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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.