Buying MG J2 4138

Copyright Frank van Dalen, 25 March 2007


Here’s the story of us buying the J2 and bringing it home.

     When I saw the advert on in September 2005, I had been looking out for a PB or a J2 type MG for a year and a half, which seemed like a very long time. It had started when I tried Bart Spoelstra’s J2. This car had been sitting in a barn for 40 years, and after a few hours’ work it was running again. Bart let us use it on a Silverstone trip which was an automotive culture shock and brilliant fun. After the first day, I had a splitting headache from frantically trying to double declutch and to anticipate on having hardly any brakes at all! Only on the second day did I begin to notice the scenery. Later I was lucky enough to be driving this car with Bart in an MG Workshop rally in Limburg (see picture below).


   I decided that this was even more thrilling than my MGB V8 roadster, and that I would have to sell it in order to make money and room for a Triple M car. Although Dirtzen, having driven the V8 on the race track, protested heavily against selling it, she did in fact manage to sell it to a friend in Berlin.



   From that point onwards I started looking for a PB, or possibly a J2, in a well used but running condition. I loved the J2’s handling, but was a little apprehensive about breaking the crankshaft which has only two bearings. In the PA this was sorted out at the expense of more weight, but in the PB that weight was compensated by slightly bigger cylinders which I thought would be perfect. However, I soon learned that PBs are quite rare, especially in unrestored condition. I’d been living without an MG for about a year, and I was starting to feel rather depressed, when I finally saw an advert on for a swept wing J2. The ad showed the picture below and the asking price was £10,000. It was fitted with a Morris Minor engine, but the price included an original J2 block in running condition. It was MOT’d and appeared to be in reasonable shape. Never mind the weak crankshaft, I’d get a steel one, this car was meant for me!



   At this price, I feared the advert was bound to attract a lot of interest, especially from people in the UK for whom it would be easy to drive over to take a look. I dreaded the idea of flying over only to see someone else drive off in it! So  I e-mailed the owner to ask for more information, stressing that this car appeared to be exactly what I’d been looking for. In his reply, Ian Campbell related that the car had started life as young lady’s birthday gift in 1933, and his father had bought the car in 1964 and it’d been in the family ever since. His father had died some time before, and it was his wish that it be sold to an enthusiast who would take good care of it. It was clear that Ian and his family loved the car and he wasn’t too keen on having to sell it. Also, it turned out that he lived in the far north of Scotland!

   I phoned up Ian and I did my best to convince him that I was the kind of enthusiast he was looking for. He was very kind and understanding, and even offered to keep other potential buyers on hold while I arranged a flight to Scotland. Within a couple of days, some time early in October 2005, I was on a plane from Amsterdam to Gatwick, and then onwards to Inverness. We flew over Kent, where I thought I recognised the field where I had my first solo flight on a T21 glider on my 16th birthday, and we flew over London where I clearly saw the Tower Bridge and the Big Ben. After nearly two hours of flight to the north from Gatwick, a deserted barren landscape of brown hills presented itself below the clouds, rather like an unknown planet incapable of supporting any form of life. As the plane throttled down to start its descent I realised that these were the Scottish Highlands.


   Ian Campbell was waiting for me at Inverness airport and we drove north along a winding road on the east coast for about an hour, to his home at The Doll village near Brora. I felt indebted to him for driving all this way just to pick up a potential buyer for his car, and he had even booked a nice Bead & Breakfast in Brora where we stopped to drop off my bag. Then we drove on to his home in the village and this is what I saw when we arrived:



   I looked over the car for a bit. The paint was damaged in places, as in the pictures Ian had sent me, but it still looked rather less pretty than I had imagined. The petrol tank wasn’t original and the rear wings looked odd. The windscreen was funny and not original. There was an unusual bracket at the rear which had a towing hook, but according to Ian the bracket was originally intended to carry an extra spare wheel for the Monte Carlo rally. He got the car out into the sunshine and it looked rather better in the bright daylight. I took some pictures including the one below:


   After the photo shoot we went out for a spin with Ian at the wheel. The chassis felt fairly solid, better than Bart’s J2 at least. We went past Dunrobin Castle and after a few miles Ian let me have a go. All was well, the steering gear had very little play and I felt confident driving it. In fact, judging by the look on Ian’s face, I probably drove it a little faster than he normally would. There was less noise and vibration than I had expected. The car ran fine, even though it had been neglected for a few years untill recently, the single problem being that the dynamo wasn’t charging. Back at the house we looked at the extra bits which Ian’s father had kept ever since he changed the engine in the 1970s. We ran the J2 engine for a few seconds, with no water and no exhaust damper. It ran alright, but with all the noise it was impossible to tell how well it ran. Quite a lot of bits and pieces were still around, so it seemed an easy job to put the J2 engine  and gearbox back into the car. Here’s an impression of the extra bits:



   We moved the car back in the garage over the pit and I had a look at the chassis from below. This seemed okay, it was apparent that although the late Robin Campbell didn’t waste much time polishing his car, the essentials were well taken care of. The car had been converted to hydraulic brakes a long time ago, but the original cross-shaft for the mechanical brakes was still there and the handbrake was still working.

   We went inside the house and talked about the car’s history and the family’s background, who spent a long time living in Helmsdale. There was  a story about a Dutchman who visited the area on holiday several decades ago, and had kept coming back every year since, turning into a regular friend of the family. We chatted about all sorts of things, and it was clear that the family had very strong emotional ties with this car and they were sad that it had to go. Finally Ian asked if the car lived up to my expectations and I said yes, and I wasn’t going to haggle over the price. Ian said he wasn’t going to let me anyway, since his advert had attracted over 30 reactions from many countries, including some from the USA and one from Australia! Then it was time for a Scottish tradition for settling a business transaction and I thought I knew what was coming. I have had the pleasure of tasting quite a few wonderful single malts in my life, and I was very curious what a real scotsman would drink on such an occasion. But my heart sank when he produced a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Lable, which I normally find disgusting! On this occasion it wasn’t so bad though.


   After the completion of the Johnnie Walker ritual he drove me back to my Bed & Breakfast, and I reported the good news to the home front. Dirtzen and I needed to think about another trip to Scotland now, since there was no way that we would take this car home other than by driving it home. The next morning Ian arrived with his sister to take me back to the airport, with Anne driving since Ian had not yet quite recovered from a social function on the night before. We agreed on a time to come back for the car and said goodbye.


   A few weeks later we got on board of the DFDS Seaways ferry at IJmuiden in a borrowed Volvo estate. According to measurements taken by Ian Campbell, the J2 block would fit into the back of this car with less than an inch to spare. I had feared that the crossing would be as dreadful as it was in the 1980’s, which was the last time I remembered getting onto an old fashioned single hull slow ferry. But in fact the food and beds were quite good and we learned to our surprise that people take these “mini cruises” for the shear fun of being on the ferry. Actually we relaxed and were taken in by the romantic atmosphere of the crossing.



There was a cinema on the ship and we watched a film about an Irish fighter in de depression years. He was a great fighter but couldn’t make enough money to buy milk for his kids. A thought struck me and I whispered to Dirtzen: “At this point in time one lucky lady got our brand new J2 for her 18th birthday!” It was beginning to dawn on me what it means to have a car with such a long history. It was built before even the motorways were there!


     The next day we had an easy trip from Newcastle on Tyne to Edinburgh and across the Highlands up to Brora. Scotland looked like no place we had ever seen before and we thoroughly enjoyed the trip. As we passed by Pitlochry we decided that this was a good place to stay over on the way back, since we expected to be a lot slower driving the J2 home. When we crossed the highlands the landscape looked as barren as it had looked from above, but it was great to get back to the shore line and follow this up north, crossing lots of firths and rivers. We got to the Bayview Hotel right on the projected time and we had a nice refreshing walk along the beach before dinner. The hotel was empty except for us at this time of year, but the food was tolerable and the owners were very friendly. Our room had a lovely view of where the Brora river meets the North Sea. Dirtzen’s internet search had led us to the right place again! After dinner though she collapsed into bed with fatigue from the journey. Ian came over to pick me up for a few drinks at his house with the family and the whole event felt nothing like a business transaction. Ian liked teasing me, about the rain that was expected for the trip back, and about the likelihood of various mechanical failures occurring. The one thing he really was concerned about were the tyres, which were quite old, but it didnít worry me too much since I had a spare one. He had fixed the battery charging problem and I felt the car had been in good hands.



   The next morning we reported at Ian’s home with the Volvo, and we found that his sisters were there and his kids had stayed home from school. They all wanted to see the car off which had been in the family for as long as they could remember. Dirtzen had her first look at the J2 and  she drove it around the village quite carefully, getting accustomed to the right hand drive pretty soon. Ian and I signed the papers inside the house and we presented him with a bottle of Dutch “whisky” (korenwijn) to thank him for making the whole transaction so pleasant. Then it was time to start loading the stuff. The engine fitted inside the estate very nicely and I tied all the treasure up quite carefully.



   The treasure.





       “I think you’ll probably get soaking wet!”



Then came the time for the Campbells to see their father’s and grandfather’s car off. It was a sad occasion for them but also a happy one for us, and certainly not an easy moment to forget.


   We made our goodbyes (or so we thought) and made our way to the nearest petrol station since the J2’s tank was almost empty. And then it wouldn’t start! Nothing happened when I pushed the starter switch. Damn! I started looking for loose wires but it was all new to me and I wasn’t getting anywhere soon. I phoned Ian but there was no answer. There was nothing to do but to start eliminating some potential causes of the problem, while Dirtzen started shopping around for some whisky. I found a loose wire but had no idea where it was supposed to go. Thankfully, after some twenty minutes Ian happened to pass by the petrol station in his car and came to the rescue. He had it fixed whithin a few minutes. He predicted once more that it would rain on me quite heavily, and then we really were on our way.



   The weather was fair as we headed south for Inverness. A bit chilly of course, in early November, but I was wearing a complete skiing outfit with an extra leather jacket on top. The country along the coast was lovely and the car was running smoothly. I just needed to find a comfortable position on the old bus seat which was mounted rather high up in the car. When I held the rear view mirror to stop it vibrating, I could see Dirtzen smiling in the Volvo behind. Scotland was beautiful and we would definitely have to come back some day.



   We had an easy run to Inverness. It wasn’t untill we got onto the Highlands that I realised that Ian had been right all along. Heavy clouds formed over us and it started to rain in earnest. It was time to figure out how the ancient windscreen mounted wiper motor worked. I managed to get the wiper blades to move to and fro rather slowly, but there was barely any improvement in visibility. I tried to look over the windscreen, but when it rains into your eyes at sixty miles per hour it really hurts! I crouched down as far as I could and opted for a back pain instead. At least I thought I would keep reasonably warm and dry with all that gear on.



   There was as much water on the inside of the windscreen as on the outside, even though of course there wasn’t any inside. It was hard to see anything at all but I didn’t plan on overtaking any cars anyway. I just kept going untill I thought it was time to check the oil and water. We stopped in a layby and I extracted myself from the tiny car. To be quite honest, I was bloody cold and wet by then, and my ears were ringing with the noise. Dirtzen pressed a switch and her window slid down automatically. Warm air and beatiful music came drifting out from the car’s interior. She smiled contentedly and said, “There’s a wonderful baroque programme on Radio 1!”



   The oil and water were just fine, which put my mind at rest. The rain let off a little, which was especially nice while waiting at a traffic light by the roadworks. We carried on and finally took the exit at Pitlochry. After some asking around we found a romantic Red Room in a Bed & Breakfast where the hot bath was especially worth mentioning. The next morning we visited the still and bought two bottles of wonderful 10 year old unchilfiltered Edradour. Later I would come to realise that this was a bad mistake, we should have bought a lot more!

     The Bed and Breakfast at Pitlochry.


   Dirtzen at the Edradour still.



   As we drove off, I felt that this had been another place I would have liked to stay longer. But we had a ferry to catch! Thankfully, the J2’s top speed had magically increased by about 10 mph overnight. We were cruising at 70 mph now and I was actually overtaking cars occasionally. It seemed that the first day had cleared quite a lot of carbon from the cylinder head. It was dry and we blasted through the fog over the Highlands.




   Now that there wasn’t any more rain to worry about, I started to worry about getting to the ferry on time. There’s plenty of time, I said to myself. But there was no more time for any breakdowns! But the car was doing great, there wouldn’t be any breakdowns. Or would there? The thermometer was showing a higher temperature than yesterday, I noticed. Ian had said, normally you hardly ever get a reading. But now the engine was working harder than it had for years. Some day something would break down on this car. What would it be? When would that be? Probably at an inconvenient time like this. But the car ran fine. There wouldn’t be any breakdowns. Would there? And so forth.

   Nothing broke down for several hours and we stopped for a break and parked next to a friendly elderly couple in an MGF, who said they also had a TC at home.


   We carried on south, close to Edinburgh now, and still nothing broke down. We crossed the Firth of Forth bridge and it was hard to hold my lane since the railway bridge to my left was offering serious competition to the Eiffel tower. Another breathtaking site to which I should like to return. Still nothing broke down, and there was even time to stop for lunch as planned, but after that there would definitely be no more time for breakdowns.


   We slowed down towards a village past Edinburgh when the J2’s engine started to misfire a little. Damn! Was it serious? No, not really, it isn’t serious, I told myself. When I declutched and pressed down on the accelerator, the engine picked up fine, as if to clear some dirt from its throat. We parked and I decided it wasn’t worth telling Dirtzen about it. No need for her to worry. But I didn’t stop worrying myself. We had some very tasty cake for lunch which I didn’t enjoy too much since I was getting anxious to just keep going untill we got to the ferry. But Dirtzen was enjoying it so that was good.


   After lunch, having cooled down, the engine was allright again. We set off on the last leg towards Newcastle, and thank God it still wasn’t raining. After an hour or so we were back on the motorway, and I pressed on to cruise at 75 miles per hour. At this speed the car’s handling got rather twitchy, there was a lot of vibration and the scuttle began to shake, but I wanted to press on and it wouldn’t be long untill we got to Newcastle anyway. I kept listening hard for any indications that I should reduce speed, and after a while I really thought I heard something. Yes, there was definitely some kind of mechanical noise coming from the front end. When I reduced speed to 60 mph I couldn’t hear it anymore. Probably the dynamo bearing Ian had warned me about. That wasn’t too serious. I had a spare dynamo sitting on the floor board right next to me specifically for this purpose. The hell with it, back to 70 mph.

   I contemplated that the noise wasnít getting any better when I noticed the first motorway exit in the vicinity of Newcastle. I remembered that a guy at work had warned me not to get lost trying to find my back to the ferry at Newcastle.  I glanced at the map and decided that this exit couldn’t be the one. Nor could it be next one, or the next one after that. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves on the motorway bridge crossing the Tyne... but the ferry terminal was on the north bank. Damn! We turned around at the next exit and, looking at my watch, I decided there was no time to go all the way back around the ring road as we should have done. I had a reasonable map of downtown Newcastle so I gambled that we could take the first exit into the city centre and we would manage to work our way along the river bank.

   In the city the traffic was as dense as might have been expected. At this slower pace the dynamo was thankfully keeping quiet. With all the quick lane changes that were necessary I was thankful for the J2’s small size and handling qualities. Looking in the rear view mirror I noticed that Dirtzen in the big Volvo wasn’t taking any pictures any more, and she wasn’t smiling either. I can’t help it, just follow me I thought. In some places it was tricky to decide which way to go, so I slowed down and suddenly turned or stopped on a roundabout to see which way to go. To hell with all this other traffic, this car has been around since before these roads were even built, we have right of way any time! Dirtzen was blowing her horn at me and opened the window to make sure I could hear her shout something. No time for an argument I thought, there is nothing to it but to carry on. I gestured that I couldn’t help it and we finally got onto the road parallel to the river bank, which turned out to be much longer than I expected. At each traffic light the water temperature rose a little higher and the engine started misfiring again. Also it seemed as if the smell of petrol was getting stronger than usual. At long last I could see the ferry’s chimny, and even then I took a wrong turning because there weren’t any bloody signposts!

    I felt a tremendous relief as we finally queued up in line at the terminal building, five minutes before boarding time. I got out and opened Dirtzen’s door, which released a furious and endless stream of swearing and cursing. I was so stunned at how angry she was that I just sat down on the tarmac and listened for some time. Her anger just kept pouring out and I couldn’t help smiling a little, which made her even more angry. Clearly we’d gone wrong somewhere, but I still didn’t know how I might have prevented it. When she’d let off most of her steam I apoligised and thankfully we finally hugged and kissed each other. All was well in the end.

   There was some time left before boarding still, and I decided to do some checks on the car. When I turned on the ignition, the fuel pump went mad as if ticking away in thin air. There was petrol leaking from the pump housing, which I cured by tightening some loose screws. I started the engine and, using a screwdriver as a stethoscope,  I located the rattling noise in the dynamo front bearing as expected. No big deal. Oil and water levels were still allright, and I drove the J2 onto the ferry in full confidence. Dirtzen was taking pictures again.



   We had a good night’s sleep and before rolling off the ferry I told Dirtzen I would just stop in the parking lot to do some final checks. As I proceeded to open the bonnet a gentleman approached who introduced himself as Hein Vrolijk. He said he had known this car and its previous owner and was delighted to see it again. We couldn’t believe what an incredible coincidence this was untill it became apparent that Hein was the very Dutchman  who had kept coming back to visit the Campbells for over twenty years. He had driven over all the way from Berkel en Roodenrijs just to meet us here! We had fun chatting for some time and finally exchanged addresses and were on our way.



   It was a cloudless November day, the hottest ever recorded in The Netherlands, when we set off in high spirits for the Bleekerslaan in The Hague, to introduce the new family member at the MG Workshop. Dirtzen was leading this time but in the city traffic I lost her since the engine was misfiring so badly that I couldn’t go any faster than 20 mph. Thijs and Lijn had turned up especially on this Sunday and greeted the new arrival with broad smiles. Thijs replaced the contact points and tightened the ignition leads in less time than it took me to explain the misfiring problem. We had a cup of coffee together and then carried on to the J2’s new home town of Delft, to show it off at Dirtzen’s mother’s place. Family and friends were waiting outside with champagne and poured half of it over the car. Thus ended the J2’s epic journey to its new home country.


     We phoned up Ian later that day to let him know we got home safe and sound, with narrow margins. We adjusted back to normal life and a week later a big padded envelope arrived from Scotland. It contained a rusty old speedometer cable which I’d forgotten, and also a note saying:




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