Norb Bries has turned a love of English-built classic sports cars into a highly respected business.
Norbert Bries, is one of the lucky ones. At his shop in unincorporated Lake Bluff, Illinois, he is surrounded day and night by an ever-changing collection of the stuff of dreams - sports cars. Dozens and dozens of them, mostly of the older variety and all gleaming in their self-righteous, gas-guzzling and politically incorrect glory.
Bries is the owner of Northshore Sportscars, 1225 Rockland Road, a veritable museum of high speed machinery from the recent past in which everything on display is also for sale.
The inventory at Northshore Sportscars has a pronounced British accent, with British-built classic Triumphs, MGs, Austin-Healeys, Morgans and Jaguars vastly outnumbering four-wheelers of other ethnicities. In fact, on a cool fall day, 32 of the 36 cars Bries listed for sale were of British origin, including a nonsporty Bentley. Although none of the cars on display is new, very few are more than 30 years old. Most of the original manufacturers have long since gone out of business, and most for good reason. Yet the cars they built still run and still sell. "People come back to these cars," Bries explained. "It's not unusual for guys who owned these cars in college, say, to come in and say 'I'm having a mid-life crisis, and I want a sports car.' They make no bones about it."
For the uninitiated, classic British sports cars are one of the great mysteries of postwar America. From the late 1940s until well into the '70s, the United States was the No. 1 export market for the distinctive roadsters and high-performance speedsters churned out by Britain's automakers. Triumph, in fact, earmarked about 80 percent of its postwar production for the North American market.
The appeal of the cars was obvious. Small, nimble and unfailingly sexy British sports cars had no rival in the American market. With the notable exception of Chevrolet's Corvette, no American manufacturer even tried to compete with the British when it came to high-performance machines designed to go fast, look great and nothing else. The mysterious part commonly kicked in at about 10,000 miles and sometimes much sooner. Carburetor diaphragms tore. Primitive point ignition systems went out of whack, never to be entirely in whack again. Wiring harnesses erupted in horrifying displays of spontaneous combustion. Timing chains broke. Cooling systems melted down. Heads warped. Often, the cars simply stopped and never started again. Nobody ever knew why "The best thing to come out of the U.K. was Princess Di, with Winston Churchill a distant second," said Jim Mateja, The Tribune's auto writer "From any practical standpoint, they're terrible cars. They're about mystique, image and a very distinctive style associated with the old days of macho driving. I understand their appeal, but I'd never recommend buying one unless you're a mechanic with plenty of knowledge of British cars and a garage full of spare parts."
Classic British sports cars haven't changed one whit since the glory days, and chronic unreliability is still accepted as the norm. But they are still as cool as they ever were, and maybe even cooler in this era of economical, environmentally friendly, hopelessly boring cars. They continue to maintain a hard-core-even rabid-cabal of fans who wouldn't drive anything else at least on week ends and preferably not very far from home. "Probably 99 percent of drivers now limit their use of these cars to pleasure only, so some of that stigma about the electrics and carburetors and such goes away with the passage of time," Bries said. "You're not going to get up at 6 on a cold December morning to drive your Austin-Healey to work. I can disarm some of those memories by reminding customers that they're not going to drive these cars the same way they did 20 years ago. Although a few other shops dabble in the breed, Northshore Imports is the only British sports-car specialist in Lake County, offering restorations in addition to sales. Bries also is the Chicago regional distributor for Goleta, Calif. based Moss Motors, one of the world's largest suppliers of parts for British cars. Northshore is certainly the only place around that may actualIy have, say a ball joint for a 1964 Triumph TR4. If it doesn't, it can get one quickly enough and put it in for you, too.
"This started out as a hobby," Bries explained, echoing everybody else who ever got in over his head with British cars. "My dad was a Ford dealer in Green Bay, Wis., when I was a kid. This was during Ford's high-performance period when Henry Ford III wanted to beat Enzo Ferrari at LeMans. They made some outstanding cars during that era, including the GT40, which did win LeMans." But the Fords of Bries' youth were super cars: big, brawny, hideously expensive and produced in very small quantities. Reasonably priced performance still came with a Union Jack on the grill (or "grille," for you purists). "I think you have to be in this business for the love of it," Bries said of his chosen profession. "You're not going to make a lot of money in a niche market like this. But I'm making a living doing what I love."
Bries founded his business in a 4,500-square-foot facility in Highland Park in 1989, moving to his current 17,000-square-foot headquarters in early 1995. Bries previously worked for Sears' automotive division, taking voluntary retirement in 1989 after 18 years with the company. But Northshore Sportscars didn't just spring arbitrarily from the decision to leave Sears. It was a long time in coming. "Norb was the president of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Motorsports Club, and had a 1962 Triumph TR4, and ran auto crosses and rallies together. "Norb used to go through cars so quickly that we said that when he got tired of a dashboard he'd trade [the car] in for a new, one," said Patti, consultant for a human resources consulting firm. "But when you can find a spouse who shares your passion: you're very lucky."
Owners of British cars are lucky, too, that Bries shares the passion. "As far as I'm concerned, you can't get a better restoration in the Chicago area," said customer Eric Robison of Wilmette. Robison had bought a 1950 MGTD in 1973 as a 10th anniversary present for his wife, Jane. By 1985 it had to be taken off the road for major repairs. College tuition bills slowed the process but in 1992 Robison took the battered TD to Bries. "The restoration took nine months," Robison said. "We didn't get the car back until 1993. But they refuse to rush it. If they don't have a part, they'll find it. If they can't find it, they'll make it from scratch. They're so thorough it's ridiculous." The Robisons took first place in a car show less than a week after the restoration was finished. They have won many more awards since, Robison said.
Bries thinks the future is bright for British sports cars. Demand for most old cars, he said, tends to drop off sharply when the generation that first admired them is no longer a major market force. Model A's don't command any where near as much as they did 20 years ago, for instance. But the Brits, Bries thinks, may be different. "The generations will turn over and change the demand some what," Bries said. "Twenty years from now, people will be restoring Miatas. But even members of the younger generation, people who never saw these cars when they were new, fall for them. When they see a Jaguar XKE, for instance, they are just as enamored as their parents were. That's an amazing thing about the attraction of British cars. They'll probably never lose their appeal."