

Sunroof after 2018 repair, would rust again on this side

Given that it can easily be removed, I didn’t expect it to be much of an issue to repair. However, on checking in at the workshop, I found my metalworking god scratching his head.

He said the sunroof was too eaten away at the edges to be restored. I’d have to get a fibreglass lid made, or have new metal cut to the ever-so-curved design, or just go with a piece of glass. Any of those options would cost a bit – and it’s then that I mentioned I had a spare sunroof at home.

This sunroof was salvaged from the Vortex car shell I bought, along with a “barn find” Vortex, when I went to see a man about buying hubcaps. I’ve had it for sale for years, and it’s sat unloved in the shed, until I pulled it out today to show to the body shop.

At first he didn’t say much, and I thought he was in shock at how badly rusted the spare roof was. But once he was able to put sentences together again, he revealed how marvellously preserved this metal was, for my car’s purposes. He grabbed a wire brush and immediately made positive noises, as he checked the shallow depth of the top rust spots. It made his day – and it will make the sunroof-sized hole in the roof a lot more leakproof.

My spare salvaged sunroof, which looked all rusted out, to me at least

Even the rubber seal around the outside was in good condition, just needing a good soak in an anti-mould solution.

I also learned the importance of looking at welds, and cleaning down bare metal before covering it. My body maestro put on his detective hat, while attacking a small rust spot in the passenger door sill.

Door frame: evidence of a new panel

He said the car looked to have had a new rear quarter panel at some time – with the Vortex a coupe, this covers quite a large area. He noticed that the welds on this side were not as precise as the robot-regulated shots on the driver’s side. Plus, the panel edge that’s usually under the plastic trim looks a bit rough.

There was one other thing he found, while going back to bare metal: what seems to be the fingerprint of whoever replaced the panel in the past. It matches up with where a hand would have placed the panel edge. In their haste, they didn’t clean it off before coating it. So the tiny amount of dirt or moisture from their thumb has left its mark on the metal, over the years.

“Fingerprint” circled

So you never know how a previous owner or repairer will literally leave their mark on your car. That’s a lot more body shop knowledge than I had last week.

With so much attention going into the rust spots around my Vortex, I don’t think I’ll be doing a Branson and selling it. Anyway, he’s into rockets now – and I already own one, made in 1985.

Decent proposals – should you say yes?

The 1993 movie “Indecent Proposal” might have starred Warren Beatty as the man who buys a night with Demi Moore for a million dollars. But as imdb reveals, Robert Redford got the role, and he “walks better than anybody on Earth”, according to director David Lyne (who also made Flashdance and Fatal Attraction).

Twice in as many weeks, I’ve received very “decent proposals” to buy my cars, straight up from strangers who are admiring them.

The first was at Cars and Coffee with my Suzuki Mighty Boy. Friends beckoned me over to it, as I looked at other vehicles. A man standing in front of the little yellow ute was eagerly awaiting my arrival. He said “I like your car, how much would you sell it for?”

I said “I’m not really interested in selling it, as I’ve only had it a few months!” That seemed to put the brakes on his plans. He repeated how much he liked the Boy and moved on.

Then the following week, as I drove to the petrol station to fuel up the Subaru Vortex XT for a different car meet-up, I had another decent proposal.

As I waited to pull out into traffic from a business car park, a man in a 4WD pulled over and motioned to me. I thought he was saying “you leave the driveway and I’ll pull in.”

Once traffic cleared, I got onto the road and drove 200 metres to the servo. The driver followed me on the road and into the forecourt. Then as I filled up, he came over to chat.

Turns out, he used to own a Vortex XT, but sold it some years ago. He just happened to be driving down the road as I was waiting in the car park driveway, in the rare car he regretted selling (I know what he means). Surely a million-to-one chance.

This time the proposal was more direct: “I want to buy your car, how much would you sell it for?”

I gave him my usual response to family members, asking about my plans for the fleet: at the right price, anything is for sale. So it would have to be a very good price – many thousands – to tempt me.

In the end, he gave me his card and asked that I call him if ever I was selling it. But seeing as he was really looking for a turbo XT, I gave him some leads on a couple for sale online.

He’s a local mechanic who’s worked on the Subaru’s EA82 engine, so I said I’d give him a call the next time it needed work.

So, he may yet get to experience my Vortex XT like Robert Redford with Demi Moore (well, not exactly like that), but without a million dollars changing hands.

Alfa Romeo makes the earth move

Two things were eerily moving back and forth by themselves in the backyard of our Perth home on Saturday, June 2nd 1979: the water in the swimming pool and the wheels of an old Alfa Romeo 2600 Sprint.

An earthquake, northeast of the city, had just cut power to the family home in Balga, bringing an early end to “Swiss Family Robinson” on the Kreisler TV.

I raced outside, thinking the ground would keep moving and the house might even collapse. However, it was just a few seconds’ worth of wobbles – even if the pool and car carried on. I later heard that the Perth high-rise, where my father was working that day, also had a bad case of the fidgets when the ground shook.

The quake had happened near Cadoux in Western Australia, with a magnitude of 6.1 on the Richter Scale. It was enough to finally get the 1960s Alfa moving, after months of it sitting on the back lawn and playing host to my childhood driving dreams.

I would sit in the (probably leather) low brown seats, in the early morning before anyone else was awake, turning the silver-centred steering wheel and flicking black dashboard switches on and off. Hinged windows, front and rear, were opened and closed. I’d also try to figure out what the logo on the front grille meant – a person being eaten by a snake?! We didn’t have any Funk and Wagnalls to explain it.

The 2600 Sprint had a six cylinder 2584cc engine with twin overhead cams and a triple carb. It was capable of very high speed. Shannons reveals that it was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, then employed as chief stylist by Bertone. Fewer than 600 were made in right-hand drive. Shannons also confirms it would be worth quite a bit these days.

In 1979, the Alfa was patiently awaiting some restoration – firstly of its engine and then the paintwork.

My dad had somehow agreed to a friend’s suggestion that he should buy the dark blue Italian stallion, after a Frenchman had apparently “cooked” the engine during a trip across the hot Nullarbor with coolant issues.

I’m not sure how Dad got this purchase past Mum – the car cost $500, which was a lot more in the late 70s than it is now. She also worried that a 6-cylinder engine with a triple carb would drink fuel like Hannibal Lecter went through Chianti dinner accompaniments. She wasn’t wrong.

It was eventually brought back to life under the bonnet by an Italian workshop in Perth, after waiting on parts for weeks.

Then, the body had a basic respray. However, poor workmanship meant the paint on the roof bubbled badly, so it later sported a vinyl roof covering – such a 70s auto augmentation.

The Alfa on the day it was sold. The more economical, brand new Mazda 323 replacement is next to it.

The Alfa went with us as we moved to Queensland in 1980, but within a short time its running costs forced Dad to consider selling it. He had to fill up twice a week to travel into the city. At first a 1960s Toyota Corona took on the daily commute, before a new Mazda 323 replaced both cars.

He sold the 2600 Sprint to a member of the local Alfa club, so at least it went to an enthusiast. Before it left our garage, he took us for a drive in it around the block. It had a nice exhaust note, and I think no rear seatbelts, which was a novelty for me.

Aged just 12, I never got to drive the Alfa I’d pretended to steer in the backyard.

However, it did give me a love of all sorts of cars that rock my world, more than that earthquake ever did.

Topless tales, part 2 – MG F a Desperado

The Eagles’ 1973 album track “Desperado” started out as a Don Henley song about a friend, with the opening line “Leo, my God, why don’t you come to your senses”. Henley played it for Glenn Frey, and the two of them decided to give it an Old West, anti-hero style, as told to Cameron Crowe. It was the start of their songwriting partnership.

But what was it about? There are many references to a cowboy who refuses to fall in love:

Don’t you draw the queen of diamonds, boy
She’ll beat you if she’s able
You know the queen of hearts is always your best bet

However, Songfacts says it’s perhaps a study of self-destructive life in the music industry. Whatever the meaning, this Western style song was made in Britain, at London’s Island studios, along with an orchestra of bored Brits who played chess between takes.

The Rover Group’s mid-engined MG F sportscar was also made in Britain, launching in 1995, and might have been “out ridin’ fences” in the US, had the then-owner BMW not decided against exports there.

MG had pretty much farewelled the 2-seater open top sportscar in 1980, but it wanted to return to that space and kept developing sports car projects in the 80s. Then in 1989, it drew the queen of diamonds.

My MG F next to my daughter’s MX-5. Both now gone

The launch of the Mazda MX-5 apparently brought one of the MG F designers close to tears, according to the excellent Austin Rover website aronline, but at least it motivated Rover management to put their own roadster into production.

A mid-engined design was given the green light (over a V8-powered rear-driven monster!) because of its effect on the handling. Instead of a Honda engine – via Rover’s dealings with the Japanese automaker – the 1.8 Rover K-series engine would do the job, even though it was normally placed at the front of cars. The K-series would get a reputation for needing head gaskets replaced.

As well, the MG F would use hydragas suspension which meant the car rode on a cushion of gas, instead of springs and dampers. The springs would win out, in the later MG TF.

When I felt like going topless in cars again, I wasn’t comfortable stretching to the prices for used MX-5s – but I could afford the MG F! They were often a lot less than $5,000, mostly due to the overheating reputation of the engine and the need to restore the hydragas suspension on cars that were now coming up to 25 years old.

So, I had to be cautious with my purchase – checking for head gasket issues, maintenance history and seeing if the car sat too low, with no suspension travel – a sign of a hydragas system that had no gas left in it.

I spent years as a desperado, looking at MG Fs – one had been imported from Japan as a used car, but had throttle problems on my inspection. Another was just a street away, but sat very low. And yet another had been well used, but with a roof that needed replacing. All the while, MG was becoming a popular brand here again, under its new Chinese owners – but for regular hatchback vehicles, made in China.

Then, one day Facebook Marketplace showed me a 1998 British-built MG F for sale in my favourite colour – British Racing Green – just a few minutes away. This one was high in kilometres but had its gas suspension removed, in favour of springs. To me, the high mileage meant that cooling problems had been sorted, and the springs meant there was one less thing to worry about.

But I Googled the VIN, and found this:

It was a photo of the same car, on a car auction house website. Google told me that the current owner had paid just a couple of thousand dollars for it – so I went to inspect it, armed with that knowledge. The elderly owner was selling it, after having had a fall and not being able to fully use his left arm to change gears. I told him I knew what he’d paid at the auction, but then he pulled out a pile of receipts, for thousands of dollars in work on the car at an MG specialist.

So his asking price was fair – and I paid it. A search of the tiny glovebox revealed another former owner’s phone number – I rang it and discovered that it had received a lot of care over the years. An MG F Facebook group searched the factory records, and found that my MG F had been delivered to Sydney, with cloth trim. So, a former owner had paid to have tan leather splashed around the interior.

It was a great car to drive – the weight of the engine behind you made cornering fun and, once warmed up, the engine would happily rev. The gearshift was good to use. The black soft top could be lowered without leaving the seat, although taking the time to put on the tan cover made it look better. The white dials on the dash were a nice touch.

The only problem I had was with the driver’s footrest. I found it was hard to put my foot on it, as it was too far to the left. I had the timing belt and water pump replaced, at quite the cost due to the inaccessibility of the engine. The clutch cylinders were much easier to find, for replacement during my ownership.

However, after nearly a year of only occasional driving, I had to put it up for sale. That’s because I bought 2 cars I’d wanted to own again: a Mighty Boy and a Niki. So, there’d be no garage space for the MG F.

See my farewell to the MG F here

There was one problem to solve, before selling it: the driver’s seat was sun-damaged and ripped. To get the roadworthy, I bought some similar leather seats, taken out of a later model, and installed them, one very hot day.

See my seat installation here

Given all the work done on the MG F, I asked top dollar. I had a couple of older people look at the car, before a young man had a drive – and just like my own buying conditions, it was the right colour and had the spring suspension he was looking for. He drove it away within an hour of arriving.

He’d drawn the Queen of Hearts, and my MG F was going to let somebody new love it.

Topless tales, part 1 – with Warren Buffet

“If you want to soar like an eagle in life, you can’t be flocking with the turkeys.”

So said Warren Buffet, who’s not one to flock around – he started buying stock at age 11 and became one of the world’s richest people, basically by doing his own thing and investing wisely.

So, too, did Renault when they turned the Renault 19 of the late 80s/early 90s into the Megane, carrying over the floorpan, engine and transmission to save on the new-look model for 1996. The Renault 19 I once owned had the world’s most comfortable seats – but unfortunately they weren’t carried over to the Megane.

There was an avian aspect to the Megane: the grille on the initial release was supposed to look like a bird beak, apparently in a throwback to the Renault 16, 30 years earlier.

wikimedia: Thomas doerfer

By the time I came to the Megane party in 2021, it was with an automatic convertible 2003 version of the facelifted grille design. The bird beak had gone, replaced with what you might call a moustache.

I was looking through local car listings when I saw it: being sold unregistered, with cold air conditioning and reasonably low kilometres. The asking price was a bit higher than I like, but an inspection would reveal whether it was worth it. So I arranged one.

I had some familiarity with the model: I’d looked at a Megane convertible at a dealer around 15 years earlier, but discovered in the logbooks that it was an ex-rental car and, based on that, not worth the asking price.

This black one was clearly not an ex-rental. The paint and interior were very good for an 18-year-old car, there was quite an extensive dealer service history in the logbooks and someone had gold-plated the badges. Most importantly, the convertible roof worked perfectly. A mum was selling it because she didn’t drive it any more, and her daughter hadn’t got around to getting a licence.

However, the driver’s side window didn’t fully close and the driver’s leather seat had a hole in it – both roadworthy issues that I would need to fix, before I could have a drive on the road. Plus, a couple of the tyres were almost as old as the car itself!

See my first impressions of the Megane here

With the car sitting out in the weather (under a car cover) the most urgent job was to fix the electric window, to seal the interior from the buckets of rain that were falling at the time. I found it wasn’t easy to source a window regulator for this model – the convertible used a different type to the hatch, which might have been because Karmann (yes, that Karmann) did all the coachwork for the convertible (making over 74,000 of this model, according to Wikipedia).

I found no secondhand parts for sale in Australia. Some in the UK through eBay were a hundred dollars, before shipping. Thankfully, Google found me one at a wrecker’s yard in The Netherlands, which would cost $100 including shipping. A PayPal transaction later, and the part was on its way.

After a week or so, the window regulator arrived and it was the (relatively) easy to install scissor type that I’d replaced on my Land Rover Discovery. But still, it wasn’t a 5-minute job.

See how I replaced the window here

The driver’s seat was next on the list. I got a quote from a mobile leather repairer and was shocked to be told it would cost hundreds to fix a hole that was the size of a 5 cent piece (and even then, they could give no guarantee on the repair). So I discovered a DIY kit that would fill the hole with hard-setting resin, that you coloured to match the leather. The kit was less than $50.

The result wasn’t perfect, but got rid of the hole on what was already a slightly worn seat anyway.

See how I fixed the seat

With new tyres and a roadworthy, I was able to have a drive of this convertible which could go topless within 30 seconds or so. But watch out: in the summer heat, grabbing the handle on the windscreen to unhook the roof could burn your fingers!

Unlike the Ford Capri I previously owned, I found the Megane had a surprising lack of “scuttle shake” (when a car without a solid roof wobbles over bumps). The 1.6 litre, 16-valve engine was pretty spritely on locals roads and handled the on-ramp to the freeway with ease. The only letdowns were lack of rear passenger space for the odd passenger (yes, there were complaints) and the hard-to-access rear boot (where space has to make way for the folded roof).

See my road test of the Megane here

I was thinking of keeping the Megane as a low-cost first car for my son, but he was also taking his time getting a licence – and I had too many cars to register and garage. So, it went up for sale online, for pretty much what it owed me. I was absolutely inundated with buyers. Just 2 hours after listing it, I took it down and stayed in contact with the first buyer, who looked at it the next day with his wife.

He took it home, with the roof down – soaring like an eagle.