Michael Connelly Redux, or A Tale of Two TR-6s

August 12, 2009

A couple of months back, just before I came back to Canada for the summer, I had the opportunity to interview mystery author Michael Connelly for BookPage, via a crackly and somewhat spendy Tokyo-Florida cell phone connection. One of the questions I asked him that did not make the final cut in the print edition (due to space considerations) was, “When you got your big advance check for your first book, what did you do to celebrate?” (A Corniche cabrio, a wine tour of the Bordeaux region, a set of signed first editions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?)

It turns out that the answer was “D: none of the above.” There was no big splash, although Connelly admits to a few small ripples: “I have always been an incremental kind of guy. We used some of the money to make a down payment on a condo, and one small splurge, a car I had wanted since I was a teenager, a 1974 Triumph TR-6.”

(In case you are unfamiliar with this vehicle, now would be a good time to open up a new window and Google “Triumph TR-6”, so you can see just what a lovely piece of automotive art the car was. They were made from late 1968 until 1976, largely unchanged throughout the run, other than to meet ever-tightening US regulations regarding emissions and crashworthiness. Some say they are the last of the classic British sports cars, and there would be no argument on that point from me.)

As it happens, it was a good talking point, for I once had a Triumph TR-6 as well, a year older than his, but virtually identical otherwise. Mine was Pimiento Red with brown “leatherette” upholstery, a factory hardtop in addition to its raggedy ragtop, and a set of original Michelin redline tires, which had a red stripe as opposed to the whitewalls typically found on other cars of the day. It had a reasonably powerful inline six-cylinder engine, an AM radio, a four-speed manual transmission and, to the best of my recollection, nothing in the way of extras. (Air conditioning? Hah, you must be kidding!) I bought it in Southern California shortly before moving to Tennessee in the late 1980s; the Triumph was, at that point, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old; no trailer queen, to be sure, it was nonetheless quite decent for its age. It set me back the princely sum of $1500. I was the first guy to respond to the classified ad in the Orange County Register, at some ungodly hour of the morning; between the time I phoned the seller and the time I arrived at his place sixty minutes later, he had received a half-dozen more enquiries, so he hung firm on his not unreasonable asking price. I’d have done the same in his place.

Southern California is perhaps the best place on the planet to own a convertible. 300+ sunny days a year, winter temperatures in the sixties and seventies, a butterscotch sun dipping into the silvery Pacific every evening, with a gorgeous backdrop of purple and copper clouds, brought to you courtesy of the tailpipes of a million gridlocked cars jamming every inch of freeway from San Diego to Santa Barbara. Smog makes for fabulous sunsets. The TR-6 and I did not get a lot of time together in this idyllic milieu, though; I was lured eastward by a big pay raise and the promise of affordable housing; had I been told about the rampant allergens, the laundromat-like humidity, the raging fundamentalists, and the capital-M mosquitoes of Middle Tennessee, I might have had second thoughts, but that’s another story for another time.

I towed the Triumph from Newport Beach to Nashville behind a self-drive U-Haul truck, largely without incident. This is not to say that ownership of the car was largely without incident—simply that it did not break down while being towed. In retrospect, that was likely the only time you could pretty well guarantee it wouldn’t break down. My stepfather, not nearly so taken in by its charms as I was, referred to it as “the prettiest car at the side of the road.” He should have added “with its hood up, and with fluids and steam issuing forth from more than one undiagnosed location.”

Does it sound as if I didn’t like the TR-6? Au contraire; I adored it, warts and all. Not every minute, you understand, but on balance, most of the time. In its entire tenure with me, it never had the soft top raised, and in fact the folding top frame was quite solidified in the open position by the time I sold it. I drove it in summer with the hardtop left behind in the garage, and in winter with the hardtop securely bolted in place. The heater was marginal at best, but fortunately Tennessee has mild(ish) winters, so it was never a serious problem as long as one bundled up well. The major annoyance was wiping the fog from the inside of the windshield every half-mile or so, as the defroster blew air at roughly the same velocity and temperature as an exhaling cocker spaniel, a sleeping cocker spaniel at that.

By modern standards it was neither quick (I couldn’t tell you how fast it would accelerate from 0-60, as the speedometer didn’t work the entire time I had the car) nor especially good-handling, and even in its day its performance was eclipsed by the likes of V-8 Mustangs and Datsun 240Zs, with which it competed for sales. That said, the exhaust note was pure magic, and the car was a babe magnet of the first order.

Then the inevitable happened, swiftly and brutally: my fickle heart was stolen by a younger model. My mother’s brother George decided to sell off his midlife crisis car just in the nick of time for my midlife crisis, so I became the second owner of a lightly used Porsche. A Porsche Turbo, no less, although sadly not a convertible. I couldn’t afford to keep both, though, so the TR-6 had to go. It would be the first time in my adult life that I didn’t have a convertible, but hey, I had a Porsche, right? In response to my ad for the Triumph in the Tennessean, the first guy who looked at it gave me my $3500 asking price. So basically I had gotten to drive the car for five-plus years for free: the sale price covered my purchase cost, every nickel I had ever put into it, and a bit of profit as well. And how often does that happen? Still, watching (and listening to) it disappear around the corner was a poignant moment, to say the least.

And what happened to Michael Connelly’s TR-6? After spending countless hours and dollars bringing the car back to pristine condition, Connelly donated it to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. I imagine they were thrilled; it would have been the centerpiece of any charity auction.

In wistful moments, I like to think of the TR-6 motoring along some sunny tree-lined back road, tailpipe burbling, a be-goggled and ascotted Adonis at the helm, and a winsome young lass in the passenger seat, her pony-tail swirling in the summer breeze. (The more likely scenario, though, finds our Adonis standing on the shoulder of the road, staring down perplexedly at the morass of wires and hoses under the hood, while our winsome young lass impatiently dials the Automobile Club, a number she has cleverly pre-programmed into her mobile phone speed-dial for just such occasions.)