By Elaine Williams
A family tradition gave a father and son in Clarkston a way to stave off boredom during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Every year, Eric Demattos, of Clarkston, helps his son, Ash Demattos, learn a new skill that isn’t covered in a traditional classroom. It’s always something pretty big: Last year they weaned a parrot that required round-the-clock feeding.
This time, they restored a 1979 MG Midget, completing the job so impeccably they believe the vehicle will be passed down for generations as a reminder of the bond they formed and the unprecedented moment in history.
“I’m not glad this (pandemic) happened,” Eric said. “It’s horrible, (but) we were sort of stuck at home. That was exactly what this car needed, was us to have a lot of time.”
The project began during the holidays, before coronavirus and COVID-19 were household words.
Ash is 15 years old, nearing the time he will apply for his learner’s permit. Eric is an art instructor at Columbia Basin Community College in Pasco.
After an extensive search for what Eric describes as a Goldilocks car that didn’t need too much or too little work, they bought the MG Midget in Moscow for $1,800.
The vehicle was one of the last of its kind to be imported to the United States by its British manufacturer, Eric said.
They believe it was purchased by someone who planned to fix it up, but never got around to it.
The car was parked in a field, where it sank into the mud. It looked as if a tarp that once covered it had decayed years ago. Water had leaked in, and moss was spreading from underneath the seats.
“We had to push it on the trailer and hope for the best,” Eric said. “The key was still in the ignition.”
They pieced together a few bits of information about its past life. It had studded tires, which means someone drove it in the winter, something that’s unusual for a small convertible.
Then they got busy, with Eric relying on knowledge he gained online and while bringing a Triumph Spitfire back to life with his dad.
They drained and replaced fluids such as oil and gas. They cleaned openings and did tasks that normally are part of a tune-up, such as replacing spark plugs.
About a week later, with the car parked outside and a fire extinguisher at the ready, they tried to start it. The car made a big bang, and a flame came out of the wrong side of the carburetor.
“Ash said, ‘Is that supposed to happen?’ ” Eric recalled. “I said, ‘Any kind of bang at this point is good. It’s just clearing out its lungs.’
“It kind of feels like that Frankenstein moment when Frankenstein makes his creation come alive. Even though it’s this ugly beast, you’re happy it’s alive.”
After that initial success, the time in which Eric wasn’t commuting and Ash wasn’t doing school work turned out to be an important resource.
In between Eric working from home and Ash doing class assignments, they problem-solved what needed to be done on the car.
The gas tank was rusted at the top and needed to be replaced. They stripped the seats down to the frames and sewed new upholstery with help from Eric’s mom.
MG Midgets are so obscure, that finding parts was a challenge. In one instance, they used a 1950s Harley Davidson muffler that was similar enough to work.
A number of people offered to sell them parts from old cars they thought were MG Midgets that were actually something else.
Cold weather made the situation tougher too, especially when they were unscrewing the seats. One of them would be underneath the MG Midget attempting to undo a bolt while the other one would be in the vehicle trying to hold the screw, but not sure if they had the right one. The rusted bolts broke frequently.
They learned when to walk away and wait until the next day and how to be angry without using “colorful language,” Eric said.
After a good amount of sleep or cooling down period, “You figure out how insurmountable problems … can be tackled in a better way,” he said.
Installing the top was one of the best parts, Ash said in a text.
“It was satisfying having it on since it looked good,” he said.
Eventually they managed to do everything themselves other than the painting. The equipment and materials for that would have cost more than hiring a professional, Eric said.
The vehicle is Old English White with the number 53 and racing stripes, a nod to the Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie in Disney films.
Ash’s vehicle still has more than its share of idiosyncrasies that likely will limit it to trips around town.
The heater is always on. The sound system, a gift from a grandparent, is by far the most modern part of the car, with a Bluetooth connection for mobile phones.
Still the father and son are excited now that everything is done.
“I am really proud of the hard work Ash put into it,” Eric said.