1955 MG ZA Magnette

Story and photos by Clive Branson

It is almost 65-years old and rather humble in its appearance, but once inside, it feels like a cocoon. It has a happy, unobtrusive hum when motoring and I can understand why a couple like Dave and Anna Graham feel like its part of their family, the MG family.

“I purchased the (1955 MG ZA) Magnette on an impulse without having any idea of what I was going to do with it when I got it back to Canada,” recalls Graham. “I have now owned it for more than 38 years and have long realized that this spontaneous purchase was one of the best things I have ever done in my life.” 

At the time, Graham was a Canadian Naval Engineering Officer stationed at the Royal Navy Engineering College in Plymouth, England for under a year. He was sharing a house with a colleague, Chris Orton in Heybrook Bay. They celebrated the end of a long week at their local pub.

“My neighbour joined us and mentioned that he had a friend who was moving to Leeds on Monday with his new wife and had to sell this old car before he left. I had never heard of an MG Magnette and wasn’t particularly interested. I was also aware of the pending return to Canada I had to embark on, and arranging to have an old car shipped home, seemed like an added and unwanted complication.”

“After several more pints the idea seemed actually plausible and as curiosity got the better of me, I agreed to meet the owner on Saturday morning.  Chris drove me into Plymouth in his Frog Eyed Sprite. The Magnette was hidden away in a dingy garage in some alley and covered with a light coating of dust. With some well-needed petrol, the engine turned over but filled the garage with black smoke.”

The seller, Raymond Buzza, was adamant that the car needed to be sold before Monday, since he and his wife were leaving for Leeds to start new jobs and a new life. The key selling feature was when Raymond produced a log that the previous owner had started in 1957 that recorded every maintenance detail from 1957 to 1971. The car had a current MOT certificate and was roadworthy, which was an enormous relief for Graham.

“Without having any idea I asked him how much he thought the car was worth. He mentioned that he had purchased the car from his brother-in-law for £300. At this point I thought, what have I got to lose, so I offered him £300.  He accepted and the rest is history.”

“My mother came out to visit just before my departure from Plymouth and the two of us spent three days driving from Plymouth up through Wales to Liverpool where I left the car with a shipping agent,” Graham remembers. The Magnette turned up in the Port of Montreal 24 days later. 

The car is as rich in stories as a Pierre Burton novel. “In 1984 I decided to leave the Navy, and after rebuilding the engine, I drove the Magnette from Victoria, British Columbia to Queen’s University in Kingston, where I started an MBA program.

I removed the back seat and used the space to store my camping gear. I decided to keep a plant that I had acquired from my grandfather and put it on the floor of the passenger side. Over a two-week period, I drove across Canada camping or staying with friends. I picked up hitchhikers enroute and it was interesting watching them climb into the left side of the car while trying to avoid damaging my tree.”

“On another journey, the speedometer died as I was going through the Rockies and I fixed it at a campground in Jasper National Park, but I didn’t get the odometer working properly for another 20 years. I noticed an unusual engine knock when I reached Saskatoon and decided to see if I could convince the local GM dealership to put it up on their hoist so I could try and find the problem. I was debating this issue with a GM mechanic when a broad Scottish accent boomed out from behind us, ‘Where the hell did that car come from.’ It was the service manager. He had done his automotive apprenticeship in Scotland fixing Magnettes and hadn’t seen one in over 20 years. I explained my problem and he offered to go with me for a test drive. We got to the end of the main street in Saskatoon and he suggested that I might have a loose bolt on the exhaust manifold. I tightened the loose bolt, the noise went away, and I continued on my journey.”

“The cars of that era are designed to be worked on and the fact that the Magnette is still running after 61 years is a testament to this. I enjoy working on the car and finding creative and innovative ways to keep it looking beautiful without pouring a bucket of money into repairs and maintenance. The people in the car clubs that I have belonged to are kindred spirits and we enjoy the opportunity to be together and meet the challenges of travel.”

Graham gives a good example of this when Anna, an apprentice navigator, joined him on a trip to Louisville, Kentucky for MG 2016. “The round trip was over 2,300 miles. I had the Magnette fitted with a trailer hitch and we pulled a Prolite Suite (a full sized bed on wheels) from Ottawa to Kentucky and camped in south western New York, West Virginia and Michigan. On the first part of the drive, Anna kept asking people what was their motivation to do this. Her moment of truth came when we were forced to stop on a secondary road in Southern Indiana because of a broken gear stick. We were doing about 50 miles an hour when suddenly the gear stick just came away in my hand. I hit the brakes and steered us over to the side of a road onto an almost non-existent shoulder. We were travelling at the back of a group of about five Ottawa MGs returning home. The green MG-GT ahead disappeared over the hill ahead of us and we were left alone with a broken gear stick, a dead cell phone, and trees and fields all around.

About 10 minutes later the MG-GT reappeared on the hill heading back towards us. Geoffrey and Helga got out, Helga gave me her cell phone and she gave Anna a big hug. Five minutes later another MG, which had noticed the MG-GT was missing, turned up. After that the rest of the group arrived. Brian, an MG-TF driver, who is also an accomplished mechanic, came up to me while I was on the phone to AAA and yelled in my face, ‘Where is your tool box?’  The tool box was spilled open beside the open car door. I just pointed at it while I continued my conversation with AAA who were keen to know the unit number of my condo in Ottawa. A few minutes later, Brian yells ‘hang up, the problem is fixed.’ He had clamped my vice grips to the stub of the gear stick. We drove like that for 40 miles until we reached North Veron, Indiana where we had the gear stick welded back together. Later that night, when we were nestled down in our tiny trailer, Anna admitted the lights had come on and she finally understood why we were doing this.”

Dave and Anna have won the Most Favourite Car Award at the annual Boots and Bonnets Meet in Kingston for two consecutive years, but they already knew that.