Dan Rattiner's Stories

1959 Triumph TR-3: Every Sports Car Has a Story

In 1966, I bought this little red convertible sports car that I saw parked in front of a bar in Hampton Bays with a FOR SALE sign on it. I was 25 years old at the time. After I bought it, the bar owner who sold it to me for $800—it was a used car—told me it came with a removable hardtop. He went back into his bar and came back, lugging it. It was four-feet long, wobbly and plastic. We set it atop the cockpit, wrestled the big latches down onto the top of the windshield in the front and to the top of the trunk in the back.

I drove off, heading east back to East Hampton. Frankly, I thought the top looked dumb. In the trunk was a canvas top, after all.

In between Bridgehampton and East Hampton, I hit a pothole and the top simply leaped up off the car and started tobogganing upside-down along the road, sliding between the oncoming cars but, as chance would have it, not hitting any, to finally slide to a stop on the road’s grassy shoulder. I put it back on the car and drove it home carefully, one hand holding it in place, the other driving slowly to avoid potholes. Today, 50 years later, the top sits up in the rafters of my garage. This bright red 1959 Triumph TR-3 sits below.

Here are some things that have happened with the TR-3 over the years.

Four years after I bought it, I got married, gave her the car, and started a family. My wife, once pregnant, understandably didn’t like driving around in the TR-3 unless I put a roll bar and seat belts into it. Of course, I put them in. Later, after we were divorced and I bought my car back, I took the roll bar and seat belts back out.

This is why women live longer than men.

For a long time, some years later, I lived with a woman who had a unique way of ending arguments. She’d get to a certain point, stop, then run out of the house, jump in her car and drive off. She’d be gone for two days. Never said where she went. The idea of her being gone for two days, no explanations asked for and none given when she returned, was that by this time we both had gotten over things, missed each other and so were happy to get together again. And that was true.

But this hobby, or whatever it was, was so scary that one day when I saw the behavior coming, I decided not to let her go. The argument was at our house, just after midnight. She owned a new black hatchback Chevette, which was parked outside, and so when she stormed out the front door and slammed the front door to get in this little car, I ran after her. But she was already racing the engine and heading down the driveway. I hopped in the TR-3.

“I’ll pull you over!” I shouted at her.

And so, like racers coming out of the pit area, we were off, her in the lead, me following and trying to come alongside. We blasted through downtown East Hampton at 70 miles an hour, off through downtown Bridgehampton, then 6 miles later off to County Road 39 at Southampton, and she had beaten off all efforts to get to her.

Past Shinnecock, she hit the Sunrise ahead of me and pulled a little bit away, then I hit it and though there was a little more space between us, we continued on into the night. She went faster. I went faster. This is a superhighway.

She was up to 75, I was up to 75. She was up to 80, I was up to 80. I was thinking, how am I going to pull her over when I catch her? We’ll be going too fast. Now we were going 85. And I’m thinking, well, she’ll now get this anger out of her system, see the error of her ways, and soon slow down and stop and we’ll have a lovey-dovey reunion of laughter and tears.

But that was not what happened. As we passed the Quogue exit, I was now wondering if my old TR-3 could beat her Chevette. A Chevette has a small engine. She shouldn’t be able to go much faster.

I then looked at my speedometer. The needle was now shivering at 88, holding steady, and that was it. My girlfriend got smaller and smaller and smaller until she disappeared into the darkness.

Well, I tried. And as I hobbled home at 55, I got to thinking. This was in 1979. The TR-3 was now nearly 20 years old. So it was okay.

The girlfriend returned, of course, in two days.

The following year, the driver’s seat broke. It happened when I got in it. The driver’s seatback simply groaned and fell backwards into the narrow backseat bench behind. It had become a recliner. Obviously I could not drive it that way.

I scouted around the garage and found two old nautical seat cushions with not much floatation power in them anymore, but still good for something. So I lifted the seatback to its proper position and wedged them in between the seatback and the rear bench. It was fine. And you hardly noticed them.

A week later, I drove the TR-3 over to J.J. Johnson’s Body Shop and Junkyard. J.J. was a tall, lean black man with a can-do attitude, and if anybody could fix the seats it would be him. Maybe he could put a metal brace in there. J.J. bent his long, lean frame down to the bottom of the driver’s seat and used a knife to make a hole in the seat cover to have a look.

“Guess what’s in here?” he asked.

“What?”

“Horsehair,” he said. “And now we come to the main bracing. Yup. It’s steel.” He was a surgeon describing his operation. “And it’s just all rusted out. Crumbled to dust.”

He stood up. “You’ll need a new seat,” he said. “Nothing I can do. But if you’re not picky, I’ve got two seats to a Thunderbird that could fit in there.”

The very thought of this sent a shudder through me. No Thunderbird seats would ever be allowed into my beautiful TR-3.

“Another idea,” J.J. said, “is to buy a parts car. Lots of people with these old sports cars buy an old beat-up second car for its parts. You should have a parts car. You can buy them cheap.”

I thought about how I could get one. I’d put an ad in the paper.

“You get a parts car, I’ll take out the seats and put ’em in here,” J.J. said. “Meanwhile, I’ll call some of the other ‘junkies’ and see if anybody has one. If I find one, I’ll call.”

But he never did call.

Two weeks later, I drove out through Amagansett and down the hill into Napeague to the home of a man who wanted to sell his junk TR-3. The house was an A-frame, with a roof that came all the way down to the ground on both sides. A garage was attached. I knocked.

A small man answered the door. He didn’t open it all the way.

“Just go over to the garage there,” he said, indicating it. “I’ll meet you there, open it from the inside.”

“Okay.”

A few minutes later the garage door opened upwards and there it was, a TR-3 just like mine, but yellow. Every piece of glass on it was smashed, the headlamps, the turn lights, the windshield, the dashboard gauges, the rear lights. Looked like whoever did it used a tire iron.

“What happened?” I asked.

“My wife,” he said. “We had a fight.”

“What kind of shape is it in? Other than the glass.”

“Runs good.”

“Seats good?”

“No problem.”

“How much you want?”

“Just want to get it out of here. $300 and it’s yours. Just take it away.”

“I could be back here tomorrow with a friend and a rope.”

The man looked fearfully this way and that. “Well, come in the afternoon,” he said. “She won’t be here tomorrow afternoon.”

This faded yellow TR-3 sat in my backyard for six months. To protect it from rain, I went out and bought a boat tarp to throw over it. I had my two seats now. So that solves that problem. One of these days, I’ll ask J.J. to come over and take them and then put them in. Until then, the life cushions were fine.

About a month later, I was back over at J.J.’s just shooting the breeze and talking about cars when he commented that he’d seen the parts car in my driveway, and it didn’t look very good.

“Nothin’ wrong with your house, but with the car out there, it kind of cheapens it. Who wants a junk car in their driveway? Even one with a tarp over it.”

J.J. suggested that rather than his going over to my house to take out the seats, he go over there with his wrecker and just pick up the whole car. He’d take it to his yard. Then I’d just have to come in with my car and he’d bolt them in. Also, if anything else went wrong, he’d have the parts out there, ready for him. I thought this was a great idea, and so that is what we did.

Three months turned into six months turned into a year. I still hadn’t gotten around to it. And then one day, I was over at the yard and J.J. looked very glum. Something had happened.

“You know, every year I get in the car crusher, man, and he thins my herd, flattens what I don’t need, takes it away. Well, bad news. He was here last week. And I’m real sorry. But he flattened your parts car.”

I didn’t say anything. I was trying to wrap my mind around this.

“I TOLD him not to go over to that part of the yard. But he did.”

“Could I see it?”

“Sure.”

We walked over. The yellow TR-3 was about six inches thick.

“You know what I think?” J.J. said, as we walked back. “You call those people at Moss Motors. I bet they make seats for a TR-3. That’ll solve the problem.”

I called Moss Motors. There were no replacement seats for a TR-3. I persisted. It was still no, there was nothing they could do.

“What about those people you deal with, you deal with a lot of body shops that need things like this, have you ever heard of somebody who had a TR-3 that was keeping it up at their place? I could try them.”

He called me back. One of the men who had worked at Moss remembered there was this body shop in West Virginia where somebody had ordered things for a TR-3. He didn’t remember the name of it, but it was a body shop in Charlottesville.

There were seven body shops in Charlottesville, West Virginia. On my fourth try, I hit. Sort of. There was a man who once had worked there, who’d been fixing up an Austin-Healey. He remembered that he’d ordered new seats for it, but Moss had sent him TR-3 seats, which would not fit.

“I think he still has them,” he said.

“Can I talk to him?”

“Oh, he’s not working here anymore. He doesn’t even live around here. He moved to Dayton, Ohio. I think he’s working in a hospital there, as an orderly at night. That’s what somebody told me, anyway.”

Armed with the man’s name, I called every hospital in Dayton, Ohio, which was five, and I found him. A nurse told me he’d be coming in to work about 7 p.m. And I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you.

I called to ask for him late that night. I said it was a personal call. When I got him, I told him what I was looking for. I told him I had looked everywhere, and he was probably the only person in the United States that had two TR-3 seats.

“Well,” he said, “I guess you’ll pay me whatever I want for my two TR seats. Right?”

“How much do you want,” I asked grimly.

“I wouldn’t take less than $50.” He stopped to wait for my reaction. I wasn’t giving him any.

“Each,” he continued.

“Tell you what,” I said. “Is where you live near the Dayton Airport?”

“Yes.”

“Just so happens I have to be in Dayton tomorrow for a meeting. I’ll be flying in in the late morning. Could you meet me there with the seats? I could take them back home as luggage.”

He thought about it. “What time?” he asked.

“Around two,” I said. I had no idea what the airline schedule would be. But I could find out.

“I’ll call you back with the exact time. Could you give me your phone number?”

“Sure,” I said.

So that’s how I got the TR seats. I flew to Dayton, met him at the airport, got the seats he had brought wrapped in garbage bags, and flew them home on the next flight out. This was the shortest trip anybody ever took to Dayton, Ohio. These seats are in my TR-3 today.

Today, the Triumph TR-3 sits in my garage in East Hampton and on sunny days I will take it out and parade it through town—a 55-year-old automobile that has joined with me in many adventures.

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