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Waterford - Fanciers of "little British cars" had a field day Sunday at Harkness Memorial State Park.
Hundreds of people - car owners and spectators - gathered on the park's broad lawn for the Connecticut MG Club's 27th annual "British by the Sea" event, a celebration of British-made cars, trucks and motorcycles, among them MGs, Austin Healeys, Jaguars, Triumphs, Morgans, Lotuses and, in this year's featured class, 13 "fabulous" Rileys.
More than 380 vehicles were arrayed in neat rows. By late afternoon, it was anybody's guess how many spectators there were.
"We realized long ago that the interest in little British cars was greater than anyone knew," said Bob Howard, a club member from Guilford. "We outgrew Gillette Castle (the state park in East Haddam) long ago. We've been coming here for more than 20 years."
What's the cars' allure?
"There's a character to them," Howard said. "There's something quintessentially British about British cars."
Howard learned to drive in his father's MG-TD, which Howard still owns. In 1994, Howard bought his own 1972 MGB-GT, a "fixed head coupe," which means it's not a convertible. He let a reporter settle into the low-slung driver's seat.
"This is an average car," Howard said. "A four-speed with overdrive, an 1800cc, four-cylinder engine with overhead valves. None of that 'silly stuff' - no power steering, no electric windows."
British by the Sea constitutes the largest one-day display of British cars on the East Coast, said Steve Wincze, of Canton, who co-chairs the event along with his wife, Annie. Only about a dozen of the vehicles had arrived by trailer, he said. The rest had been driven.
Founded in 1987, the club numbers about 250. Members and nonmembers alike - anyone with a British-made car - was welcome to exhibit at the event.
"We like to call it a gathering rather than a show," Wincze said. "'Show' suggests something that's too structured. We want people to come and have fun, have a picnic, tour the Harkness mansion."
The MG Club's connection with Harkness is a symbiotic one.
Wincze said his wife, who became familiar with the park as a child, suggested it as the site for the club's annual gatherings. In exchange, the club would help the park restore the Harkness estate's historic gardens, which had been designed in the 1920s by famed landscape architect Beatrix Jones Farrand.
The club makes a sizable donation to the park each year, and club members take part in an annual spring "planting day" in the park's gardens, Wincze said.
The Rileys on display, notably a 1950 roadster that Donald Milligan, of Andover, Mass., bought in 1961, were among the most prized cars at the gathering.
"At least 80 percent of the people had not seen one before," Bob Mitchell, a Riley aficionado from Stratham, N.H., said. "It's an underappreciated marque (make)."
The president of The Riley Motor Club of North America, John Riley (no relation to the defunct carmaker's namesake) of Beverly Hills, Calif., said there might be 200 to 400 Rileys in the United States, though no one knows for sure.