My Sports Car: For 50 Years, Dan’s Triumph TR-3 Sees Him Through Thick & Thin

Dan Rattiner's 1959 Triumph TR-3 in Sag Harbor
Dan's 1959 Triumph TR-3 in Sag Harbor, Photo: Dan Rattiner

I am the proud owner of an antique sports car. It is a Triumph TR-3 built in 1959.

There are many well-to-do folks living in these parts who today buy a completely restored Austin Healey or MG or Triumph from the 1950s for a small fortune and proudly show it off. But I am not one of those. I bought my Triumph in 1967, when it was eight years old—a used car.

I was 28. I got it from the owner of a bar in Hampton Bays that, until three years ago, still had the same name. It was CB’s and it was on 27A, just west of Macy’s. I met with Charlie Brown, the owner, out front of his bar, where he had a For Sale sign under the windshield wiper of this lovely sports car, paid him $800, and he signed it over. That would be about $8,000 in today’s money.

Charlie told me at the time that he had gotten married and his wife was pregnant. End of sports car for him. Beginning of sports car for me. I subsequently married a woman who indulges me my sports car.

As it turns out, it is good for my health. I have found, over the years, that when the car gets sick, I get sick. And when the car gets fixed, I get fixed. Amazing. Today, the car is 59 years old. I am
79 years old. We’ve been through a lot together.

I do not intend to bore you with details of my personal maladies. We all have them from time to time, some serious, some not so much. But I can tell you about the Triumph’s maladies and at least one of mine. You’ll read about it down the road.

As for the car, in 1975, I was out back at our Dan’s Papers office in Bridgehampton to show a friend my little sports car and how healthy it was.

“Never had a repair,” I told him. It was true. “I was told these English sports cars need constant repair. But this has never had a repair.”

“You got lucky,” my friend said.

Dan Rattiner's red 1959 Triumph TR-3
Dan’s 1959 Triumph TR-3, Photo: Dan Rattiner

“I’ll start it up so you can hear the vroom of the engine,” I said. “First you pull out the choke. Then, you turn the key but don’t press the starter button—yes, here’s the starter button. Instead, with the key on, you pump the gas pedal 20 times in a row to bring the gas near to the spark plugs.”

I pumped the gas pedal and was about to press the starter button when the pedal lever broke. The pedal just flopped around.

“Dammit,” I said, hopping out.

I got sick after that. When I got the pedal fixed, I got better. Didn’t notice the connection back then. It’s only been in hindsight.

In 1985, still without a major repair, I noticed a jingle in the rear right wheel. I took it to a mechanic.

“Your car needs ball joints,” he said. “It’s expensive. Didn’t you notice the car wanders all over the road? You steer one way, it goes another?”

“I thought it was just fine doing that,” I said.

“I have to get you new ball joints. Can’t even let you out on the road without them. It’s dangerous.”

Later that month, I got a bone spur in my right shoulder and needed surgery to have it removed. Dr. Brennan in Southampton did it. After I recovered, I found the Triumph able to go smoothly down the road.

In 1990, I was in a parking lot in Sag Harbor, made a turn and hit the back end of a Lincoln. The Lincoln was fine, but the Triumph’s hood and fender were messed up.

A few weeks later, I was diagnosed with cancer and had major surgery at NYU in Manhattan.

While I was in the hospital, the Triumph’s dents were taken out. Looked like new. Still looks new today. I’m told it’s probably worth $30,000 as is today. Maybe so. I’m worth more, too. I’ve been cancer free since the surgery all those years ago.

But this spring, the spring of 2018, the engine of the Triumph began overheating after just 10 miles. I’d have to stop and let it cool. I took it to a foreign car specialist who told me the engine needed to be rebuilt and he could get it done for $3,000 or $4,000. I told him go ahead.

Before he did, however, he sent me a list of many other repairs that needed to be done before he would rebuild the engine, including things that were just old and worn. I’d need a new transmission, a new clutch, new brakes, new tires, a new frame because the old had developed a crack. I’d need to pay him $13,000 to $15,000 before he’d even start on the engine.

I told him forget it. It drives fine, just needs a rest. I drove it home. He sent me a bill for making the list of things needing to be fixed before he could start on the engine—I never asked for this estimate. And I refused to pay it.

This spring, I too began to have lots of problems. My back started giving me problems. Became hard of hearing a bit. My pace is slower. My hip hurts. On my next birthday, I will be 80. I went to a doctor and he ordered some tests.

In early summer, things took a turn for the worse with the Triumph. Driving back from a family dinner at a house on Further Lane in East Hampton in June, the car simply rolled to a stop. Turn the key. Nothing. It was something electrical. I called to have the car towed and waited. It was a long wait. After 20 minutes, I tried again and it started. So I cancelled the tow and drove it home. On my next outing with it, the electric went off again. I was stranded on Abrahams Path in front of somebody’s house.

I was there an hour waiting for the tow. The homeowner, seeing this beautiful red sports car sitting out front of her house not moving, came out with some cold lemonade. We sat on a porch and talked about the old days. And then when the tow people came, I thought it a surprise. I’d forgotten I’d ordered it. So, before the wrecker guy hooked up the car I told him how it starts up again if you wait a while, so we tried, and vroom, it did start up, so once again I drove it home. The next day, I brought the woman a big apple pie from Round Swamp Farm.

But now the Triumph just sat. All summer, I wouldn’t drive it. I was doing a lot of sitting, too. What was wrong with me? Once, in late summer, I did start up the Triumph, intending to drive it down the driveway and back. My 12-year-old grandson from San Francisco was visiting. He got in. I started it up and grinned, drove it down to the end of the driveway and was turning around when it quit again. This was so embarrassing. Just a 30-second drive. Anyway, I left it there a half an hour and then, without my grandson, started it up and drove it back up and into the garage.

Boy was it sick.

But I have a niece, a serious car mechanic who owns a garage where she repairs old cars in Oakland, California. I called her. She said mice might have chewed into the wiring. Or maybe there’s corrosion. The wiring works fine at first, she said, but then the wires heat up and it short circuits. Have somebody replace the wiring under the dashboard where it connects to the stuff under the hood.

A new tow guy from Amagansett came and picked up the car. It was from Balcun’s. At his shop, Vinnie Balcun fixed the wiring, test drove it 20 miles with an engine additive called STP without it overheating, and it’s back in my garage, raring to go, all fixed.

It turns out I’m now fine, too. Tests were negative. Yes, we’re getting old. But I guess it’s just not our time yet, eh, buddy? Just a little jingle in the right rear tire.

Thanks, Vinnie.

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