“I flew 20 hours to Australia for this?!” I thought to myself as I looked out into a paddock housing two old Chrysler Valiant utes overgrown with brush thanks to extreme rainfall in the Dubbo, New South Wales part of the Australian bush. I expected the cars — the main $900 Kangaroo-hunting ute and the parts ute — to be in bad shape based on the photos my host and Autopian reader, Laurence, had sent me. But seeing them in the flesh was downright shocking. At that moment, a realization set in: Building a fully functional ute from these carcasses in just four weeks — a ute that would pass Australian inspection and then road trip to the world’s biggest ute show — was going to ruin me.
The notion has so far rung true. It’s 4:30 in the morning right now, and I’m basically a grease-and-RTV-covered zombie trying to write some kind of coherent article because I owe you all an update, and also our video team made gold out of my crappy cellphone clips and I need to show you all (see above). But damn am I tired, so hopefully this article doesn’t suck too badly. My typical schedule goes like this: Wake up at 9 A.M. Wrench until 10 PM. Try to help run this website until 3 A.M. Do it all over — everyday. And while six hours of sleep may sound fine, it’s the 13 hours of wrenching followed by five hours of work that has aged me approximately 20 years in just three weeks. At least now all those people who joke on Reddit and in the YouTube comments that I look both 15 and 45 can buzz off.
If you’ve been following Project Cactus (named for the Australian slang term that means “broken”), or if you’ve watched the clip above, you’ll know that I’ve flown from Detroit to Sydney, and taken a seven-hour train ride inland to the small city of Dubbo. There, I met with Laurence, a reader whom I’d befriended on Instagram, and who had purchased a $900 Chrysler Valiant kangaroo-hunting ute on my behalf. An agricultural insurance salesman who frequently stumbles across all sorts of cool old machines, he also managed to snag a parts car for me for a song. The two vehicles have sat in his mom’s paddock for many months now, awaiting a zany American car-website editor to arrive to attempt to fix them up and drive something to the Deni Ute Muster — the wild, ute-themed Burning Man of Australia.
Well, I’ve arrived with all of my tools intact. Even my can of PB Blaster made it through customs, as did my gas-charged Monroe shocks and my ridiculously heavy brake master cylinder (these parts were way cheaper to buy in the U.S.). Tired as hell from all the traveling, and my right arm aching from carrying that heavy tool bag, I stood in the paddock and looked at the most daunting sight I’d ever seen:
Laurence told me he thinks the main car is cactus — so much so that it’s not worth saving. His recommendation? To use the parts ute as the primary project vehicle. Hearing this was disheartening, because as bad as the ‘roo-shooting ute is, it at least looks like a car. It has an interior, it has a face, it has a tailgate. The idea of using the car on the left as my main car just seems absurd given my tight timeline:
I wasn’t able to see the underside of the parts car, since it wasn’t on jack stands like the ‘roo-shooting ute was (though even that car was hard to assess in the high brush). I’ll be getting the two machines up on a lift later, at which point I’ll have to decide which vehicle to try to fix. I’d love your input on that. Until then, here’s a look at all the issues I saw that first night seeing these two vehicles in the flesh. Let’s start with the ‘roo ute.
The white (and brown, let’s be honest) ute appears to be mostly complete, but it’s very clearly been a “paddock basher” for much of its life. The panels are dented, there’s plenty of rust, and the engine – well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Body Is There, But It’s Bad
“MG Landscapes” reads the lettering on the side of the white ute, but it’s clear that its days holding down a steady job are far, far behind it. Its last occupation was to be absolutely beaten on somewhere in the Australian bush — jumped, bumped, and probably revved to the sky. We’ll talk about the first and last on that list in a second; for now, let’s focus on “bumped.”
The photo above doesn’t quite communicate just how bad the dents are in the driver’s-side B-pillar, tailgate, and door, but trust me: They’re hard knocks. The B-pillar dent in particular is one that I worry probably tweaked the entire body. Would an inspector ever allow this vehicle to be registered? I had concerns, and so did Laurence.
The left side of the ute was similarly dented.
And for some reason, the door wouldn’t open.
The hood had broken off its hinge, and was strapped to a clearly-replaced-but-still-awful brown fender, which had a rust hole at its base and dents everywhere. The front bumper had been bashed in rather violently (as will be made clear in the next update article), the grille was mangled, and this wasn’t even the worst of it.
The taillight lenses (and frankly, ever single plastic lens on the vehicle) are cracked, and the bed (or “tray,” as they call it here) is filled with shotgun shells from the vehicle’s ute-hunting days. Towards the cab, things become rather perforated:
Worse, the rust in the tray has breached the cabin, with the rear bulkhead basically rotted-out at its base, and in need of a rather complicated weld-job:
Further welds would be needed to the floors; they were a bit hard to see from above, but if you look at the ute’s (horrid) interior, you can spot some holes where one’s feet should sit:
The Engine Is Gone
The Slant-Six engine is one of America’s greatest of all time. It’s a bulletproof mill that I’ve written about ad nauseam, since I daily-drove a 1965 Plymouth Valiant all through the last Michigan winter. Still, even if it can stop a bullet, the mighty Leaning Tower of Power can’t handle being bounced off the rev limiter while doing “skids” in a paddock in the Australian bush. That’s what I assume happened to this motor, though it seems based on the above photo of the dipstick that, even if the motor hadn’t been abused, the moisture that made it into the engine would still have killed it. Seriously, how can a dipstick — a piece of steel meant to be bathed in oil — disintegrate to this degree?:
While we’re in the engine bay, allow me to point out a radiator that has been completely ruined by who knows what; look at the missing tubes and fins:
Also, this brake master cylinder has turned into dust!:
The Car Has Clearly Been Jumped
Since I’d just landed in Australia a few days prior, and since Americans seem to think the continent is just a wild, pest-filled land where everything wants to kill you, I was a bit hesitant to crawl under the vehicle in the high grass, but I didn’t want to seem weak to Laurence, so I slid girded my loins and took a look at the floors. As you can see in the image above, there are giant rust holes in the floorboards. Here are a few more towards the back of the car:
Some of the floor looks okay, and certainly the vehicle looks better than my old Valiant underneath. But just look at how concave the floor panels are; this thing has been jumped — I have no doubt about it:
All of this rust, and many of the structural compromises, would have to be fixed to get through Australia’s inspection. This concerned me.
The Parts Ute
I’m not going to go into too much detail on the shape of the parts car, because it’s just a shell. It stopped being a car when it lost its engine, panels, transmission, drivetrain, windshield, doors, tailgate, front bumper, grille, radiator — everything. It’s scrap metal.
But let’s just see what we have to work with, here:
Okay, so there’s at least one fender and one door:
And hey, there’s the second door in the bed:
The interior is, well — there isn’t one. The floorboards have some holes, and the tunnel has been banged, welded, and cut to fit some kind of aftermarket transmission:
The windshield is gone, but at least the flange isn’t rusted out. So there’s that?:
Here’s another look at some of the floor rust — there are no holes on the driver’s side, though the rust is scaley:
The worst rust is in the bed, though. You can see where someone mounted an aftermarket fuel tank; just between it and the can of beer, you can see a giant hole:
Anyway, that was my first night in Dubbo. I learned that my project car is rusted out and dented, its engine is completely trashed (and so is its transmission; Laurence told me water poured out when he removed the driveshaft), and the interior looks worse than 90 percent of interiors I’ve seen at junkyards. And the parts car is just a shell. How the heck I was going to get something rust-free and structurally sound enough to pass inspection, and also running and driving well enough to road-trip to the Deni Ute Muster, I had no clue. But I stopped thinking about it, and headed to the pub to have a classic Australian pub feed: a chicken Schnitty: