First-Class Fiberglass

Central Florida car enthusiast John Leary has owned dozens of sports cars, many from England. These days he owns five, including an early Mini Cooper S, a Sunbeam Tiger, and a couple of Midgets modified for the track. But of the Brit cars currently in his fleet, the one that gets the most offers from would-be buyers was built from a kit. That’s right, it’s a fiberglass MG TF replica. Before you replica-bashers start shaking your heads and rolling your eyes, this one is different. Really.

This is no TF wheezer with a VW engine hanging off the rear and ballast in the front. This is a well-balanced, high-quality kit car built from MG parts. On the outside, it’s pretty much a dead ringer for a TF. Underneath the glass, it’s all MGB. Victor Replicars, the manufacturer of this kit, advertised it this way: “It’s everything the TF ever was … and better.”

From the way this roadster looks and drives today, that statement wasn’t all hype.

Victor Replicars

In the 1970s, Victor Replicars, a small company based in Rochester, New York, built custom station wagon bodies for Model A Fords. In the fall of 1981, looking to diversify, Victor introduced a DIY fiberglass TF kit that used the engine and running gear from an MGB. For customers who didn’t want a project, they also offered fully assembled cars. The company designed and constructed a from-scratch frame that was identical in dimensions to the original TF piece. However, it was built with stouter steel, and a larger diameter rear crossmember added strength. In the front, Victor welded in an MGB crossmember, positioned so the B’s suspension components would bolt right up and use the same settings.

The glass body parts were molded directly from original TF parts. The tub was constructed of reinforced fiberglass over a hardwood frame and featured a molded floor with a removable transmission cover. According to Victor, the tub, doors and fenders were built so accurately, they could be mounted on an original TF. With all the kit’s components, these constructors took pains to replicate the TF as closely as possible, even buying parts like door hinges from original vendors.

By early 1984, according to an article in Rochester Living, the company (then renamed Great Lakes Motor Cars) employed nine people and was geared up to build 100 kits a year. They also had plans to build a look-alike MG Airline Coupe. (One such car, loosely based on the Airline, was a stretched and widened four-seater called the Phantom. It was built and reportedly now lives with a collector in the Northeast.)

As word slowly got out, the company’s TF replicas gained some respect, even in the MG community. At one point, British Leyland reportedly approached Great Lakes Motor Cars about building an anniversary-model TF to be sold in Leyland’s showrooms. The number they wanted—1500 examples—was far beyond the tiny factory’s capability and the deal never materialized.

Unfortunately, the replica TF market turned out to be a tiny niche, and the company simply could not find enough buyers to keep its workers busy. As sales slowed and costs mounted, the company struggled to stay open. Around 1987, Great Lakes Motor Cars shut down and its assets were dispersed. The molds were sold, perhaps to someone in Canada, and later reports say they may still exist.

Accurate production numbers are impossible to find, but in an online discussion years after Great Lakes Motor Cars closed, one of the company’s principals estimated that they had sold perhaps seven or eight fully assembled cars and around 25 kits.

Some Assembly Required

In 1981, a would-be builder could have a Victor kit delivered for $7200 plus crating and shipping (later, the price rose to $8100). It included a frame, a tub, molded fenders and doors, upholstery, a top and bows, a wiring harness, a windshield frame, a gas tank, miscellaneous hardware and a dashboard with no instruments. Also in the crate was a detailed and illustrated 72-page assembly guide cross-referenced to an original MGB parts manual.

The builder who planned ahead already had a rusted-out MGB, which in the early ’80s could be had for a few hundred bucks, sitting in the garage. In fact, Victor touted their kit as a way to save a rusty B.

At that point, the builder could close those garage doors and spend up to 300 happy hours putting the thing together. Well, mostly happy hours; his mood no doubt depended on his wrenching skills—and perhaps his family’s tolerance level. It was a labor-intensive job that required pulling all the needed parts—many of which were probably worn out and needed rebuilding—from the B and installing them on the kit’s chassis.

Victor literature put it this way: “We won’t tell you that building the TF 1800 is a breeze. It requires care, intelligence and hard work, but you won’t have to weld or fabricate parts and it is well within the scope of the average mechanically inclined individual.”

Kit Car Quarterly reviewed a Victor kit build with a how-to feature that included step-by-step photos. They called the TF 1800 “one of the most authentic and well-built replicas of all” and said that the assembly manual was “one of the best efforts we’ve seen lately.”

Living With a Victor

Early in 2003, John Leary, then living in Connecticut, was surfing eBay, searching for a replacement for his badly rusted 1966 MGB. “I wasn’t really looking for a TF, but this one popped up because MGB was in the tag line,” he said. “I had always liked TFs, but I didn’t want a car I had to drive at 55 miles an hour.”

John knew all about MGs, since his first car was a B, so he was intrigued by the possibilities of a B-powered TF. He did his research and liked what he saw, so he set a dollar limit and submitted a bid. As it turned out, several other enthusiasts had the same idea. The auction was spirited, and the number of bids finally ticked up to 45. When the auction closed, John had won the car for $9350.

As auction bidders have learned, buying a car sight unseen sometimes yields unpleasant surprises. This time, it didn’t. “The car was in great shape and actually under-represented,” John recalls, “The seller was the most honest guy you would want to meet, and I could see he made several upgrades when he built the kit.” John was thrilled with the way the Victor looked, so he climbed in, cranked it up, and started the 3-hour drive home in 36-degree weather. When he arrived without drama, he was just as thrilled with the way the TF 1800 drove.

The eBay seller had bought the kit a few years earlier as an uncompleted project; he devoted a lot of time and money to a careful build that included many improvements. John’s car came with a pile of receipts plus a stack of rare Victor literature, including the assembly anual, advertising material and even a feedback survey.

To make this car even more faithful to a real TF, the builder fixed two of the Victor’s less desirable features. The kit came with a front-opening, one-piece fiberglass hood that was not hinged down the centerline. The builder replaced that panel with an all-steel, hinged hood from a TF—a proper bonnet. And in the rear, he replaced the kit’s dummy fiberglass gas tank with a steel reproduction TF tank—mounted with TF hardware—in its original position.

Since John was a long-term member of an MG community, he wondered how the faithful would accept this replica. He needn’t have worried. Even a few knowledgeable enthusiasts thought it was real when they walked by the car—and then they took a closer look. “I see you’ve changed the dashboard in the TF” was (and is) the most common comment— which leads to John’s explanation. He makes no attempt to pass off the Victor as anything other than what it is. “I do tell them it is all MG,” he says. And when people hear that, they want the whole story. Then some ask if it’s for sale, or ever will be. John’s answer is always a firm no.

He has also learned that few folks have seen or heard of a Victor. “Even TF owners are impressed,” John explains, “because many of them have looked for performance upgrades so they can enjoy their cars more. This one is really fun to drive.”

After more than a decade of ownership— and a move to Florida, where he enjoys the car all year—John remains an admirer. “It’s a driver,” he says, “a car I can enjoy. My wife frequently drives it, too. We can take it anywhere and not worry about it. About the worst it can get in a parking lot is a paint chip. And it’s dependable, too.”

Kit car or not, a Victor is a rare sighting. “I personally know of only two others,” John notes, “and in the past 10 years, I’ve only seen two come up on eBay.” He knows of no other Victor that includes all the improvements the builder made to this one.

Of course, no matter how well it drives, some enthusiasts will never warm to a fiberglass MG. This TF will never attain close to the value of a real one, and that’s fine, since there is only a handful out there. The car may be a replica, but John has still noticed something interesting: Whenever one of these TF 1800s comes to market—which is seldom—a line quickly forms. And he’s still getting offers on this one. Not that it’s for sale, of course.

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