Home » Here’s How Screwed My $900 Ute Still Was After I Spent Four Weeks In Australia Wrenching Alongside A Hot-Rod Legend

Here’s How Screwed My $900 Ute Still Was After I Spent Four Weeks In Australia Wrenching Alongside A Hot-Rod Legend

Projcactus Front Top

My Australian host Laurence was lying in a huge pile of dirt he had swept up with a broom 18 hours before — that’s when he’d started wrenching for the day. After the longest slog of hammering, cutting, painting, grinding, and every other verb one can possibly perform on the $900 ute I had flown 10,000 miles from Michigan to fix, the farm-insurance salesman and diehard car-nut was tired and just didn’t give a damn anymore — it’s just dirt, anyway. I felt the exact same way; after four weeks of arduous toiling, it was now 2 A.M. and inspection for the 1970 Chrysler Valiant was supposed to be in the afternoon. Due largely to two major setbacks, it just wasn’t going to happen; Project Cactus — a Hail Mary attempt to bring a completely stripped shell-of-a-ute back to life in only five weeks, and then road-trip it to the biggest, wildest ute show on earth — threatened to become my life’s ultimate waste of time and money.

[Note: If you like stories like this one, consider becoming an Autopian Member to support my wrenching addiction. -DT]. 

A Recap Of Weeks One And Two

Before we get to the grueling 18 hour wrenching bender, let’s catch back up a bit, since it’s been a while. In September of 2021 I spontaneously purchased a 1966 Plymouth Valiant as a way to get back to Detroit from New York after having helped fellow car-journalist Andrew Collins move. I didn’t feel like flying, so I spent $2,000 on the classic ’60s sedan that confidently cruised 600 miles to Michigan without issue. My articles about that Valiant caught the attention of Australian Chrysler Valiant owner Laurence, who had also followed along with my 1958 Willys FC build; before you knew it, the New South Wales resident and I were regularly chatting on Instagram about our mutual love of vehicles. One day in early 2022, he sent me a for-sale listing to a 1969 Chrysler Valiant that had clearly been used as a kangaroo hunting machine and that was in horrible condition; “Just buy it and I’ll come fix it” I half-joked. A few weeks later, Laurence messaged me to say he’d actually bought the thing, sealing my plans for later in the year: I guess I was headed to Australia.

Prior to my arrival, Laurence and I established a goal: We had to have the Valiant ute fixed, through New South Wales’ strict inspection, and road-tripped 400 miles to the town of Deniliquin by the start of the world’s biggest ute show: a wild, drunken Burning Man-equivalent known as the Deni Ute Muster. I flew to Australia in late August, but wrenching in earnest began the first week in September; the Deni Ute Muster was on the 29th. Here’s what we started with:

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What you’re looking at isn’t the 1969 kangaroo hunting ute I’d flown 10,000 miles to fix, it’s actually the 1970 parts car Laurence had smartly purchased in anticipation of struggles to track down components; Chrysler Valiants aren’t exactly common in Oz, these days. Upon seeing both utes for the first time, I decided with Laurence’s input that the white ute was, due to copious rust and huge sections of mangled unibody, too far gone to even try mending. I had no choice but to make the above parts ute the main ute, and the below “main ute” now the parts ute:

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You can imagine how I felt realizing that the more complete white ute was no longer the project I had four weeks to fix, and that the black hoodless, doorless, windshield-less, tailgate-less, engineless, faceless carcass was. The whole thing seemed impossible, but my flight back to Detroit wasn’t for another month, so what the hell, right?

If you read my first wrenching update Plasma Cutters, Welders, Huge Spiders: My Hail Mary Attempt To Fix An Impossibly Broken $900 Ute In Australia Begins, you’ll know that even the 1970 carcass was hardly rust-free. The bed (or “tray” as Aussies call it) was Swiss Cheese; the first 20 inches or so behind the cab had to be cut out entirely and replaced with bed floor that Laurence and I had hacked out of the now-parts ute:

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We yanked the rear axle out of the white kangaroo ute, since the one in the main ute had the wrong wheel bolt pattern and seemed to have more play in the differential gears. The fluid in the ‘roo ute’s diff was disgusting, and there was some fairly deep pitting in the ring gear, but I decided it’d probably be fine. “Slap some thick oil in it and run it,” I thought:

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Laurence’s neighbor in the town of less than 1,000, Hud, came over frequently, and helped remove the Kangaroo ute’s windshield and dashboard:

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Hud, who had stitched up the bed floor, went to town welding up the floorboards, the hacked-up center tunnel that had been previously modified to fit a floor-shift, and that hole in the rear quarter panel:

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Here you can see the passenger’s side floor patch and the tunnel patch:

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Here’s hud metal-gluing the rear quarter panel:

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That panel went from this:

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To this:

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To this:

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The inner part of that rear quarter panel was still rusted out from all the moisture that had been trapped in dirt and debris that had gotten in through a wide-open access panel; luckily, this part of the now-parts kangaroo ute looked good still, so we’d sliced it out to use it as a patch:

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Laurence’s friend Gordo, a tractor technician and electrical system whiz-kid, went through the ute’s wiring, which had been exposed to the elements for probably decades:

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A number of the wires’ insulation had disintegrated:

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And many connectors had turned to sand:

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Gordo did his best to mend the obvious faults, but with no dash or engine, getting the electrical system completely ready just wasn’t possible.

During week two of wrenching, I made a parts run and dropped over $600 at the local store, which I found to be quite similar to Advance Auto Parts (though I wish the U.S. sold “Start Ya Bastard” starting fluid).

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I also rebuilt the brakes using used brake shoes, since I’m a cheap bastard and since we had some decent spares sitting around:

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I struggled to remove a rear axle shaft from the axle housing; we wanted to replace the wheel bearings for good measure, but decades of corrosion made that difficult, even with a hammer:

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We brought the axle housing to Gordo’s workplace, he torched out the studs since I had forgotten the lugnuts; this allowed us to use bolts to hold a slide hammer attachment:

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The slide hammer got the axle shaft out in no time:

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After finding out that the Australia-engineered 215 cubic-inch “Hemi Six” Laurence had bought to replace the kangaroo ute’s completely-toast slant-six was bad, I needed to find a motor. So Laurence and I headed to his friend Lawrence’s rural homestead, where we picked up this Hemi Six:

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In a field full of Valiants that Lawrence and his son had collected to help folks keep their beloved Chryslers on the road, Laurence and I snagged exhaust pipes, a bull bar, seat belts, a throttle cable, and a bunch of other bits while trying to evade angry geese:

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Check out our haul:

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Unfortunately, that engine — the main reason we’d gone out to Lawrence’s — ended up having rusty cylinder walls and deep craters in pistons:

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So that’s where we stood after two weeks: The ute still looked like it did after week one — we had one door and a tailgate in place. But at least we were moving along on the rear axle, electrical system, and rust.

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Still, there was so much work ahead, and really only two weeks to find a good motor, install it with the random transmission Laurence had bought with his rusty 215 engine, install the entire suspension, hook up the wiring and fix faults, bolt up the dash and seal up a windshield, bend brake lines, fix the rest of the rust, and on and on. So we got to it.

Wrenching On The Suspension: Week Three

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The first thing we needed to do was get Project Cactus sitting on its own suspension. That meant yanking the solid rear axle (see above), as well as the leaf springs, which were a bit saggy. Of course, I broke all eight of the front leaf spring eye bracket bolts; here are the ones from the driver’s side:

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We’d then have to prep the new axle that we’d taken from the kangaroo ute, forming brake lines and replacing the wheel bearings. As for the front suspension, we’d have to remove everything, including the torsion bars, control arms, steering arms out, and even the entire front subframe. There was tons of work ahead.

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Getting the rear wheel bearings off those axle shafts was true hell. As you can see, the big circular flange on which the wheel bolts (the lug studs are missing from this one) is in the way, so using a press is tricky unless you have a special tool — we didn’t. As a result, we were forced to cut the bearing and its spacer off the shaft. Doing so using a round cutoff wheel without slicing the shaft was incredibly challenging:

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The spacer itself, labeled above, wasn’t too bad. We simply cut it such that only a thin bit remained on one end; then we used a chisel to break the metal. Here’s a video showing what I did — in fact, here I didn’t have to use a chisel at all; all I had to do was cut the spacer super close to the shaft, and the stress of the press-fit broke the material, releasing the spacer’s grip:

 

The bearing was much more challenging, since its inner race was hardened steel that wouldn’t take kindly to a cutting disc or chisel. The solution? We laid the shaft down and whaled on that bearing race with a sledgehammer, sending brittle shards of hardened steel all over the garage.

That all sounds simple enough in retrospect, but at the time we spent hours not knowing the solution. That’s the less-than-sexy part of wrenching: wasting time trying to solve problems using various, often improvised methods and tools. Driving to Laurence’s mom’s garage and then figuring out how to get the bearings off the shafts took us pretty much all day. Here’s good ol’ Laurence drinkin’ a beer at a burger joint in the nearby town of Dubbo; like me, he’s unashamed to go out in oil-covered garb:

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The following day, I broke out the cheap paint can and started spraying some black on the leaf springs from Cactus and axle from the kangaroo ute, as well as onto the new subframe that Laurence had picked up to facilitate a Hemi Six (Cactus’s subframe was designed for a different motor):

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We painted pretty much the whole suspension, including those leaf spring eye brackets whose bolts I had broken, as well as the rear shackles and front control arms:

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Did it make sense to paint all these parts given that they were going on a dilapidated old ute? Actually, yes; as with all vehicle inspections (like the one in Germany I took my diesel manual Chrysler Voyager through), there is some level of discretion that technicians can exercise. Beaming a flashlight onto what look like clean, new parts, is going to make that inspector think the owner actually gives a crap about their vehicle, and likely takes good care of it. It’s a psychological thing, and I knew that, even if I could get this ute to inspection, the vehicle would need all the help it could get.

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I had to power-wash all the grime off the axle itself before hitting it with paint. Once the axle, springs, and hardware was all shiny black, I pressed out the old leaf spring bushings:

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Then I shoved in the new bushings:

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And then Laurence and I pressed new bearings and spacers onto the axle shafts. Here you can see how our press is shoving down on a socket (that’s the black cylinder), which is pushing the wheel hub flange part of the shaft down through the new bearing:

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We followed the same process for the spacer, and boom — we had new rear wheel bearings ready to go:
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At that point, the rear suspension was all set, as the springs were painted and bushing’d, the now-black axle now housed shafts with new wheel bearings, there were new brake lines as well (we’ll show that later), new brakes, and even the hardware looked black and new. The axle was ready to be installed, but before we could do that, Hud the neighbor needed a bit more space to fix that inside rear quarter panel. To open things up a bit at the rear of the vehicle, Laurence used his impact gun (which he calls the “dak dak”) and removed the rear hitch and punctured fuel tank.

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Then Hud began welding after cutting bits of this rusty mess out (the dirt hides many rust holes; it was bad):

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The cuts left these rectangular holes to patch up:

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Hud cut up patch pieces using the donor rear inner-quarter sheetmetal from the parts ute:

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After a few tack welds, the inner panel looked like this:

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And with a few more welds, some paint, and a grommet, our rear quarter panel was complete:

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Hud the neighbor had done an exceptional job. “So Laurence’s neighbor in this small town can weld up cars this well. Are all Australians good fabricators?” I wondered. “Are Aussies really that cool that they all know how to stitch up body panels?” While part of me believed this to be true, another part of me found it a bit odd; I felt like I was missing something.

I found out the following day.

Hud Johnston Is An Australian Hot-Rod Legend

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The next day, Laurence and I drove his girlfriend Bek’s Suzuki Mighty Boy. It’s  a ~550cc Kei-class car that was sold in Japan in the mid 1980s. With only roughly 30 horsepower (Laurence reckons Bek’s machine, with its lack of engine compression, is close to the single digits), it’s hilariously lethargic, even with the stick shift, but it’s also possibly the most charming “pickup truck” ever built. Plus, it’s fuel efficient and really not that small on the inside.

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Anyway, Laurence and I arrived in the Mighty Boy at Bunnings, a well-known hardware store, to pick up some fasteners or something, and to get a legendary Australian lunch: a Bunnings “snag.” It’s just some white bread with onions, ketchup, and a sausage on it; it’s simple and delicious, and known all around the country, especially since the great onion scandal of 2018. Here, I’ll let The Guardian break it down for you:

Sausage before onion or onion before sausage? It’s one of the key decisions Australians will not be making this weekend after Bunnings told all groups staffing the stores’ barbecues to put the onions on first.

“Safety is always our No 1 priority and we recently introduced a suggestion that onion be placed underneath sausages to help prevent the onion from falling out and creating a slipping hazard,” said Bunnings’ chief operating officer, Debbie Poole.

Australians feel strongly about the sausage-onion order on the bread, so be careful when bringing that up in polite company. From Bunnings, Laurence and I dropped by Hud’s house just a few doors down from the garage we’d been wrenching in for weeks. That’s when all the impressive wrenching I’d seen from the quiet neighbor started to finally make sense.

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Right when I walked in I saw a 1958 Dodge Deluxe with side pipes and a primer paint job. This wasn’t just any Dodge pickup, it was thoroughly custom, with a fully-boxed frame, custom front suspension, a unique firewall that hides a lot of mechanical bits and just looks clean, a big 408 small-block Ford Windsor engine, and provisions for a motorcycle in the bed.

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That’s right; Hud is building an old truck into a V8, motorcycle-carrying hotrod, and what’s wild is that the motorcycle itself is also custom, featuring a four-cylinder Volkswagen air-cooled flat-four!:

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Behind the Dodge truck sat an interesting creation:

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If you think the front looks a bit old-school but the profile looks newer, that’s because what you’re looking at is a fascinating concatenation of a 1950 Ford Single Spinner (named after the single round chrome ornament in the center of the grille) and a 1960s Ford Falcon, with the former’s lower panels having been grafted onto the latter. Here, Hud describes the process a bit:

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Another vehicle in Hud’s garage, and one that he drives around town and to car shows, is this black 1934 Ford Coupe; it is Hud’s baby:

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Hud boxed the frame, installed a cross-flow Ford inline-six engine, went with a tilt-style front end, polished and/or painted damn near every single surface one can see from above or below – the thing is a true gem. Here, allow Hud to walk you through it a bit:

One thing I’d like to highlight is the sanding Hud did to make the engine pop; that’s not easy, since the motor is cast, and cast parts are usually rough and dull. To get engine blocks and intake manifolds to shine at all requires an unbelievable amount of polishing. That’s what Hud is describing here in this photo I took::

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Here’s the process Hud undertook to smoothen that motor, removing casting numbers or other protrusions:

Hud has spent a significant portion of his life welding, polishing, painting, and just wrenching this old Ford to make it look perfect. Here’s a look at some of the work he’s done:

Here he is messing with the tilt-hood:

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And here’s Hud on his anniversary polishing the rear axle and engine; his hands are bloodied from the grueling work:

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This old Ford hotrod is more than just a car to Hud; it was a vehicle on which he and his dad had worked for four decades, as The Canberra Times wrote earlier this year:

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The author, Peter Brewer, does a great job highlighting the emotional importance of Hud finally “completing” (that’s in quotes, because Hud is always changing things up) the ol’ Ford, and especially of bringing it to Australia’s premier custom car event, Summernats. From the article:

As a 10-year-old boy, [Hud] began work on the 1934 Ford coupe with his father Rod, a highly respected car builder from…just outside Dubbo.

[…]

His father first bought the coupe’s chassis back in 1982. Rod Johnston was a panelbeater by trade and taught his son all the necessary skills along the way, such as welding, fabrication, engine building and spray painting.

“We would do bits on this car now and then and then about 10 years ago we gradually devoted more and more time to it,” Mr Johnston said.

Unfortunately, Hud’s dad passed away while working on the hotrod about seven years ago, and Hud lost his interest to work on the machine. Then came a spark:

Then about 12 months ago, the chief judge at Summernats, Owen Webb, gave him a call.

“Owen said: ‘Come on, you have to get this done and get it to Summernats, it’s what your Dad would have wanted’,” he said.

“So I got stuck into it.”

Read the full story on The Canberra Times’ website; it’s touching, and it highlights just how much of a hotrod legend Rod will always be, and just how much of his talent remains with Hud. As a tribute to Rod, prominent Australian car magazine Street Machine re-ran its 2011 issue titled “Rod & Hud Johnston’s Custom FJ Holden. Check it out:

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This was one of the many cars whose photos I noticed on Hud’s garage walls.

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There it is on the right; in the middle is a Ford F100 Hud and his dad had customized; and on the left is Hud’s first car, an XL Ford Falcon. Hud actually managed to track down that Falcon many years after parting ways with it, after it had been crashed and totaled. One side of the Falcon still looks good, so Hud is planning to use it as an art piece; here it is in Hud’s yard:

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Also in the yard, in a covered section, is an old Mini with a V8 engine placed at the nose to act as inspiration:

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There were also pieces of an old Chrysler Valiant:

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“I’m making a roadster out of it. I’ve narrowed it 16 inches…I’m just cutting it around and tacking it together to get an idea of what I want to do, then I’ll put it on a chassis table and make it square and cut all the panels off,” Hud told me while showing the Valiant.

Hud has incredible vision, and that vision is aided by his brother-in-law Ross’s art skills, as Ross often sketches up concepts for Hud to use as a guide for his builds. The goal for that Mini build, for example, is this:

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Here’s roughly what Hud wants the Valiant to look like when he’s done:

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And here’s Hud’s vision for the Falcon/Single Spinner Ford — a vehicle that he and his dad had to sell in the 1990s when hotrod registration rules became too complicated. Somehow, after 30 years, Hud tracked the thing down, writing on Facebook:

We started this build in the 1990s . It a XP Ford coupe with 1950 ford single spinner lower panels .
During the build the engineering codes changed and made it into a individually constructive vehicle , at the time it was just too expensive for us to comply with the new codes and we sold the body on but kept the drive line for a up coming Build a 1940 ford pick up.

Fast forward 30 or so years , I was able to track it down .

I have a wild concept idea for this build .I just need the time and budget.
concept drawing by Ross Barwick:

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Ross even surprised me with this amazing and optimistic sketch of Project Cactus:

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From Hud’s yard, I walked back into the garage and gandered at the mountain of “best in show” trophies Hud and especially his dad had won over decades of custom car building:

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Somehow, this neighbor who had been coming over to Laurence’s garage almost everyday to help a zany American journalist fix a shitbox old ute, keeping largely to himself while cutting and welding, was a car-fabricating legend. My eyes were wide open as I looked around that garage, and as Hud showed me not only what he had done, but also explained his vision for future projects. I’ll be talking more about Hud in my final update on Project Cactus — set to debut on Christmas Day — but for now what you need to know is: He’s the most overqualified person who has ever worked on one of my shitboxes, and just knowing that gave me renewed hope.

Maybe I couldn’t get the Valiant ready by the Deni Ute Muster, and maybe both Laurence and I couldn’t get the Valiant ready by the Deni Ute Muster, but throwing Hud Freaking Johnston, the wrenching legend, into the mix? Well, at that point nothing was impossible.

Okay, Back To The Suspension Work

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Meanwhile, back at Cactus HQ, the master fabricator and his brother-in-law, one of the most talented car-sketchers I’ve ever known, were using their immense talents to weigh down the front of my ute so it wouldn’t tip backwards and fall off the hoist. Laurence and I had tied that bull bar that we’d bought from Lawrence’s angry goose-infested field to the front of the ute to act as a ballast, but after installing the now-painted rear axle into Cactus, things became too tippy.

That rear axle installation began with Laurence and me bolting up the rear leaf springs:

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With those in, we lifted the giant axle and placed it atop the springs such that the little pin you see in the image above not far from Laurence’s left shoulder slotted into a hole in the axle’s spring perch; this “centering pin” is what makes sure the axle doesn’t slide relative to the spring when you’re hitting bumps, taking turns, braking, etc. U-bolts are what clamp the axle against those springs, ensuring the pin remains in place.

You can see one U-bolt just outboard of the shock I’m installing with the ol’ wrist-hammer in the photo below. Also notice the shiny new brake lines:

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From there, we installed the axle shafts whose wheel studs we’d torched, whose old bearings we’d sliced, and whose new bearings we’d pressed into place:

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Throwing on the nice, painted rear drums completed our rear suspension; behold:

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The front suspension wasn’t in horrible shape, but we had to replace all the wear parts — wheel bearings, ball joints, shocks, steering tie rod ends, and bushings. On a car this old that has been completely neglected, there was nothing left that could be saved.

We started by hitting the front subframe with the “dak-dak,” allowing the k-member to violently fall to the floor:

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Then we threw on the new upper control arms, which feature new bushings:

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To install a new upper ball joint into that arm actually required cutting new threads, which I found odd. Normally ball joints either bolt in, rivet in, or are pressed in; for one to thread in by slicing new threads into a control arm seemed a bit bizarre, but that’s how Chrysler designed it:

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Here I am slicing new threads, installing that ball joint with a breaker bar:

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The rest of the suspension links bolt up to the subframe, so Laurence and I lifted the nicely-painted Hemi-Six-carrying K-member into place, and bolted it to the ute’s main unibody rails:

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Laurence worked some magic to get old bushings pressed out of and then new ones pressed into the lower control arms:

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Here’s Laurence beating the absolute shit out of a sleeve stuck onto a part of the control arm. Hammering the sleeve until it was nice and thin made it let go over the rod:

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Here we are using one of the hunting bars from the kangaroo ute to press in new bushings:

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Once the arms were ready, Laurence and his girlfriend Bek partook in the most romantic thing two individuals can do with one another: They installed a Chrysler A-body torsion bar:

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A torsion bar is a fascinating contraption in that it’s just so simple. Instead of a leaf spring or coil spring, it’s literally a big metal bar that’s affixed on one end to the body and on the other to the control arm. As the vehicle hits bumps, the lower control arm will want to twist the bar, and the elastic properties of the bar will act as a spring (this behavior is governed by Hooke’s Law). There is a hex-shape on each end of the bar that slots into a hex on the control arm and on the unibody.

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To get the front steering knuckles in (see image above), I pressed up against that lower control arm and thus against the forces of those torsion bars; this tended to want to tip the ute backwards, and that brings us to that photo of Hud and Ross towards the top of this section.

With the front suspension hooked up, Laurence and I attached all the new steering bits, including the pitman arm and tie rods:

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And thus Project Cactus’s suspension was complete:

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This still left a few issues, namely the engine.

What About The Engine? That Seems Important: Week 4

Project Cactus unfortunately still lacked a heart. The original slant-six from the kangaroo ute appeared to have been underwater at some point by the state of its dipstick , the replacement motor that Laurence had bought was rusted to hell, and the second replacement that we’d nabbed from Lawrence’s chicken shed was also “munted.” We needed a fourth motor, and the good news is: Laurence had one in his garage the whole time.

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He’d planned to slap the Hemi Six into his own Chrysler Valiant, named Lenny, which was burning a bit of oil. But, given the circumstances, Laurence decided it was fine to chuck the thing into Cactus. “But is the engine any good?” I couldn’t help but wonder. As with the two previous engines, Laurence claimed the motor had come out of a running vehicle, but after having been disappointed twice before, I was skeptical. So Laurence, Bek, Callum (an incredibly talented local fabricator), and I set about testing the engine by hooking it up to a starter motor, hot-wiring it with jumper cables and a screwdriver, and measuring compression and oil pressure.

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What we found was good oil pressure and above-100 PSI compression in all cylinders except cylinder one, which made about 70 PSI. This wasn’t ideal, but this wasn’t a time to be picky. I didn’t give a damn if cylinder one ran only every now and then; five out of six ain’t bad!

The next step was to get the engine and its good friend, the lovely but mysterious three-speed manual transmission that Laurence had picked up along with a rusted engine, ready for installation.

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I was pleased to see that the transmission looked great; all the gears were in good shape, and the synchro teeth were nice and house-shaped, just as I like them. I replaced all the gaskets and seals, and then set about sealing up the engine, as well. But first, we needed a part made, and luckily, somehow one of Laurence’s other neighbors had a literal machine shop in his garage. Again, this is a town of under 1,000 people, and yet it’s filled with some of the most talented builders I’ve ever met.

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That’s “Sperrow” using his lathe to machine down a “cam button.” Watch as the lathe chews away the aluminum to create just the right diameter:

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The shop literally was in a garage; Hud and his wife Joanne biked there, while Laurence and I walked:

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Here’s the part that Sperrow made — it’s the aluminum “button” at the center of the three timing gear bolts. It’s meant to prevent the camshaft from “walking” axially, lightly touching against the timing chain cover: Screen Shot 2022 12 12 At 11.10.33 Am

With the new part fabbed and installed, I sealed up the engine with a new oil pan gasket, valve cover gasket, timing cover gasket, thermostat gasket (with a new thermostat), water pump gasket (with a new water pump), exhaust and intake manifold gasket, and on and on.

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Here, you can see the new brass expansion plugs I installed into the block:

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The engine was ready to go, but before we installed it, we wanted to give the vehicle a nice coat of bedliner — you know, to cover up the little holes we couldn’t easily weld up, and more importantly so we could cover rust holes that we had patched (overlapped) from above. Even a rust hole with good metal on the back side doesn’t look great; before we sprayed the bedliner, we lathered on some bondo, or “bog” as Australians call it:
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You’ll notice in the first photo two horizontally-mounted square tubes bracing the top of that crossmember in the transmission tunnel; those are there because a previous owner had hacked up that crossmember, presumably to fit a five-speed. Hud welded those square tubes in place to stiffen this area, I bondoed the crap out of it, and then Laurence, who was actually a professional painter in a previous life, broke out his gun and respirator and put a nice, thick coat of black sealant all over Cactus’s underbody:

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There wasn’t a single pinhole to be found, and everything looked and felt rock-solid. Laurence even sprayed the floors in the cabin:

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With the bedliner dry, it was time to install the motor; well, almost — first we had to replace the pilot bushing, which required use of white bread. Yes, literally white bread:

 

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Then I installed the flywheel, clutch disc, and clutch pressure plate:

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At that point, it was time to drop the Hemi Six onto the subframe’s engine mounts:

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Boom — the engine was in!

Hooking up the transmission was truly painful, because Laurence and I hadn’t checked to see if the transmission input shaft would fit into that new pilot bushing we’d installed — sometimes it requires a bit of honing to fit. With a bell housing already bolted to the engine, we weren’t honing anything, so we did what any lazy (and time-strapped) bastard would do in that scenario: We forced it.

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The bolts that would normally hold the transmission against the engine were too small to span the big gap that now existed between the two mechanical friends, so Laurence and I — admittedly after considerable struggle lifting that heavy transmission — grabbed some longer bolts, slid them through the holes in the transmission and engine, and then threw a nut on the back sides. Cranking those nuts down on those long bolts pulled the transmission — now being propped up by the engine stand since our backs were hurting — closer to the engine, forcing the input shaft into the pilot bushing in the engine’s crankshaft.

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I bashed out the old universal joints in the rear axle, and slapped some new ones in:

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And thus, the entire drivetrain was complete:

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Over the following days, I installed the ignition coil onto the engine block, and slid in the distributor. To do the latter, I had to turn the engine over by hand, make sure cylinder one was at top dead center at the end of the compression stroke, and then install the distributor in such a way that the rotor was pointing to the cylinder one terminal. This was to ensure that ignition happened at the right time in the four-stroke cycle:

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I also bolted in the brake master cylinder I had imported from the U.S. for over $100 less than it would have cost in Australia:

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I flared a bunch of brake lines, too, and routed the them through this brake junction block that I sheet metal-screwed to the fender:

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That brake junction block, by the way, also came from the U.S. — namely, from this old Chrysler Newport in my local Sterling Heights, MI junkyard:

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Laurence had the misfortune of having to flare and bend the gigantic rear brake line:

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Once all the lines were hooked up, I bled the brakes and adjusted them. A short while later, Hud came over and banged out a big dent in the inner fender so our outer fender would fit properly:

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I filled some holes in the bed floor with silicone:

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And then I drilled into the front header panel to accommodate this gigantic radiator Laurence had bought off Facebook marketplace for $50 AUS. It’s meant for a different Chrysler application, and is way, way oversized, which I quite like:

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You’ll also see the alternator all hooked up, as well as the fan and V-belt. Things were looking up! We had brakes, a suspension, an engine, a transmission, a driveshaft, a rear axle, a cooling system, a charging system — most of the important bits were present, and — as you can see in the video below — Laurence and I were thrilled and optimistic:

But this was before the 18 Hour Day.

The 18 Hour Day

It was Thursday, September 22, the day before our inspection appointment. The previous few days had seen lots of progress, and Laurence and I awoke early and stomped out to the garage with alacrity, hands ready to grip wrenches, hammers, and screwdrivers. This was our final push; we just needed to get the engine fired up, cooling system completely tightened, electrical system sorted, shifter installed, interior filled with seats and door panels, and windshield glued in.

We started by installing the fuel tank, which had required Hud to break out his welder to lengthen a J-bolt:

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Laurence then bolted in the kangaroo ute’s dashboard:

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We’d set up an appointment with the windshield installation guy that all the car-nuts around town knew, and he took care of business. It’s amazing how much glass does to turn a carcass into an actual car. With the glass in and doors installed, Project Cactus’ interior was finally, after decades, sealed from the elements:

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I bolted up the intake and exhaust manifolds.

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Unfortunately, the intake was filled with rust, as shown above. But I power-washed it the best I could and fastened it to the 245 Hemi’s cylinder head; I didn’t have time to waste:

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Hud and Laurence’s brother Mitch stopped by and stitched up an entire exhaust system out of the scrap pipes Laurence and I had dug out of Lawrence’s field:

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Laurence installed the linkage that hooked the clutch pedal to the clutch fork in the transmission:

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He then removed the kangaroo ute’s face, and began installing it onto Cactus. The turqoise fender was a spare Laurence had sitting around:

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I filled up the transmission, differential, and engine with fluids:

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I then installed the shifter linkage between the column and transmission:

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Then came wiring, which Mitch and Gordo had helped with, though prior to dashboard installation. With the dash in place, things got complicated. I lay on my back for hours trying to hook up the dashboard and get lights working; my back ached, and I kept hearing cursing from Laurence.

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Day turned to night and threatened to turn to day again as I toiled under that dash and more and more curse words emanated from outside the cabin. Before I knew it, it was 1 A.M., and I was standing looking at Laurence lying, melancholy, in a pile of dirt he had swept up earlier in the day. After 18 straight hours of wrenching, it’s clear his mind was weary. Mine was, too.

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Inspection was in 12 hours, and we needed at least five of those to sleep. The remaining seven, Laurence and I realized, wouldn’t be enough to get the car on the road, especially since we hit two enormous roadblocks: First, Laurence realized that the fender that someone had put on the passenger’s side was the wrong one, and would not fit the kangaroo ute’s headlights and grille. We needed another fender.

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The second problem was more dire; while adjusting the transmission shifter linkage, Laurence had yanked the column shift lever so hard he had fractured a cast aluminum part of the steering column:

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Add to these problems the fact that our electrical system wasn’t even remotely close to working, we still didn’t know if the engine would run, we didn’t know what shape the carburetor was in, we didn’t know what condition the transmission was in aside from what I saw from a visual inspection, and who knows what other surprises we could get from the suspension, steering, and driveline!

With all these issues, we missed the Friday inspection by a mile, and the Deni Ute Muster was just five days away.

Relatedbar

Read the finale on Christmas day! Also: Please support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.

• I Drove To The Middle Of Nowhere In Australia To Buy My $900 Ute An Engine That Was Buried In A Muddy Chicken Shed For Over 15 Years. Here’s How That Went

• Plasma Cutters, Welders, Huge Spiders: My Hail Mary Attempt To Fix An Impossibly Broken $900 Ute In Australia Begins

• Here’s Why The Replacement Engine That Was Supposed To Save My $900 Australian Ute Is Nothing But A Paperweight

 

 

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54 Responses

  1. Re: Bunnings Snag

    Shows how ripped off the Eastern States gets with the Bunnings snag… only a piece of white bread? Here in Western Australia we get the snag in a proper hotdog bun.

    Bunnings tried to economize once in W.Aust by using white bread but the extremely loud protests and even more rapidly tanking sales quickly changed that policy back.

    (The money from the sales all go to whichever local community group such as the local little league sports, is doing the cooking that weekend anyway)

  2. Re: torsion bars —
    When, as a teen, I was first introduced to the concept by my GM Engineer cousin, I confessed bewilderment. He made it all very clear: “Consider what’s happening at most every point along the spiral of a coil spring that’s undergoing compression — the metal is being twisted about its axis. Straighten out a coil spring and you have the same action in a torsion bar.”

  3. I see, the old engine we’ve had all along trick for the win… seriously though it’s not everyday someone offers up their personal engine to a project like yours, Laurence seems like an all around good guy and this is one more piece of evidence to that. Also, how lucky to get to work with someone like Hud!
    Seeing this come together is very reminiscent of my favorite projects, not just because you’re working on an old Mopar, but because my best memories of my cars are when I was working on them with friends.

  4. Since you painted the underside, I was waiting to see if you’d foam roller the rest with Rustoleum (or the Aussie equivalent) just to make it look respectable.

  5. I have been an avid fan of David’s writing for a long time, and I feel that this was one of the best of a long line a of articles he has to his name. I felt the emotions as I was reading it and the additions of the local history, people and their skills really made this piece turn out. I sincerely can not wait to read the conclusion of this epic journey.

    It is stories like this that make me insanely jealous that I live overseas and don’t have access to that kind of DIY car culture and back yard builders. The closest I have is my friend’s drift teams garage, which is way out of my league.

    So for those of us who are living our dreams through you, David, keep it up!

    (and it may take me a while to forgive you for leaving my home state of Michigan, but I can understand your reasons)

  6. “bondo, or “bog” as Australians call it”
    I always think ‘bondo’ sounds like Australian slang already. (Round these parts we call it ‘filler’).

  7. I’m awaiting the conclusion. Hoping it has more critters that fit the description of “Strong ‘n Bitey”.

    Aside from the Mustang, out of all of David’s fleet, this would probably be the most efficient platform he has for an EV conversion, and it would still guzzle down energy!

  8. He built it one piece at a time! and damn it cost a lot of dimes! You’ll know its he when he rolls through your town!
    Gonna ride to the muster in style! Drive all the bogans wild!

  9. I am utterly impressed!
    I must admit that i had little to no faith in this but you guys have made me a believer.
    You started with a 0/10 and out of that you almost have an actual car!
    Imagine if you started with a 3/10? You should team up with these fellas again on a project with a bit more life in it. You could end up building something that’s not only special, but really nice too.

  10. This was just amazing, especially the video which added so much to help an inexperienced mechanic visualize what was written about in your excellent write up. Fantastic editing on the video.
    Maybe you and Laurence could team up again on a future project – what a great group you had to work with out there in Australia.

    It took me quite a while to get through both the article and video but it was well worth it, can’t wait to see the conclusion. Thanks.

  11. Come for the latest update on project Cactus. Stay for the amazing sidebar on Hud Johnston and also the amazing artwork Hud’s brother-in-law Russ gifted David. Seriously, that sketch is going to make a great memory someday. You’ll be able to look at it and have the entire month spent in Australia come rushing back to you.

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