Just outside the noisy turmoil of construction that currently makes up Harriston, I turn onto a quiet, narrow country road. After a silent kilometre or two, I arrive at my destination. A serene, tree-lined laneway ushers me in. My heart beats a little faster.
I’m here to talk to a man named John Burgess. He is the founder of Kimbal Printing Ltd., which is now Innovative Print. He is also the creator of The Rural Route magazine. But that’s not what has brought me here.
The loose gravel crunches under my tires as I roll past the small country bungalow. Just behind the house, I see what I’ve come for. And it truly is a breathtaking sight. Parked regally in the middle of the clearing are two impeccable examples of British engineering: John’s cars.
As I park my car- at a respectful distance- John comes out of the house to meet me. He shakes my hand with a firm grasp. His denim shirt has an MG logo on the chest. His merely nods when I point this out. “Oh, of course,” he says. “I’ve got it all.”
And, indeed, John has or has had almost everything an MG collector could want. He started his obsession in his early 20s, when he switched from his father’s Ford to an MG Midget. He drove the tiny two-seat roadster every day from his home in Toronto to his job is Oakville – all year round.
“It was terrifying!” John says, recalling winter driving on the QEW and Gardner. Before traction control and all of today’s safety systems, a petite rear-wheel-drive sports car did not mix well with the snow. On top of that, the heater really didn’t do much. And the convertible top, well, as John put it, “MGs leak.”
By the time John was 26, he was driving a company vehicle. The old Midget was out of the picture. But his love affair with MG’s was not over; he bought himself both a 1951 MG TD and a 1963 MG MGB. The MGB was basically a larger version of the Midget- similar proportions in a bigger, more powerful package. John loved it.
Then, John’s life started changing. He found a woman. Suddenly he had children. Cars began to fade into the background. Eventually they were sold. “Most car guys go through this cycle,” John says. “You get some cars. Then you get a wife. Children. A mortgage. All of a sudden the cars are gone. Then one day, you wake up and find the kids are moved out and the mortgage is paid. Then you say, okay, where was I?”
That day was about 27 years ago for John, when he drove past a small garage and saw a familiar back end sticking out of it. Twenty-five hundred dollars later, he was the proud owner of his second MGB- a 1970 model this time.
Owning classic cars is not always a cheap venture, as he found out a bit later. A shoddy rebuild of the engine had left the cylinder walls uneven, and the engine soon self-destructed. Undaunted, John took the car to a man named Jim Watterworth. Jim, a resident of Mount Forest, took the engine apart and rebuilt it properly. This included boring it out, from 1800cc to 1860cc, and adding a tuned exhaust.
12 years later, John got a lead on another MG TD, a 1952. “I wanted to put my life back together, car-wise,” he remarks. He purchased the TD and sent it to Dave’s Auto Body in Mount Forest to be stripped down and repainted. Then it was ready for the road.
Now, 15 years later, I’m two steps behind John, striding across the small clearing toward his cars. He asks which one I want to ride in first. “Which is your favorite?” I ask.
John laughs. “That’s like picking between two of your kids!” he says. I grin apologetically and he turns toward the TD. “Let’s take the old one out first.” I pull the suicide door open and fold my legs inside the cockpit. John flips a few switches and the engine burbles to life. It settles down to a smooth purr as we roll out the laneway.
We swing out onto the road and accelerate. The wind rushes past my face. I check our speedometer, and notice it sits at zero. “How fast are we going?” I ask. I have to shout to be heard over the noise of the wind.
John shrugs. “Oh, maybe sixty-five,” he says. The rushing air flattens my hair against my forehead. It seems so much faster.
As we cruise, John explains how MG’s became popular in America after WWII. Pre-war MG cars caught the attention of many American soldiers serving in Britain, and they began to take took the cars home after the war. MG realized this, and started exporting to the US and Canada. They quickly became popular sports cars here. Despite their relatively small 4-cylinder engines, they were quite competitive in racing events.
After our short drive in the TD, we switch to the MGB. The new car is noticeably quicker, and definitely sounds better. 27 years on the rebuilt engine hasn’t damaged it a bit, and the exhaust pipes still trumpet a wonderful wail. We rumble down one country road after another, the engine singing and the nimble chassis dancing. A road sign warns of curvy roads for the next two kilometres. I look over at John. “This is where we lose the American cars?” I ask. John grins and nods.
If the MGB was great before, it is absolutely magnificent on the winding roads. It takes all the twists and turns in stride, never feeling uncomfortable or unsettled. When we emerge onto flat roads once more, I wish we would turn it around and do it again.
After the MGB is parked inside the garage beside the TD – and I am sorrowfully coming to grips with the fact that my seat time is over – John offers to show me his latest project.
This is a second TD, also a 1952. John says he never planned to get a second identical car, but this one was too good to pass up. It is currently sitting in several pieces inside an immaculate man cave that once was his print shop. He’s had it painted in a two-tone cream and brown scheme; he explains that this was not a factory option, but that MG’s race team ran cars with those colours. He wants his car to invoke that theme.
After my tour is over, we sit down beside John’s racks of toy cars. I ask him why he chose the MG brand, expecting a long answer on everything that makes an MG superior to any other vintage sports car. But John just shrugs. He says these cars are fun, affordable and reliable. That’s it. “I’m not saying I’ll never have anything else,” he says. “I’d like a ’65 Mustang, for example. But they’re too popular. Everybody likes them, so prices are high.”
I have one last question for him. He’s currently driving his second TD and his second MGB. Will there ever be a second Midget? John smiles, but shakes his head. “It’s too small,” he says. “It’s basically just a smaller MGB with less power.”
A little later, I ease back through Harriston’s maze of construction and head south again. My cruise control, A/C and radio are all ready to help make my drive as effortless as possible. People fly past me in their comfortable cars, completely isolated from any kind of driving experience. I feel a twinge of sadness and wish for the simple, engaging kind of drive that only vintage cars can give.