Back in April 2018, on the way home from that year’s Guild of Motoring Writers ‘Big Day Out’ at Castle Combe, my Renault Avantime suddenly decided it didn't want to run properly and went into ‘Limp Home’ mode.
Using the IT Crowd mantra of ‘switching it off and on again’ solved the problem and we completed the journey home with no further hiccups. However the problem re-occured again a few weeks later and, after numerous trips to the garage didn't solve the problem, I decided (reluctantly) that it would have to go. Through the Avantime Owners club I found a chap in Gateshead who was willing to purchase it as it was, so the Gallic rarity was soon wending its way north on a trailer.
What to replace it with? Well it was coming into summer, so how about a soft-top sports car? (The Avantime had a huge sunroof and side windows that disappeared at the touch of a button, but was damn noisy at speed in that open-air mode). Assuming that summer was going to be a good one (it was!) I researched the choices within my budget and narrowed them down to Mazda’s MX5 or MG’s TF. JW and I had been to the Silverstone Classic one year in a borrowed TF which I'd quite liked and I spotted a 2004 TF 135 Sunstorm in Nightfire Red on Autotrader that was for sale near Reading – not a million miles away. A phone call, a trip to Reading, a test drive – and it all seemed good, so I made him an offer which he accepted, and a week later, on June 26 2018, I picked the car up .
So, how has the first year with the mid-engined MG been? Well, first of all let me say that I did have a small element of doubt about buying a TF, mainly because of the K Series engine. This is the same engine as used in the Lotus Elise with which Jeremy Walton had so much cooling system troubles (you can read about it ).
I had done some research before buying the car and was aware that the K Series engine had a reputation for eating head gaskets, so I was reassured when the previous owner produced a receipt proving the head gasket had been renewed with a triple layer gasket – as used by Land Rover on the K Series engines in their Freelander. We'll return to that later; but just a week or so after purchasing the car we suffered a major trauma. I'd driven down to Wiltshire to film the first of our Pete ’n Jerry videos with JW and his then newly acquired BMW Z3. We found a deserted piece of road on Salisbury Plain, I took the camera and tripod out of the boot, slammed the lid, and quickly realised that I'd left the car keys sitting on the boot floor.
WIND IN OUR SAILS
FIRST YEAR OF MG MILES
OWNER: Peter Osborne
CAR: 2004 MG TF 135 Sunstorm
Now, as anyone who has owned a TF will realise, that was a serious error because the only way to open the boot is with the key – it even warns you about this in the owner's manual! After a few moments of panic (Where's the spare key? Hanging up at home, a two-hour drive away!) the RAC was called. “We are very busy today, it'll be a four hour wait." Four hours! On the hottest day of the year, miles from anywhere on Salisbury Plain? While JW went for food and drink supplies I settled down to shelter out of the baking sun and await the arrival of our (hopefully) saviour.
To give the RAC patrolman his due he didn't laugh at my idiocy and after much sucking of teeth managed to prise the boot open enough to retrieve the keys, and without a single scratch to the paintwork – top man.
Apart from that little drama – down to my error and nothing to do with car – there has been very little in the way of problems. I had noticed a petrol smell occasionally when driving; but could not trace any cause for this so I booked the car into in nearby(ish) Westcott, as they are listed in the MG Car Club's Trade Directory.
I also asked them to give the suspension a check-over as the ride seemed overly harsh with more banging and crashing than I expected. Adrian at AJF told me that they'd tightened a few fixings on the fuel system, that the suspension was fine (“It's a sports car, what do you expect?”), that the rear tyres were cracking and needed replacing – oh, and the head gasket was leaking!
Crikey! Visions of suffering the same coolant problems as JW had in the Elise came into my head – on the plus side the petrol fume smell had gone.
I replaced the cracking rear Bridgestones with a couple of spanking new Toyos at £135.98 thanks to who heroically struggled in the pouring rain to get the wheels off thanks to wheel nuts that some gorilla had previously rounded off.
Better replace them, I thought, and when I booked the car into AJF for a full service asked them to do so. These worked out somewhat more expensive than I was expecting at £165 + £40 for locking wheel nuts. This plus a new set of front brake pads pushed the bill up to £746.20!
In January of this year the MOT became due. I booked the car in, and got it back with a pass and one advisory – 'Coolant leak'. Hmm? What to do? Water temperature never seemed to rise, although I occasionally had to top up the header tank. I'd had a leaking radiator in the Avantime and our local car parts shop had advised K Seal. Expensive at £12 a bottle; but “Cheaper than a new radiator” as the guy in the shop said. It stopped the leak, and the occasional overheating, in the Avantime for a number of years, so thought I'd try that again. Bottle purchased, poured in and not had to top up since — fingers crossed.
Another problem that can occur with the cooling system is the pipes that run under the car from mid-engine to front-mounted radiator and back. The standard mild steel ones can easily corrode, and stainless steel replacements are recommended. I couldn't find any reference in the old invoices supplied with the car of stainless pipes being fitted. Not having a ramp I slid my mobile phone under the car and took a picture to reveal markings for stainless steel — result!
But how is it to drive? Pretty good actually. The mid-engine configuration in a well-balanced chassis means it handles well, with a reasonably refined ride (apart from the occasional bangs and crashes on the UK's potholed minor roads) although these never seem to deflect it off-line.
The mid-engine configuration means less weight over the front wheels giving light and direct steering with a bias to understeer if you push on a bit too hard. The stubby gear lever works a fairly slick five-speed box with which the hustle the little car along, although I still occasionally find myself searching for a non-existent sixth gear. And sometimes it's reluctant to engage reverse, noisily revealed when bringing the clutch up.
Waiting for the RAC on the hottest day of the year!
Steady water temperature
Inside the cabin is compact but comfortable even on extended trips although somewhat claustrophobic with the hood up, when rearward vision is restricted, especially as the plastic screen has discoloured and gone brittle. I split it when taken the hood down recently so I've purchased a new glass screen replacement but not got round to fitting it yet as the hardtop has been on for the winter.
So what's gone wrong? Very little actually. Apart from the fore-mentioned split rear screen, new brake pads and new rear tyres, the only other expense resulted from a horrible graunching noise from the near-side front which turned out to be a wheel bearing going – the week after the Guild trackday at Castle Combe, so possibly some connection there......?
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Guild of Motoring Writers Trackday at Castle Combe, April 2019
Photo: © Jeff Bloxham