• The Infamous 3-synchro MGB Transmission

    A Tale of Transmissive Tutelage

    by Dr Entropy

    This story takes place a few decades back, when we could find MG’s largely un-rusted and for affordable amounts of money. To be accurate it was late in 1972.

    As a Sergeant in the US Air Force and married to my college heart-throb for a few years, we were living a life we considered Spartan but comfortable for a couple in their early twenties. She had a job at a local bank, we had my original ’66 MGB and a ‘67 MGB-GT for her to drive. All was “right with the world” we were inhabiting. Because we had the reputation of being “ate up” with the MG bug, we were told one day of an MGB for sale in the area and went to “just look” at it. A British Racing Green example, tight and properly maintained. The price was right enough and with a look to one-another we’d decided it would be “smart” to buy this car. Now we’d three MG’s, no worries about parts interchange and keeping them going was a lifestyle we were already accustomed to. That’s when things are most subject to change: An Elan owner friend who worked as an engineer at a shipyard nearby called us one evening to announce that one of his co-workers had seen a Lotus Elan on a Chevy dealer’s lot and had declared to him: “Just like yours!” The engineer asked if we’d want to go have a look, just in case it wasn’t actually a Fiat 850. Again the “look” and off we went to meet up with the engineer at the car lot. What met our gaze was an Elan S-3 which looked familiar (even then it was rare to see them out-and-about) but in rough condition. It had been “traded in” by a divorcing couple on a Chevette for “her” to keep as her daily. We were sure we’d been “stocked up” with enough cars already, but a LOTUS ELAN! Well, we asked the salesman the money question and it was nearly affordable. A counter by me of: “We’ll give you $1,200 as-is, take it off the lot and you’ll never see it again! No ‘warranty’ issues, no complaints or claims.” There ensued the usual flitting back-and-forth to the “Manager’s office” by the sales guy and in the end we got it for just under $1,400 with the tag and title work. It took me a week of fussing in the evenings to make the twink roadworthy, but it was a labor of love.

    Now to the meat of the matter. Four British sportscars on an enlisted man’s wages was excessive even for a couple who were dedicated to them. We decided one would have to go. It fell on the BRG B to be the sacrifice. We’d still have an example of both MGB versions AND the Elan, so the decision was easier than we’d thought. A co-worker of mine, a new enlistee still with his “mosquito wings” and 18 years under his belt, insisted he wanted the B but needed a few weeks to wrangle up the funds. I gave him benefit of doubt and said we’d hold off advertising it for two weeks. The kid was over the moon to have his first car, and a sportscar to boot. A few days before the lad was to get a stipend from “Mom” I got TDY orders, grabbed the B-4 bag and was off to someplace on a job. Before leaving I reminded First Wife to press home the “crashbox” nature of the three-synchro MG to the young airman when he came to take possession of the car, She assured me she would explain it to him thoroughly.

    A few days later when I arrived home I asked First Wife how the transaction had gone, she related all had been smooth. All, that is, except the part about trying to explain to an 18-year-old male that he needed to listen to a GIRL about how to DRIVE. We knew what was to come, and were not disappointed when the kid approached me a week or two later to declare I’d sold him a car with a bad gearbox! That was at a time in my life when I could be counted on to be less-than tactful and tolerant when someone accused me of a nefarious deed. I managed to not council him “wall-to-wall” and even had support from other co-workers telling him THEY remembered me explaining the need to be completely stopped before selecting first or reverse in his “new” car. I further volunteered to assist him by being his ‘guide’ for the repair of the box in the base hobby shop. The rules would be that he would be responsible for the work involved in getting the unit out and back into the car, I would do the transmission and be his tutor. He was convinced of the fairness of this arrangement by several of the others in the office and agreed. The first session in the hobby shop was on a weekday evening. The lad had fewer mechanical skills than we’d hoped but with both First Wife and myself doing some of the ‘easy’ work it was ready to pull on Day Two.

    Here’s where I must digress for a bit of background information: First Wife was a fit young thing, a young woman who was ready to try about anything she found interesting. We met as freshmen in college, had lots in common and found one-another compatible in many ways. One of them was that she had learned to drive in a three speed manual automobile and was easily transitioned into an MGB. When we started hearing “sizzling noises” from my MG's tranny we went to our local Guru’s shop and were told: ”Don’t worry about it! When it breaks, you’ll know for SURE what it is!” Then one of them (the dealership owner’s son) told me if I brought the gearbox around after the shop was closed, he’d do the rebuild while we observed. We did just that and were taught all the tricks by an expert. He was truly a friend and mentor. First Wife was fascinated by the procedure and we took the box back home to disassemble and reassemble it a few more times! ---I know, we were a bit “off" even then. What do college kids know!? She was insistent she become proficient at reassembly of the box before it went back into the car. Who was I to argue?

    Now back to the airman napping languidly under his MGB as we waited for him to get on with it (literally) on Day Two: Engine and box out onto the floor, we split them and had ‘junior’ wash the box squeaky clean and place it onto a workbench. I did a total tear-down, explaining as I went what was beat up and what needed replacing. In those days we were fortunate enough to have a very good parts house in the area and all the bearings and bits were actually on the shelves. Day Three found us in the hobby shop ready to assemble the transmission. First Wife had earlier decided she wanted to assemble this one as we hadn’t had need to do this job since a few years earlier while in school. As she began to do the work it started to gain the attention of the other fellows using the shop. Here was a petite, attractive girl, hair up in “pigtails” doing the assembly of a “ferrin car” gearbox in front of a room full of G.I.’s. “Hey, man, there’s a girl over there puttin’ a TRANNY together!” At first all were nudging each other, joking and generally being derisive.

    She skillfully completed the job in about 45 minutes! One of the “tricks” for reassembly of these boxes is a foolproof method of securing the needle bearings of the input shaft so they don’t wind up down inside the case. The needles are loose, and grease alone can NOT be depended upon to hold them while the first motion shaft and input shaft are brought together. The “trick” our old friend, the heir to the dealership had shown us is this: A small rubber band, the kind for “freezer bags” is a transmission tool! At the point when the needles were to be placed, First Wife hooked a pinky finger into a rubber band securing one of her pigtails, pulled it out and secured the bearings to the shaft along with the “packing grease.” She slapped the two shafts together and spun it for dramatic effect… The “house” went wild… As she sealed the side cover she explained the band was soft and would be chewed up and dissolved in the oil with no ill effect. She turned to the car’s owner and declared to the “kid”: “There ya go! Now the next time you trash that layshaft you’re on your own, Slick!” It got her a resounding round of applause and cheers of: “Hey! I just learned something from a GIRL!” She bowed, we told the young airman the rest was up to him and left.

    I did go back the following day, to make certain all the rest was accomplished correctly. He sold that B six months later, I was PCS’d to S.E.Asia, First Wife and self were outta there. We didn’t make it to “Happily Ever After” but did share a few more years together, LBC’s and racing as major interests.
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. dklawson's Avatar
      dklawson -
      Wonderful story, and one I can relate to.

      My first, current, and only wife grew up as her dad's mechanic working on the Spitfires he raced. When later he switched to showroom stock she learned to work on Datsuns and Toyotas. She also joined him on the track... racing until her funds ran out.

      To this day people are amazed that I have never had any interest in driving a race car but my wife can and did. It's nice to come in from working on a car and have a discussion with someone who understands and can offer suggestions.
    1. DrEntropy's Avatar
      DrEntropy -
      Quote Originally Posted by dklawson View Post
      Wonderful story, and one I can relate to.

      My first, current, and only wife grew up as her dad's mechanic working on the Spitfires he raced. When later he switched to showroom stock she learned to work on Datsuns and Toyotas. She also joined him on the track... racing until her funds ran out.

      To this day people are amazed that I have never had any interest in driving a race car but my wife can and did. It's nice to come in from working on a car and have a discussion with someone who understands and can offer suggestions.
      Thanks for the kind words, Doug.

      Had no idea your lady was a showroom stock aficionado and accomplished wrench. EXCELLENT!

      No idea how it happened but I've been fortunate twice: Though it's been forty years since my split with the woman referred to as First Wife, it was amicable and we're still in regular communication. She and Mits knew each other (unbeknownst to me!) and still keep in regular touch as well. Mits was involved with race cars as a result of my influence and she later authored a monthly newspaper article here locally, on auto care and maintenance from a woman's perspective for a couple years. She jokingly referred to herself as Wrench Wench. ;-) In that respect we have a similar situation to yours.
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