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The Best Part

Posted by RedTR250 on March 22, 2011 at 9:44 AM

It's been thirty, forty, fifty years or longer since genuine service parts for today's classic British cars were available from an authorized dealer. Your only chances of scoring something like that now are from a lucky day on eBay or Craigslist, a Britcar parts specialist thinning his hoard, or a swap meet/autojumble. "New Old Stock" parts = NOS, the Holy Grail of vintage car upkeep.


Even when the cars were new and the factories were churning out MGBs and Spitfires and E-Types and more, availability of even common replacement parts was often spotty at the local dealerships in North America. Running extended supply lines to the world's far corners placed a continuous strain on struggling British manufacturers, many of whom found it hard enough to simply keep their doors open and assembly lines running.


This was also before the new reality of Web-based ordering, a more globalized supplier base, and extremely favorable (and fast) expedited airfreight services. Today, it is very easy to order items online, transfer payment electronically, and ship small, high value goods across the globe quickly and economically. You can order a Lucas distributor cap from a vendor in the UK, ship it for sixteen bucks, and have it on your doorstep in Kansas City in less than a week—even faster if you don't mind spending more.


Many of the parts sourced from Great Britain or the EU are still being produced on original tools, sometimes even at the same location as they were decades ago. In other cases, corporate consolidations and shuttered businesses have forced production to move out of the region, especially to Asia.


The political, socio-economic, and ethical debates regarding Asian manufacturing and exportation are outside the scope of this article. Objectively, the Pacific Rim suppliers' willingness and capability to produce these much-needed reproduction parts—particularly in the requisite small quantities—is one of the factors that makes maintenance of classic British cars economically viable for many enthusiasts. Keep in mind that the quality of the products is only as good as the manufacturer's or re-seller's commitment to QC processes.


How much longer will we be able to keep our cars running? One thing is certain: there are no more Hillman Imps, MG Magnettes, or Singer Gazelles being built. The number of original cars is dwindling, and each car that rusts into the ground or is crushed reduces the possibility of mass-producing spare parts profitably. Ownership is shifting, too. The silver-haired among us are passing into the night—are our inheritors enjoying and maintaining these heirlooms? Will classic British car ownership emulate the extreme but necessary measures of improvisation and bastardization found in American cars on the post-Cold War island of Cuba?


As older cars and owners fade into dust, maybe the British car hobby will mature gracefully into appreciation for vehicles currently considered modern. Your children and their children will attend car shows and ogle freshly waxed examples of cars like the Lotus Elise, Jaguar XF, and Range Rover Sport. Featured prominently will be a long row of BMW MINIs. An occasional museum-piece Triumph TR6 or Austin Healey 100 could show up—probably on a trailer—and be regarded as anachronistic as a Ford Model T at a contemporary American classic car event.


Exciting and quickly developing technologies such as CNC manufacturing and rapid prototyping may very well be a future solution: the ability to create complex, high-quality replacement parts in small quantities and at a reasonable cost. Either that, or tomorrow's British car enthusiast may have to add forging, casting, milling, and injection molding to his or her list of required skills.


Categories: British Car History, Classic British Car Repair and Parts, Opinionated Opinions