Growing up as a teenager in Southern California, it was only natural for Craig Newell to be attracted to sports cars. While attending junior college classes, he also worked on cars at a local dealership, so it was almost fate when a 1957 MGA coupe showed up.
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“It came in as a trade-in. It had lived a hard life … it had been T-boned on both sides before I got it. It had electrical problems.” Newell recalled. “I paid $600 for it. That was big money back then.”
That was back in 1964, and the car became his daily driver. It served him well, so well in fact that after he and his wife, Peggy, were married on April 6, 1968, they took it on their honeymoon, visiting Disneyland and other tourist locations.
After finishing college, Craig joined the Air Force and became a B-52 bomber pilot, flying missions over Vietnam during his 10-year military career.
Peggy recalls one morning when she found the MGA frozen to the pavement where she had parked it in Grand Forks, N.D., while they were stationed there.
“I’m from Southern California. I don’t know about this stuff,” she laughed.
Craig’s Air Force career eventually brought the couple to Wichita, where he later began a 33-year career at Learjet.
The trusty old MGA coupe eventually was retired in about 1979, but the Newells never seriously considered getting rid of it.
“MGAs were built from 1955 through 1962. The number of cars built in 1957, my car’s year, was 20,571,” Craig explained. “Of this number, 13,869 were left-hand drive models exported to North America and 3,326 of those were coupes.”
So he knew their car was rather rare and eventually could be worth restoring.
He had earlier swapped out the disc-style wheels in favor of sportier painted wire wheels, so keeping it absolutely stock was not a concern.
“I saw a typical MG rusting away in a field with wire wheels and I swapped those onto this car,” he said.
He figured he could put the old wheels on the parts car and sell it to recover his money. But his mother saw the parts car and fell in love with it, so Newell ended up restoring that car for her.
“I started taking this car apart in the ’80s, but work got in the way,” he recalled.
He had obtained a later 1964 MGB engine for the project. He retired in 2011, giving him more time to work on their MGA, and had reassembled that engine himself.
“We had a ‘will it start?’ party with friends and neighbors, and it started right up,” said Newell. He then went to work straightening body panels and preparing the car for paint. He built a makeshift paint booth in his car barn and shot the little English coupe in decidedly American Dodge Viper Red.
“It ran and it drove, but there was a really bad vibration in it. It vibrated like crazy and even a mechanic couldn’t figure it out,” Newell said.
The project had taken three years up to that point and had involved numerous upgrades.
Among them, installation of a Pertronix electronic ignition system, a 12-volt alternator to replace the original generator, a K&N cold air induction kit and power steering. Complimenting the new paint job was a new set of chrome knockoff wire wheels and Classic All Season 15-inch radial tires.
The vibration problem was finally solved in 2015 when Newell pulled the engine in preparation for installing a modern Ford Sierra 5-speed manual transmission. It turned out the flywheel needed to be rotated 180 degrees to properly balance the engine assembly.
“My plan was to get it all restored in time for our 50th anniversary,” said Craig, who wrapped up the project with time to spare.
“We’re thinking about going back to LaJolla Beach, where we had our wedding reception,” said Peggy.
“This car has never let me down. I drove it from San Diego to San Antonio without a problem,” Craig said. “It’s a really nice driving car.”
But the MGA, with its cozy two-place interior, seems to be a little harder to get in and out of now that it was 50 years ago. So for the second honeymoon trip, the MGA will probably ride in a trailer to California next year, to be unloaded and then enjoyed recreating each leg of the original journey.