Master woodworker Robert Niclas of Sequim, Washington, likes his 1973 MG GT hardtop sports coupe so much that he bought the 1976 version for his daughter. He declares without envy the simple facts of the case today: “Hers is an Arizona car. No rust. Mine I drive all over the place here in the Northwest and it’s rusting out, unfortunately.”
We had the good fortune to visit Robbi, as he is called, and his lovely wife Kathy at their rustic, bucolic home and workshop on the outskirts of Sequim during our recent visit to the Evergreen State. What caught my eye between house and barn was that light blue MG hardtop. “It was all I could afford at the time,” says Robbi of the daily driver that he purchased about seven years ago, “and I had to get the hardtop because here in the Northwest it rains so much.”
Some years back Robbi and my brother-in-law, Dr. Kip Tulin, met, each in his own handmade craft, on the water near Dungeness Spit along the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Seattle. Kip’s is a bright yellow, lightweight, well-sealed fabric rowboat that barely seems to touch the water. Robbi’s was one of his exquisite hand-built kayaks of multihued hardwoods that catch the light just right. A couple of meticulous and nautical fellows, they’ve been fast friends ever since.
While Kip enjoys his late model Subaru Outback, coming soon to a column near you, Robbi claims to have an open relationship with the MG, of which he owns more than one. “I like them,” he says, “but there are other cars I like more. I like small sports cars.”
He says he’s never driven a Mazda Miata but did enjoy a recent spin in one of the German makes. “I’ve been in a fairly new Porsche,” he says, “absolutely incredible. Just amazing. Way out of my price range, but beautiful cars.”
As for what drew him to the MG in the first place, Robbi says, “I love the way they handle. It corners so fast. It’s not a big muscle car, but it can’t be here. The speed limit is 15. Over in Seattle it’s 60. On our mountain roads, this car is spectacular.” He gets 30 to the gallon with the 1800cc four-cylinder engine, which he had rebuilt, and doesn’t share the view that MGs are synonymous with electrical issues.
“I hear people talk about how they have unreliable electronics,” he says, “but on mine I have not found that to be the case. I think people tend to take them out only occasionally and, no matter what car you do that to, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Unless one is talking about a fine-grit sander, electrics have little to do with that other of Robbi’s passions, which is his boat building. He has spent over three decades working on luxury yachts, making custom-designed interiors and furniture, and in so doing has developed a real knack for more personal watercraft. His current projects include a couple of kayaks and a 14-foot Cosine Wherry rowboat that he is building from a book popular among boatwrights, “Rip, Strip, & Row: A Builders Guide to the Cosine Wherry” by J.D. Brown.
And if that is not Renaissance enough for you, Robbi also specializes in crafting fine string instruments, including violins, cellos and electric versions of those. “I’m working on an electric cello right now, and time is a bit of a pinch. I’ve got it all glued up, but now we’ve got two sets of grandkids here so we’re just enjoying them right now.”
My vocabulary doesn’t seem to do proper service to the brilliant woodwork of Robbi Niclas. On his website, www.robertniclas.com, you’ll find way more pictures than words, anyway. You’ll also find he’s a Vietnam vet who met and married a brilliant New Zealander in Sweden and, with Kathy, raised their six kids on two continents.
Some people say the best thing about a vacation is the opportunity to see new places. I do not disagree, but I would add “and meet new people,” as our warm welcome at the Niclas compound on the Olympic Peninsula did prove.
Clifford Fewel’s AutoFewel column appears each week in the Tri-Valley Dispatch, as well as online at pinalcentral.com/opinion/columns.