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Murphy - The Story

Well, I brought home my first Spitfire on Monday 12/15/03.  The car has been officially dubbed "Murphy" because of the difficulty I encountered trying to buy and transport, and title the car.

I knew what I wanted, and I also knew what I could afford.  Between the two constraints, I didn't have a lot of cars to choose from.  I wanted a car that would be fun to drive, and up to the occasional autocross, "just for fun."  I was influenced by the cars I had known in the past, my father's MG Midget and a buddy's Fiat X1/9.  But as I started looking at cars on the internet, I came across the Triumph Spitfire.  I had seen the before, and always liked the styling, so I added them to the list of cars to look out for.  During the process, a friend told me about a Midget for sale locally.  I went and looked at the car, and while it was a good car, in great shape, I decided that the Midget was not the car for me.  They are very small, and none too comfortable.  While basically the same size as the Spitfire, the cockpit of the Midget just didn't fit me.  Not long after, I found a Spit advertised a couple hours away.  As it so happens, the car was in Peoria, and we were going to drive through on the way to my Parents home for Thanksgiving in a couple weeks.  So I made arrangements to see that car.  It was a decent car, but it had clearly had a hard life.  The car had extensive modifications for racing, and was not running especially well.  So we passed on that car too.  In the mean time, I had been discussing cars with the local import car shop, and they were giving me all manner of advice.  Most of it involved buying an Alfa, as that is their specialty. 

Then I found Murphy.  I saw the car advertised on, and exchanged a few emails with the owner.  He didn't know much about his car, but put me in contact with his mechanic.  From what I could tell on the phone the car sounded like it was in good shape and at a reasonable price.  It had a Weber DGV carb conversion, a factory hard top, a new convertible top, and very little rust.  The transmission shifts good, and doesn't slip out of any gear.  All of the lights and electrical work.  New exhaust.  Good rubber.

Picture of Murphy in the DPO's Garage
A picture of Murphy supplied by the DPO before we went to look at her.
Click the picture above for a larger image (1024x768, 152kb).

So my wife and I drove from Cedar Rapids, Iowa over to Davenport on a Saturday morning to look at the car.  Now when I left Cedar Rapids, which is about 100 miles away, the forecast was for clear and cold, no precipitation.  When we got to Davenport, we stopped for a quick bite of lunch, and that's when it started snowing.  Hard.  We went over to the owners office and looked at the car.  It was pretty much as described, with no major flaws.  I drove the car a bit, but didn't go far or fast for two reasons.  One it was SNOWING, and two, the owner had the hard top on the car, and it was not properly installed.  Mainly because he didn't know how to secure the front attachment points, and was missing the hardware for the tie bars as well as the front attachments.  The car drove fine, and I didn't detect any mechanical difficulty on this quick trip, so we went inside to talk about the price.

Image: Murphy In the Snow

Murphy on the day we went to look at her.
The crazy DPO brought her out in the snow.
Click the pictures above for a larger image (1024x768, 372kb, 408kb).

I know the owner was in bit of a rush to sell the car, as he had already moved from is advertised price while we were exchanging email.  But I was not prepared for what came next.  We talked about the condition of the car and so forth, then he quoted me the price that he mentioned in his email.  I told him that I had one more car that I wanted to look at, and would have to give it some thought.  Like any good car seller, he asked me to make him an offer to buy the car then and there.  I shot him a price, about $500 less than he was asking, but still a fair deal.  He then offered to sell me the car for $100 less than I had offered him.  Now at this point, red lights came on in my head, and a big warning sign popped up in front of my eyes.  But the deal was too good to pass up, so I agreed to buy the car.

We did a bill of sale on the car, and made arrangements for me to return Monday and pick up the car.  Then My wife and I got back on the road, and headed back towards Cedar Rapids.  Did I mention that it was snowing?  Still not too bad, but the road was getting a bit slick.  We did fine, traveling along about 70 mph on decent roads, until we got about 20 miles east of Iowa City, or about 50 miles from Cedar Rapids.  Then traffic was slowed to a crawl.  We soon found out why as we began passing slide-offs and wrecks.  Probably a dozen or more in the next 20 miles or so.  And the road just wasn't that slick!  I can only assume that there were some drivers out there doing unbelievably stupid things to cause all this.  So when we finally got home, it was about 4:30 Saturday afternoon.

I started out by trying to find a trailer to retrieve the Spit.  I had no intention of trying to drive an unknown car over 100 miles in the winter.  As it turned out, this was a very fortuitous decision.  Actually finding a trailer was a different story.  I started by calling a couple local rental outfits, but they either didn't have a trailer, wouldn't rent one locally or required that I pull it with their truck.  Since I intended to rent the trailer in Cedar Rapids, pull it with my Suburban, and return it in Cedar Rapids, none of these sounded like a winning deal.  Finally I checked out U-Haul’s web site.  They quoted an Auto Transporter at $55 / day plus tax, etc, etc, etc.  So I reserved the trailer, and was told that the one of the local U-Haul branches would call me back in 24 hours or less.  This made me a little nervous, since if they didn't call as promised, that would put me be less than 24 hours away from needing the trailer.  I couldn't find any other options, so I went with the U-Haul.

Next, I turned my attention to my tow vehicle.  I have a ’95 Suburban that I intended to use for this purpose.  Only problem is that the hitch on the truck is pretty rusty and I wasn't sure if it was up to pulling over 3000 pounds of car and trailer.  So I called a local shop and made arrangements to have a new hitch put on Monday morning, before I picked up the trailer.

I had other things that had be done Saturday evening, so I tackled the next issue on Sunday.  I also needed to update the wiring for the trailer harness, and wanted to pick up a couple extra tie downs to supplement the micky-mouse system that comes on the U-Haul trailers.  While I was at the parts farm store, picking up parts, U-Haul called back with the trailer pick up info.  Since I wasn't there, my wife took the message. She got the location as the Sinclair station on the corner of Wilson and 6th in Cedar Rapids.  When I returned from the parts store I started working on the truck.  I forgot to ask her if U-Haul had called, and she forgot to mention it.  Several hours later, it occurred to me that I had not heard from U-Haul, and started to call them.  I was just asking the U-Haul Rep about my reservation when my wife told me about the earlier message.  I knew the corner she mentioned, but didn't recall a Sinclair station there.  This should have been a warning, but I just figured that I had not been paying attention when I went by there.

At this point I was feeling pretty confident that all was well in hand.  I had my trailer lined up, the wiring on the truck was done, and the hitch was to be installed the next morning.  I dropped the truck at the shop on Monday morning, and then went in to work.  About an hour later, things started going wrong.  The shop called and told me that they couldn't put a hitch on the truck because of some modifications that had been made by DPO.  The guy had removed the rear bumper and installed a “roll pan” panel.  Apparently on some trucks this is a minor mod, but on the Suburban, it involves cutting of the end of the frame rails.  This is where the stock bumper mounts, and also where one of the hitch attachment points is.  The previous owner of the Suburban also took the Class III hitch that was on the truck, and cut off the rear attachment points so he could re-install it.  So now I have a hitch that I don't know if I can trust, and no way to mount a new hitch on my truck.

I called around, and none of the local shops could deal with the problem on short notice.  I also called around to try and find a truck to rent, but to no avail.   So my choice at this point was pull it with the Suburban, or call off the pickup until another day.  Since I was going to get charged $50 if I canceled the trailer reservation, I decided to risk it and try to pull the car with the hitch I had.

It was noon by the time I stopped at the bank and drew a certified check, so I stopped in at McDonald’s on Williams for lunch.  Then it was off to get the trailer and head out.  I went to the location that I was given for the U-Haul depot, and did not find it.  I did find a Sinclair station a couple blocks away, but they did not have any U-Haul.  I asked the guys there, and they sent me to a trucking company further on down the road.  The trucking company also did not have U-Haul, but they told me where the U-Haul was (only a few blocks further down the road).  So I got there (not a Sinclair station in sight) and was told that I was at the wrong U-Haul, and that I needed the Sinclair station on Williams (not Wilson).  About two doors down the street from the McDonalds I had eaten lunch at.  So I finally found the proper U-Haul and got my trailer hooked up.  I was not expecting much from the trailer, having dealt with U-Haul equipment before but to my surprise this one was in decent condition.  All of the lights worked, all of the tires were in good shape, and loading ramps both deployed and stowed properly.

So I got hooked up and was going to head straight out of town, but I discovered I had left my cell phone at home.  I decided not to attempt a trip like this without it, and that I would have to stop by the house on the way out of town.  This was an annoying side trip, but I figured that at least I would get a chance to practice backing the trailer into the driveway in the daylight.  That went ok, and I retrieved my cell phone.  I called the owner of the Spitfire in Davenport to let him know that I was on my way.  At this point he told me that at some point between Saturday, when I drove the car, and then he had lost the key.  The one and only key.  He said that he was going to try and locate it, and had a good idea where he had lost it.  Unfortunately it had snowed again since that time, and he thought it might be covered with snow.  I figured I might as well head that direction anyway, and that even if he didn't find the key we would probably be able to get the car up onto the trailer.

I left Cedar Rapids at about 2:00 pm.  While the surge brakes on the trailer were a little grabby, overall the trailer towed ok empty.  I decided to go easy, since there were so many things that could go wrong still on this trip, and I kept my speed at 55 mph.  This made the trip a bit longer than usual, however it was an uneventful trip.  I stopped once at a rest area and verified that the trailer and hitch were still looking good, and all was well.  I arrived at the owner's office, he still hadn't found the key, so we were reduced to trying to move the car by hand.  We did the paperwork at his office, then drove over to his home, where the car was stored.  When we got there, the car had the factory hard top installed, sort of.  The owner did not know how to install it and was, as it turns out, missing some pieces.  His solution was only to drive very slowly with the hard top on, but obviously that was not an option for the return to Cedar Rapids.  So we decided to put the hard top in the back of the Suburban (it fit easily) and raise the convertible top for the trip.  I decided to leave the rag top down to make things easier till we got the car loaded on the trailer.

The biggest issue in getting the car on the trailer was that the car was in a garage which sat on and perpendicular to an alley, where the trailer was.  With no key, we were not able to release the steering column lock.  So we pushed the car straight back into the alley and then turned it with a floor jack.  Then we lined the trailer up on the car and proceeded to start pushing her up the ramps.  We got the front end about 1/3 of the way up the ramps, but couldn't get much further than that.  And worse, the car wasn't exactly centered and wanted to veer right a bit.  So we rolled her off and lined up again.  This time she went on straight, but again we only got the front wheels about 1/3 of the way up the ramps.  So we switched to the only tool we had, a ratcheting tie down strap, to winch the car up the ramps.  It was slow going, but it worked.  After about a half an hour of pulling and pushing, we finally got the car on the trailer.

Next we went to work getting the top up.  Not an entirely simple task, as it had been down for quire some time.  The DPO had a new top installed, and then never put it up.  That coupled with the fact that neither the previous owner nor myself really know how to put the top up, made this task a little arduous.  But, finally we got the top up, and I got the car properly tied down to the trailer.  I used the provided U-Haul front wheel straps in addition to four heavy duty ratcheting tie downs.  I figured one part of this operation needed to be robust.  The pervious owner did give me a little cash to make up for the hassle, and in case he didn't find the key.  That done and once satisfied that the car was secure, I hit the road.

Inage: Murphy On Trailer

Murphy on the U-Haul
Click the picture above for a larger image (1024x768, 204kb).

I took it easy on the way home, and stopped about halfway back for dinner.  I arrived back in Cedar Rapids about 8:30 that night, and unloaded the car into my garage.  This was by far the easiest portion of the entire operation.  I was able to back up to the garage, and roll the car right in.  I was tired but feeling good, as I had my new toy, and all I needed was a key.   Or maybe a new lock set.  Either way, not a big deal, right.

Not quite.  The next day, I was going over the paperwork, getting ready to do the title transfer, when I discovered another problem.  The VIN number on the title did not match the VIN number (Commission number actually) on the car.  I did some calling around and sent and e-mail to the previous owner.  I eventually got in touch with county treasurer where the previous owner had titled the car.  They were very helpful in looking up a photocopy of the Illinois title that had been on the car when the previous owner bought it.  The error also existed on the Illinois title.  So it is possible that this problem has existed for some time.  Next I called the local county treasurer and they put me in touch with the area DOT investigator.  She took down my information, and agreed to meet me at the house the next day to look at the car.

Friday, the DOT investigator came over to the house and looked at the current title and the car.  She verified that the Commission numbers on the car matched, and that there was not another car titled in Iowa under that number.  Then she gave me a certificate, which I took to the County Treasurer, to fix the VIN.  The treasurer fixed the problem and issued my new title, registration and plates.  So that was at least one problem solved.  On the way back to work, I dropped of the trunk cylinder lock with a local locksmith, to see if they could make me a key.  I had no idea if any of the locks on the car were keyed alike, but the trunk lock was the easiest to remove, so I started there.

The locksmith had the lock working the next day, so I stopped in to pick it up.  It only cost me $20, but if it solved the problem, that would be a really cheap fix.  When I got home, I tried the other locks, and found that none were keyed the same.  In fact, it seemed that the doors didn't even have the same key profile as the trunk and ignition.  So that was that.  I weighed the options available to me, and decided to just go whole hog and order all new parts.  I checked on the stuff I wanted, and decided to order from Victoria British.  The prices for the locks were about the same a Moss, and Victoria had several items that I needed that Moss did not.  So I sent my first $450 offering to the LBC gods and hoped that all would fit and function properly when it arrived.   I never did get the original key from the DPO, but the new lock sets were easy enough to install, and with that I was finally able to start and drive the car!

Thus began my adventure.  I had owned the car less than a week, and had already made up my mind that she would be called Murphy.  Little did I know how appropoe that name would be.  See the Projects and Maintenance page for more of the joys of owning a LBC.

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