Sunday, April 7, 2013

Looking sweet for spring

The golden hour enhances any finish
When the lovely snowstorms of spring make us think of open-top sports cars, picturesque winding roads, and sliding on black ice over the cliffs, it is nearly time to begin the lengthy job of bringing a dusty hulk out of storage and turning it into a sweet ride for the sunny season. I've found that the usual car-care products and practices don't make my car look its best. After a certain age, the Blakely's colored finish needs special care to shine.

The Blakely's natural gel-coat finish is a colored resin sprayed into the parts mold before the fiberglass and structural resin were added. In effect, it's a single coat of resin acting like paint. It's often thicker than a standard coat of auto paint but is really a different sort of material. It ages differently and needs different techniques to keep it looking good.

Factory Blakely bodies are fiberglass finished in gel-coat. Corvettes, also made of fiberglass, are always painted, while fiberglass boat hulls may go either way. A Corvette's (and, in general, any painted car's) paint looks best with regular waxing. You should make little or no use of polishing or rubbing compounds, which erode the thin paint coat rapidly and can expose primer or even underlying fiberglass if applied too harshly. Gel-coat, on the other hand, seems to need the harshness of a polishing compound once it starts to fade with age and sun damage.

My Blakely Bernardi is red in body and fenders, but the finish has historically been far from rich and shiny. For the first few years I owned it, I followed the care routine that worked for the Corvette: a couple of hand-polishes with expensive car wax each summer, and regular brushless car washes with the full set of finishing products (e.g., spray-on 'wax') in between.

In recent years I noticed that the Blakely's finish was much cloudier than when I had first seen it, even though the car is garaged and sees sunlight perhaps 50 days a summer. I tried adding a polishing step before the waxing, using the mild polishes recommended for painted cars at the auto supplies store. Little or no difference could be seen.

Then a friend suggested the 'marine finishes' section of the store, based on the wide use of fiberglass in boating. I went to my local big-box automotive supply store and was able to find several products claiming to be the cat's whiskers for gel-coat finishes.

I bought Meguiar’s 49 Marine / RV Oxidation Remover as a polish, and Meguiar’s Premium Marine Wax for finishing. The neighbor's huge 8" rotary polisher applied and removed the Oxidation Remover, and some rags did the job for the wax. The results I experienced were striking: some milky areas returned to full red for the first time since I had begun working on the finish years back.

I know it's not wishful thinking or an optical illusion, since my sloppy work left a few areas unpolished and they are definitely poorer in quality than the places I did a good job. And it's not just me, as passengers, family members, and other harsh critics notice the missed spots no matter how fast I drive. I will get new supplies and do another round this spring, but I will use a smaller buffing wheel to make it easier to follow the curves and get into the crannies of the Blakely's exterior.

I have also stopped using post-wash chemicals like the spray-on wax in the manual carwashes. I just use a round of soap to start, then clean water to rinse before leaving. I don't know if that makes a big difference, but the gel-coat is certainly not becoming milky as quickly as it did in previous years. I haven't started trying standard automotive waxes again, just the liquid finish recommended by the marine gel-coat suppliers.

These ideas may or may not apply to your car - certainly test any new treatment on an inconspicuous area before tackling the sides and hood. I was surprised to see marine finishes at an automotive store, but less so when it became clear that many towed campers and recreational vehicles use the same gel-coat finish. So supply should be easy to find if you already know your community's auto stores, which you should be very familiar with as a classic car owner!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A pleasant drive spoiled

I'm a film fan. I watch so many films that I am almost naturally endowed with a sharp eye for scenes, settings, sound - name your obscure cinematic trope, I can bend your ear about it over a fancy coffee. So I should be the right guy to whip up a snazzy video documentary on a classic American sports car.

Well, it turns out I am as snazzy at film-making as my buddy J, an avid watcher of sports on TV, is at sinking baskets from the free throw line while sitting on his living-room couch. But Carey did suggest I should share the homely results, about which my mother has been the only person to say something nice. "Those trees - so pretty in the fall!"

I am following Carey's advice in the hope that someone else will pick up the torch and film their Bearcat or Hawk or Bantam on the road. The bar has not been set too high.

I posted a few comments about the process and results on YouTube and will repeat them here:

Taking a 1980s Blakely Bernardi sports car out for the last drive of the year. This model has a Ford Mustang 302 V8, Holley carbureted, with dual exhausts. Dry weight of the car is about 2,000 pounds so it performs adequately even considering its age. For the interested, Wikipedia has more details.

Using a pocket DV camera with forward-facing microphones made wind noise a bit of a problem in the open cab, so the engine sounds were mostly distorted or drowned out. In audio processing an aggressive EQ was used to curb the pops and crackles and sadly little is left to hear. To fill in the audio, we added a take from an earlier cigar-box amplifier jam. It was just the right length, though perhaps not quite the classic soundtrack of our dreams.

While making excuses, we should note that some part of the video processing chain changed the original video aspect ratio from 16:9 (1.77:1) to about 16:12 (1.33:1) and introduced the black bars to right and left. A day or two of naive debugging failed to fix it. As a result, the car (and everything else, but most annoyingly the car) look about 30% narrower left-to-right than they should - more Tonka than Testarossa. The still photos at the beginning of the video have the correct proportions, though, and give some sense of how low the car actually is. I can clean loose ash off a cigar using the ground beside the driver's door - without opening the door.

Cars like these are a real throwback, and in more ways than one. I've had a couple of experienced motor folk comment just on the odor of the car. A rich bouquet of complex hydrocarbons exits from under the hood when it's running, including an occasional whiff of gasoline, a little heated engine oil, faint traces of carburetor cleaner, hot hoses, engine detergent, and other unusual taints we rarely come across these days. It seems an odd thing to notice, but it's very nostalgic to those who grew up with a car tinkerer in the family - it's the smell of an active garage.

Other old-school remnants are not so pleasant. It lacks a radio, much less an MP3 docking station. Its finish is old and seems to require three time the polishing of a recent car just to look somewhat weathered. It makes many noises: creaks, rattles, squeaks, rumbles, whines. Most are thankfully drowned by the engine and exhaust, but all of them are either annoying or actively frightening to a modern car owner.

But these annoyances vanish when actually driving it. It fears few (certainly no Boxster) in a straight run, it hugs the winding road, it makes a glorious noise - you don't need these experiences every day of your life, but it is a great comfort to know they are there when you're ready for them. Don't take our word for it. Get out and hug a classic car, or at least the driver, and take a spin yourself.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A source for some Blakely parts

Blakely Bernardi Front turn signal assembly
Over the years, I've addressed my Blakely Bernardi's safety issues. The brakes work, the steering is tight, springs and shocks have been adjusted to keep the car stable on the highways and byways. The long list of things left to do still has all sorts of interesting items on it, though less critical — and sometimes much harder — to fix. For example, I've always been annoyed by a minor cosmetic flaw: the missing turn-signal lens at the front. It's the sort of niggling thing that you'd normally fix the first Saturday morning after you noticed it, after a triple-shot mocha and a quick trip to NAPA or Pep Boys. But there's no NAPA for some Blakely parts.

Every year, once in the spring and again in the fall, I have spent a half-day or more on Google looking for a possible fix. I would accept (in order of preference) (i) a matching replacement lens, (ii) something that could be modified into a matching replacement lens, (iii) a pair of full turn-signal assemblies (period-correct, capable of installation on curved fenders), or (iv) any other good idea. I would look at new stock, old stock (got a nice pair of 1955 Jaguar wind wings in the original, completely decayed, cardboard boxes), new old stock, car parts, motorcycle parts, 18-wheeler parts (those nice lights marking truck roofs are actually a pretty compatible shape, except for being 3 times larger than the Blakely turn signals), boat parts, and even airplane parts.

After giving up on finding something already built, I would also look at cloning the remaining part using (i) careful hand-machining of plastic rod stock, (ii) casting transparent colored resin in a custom lens-shaped mold, (iii) reverse-engineering the lens in a CAD design tool and borrowing a CAD-driven cutting tool to machine a few new copies of the lens, or (iv) any other good idea. But nothing ever really worked out.

Until this spring's search day on Google.

After a number of hours in futile review of military night-vision lenses and the NASA spaceship parts catalog, I stumbled onto a forum site where folk discussed restoring their post-war Triumphs and MG-TDs and whatnot. Someone was hunting front-mount turn signals for his British-spec MG, which apparently did not leave the factory with any front signals installed and needed them before it could be certified for road use in the twenty-first century. After the usual plethora of non-helpful replies, one of the forum members suggested he obtain parts from a California company that supplies new replica parts for the MG-TD kit car clan.

In all my years of searching, I had never heard of the company and their nifty parts. I went straight to the website and picked through photos on the main page, to find a photo of a replica MG-TD front wing that carried a very familiar-looking turn signal assembly. A quick visit to the catalog found the turn signal lens and I called to order two. A week later, the postman delivered the long-missing lens, in duplicate so I could replace the existing one as well as the missing one. Wunderbar!

The company is MG Magic, in San Diego California. Their website is at and the parts catalog for MG-TD replicas is at I don't suppose too many of their parts would be perfect replacements for Blakely cars, but there are quite a few that would bolt on without raising any eyebrows: dash-mount rearview mirrors, fog lights, dash switches and gauges, fender-mount mirrors, front and rear bumpers, and more. When the snows of spring dissipate somewhat, I will race out to the garage to install my two new turn-signal lenses. Then I will come back to the computer and order the next critical enhancement - perhaps a period-correct cigarette lighter or some such gizmo.

Next installment: making the car electricals work full-time so the beautiful new lenses can be seen! And cigars can be lighted!

===UPDATE=== It looks as though MG Magic is moving toward online sales. There's a new website up at with an online catalog and more parts photos.