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Not so technical Advice
Steering Wheel Restoration & Nickel Plating
(as appeared in the Dec, 2009 TSR)

By Milton Babirak

The title of this column was conceived somewhat whimsically as a disclaimer to highlight my utter lack of technical expertise. I have only restored one car (with substantial assistance from several experts), and during the course of that titanic clash of a novice’s ignorance with hard steel, Cecil Kimber’s mechanical genius, the mischievous SU carburetor, and the nearly mythical vagaries of the Lucas electrical system, I lost many battles in trying to restore even the simplest components. During the painful and sobering course of that humbling struggle, I sustained cuts, bruises, minor burns, skin rashes and a temporarily compromised respiratory system, but I did not acquire anything that you could call technical expertise. I only had the experience. My object in this column to pass on some of that “experience.” Perhaps some small part of it may be of interest, or even helpful, to others who are restoring their cars or just trying to improve them a little bit at a time.

Steering Wheel Restoration

I have a steering wheel on my TD that I really like, but it is not a proper TD wheel. It has a marbled look, with light and dark browns swirled together. It looks great against the burled walnut of the dashboard. (Oops, fascia). Someone told me it was a period correct aftermarket wheel. One expert called it a Bluemels banjo type wheel. One sees many T-Series cars with the popular black plastic Brooklands-type steering wheel, but this is not correct for a TD or TF. (If you are interested in a new Brooklands wheel purportedly made to original specs, try John Kimble in the UK at john@johnkimble.co.uk.) The Brooklands wheel was installed as original equipment on earlier T-Series cars: the TA, TB and TC. The proper steering wheel for a TD is a wheel that is a non-marbled cream or light tan color. One restoration expert advised me that the Moss version of the TD wheel, offered in their catalogue as Part No. 454-230 ($299.95), is about as close as you can come to the proper wheel. It does not include the hub assembly, Part No. 262-340, which Moss offers separately ($79.95).

While I want to keep my car as original as possible, I like my existing, non-proper, marbled wheel so much I wanted to keep it. The problem is that the wheel has some cracks in it, particularly where the spokes meet the wheel itself. If the spokes were to separate from the wheel during aggressive driving, it could be disastrous. So, I thought, the thing to do would be to restore the wheel since I could not find a vendor selling anything like it. I remembered from the MG BBS that Eastwood offers a steering wheel restoration kit, Parts Nos. 52196Z and 52194Z, and a book, Part No. 52017. But these kits appear to be for solid-colored wheels, not marbled wheels like mine.

My next thought was to look for a steering wheel restorer. Besides, the more I thought about restoring my beloved steering wheel myself, the less I liked the idea. It is clearly one of those jobs that comes out much better the second, third or tenth time one does it. I was only doing it one time, and I really didn’t want to mess up my wheel.

I went to the MG T-Series BBS (www.british-cars.co.uk) and looked in the archives. I didn’t find anything, so I started a thread on the topic. Sure enough, I received a response identifying a guy who restores wheels, but his website didn’t work. I tracked him down; his name is Gary, and he lives in Carlisle, PA. He’s been doing this sort of work for quite a while (www.garyssteeringwheel.com). While talking with other vendors, I also found another firm that does this work: PearlCraft Steering Wheels in Australia (www.pearlcraft.com.au). Both these vendors have well-developed web sites, each with numerous photos of their work. Their steering wheel restorations do not come cheap, being more expensive than buying a proper wheel from Moss. But their workmanship looks very good judging from the photos.

Nickel Plating, Again

In my last article, I wrote about the several parts of a T-Series MG that were nickel plated, including the grip of the hand crank (in some cases), ID plates near the tool box, and the oil fill cap on top of the valve cover. I have not seen many cars with these parts properly nickel coated. As I mentioned in the last issue, the hand crank grip is generally displayed as polished brass or painted black. The ID plates are sold by Moss as brass plates, and the oil fill cap is commonly painted silver to match the valve cover.

Wishing to nickel plate these parts on my car, I solicited and received a quote from a company offering this service. The price was astronomical. Actually, it was more than astronomical; it was cosmic. It was totally... Well, you get the idea. I had assumed that since the parts were relatively small and since it was nickel and not chrome, the vendor’s quoted fee would be less than the cost of re-chroming. My assumption was very wrong. My intuition and my experience with re-chromers told me that it probably was not going to do much good to solicit estimates from other vendors, so I started to look for other solutions. For some time, I have been satisfactorily and very economically zinc plating various hardware bits from my car in my own garage using the Eastwood kit. I thought if I could do it with zinc, why couldn’t I do it with nickel? There shouldn’t be much difference in the chemistry and, after all, this is the sort of stuff you did in high school chemistry class. (They do it in grade school now.) So I decided to find a vendor who sells a nickel plating kit for home use. I looked in several catalogues of well known suppliers, and I searched online, but I found nothing. In addition, I found nothing on eBay and Amazon. Out of frustration and uncharacteristically, I tried YouTube. I thought it was crazy to think I would find anything on electroplating there, let alone nickel electroplating. I was pretty sure I would find music videos, whacky videos, videos that your poker buddies would send you as a joke, stuff for kids, etc. But finding something on You Tube about nickel plating just did not seem likely. Sure enough though, there were not one but several helpful videos on You Tube on how to nickel plate. Actually, it is even more surprising. I found a mini-series describing nickel plating on You Tube. The author of this mini-series is styled “JimmyV2009,” and I found his videos to be the most helpful. Two of his videos are entitled Nickel Plating Made Easy (Part 1 and Part 2). Each part is about six minutes in length, covering the basics of the equipment, the chemicals and the process. He also has videos entitled How to Make Nickel Acetate Solution for Use in Electroplating (2 hours:32 minutes) and Nickel Plating Power Supply (0:28 minutes). These videos are not going to win Oscars, but they clearly and forcefully demonstrate that nickel electroplating in your own garage is possible, very economical and safe. (Nickel acetate is very toxic.) So, I am going to order some nickel acetate, find a nickel welding rod and try it. I will report the results in the next issue.