1969 MG Midget Mk3 - a family heirloom in the making
Having promised to care for his mother’s beloved MG, Darren Woods found a restoration case on his hands. Words: John Dean. Photos: Max Clingo And John Dean.
Those who, as children, loyally obeyed dinnertime directives to eat up their Brussels sprouts would probably, even as grown-ups capable of feeding themselves, now still do almost anything to keep their mothers happy. That said, you’d be hard pressed to find a son more devoted or compliant than tow truck driver Darren Woods. I’m not just saying that because his delightful mum, Dianne, is standing beside me here on the grounds of Shene Estate and Distillery in Pontville, Tasmania; our glorious location for today’s photographs.
Darren’s leopard print-loving mother ran an MG Midget as her daily driver throughout the 1990s. Her perky little British sports car not only provided her with loads of fun over the years but there was even enough room in its modest boot for carting bags of manure, snail pellets, aphid spray, pruning shears and all the other paraphernalia associated with running her boutique gardening business. “I don’t know how she ever managed to fit everything in,” Darren laughs, “but she did.”
The green-fingered Mrs Woods has long held a particular passion for nippy little cars, having owned a succession of Minis in the past. “Mum had always wanted a convertible and, while passing a car yard with Dad one day, they spotted this,” he explains, pointing to the beautifully presented 1969 Mk3 MG Midget we see here today.
He never really expected to end up owning his mother’s MG. Thirteen years ago his parents decided to make something of a sea change and moved to Narooma, a spectacularly picturesque town nestled on the coast of New South Wales. Around that time, Darren’s father, Christopher, had removed the Midget’s engine to tackle some mechanical malady that had developed. “He’d been umming and ahhing over whether or not to put the car back together and take it with them to the mainland. Dad was looking forward to spending some time fishing in his retirement and was thinking about selling the car to buy a small boat. So I said: ‘if you both let me have the car, I’ll give you my 14-foot fibreglass Bell Boy with a brand new 40 HP outboard and trailer in return’.”
His parents accepted Darren’s proposal but there was one condition: “Mum said I wasn’t to ever sell her Midget or swap it for something else. I remember thinking that I could always get another boat but I’d probably have trouble getting my hands on another little MG.”
Having bid Mum and Dad bon voyage, Darren quickly returned the repaired engine to its rightful place and went on to buzz about happily in his mother’s Midget for a few months… until disaster struck. “It was our wedding anniversary so I pulled into a drive-through bottle shop to pick up some wine for my wife and I to enjoy later that night. While I was at the counter, this bloke ran in and wanted to know who belonged to the MG outside. I said it was mine and then he told me that a lady had just backed into it and done a runner.”
The Midget’s bumper had been stoved in by the impact but, fortunately for Darren, his eyewitness to the car park prang managed to catch the offending SUV’s registration before it fish-tailed off into the night. “I reported the incident to the police who spent about six months knocking on the lady’s door, wanting to talk to the her, but she would never let them in.”
Finding himself footing the repair bill, things gradually worsened for Darren as the Midget slowly began to deteriorate from the inside out. “I’d noticed some blistering under the back bumper and thought something had to be done before it got out of hand. I had a crack at it myself but, the more I sanded everything back, the more serious it became until I didn’t know what to do with the poor little car. I couldn’t just throw it onto the tip.
“Mum had previously spent a lot of money for work on her car that wasn’t up to scratch at all. Basically it was a death trap. It was completely rusted out in places. There were metal plates welded in to stop the rear spring hangers from poking through the floor. There was lots of filler, lots of fibreglass. They’d used any old scraps of steel they had laying about just to bodge the car up before hitting it with a few coats of paint to hide everything.”
In the wake of this game-changing discovery, Darren could hardly be blamed if he had decided to chuck in the towel. The car was clearly beyond economical repair but, honouring the promise he’d made to his mother, he battled on. “I pulled the motor and gearbox out of it, stripped the whole car down completely and sanded everything back to bare metal. I soon learned how much bog they’d skimmed the whole outside of the car with. It was an absolute nightmare.”
Imagining the worst, he assumed that rotten sections of the shell would have to be recreated from scratch by a skilled coachbuilder. That was until he found out that Heritage reproduction repair panels for his Midget were readily available. It was Melbourne MG Specialist, Colin Dodds, who ordered in the required parts for Darren from the UK. “Not feeling confident enough to tackle the welding myself, I came across this backyarder who I was told did really good work. I gave him the car, along with the new panels, for him to put back together. A few months later he rang me to say there was a lot more rust than he’d actually quoted for and that he needed more money to finish the job. When I finally did get the car back, none of the panels lined up properly.
One of the back guards was sticking out a few millimetres more than the other one. There were no gaps for the doors to close. He made an absolute mess of it and I was that upset with myself for having wasted so much money.”
It’s been a terrible tale so far and one that has left our little group feeling slightly off-colour but with our host, David Kernke, stepping forward with some of his superb single malt whisky for us all to sample, the glow suddenly returns to our collective cheeks. Things are also looking rosier for the mutilated Midget as Darren’s story resumes, with the decision finally to hand the car over to a proper team of professional automobile restorers: “I got onto Mars Jenni at Reincarnated Classics, in Moonah, who does incredible work.
He agreed to pull the car apart again, realign everything properly and look after all of the painting for me. Full credit to Mars; there aren’t a lot of panel people out there who’ll take on sorting out other people’s bad work. It may have cost a bit more at the end of the day but, as the car was very sentimental to me, it was worth every cent to see it looking as it should.”
Mechanically, the Midget didn’t bruise Darren’s battered bank account too much further. The already serviceable motor, which someone had previously painted black, was simply refinished in its original green and dropped back in, along with the gearbox. A new clutch friction plate wasn’t even thought necessary, with the old one having plenty of life left in it yet. It was only the oily innards of the rear axle that required some remedial attention. “Someone had replaced the differential centre with one from a Morris Minor or something similar. This had always made the Midget very low geared but I’ve since thrown that over the shoulder and put the right one back in.”
There was still more to be done before the car could be safely returned to the road however. “I’d been promising my daughter Hailey for years that I’d have the Midget restored in time for her high school graduation,” Darren explains. “The brakes had seized, from sitting around for so long, and the wiring loom was roached, with broken wires everywhere.”
He might have been able to sort the last of these jobs out himself but, with time running out, he decided instead to call in a local expert. “I took the Midget to David Short, who is an MG specialist in Hobart. I can’t praise him enough. He did an absolutely fantastic job getting it all back together. He looked after the wiring, the instruments, the brakes, refurbished the dashboard and fitted the car with a new soft top.”
David Short Automotive also made sure that the clapped out carbs were treated to an overhaul. “Both of those SUs were leaking very badly,” Darren remembers. “They were a bit of a fire hazard so they had to be rebuilt.” It was a smart move. The Midget successfully delivered Hailey to her graduation without her feeling even the slightest concern that dad might end up beating out flames with his best jacket in front of her peers.
The personalised MIDGET number plates have been with the little MG for almost 30 years now and it had been Dianne who made the savvy decision to secure them. “I think I paid about $400 for those in a kind of auction arrangement,” she says. “Although I still had to pay an annual fee of $100 to the transport department for a further five years until I owned the plates outright.”
It might sound an unusual system but Tasmania remains an unusual place. Regardless of age or mechanical condition, cars currently registered on the island aren’t required to undergo routine safety inspections, annual or otherwise, unless their registration lapses completely. Even then, Tasmanian motorists have three months to reinstate their vehicle’s road status before inspection becomes mandatory. In Darren’s case, the Midget was just a pile of bits for many years but, over that period, he made sure that its annual road fees were always promptly paid. “If I hadn’t done, it would’ve had to go over the pits before it could reregistered,” he says. “And with the car being so old, they’d have gone right through it with a fine-toothed comb looking for tiny things they might’ve thought need fixing.” It looks great to us, but the hassle is still best avoided. As our day draws to an end, Darren invites his mum to take her cherished MG for a drive around the estate for old times’ sake. But with the car “looking so absolutely gorgeous” Dianne says she’d hate to be the first one to scratch it. “Oh, ma,” her son laughs, “how many years have you driven this car?” Nice try Daz but it seems that both Dianne and Molly, her dog, are content being chauffeured around today.
Before they do depart into the evening, there’s just one last question to ask: does the restored Midget now go just as well as it looks? “It’s no speed-machine,” Darren says over the softly idling engine. “But it gets along quite well now with extractors and a twoinch exhaust system. The suspension is standard, so you feel just about every bump in the road. As for handling, it barely takes more than a flick of the finger to get it around a corner.”
No doubt but, as Darren gently pulls away to deliver Dianne safely back home, I’m heartened to see that he’s got both hands on the steering wheel. See… I told you he was a good boy.
Our hardworking hosts Anne and David Kernke have every right to smile, having just bagged four Double Gold medals and one Gold medal for their impressive efforts at the 2021 World Spirits Competition.
It’s a waiting game, aging world-class whisky here at Shene Estate.
Dianne first had her Midget’s seats re-covered in synthetic suede as the original black PVC would stick to the backs of her legs on hot summer days. In a nod to his mother’s inspired idea, Darren saw them faithfully refurbished in a similar cloth by local upholsterer, Mark Amy, who also expertly re-trimmed the MG’s door cards and kick panels in vinyl. The leather steering wheel and mottled dashboard still look fresh too.
The Midget proudly displays David Short’s seal of approval on the quarterlight; Tasmania’s own MG genius. Dianne paid off her beloved Midget through her own hard graft. The original receipts of those repayments remain with the car to this day.Strike a pose: photographer Max Clingo directs Dianne in recreating a favourite Midget moment. It's thanks partly to her son's commitment to the car.Established in 1819, Shene Estate was formerly the residence of early colonialist Gamaliel Butler. The grand sandstone gothic revival stable includes a coach house, tack room and stable hand quarters. As one of Australia’s earliest pastoral holdings, the heritage-listed property has direct links with King George III and Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Shene Distillery is focused on producing a world-class whisky made from the finest Tasmanian ingredients and pristine waters. Whisky produced at Shene is proudly milled, mashed, fermented, distilled, matured and bottled entirely on-site.