A refurbished success story Love for British mg sports car keeps family busy



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A refurbished success story

Love for British MG sports car keeps family busy

By RICK BARRETT
rbarrett@journalsentinel.com


Posted: Oct. 17, 2004

Greenfield - Dick Luening's 41-year-old sports car has taken newlyweds on their honeymoons, brought three babies home from the hospital and helped launch a successful business.

Not bad for a car with several hundred thousand miles on it.

Luening is the founder of MG Limited, a family-owned business that specializes in repairing and restoring British-made MG cars.

He and his two sons, Glen and Todd, have earned national fame for pulling rusted sports car relics from scrap yards and giving them a second life - often good enough for another few hundred thousand miles for their original owners or other vintage car buffs.

Luening recalls one car restoration for a local attorney who had parked his MG in storage in Ohio about 35 years earlier and had not driven it since.

"We opened the hood and there were animals living under there. You couldn't see the engine because of all the crud," Luening said.

The entire car had to be gutted and rebuilt from the ground up.

It was an expensive restoration, costing about $21,000, but was worth it for the attorney who originally had received the car as a law school graduation present and now viewed it as a retirement gift to himself.

MG owners are passionate about their cars, sometimes giving them names and passing them on to their children and grandchildren.

The old cars can be quirky mechanically, but have a lot of personality and are sporty to drive, said Tony Machi, a Milwaukee County court commissioner and British car enthusiast.

MG originally stood for Morris Garages. The little convertibles that Luening restores went out of production in England in 1980. MG has since gone through several incarnations and is still in business. The older cars have an international cult following through hundreds of MG owners' clubs.

"They really are the epitome of sports cars," Machi said, even though an MG isn't fast and powerful like today's Corvette.

Much of Luening's passion for the MG dates back to the 1960s when he started repairing the cars, as a side job, while working in the maintenance department of the American Motors plant in Milwaukee.

He bought his first MG a week before his wedding in 1966. He and his wife Sandra drove that car on their honeymoon and later brought three babies home from the hospital in it.

In 1974, 28-year-old Luening was laid off from the factory when an Arab oil embargo sent shock waves through the U.S. economy and car sales plummeted.

Luening didn't shed any tears over losing his job.

"It was the greatest day of my life," he said. "I hated working in a factory, and I walked out of that plant with six months worth of wages, which was a ton of money to me then."

He started a business that specialized in repairing British cars.

He soon became too busy and had to narrow the field to MGs and then to just one model of the MG lineup, the MGB sports car.

His reputation had spread fast through car clubs and racing fans, and he became a believer in specialization.

"You wind up with a better business because you don't have to guess at what you're doing," Luening said. "Specialization works. You don't go to a brain surgeon to fix a hernia."

He and his buddies made regular trips to California, an MG hot spot, where they scoured the cities and suburbs looking for cheap, repairable, older cars.

Coming back from one such trip, they formed a caravan of five MGs, using three cars to push two others over the mountains because they didn't have enough drivers. "We hooked them up just like a train," Luening said.

On another trip, the California cars didn't have antifreeze or working heaters.

"Fortunately, we had been to Mexico and had bought some cheap blankets," Luening said. "We wrapped up in those blankets to stay warm, and we left the cars running when we stopped for dinner, so they wouldn't freeze up."

The supply of California MG cars started to dry up, and Luening turned to an Alabama salvage yard for wrecks that could be restored to like-new condition.

Fortunately, there are dozens of small businesses in the U.K. still churning out parts for the original cars. "You can buy anything you want, right up to an entire body shell," Luening said. "Without distractions, we can build a car in three weeks."

The worst part of a restoration is grinding away the rust.

"It's nasty, boring, tedious, noisy, dirty work. The entire shop is literally covered with rust dust," Luening said.

He and his two sons have about 800 customers and plenty of work, from as far away as Arizona and Florida.

"Todd is a wonderful detail guy," Luening said. "He puts these cars together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Glen is a hard-core mechanic who does amazing things with engines and does them fast."

The vintage cars are based on simple 1960s technology and, mostly, they're very reliable. But some of the Luenings' work is regular car maintenance, as many MG owners won't allow just any mechanic to work on their cars.

Maintenance provides steady income, complemented by the dozen or so cars that the shop restores each year.

Luening's daughter, Melissa, manages the company Web site and eBay auctions. Those have become important as the Luenings buy and sell car parts over the Internet, although much of their business still comes from longtime customers and MG car clubs.

Luening said he will never get rich from his business, but he gets paid to do what he loves, which is working on these unique British sports cars.

"And the beauty of this business is that if I want to take tomorrow off and go racing, or go play with the grandkids, I can do it."

Luening still has his original MG, now used for vintage car racing. With skill and finesse he artfully carves turns on a race track, but one thing he won't do is travel to England where MGs have their steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle.

"It would scare the hell out of me to drive on the wrong side of the road," he said.




From the Oct. 18, 2004, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel



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