As I lay in a muddy field in the Australian bush reaching my hand under a car that had buried itself into the soil after a decade of sitting, I prayed that some aggressive critter in the dark abyss wouldn’t be startled by my shears. After I cut an exhaust hanger, I grabbed the rusty pipe I’d been after and quickly, nervously wiggled it free from as aggressive geese hissed around me and mind flipped back and forth between harmful wildlife that could be only inches away, and a truly daunting timeline: four weeks to get the hopeless $900 Chrysler Valiant ute that had brought me 10,000 miles from Michigan ready for Australia’s rigorous inspection and then for a 400 mile road trip to the wildest car show in Australia. Here’s a look at the latest Project Cactus update, which involves lots of wrenching and also the purchase of an engine out of a chicken shed.
We’re starting week two of Project Cactus, the vehicle that I bought as a parts car for this — a former Kangaroo hunting ute:
I’d purchased the ‘roo shooting ute above on a whim after Laurence — a Dubbo, New South Wales-based reader whom I’d met over Instagram — saw that I’d been daily-driving a crusty 1965 Plymouth Valiant in Michigan. A huge Valiant fan and a frequent reader of my stories about arduously swinging wrenches to bring old junkers back to life, Laurence showed me some listings in his area of Chrysler Valiant Utes (not Plymouths, and not sedans like the Valiants in the U.S.), and I — thoroughly fascinated by a vehicle I didn’t knew existed and powered by an Australian engine I didn’t knew existed — somewhat jokingly suggested he buy the vehicle on my behalf. Laurence wasn’t kidding, so he actually bought the ute. “Well, I guess I’m flying to Australia” I thought when he told me that.
Anyway, the thoughtful bloke bought a parts car to help us accomplish our goal of attending the unhinged Burning Man of ute shows, the Deni Ute Muster, in just four weeks (I’d arrived in late August, but wrenching didn’t begin in earnest until a week later; the Ute Muster started on September 29th). A quick look at the two machines upon my arrival revealed that the four-wheeled organ donor was the only viable body worth trying to fix, and so the parts car became the main car — a great omen.
A Recap Of Week One
Read my week one update titled “Plasma Cutters, Welders, Huge Spiders: My Hail Mary Attempt To Fix An Impossibly Broken $900 Ute In Australia Begins,” and — in addition to an epic car show filled with Australian vehicles you’ve never heard of — you’ll see that some of Laurence’s friends and neighbors had kindly shown up to help a zany American journalist try to get his crusty ute on the road. The closest neighbor, Hud, tack welded a big piece of the kangaroo ute’s bed floor over the holes in Cactus’s bed floor after Laurence and I hacked the panel out of the Kangaroo ute:
Hud and I also cut and bent some sheet metal patches to cover holes in the front floorboards and a big hole that a previous owner had sliced for a floor-mounted shifter (my ute was to be a three-speed stick on the column):
On top of that, I installed the Kangaroo ute’s driver’s door and tailgate onto the no-longer-parts-ute, making it look slightly more like an actual, viable car:
Laurence and I wheeled the Kangaroo ute’s rear axle out, since it’d have to replace Cactus’s rear end due to it having the wrong bolt pattern. We later found the differential to be filled with milky oil, and the ring gear to feature deep pitting (not shown). We didn’t care; we were going to run it anyway:
Hud, Laurence, and I also extracted the Kangaroo ute’s dashboard, bench seat, and windshield. We needed these because our starting point was such an empty shell:
Week one felt like it had included lots of wrenching, but all we ended up with, really, was a still-not-complete body (no nose, no hood, no right fender) whose rust holes had either had their patches lightly tack-welded, or just measured up but not yet bent into shape or welded. Plus we had a dash and windshield sitting on the floor.
Anyway, that brings us to week two of my five-week journey to Oz.
Week two had me nervous. Cactus itself, being just a shell, had no engine, but the Kangaroo-hunting ute that I’d flown all the way to Oz to fix did still have a 225 cubic-inch slant six, only it appeared to have been submerged in water at some point. Even the dipstick had been eaten away by rust. No worries, though, as Laurence had purchased a 215 — the smallest version of the legendary Chrysler of Australia-designed Hemi Six — for a song from a friend. He’d been told that the motor had come out of a running vehicle, but when he and I tried spinning it over, nothing happened. Popping the cylinder head off revealed lots of muddy sludge and scary looking rust on the cylinder walls. The 215 was “munted,” per Laurence.
So my new friend and I had to find a third engine — that was in addition to, you know, fixing the entire rest of the car. Gulp.
Continuing To Fix The Rust
Vehicle inspectors in New South Wales do not tolerate rust — like, anywhere. I find that a bit silly, as not all rust is a big deal, but alas, rules are rules, and in some ways, they make this build even more challenging and exciting.
If you look at the initial images I took of Cactus (see above), you’ll see that the floors appear to actually be…present. Unfortunately, all it took was a bit of Laurence’s neighbor Hud (who lives right up the street) prodding with a screwdriver to turn those floorboards from mechanical to Bluetooth. By the time Hud was done poking, there were some big voids to fill.
In the image above you can see me laying some dimes on a floorboard patch panel. This photo is entirely a misrepresentation of the welding that went into Project Cactus, as I’m only an okay welder on thicker metal (1/8″ or 3/16″-ish stuff like frames) and a downright bad welder on sheet metal. Still, I got to throw a bit of splatter around for good measure, though really it was Hud wielding the trigger most of the time.
Here’s a look at the partially-welded patch panel Hud had bent and trimmed to fit on the passenger’s side floor. You can see that the welds aren’t great due to adverse conditions (i.e. the floor we were welding to was a bit thin), though the really bad welds are, of course, all mine:
Here you can see Housing and Urban Development stitching up a patch panel he’d made for the floor-shifter hole the previous owner had hacked in:
Then there was that big rust hole in the quarter panel. I had trimmed the rust out during my first day of wrenching, though I hadn’t been particularly strategic about the shape I’d cut. Instead of cutting it into a simple shape that Hud could match with a panel, the generous neighbor-volunteer decided to just cut a basic panel and overlap the hole (he noted that this design isn’t ideal, it’s just fast, and that should be our focus).
Here he is welding that panel in.
I, feeling a bit useless given the humongous gap between my skill and Hud’s, knew my place — I flexed my greatest welding skill: Grinding.
By the time I was done, that quarter panel looked pretty damn smooth, if I do say so myself. You could barely notice that the patch is overlapping the old quarter panel:
There was still plenty more bodywork to do. The transmission tunnel patch was done, but the passenger’s side floorboard still needed a bit more welding, as Hud had run out of gas. The driver’s side floorboard looked okay, but Hud had seen how big the other side’s hole had grown with a few pokes of the flathead, so who knew how big of a patch might be necessary.
The rear quarter panel had been welded and ground nicely, so the outside looked good, but the inside of the panel was still rusted out. It didn’t take much prodding to turn what you see below into a huge hole:
Hud sliced the inner panel out of the kangaroo hunting ute, since its inspection cover hadn’t been left open to allow dirt and grime to collect at the bottom of the quarter panel and rust it out:
The bed, too, still needed to have that big patch we’d hacked out of the kangaroo ute properly welded in place, as it was only tack-welded in. And there were some holes here and there in parts of the ute’s floor, so there was definitely still some bodywork ahead. But that couldn’t stop us from continuing on; while Hud welded, Laurence and I got the steering and suspension ready, and one of Laurence’s friends came over to help us with another daunting problem that I had avoided even thinking about.
Laurence’s Tractor-Electrician Friend Gordo Is Here To Help
Three weeks to finish this project might seem like a decent amount of time to some of you, but when I’ve got no viable engine, my ute’s body still needs plenty of work, I know nothing about the transmission other than that the guts seem to look fine, the rear axle’s ring gear has deep pitting, and on and on, the one thing that really sends shivers down my spine is wiring. I have all those problems, and also the one system that relies on the motion of things I can’t see (electrons) — the one system that can eat up days due to endless issues with shorts and failed switches — still hasn’t been touched. That was daunting.
“No worries,” Laurence assured me as he did basically hourly. “Gordo’s coming.”
As Laurence attended a wedding, I hung out with Gordo, a kind, car-loving tractor technician who regularly does all sorts of wiring repairs on farm equipment. He seemed entirely unconcerned about this shell of a Chrysler Valiant whose entire wiring system had been exposed to the elements for decades, and many of whose wires were missing insulation and whose connectors had disintegrated to dust (see below). “It’s what I do, normally on tractors,” he told me. “I do a bit of everything…But yeah, definitely specialize on the wiring side of things.”
I asked him how bad the starting point was. “How bad? If we had a big hole, we’d start with that, and push it in,” he joked as he confidently flipped through the many wires in the harness to see which were okay and which weren’t. The pink ones, for whatever reason, were especially knackered:
Of course, Gordo wasn’t just looking at the wires; he checked them all for continuity using his multimeter. I was surprised to learn that many of them actually still worked as electron conduits, even though they’re old and have been exposed to the elements.
I’d bought Gordo some five-core trailer wiring, which is a great way to get a bunch of different-color wires for cheap, and he set about replacing the bad stretches, hugging them all together with heat shrink, and also crimping on new connectors:
Plus, the wiring guru labeled everything with purple painters tape; you can see that in the background of this photo of the wiring diagram (:cringe:) that Gordo referenced (he also looked at Laurence’s ute, which sat on the other side of the garage):
Before he left, Gordo showed me the tools he likes to use (I’ll see about writing an article on the tools a seasoned tractor electrician recommends), and introduced me to his 1997 Ford Falcon ex-police cruiser:
It’s a V8, five-speed family sports car that Gordo even let me drive. It’s legitimately cool and sounds great. As I mentioned in my show about the car show I attended in Dubbo, Australians have a healthy appreciation for four-doors in a way the. U.S. doesn’t.
Gordo left having tested most of the wiring, having replaced some of the bad bits, and having reassured me with the same lyrics Laurence sings to me during bedtime: “No worries. She’ll be right.”
I remain baffled by the optimism.
An Expensive Parts Haul
Car parts stores in Australia are remarkably similar to those in the U.S., and my surprise with this fact is similar to what I experienced a lot during my time in Australia. “Australia is so far away — on the other side of the earth; how can it possibly be that similar?” I thought. Butu I guess the earth is flat these days, and social media has really blended a lot of our cultures together (American media/culture is, in some ways, an invasive species, though to be clear, Australian culture is strong and unique on its own, even if many folks from Down Under understand American references); companies these days are spread internationally more than ever before; and honestly, some things are similar because there’s one logical way to do things regardless of longitude or latitude.
Regional Auto and Supercheap Auto were my go-to stores. Regional felt like a NAPA, Supercheap felt like a 4/3s scale Advance Auto Parts. Here are a few peeks inside Regional. There’s a counter manned mostly by old-timers, as one might expect:
There are a bunch of batteries, oils, additives, and cleaning fluids on the sheles:
Though unlike American car parts stores, there is the greatest starting fluid brand of all time, Start Ya Bastard:
As you might expect, there’s a giant wiper blade aisle:
As you might not expect, there are loads of lights and reflectors hanging on a shelf. I reckon these are here for a few reasons; one: the risk of hitting a kangaroo means additional lighting is more important than ever, and two: Dubbo is a largely mining and agricultural community, so many folks drives trucks (utes) with custom trays (beds), and these sorts of vehicles require all sorts of lighting/reflecting:
There’s an assortment of tools, as you might expect to see at Advance Auto Parts, though I’m unsure if Australian parts stores offer rental tools like American stores do:
Again, likely due to the high population of tradespeople (“Tradies”) there are loads of tool chests for sale, and they come filled with sockets and wrenches and pliers and screwdrivers — the lot:
Anyway, I was there to pick up a giant order of tools — a $900 AUS parts-haul. That’s over $600 USD on parts alone!:
You can see some of the parts sitting next to this — a Hawkeye Subaru WRX. It’s the very first WRX I’ve ever driven, and possibly the best overall sports car I’ve ever experienced (per dollar). It’s lightning quick, the shifter is amazing, the car’s handling is unreal, it’s practical, it’s affordable (ish), it looks good, and to be honest: I just fell in love. I didn’t fly to Australia to drive an old Subaru, but when I did, I couldn’t ignore how excellent it was.
Anyway, here’s a look at some of the parts, starting with a new GMP water pump. I think this was about $40:
Here’s a clutch kit:
And then here’s a box of tie rod ends, ball joints, leaf spring bushings, an accessory belt, a radiator hose, a pair of driveshaft joints, and a bunch more:
With that expensive pill swallowed, I revved that turbocharged Boxer engine back to Laurence’s garage, where he and I would later meet to drive to his friend Lawrence’s incredible car-filled homestead to hunt for motor number three.
Rebuilding The Front Brakes, Dealing With A Stubborn Rear Axle Shaft
The brakes were fun to rebuild because we were replacing the entire front suspension, so we had some extra brake backing plates to assemble all the pieces on. Laurence and I had gathered some of the parts we needed — new wheel cylinders and new springs — though the wheel cylinders I’d brought from the U.S. ended up being wrong. Luckily, the old ones on the suspension Laurence had bought along with that locked-up 215 engine and the seemingly-good transmission appeared okay. We didn’t have new brake shoes, so we simply searched around Laurence’s shed until we found four brake shoes that looked decent, I sanded them down, and then I just assembled drum brakes like I have 2.99*10^8 times before.
Using old shoes wasn’t ideal, but we had to be resourceful for this build, because certain things that absolutely had to be brand new were already jacking up costs, in part because parts for an old Chrysler Valiant ute just aren’t as plentiful as they might be for, say, an old Ford Falcon.
Toward the top of this article you see the diarrhea-filled rear axle from the kangaroo ute; despite its crater-filled ring gear, I decided I’d use it on Cactus since the bolt pattern for the wheels was right and since the pinion bearing play was so much better than that of Cactus’s axle. I removed the drums, unbolted the axle bearing retainers, and slid out the axles with ease.
Not really. Those axles were a humongous pain in the arse to remove. Those outer bearing races had sat against the inside of those axle tubes for 50 years, and they weren’t going to divorce their metallic friends without a fight. One axle shaft (see image two above) threw the white flag after I whacked its flange with a hammer a few times, but the other shaft (image directly above) wasn’t moving. We needed a slide hammer, and since Gordo was with us and soon heading towards his slide-hammer-containing shop, we figured we’d following him in our ute and drag the axle along.
We strapped the axle to Laurence’s mom’s Ford Courier (nicknamed “Utie”), and half an hour later Gordo was giving me a tour of an incredible tractor repair facility.
You can see the axle shaft in the image above. To pull it out, you have to bolt a slide hammer adapter to the hub studs (where the wheel normally bolts), then thread some nuts on to hold the slide hammer adapter in place, and yank the slide hammer hard. This should pull the axle out of the tube. The only issue we had, upon our arrival at Gordo’s shop 40 km from Laurence’s house, was that I had forgotten the lug nuts. And since they were left-hand thread, Gordo didn’t have any sitting around.
Our solution was to remove the studs as we had planned anyhow since left-hand lugnuts are a recipe for disaster. Except, instead of just hammering them out of the extracted axle as was standard procedure, we’d have to extract the studs while the axle was still in its housing. The studs would hit the backing plate if we just hammered them, so Gordo had to break out the torch and burn those studs out; we then threaded some bolts in to hold the slide hammer adapter in place, and we gave the hammer a few pulls, extracting the axle.
What a pain in the butt.
Lawrence And The Chrysler Valiant Orchard
From Gordo’s, Laurence and I headed over to Lawrence’s (with a “w”) place out in the country. A large plot of land filled with chickens and geese and dogs and buildings/sheds (all of which Lawrence built himself), the land was above all an automotive sanctuary with this incredible “Falcon Tree Of Life” (as I’ve named it) as its centerpiece:
Even if the Falcon wagon is where all the car gods’ whispering voices seemed to originate (Laurence says he didn’t hear them, indicating that either I’m The Chosen Wrench or I that need to get a health checkup soon), Lawrence isn’t a Falcon man; he and his son love Chrysler Valiants, and they collect old ones to help others keep theirs on the road. Here is Lawrence and Laurence loading up a Chrysler 245 Hemi Six into Utie:
After loading up Cactus’s new motor, Lawrence showed off his 1981 Chrysler Valiant wagon, a fairly low-mileage beauty that he’d swapped the mighty 265 Hemi Six into, along with a five-speed:
We did a bit of chin-wagging around the engine bay, with Lawrence pointing out his new ignition setup, among other improvements:
Here’s the grin on Lawrence’s face as he laughed the words “Yeah, theh’s me Chah-ja,” in reference to a Chrysler Valiant Charger buried under years of…stuff:
“That’s a project I’ll get around to,” Lawrence told me as we looked at the rear end of the buried sports car. “I was gonna sell it but people muck me around that much I told ’em all to piss off, and I said ‘let’s put it in the shed’…I told ’em I want 10 grand registered, and they hummed and hawed and beat around the bush, and a bloke wanted to swap me other vehicles…no, piss off!”
Geese hissed at Laurence and me as Lawrence led us towards a field of cars, first dipping into a shed he’d built to show the two visitors his former pride-and-joy. “That’s me old work wagon, which got retired after a million K’s when the chassis finally cracked,” he told me as he pointed to some sealed beam headlights buried under a pile of furniture and cardboard boxes. “Never had more than a ton and a half in it,” he laughed.
Then we walked to the cars:
Behold: a couple of wagons, a ute, two sedans — all Valiants, just sitting there like an orchard, waiting for their parts to be plucked off.
And that brings me to where I started this article, my hand deep under the gold wagon you see above, yanking a piece of rusty exhaust in hopes that I could adapt it to Project Cactus, saving money I would otherwise have to spend at an exhaust shop (or at the very least on tubing). After that extraction, I yanked a seatbelt from that wagon’s startlingly-rough interior:
So we had an engine, a seatbelt, and some exhaust bits — a great haul, really. Before we left back to Laurence’s garage to continue our wrenching sprint, we had to ask Lawrence about the bull-bar on the front of the ute:
Lawrence called his son, who owns the ute, and shortly thereafter told us we were free to take the bumper; after a bit of trouble undoing some giant fasteners, we had the ridiculously heavy, overbuilt ‘roo bar off and ready to be loaded onto Utie.
Here’s Lawrence after describing the ‘roo bar as “a bit Mad Max,” which is pretty spot-on.
My fellow Chrysler-obsessed 30-something and I headed back to the garage to continue the seemingly impossible mission of getting Project Cactus to the Deni Ute Muster, which was now only about 18 days away.
The timeline, I knew, would be tight, but at least finally we had an engine.
Actually…No We Didn’t
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As Lawrence showed me (see below), the engine had been sitting behind some tractor tires, upright in the same shed as a bunch of chickens. The Hemi Six’s flywheel had sunken roughly to the crankshaft’s centerline. Here’s a look at where that engine sat, along with a few photos of some other car parts strewn about in that shed (you can see a steering column, clutch, starter motor, alternator, and so much more – all from old Valiants):
As concerning as the Hemi Six’s storage lcoation was, the 245 had come from a running vehicle, we’d been told, and it did turn over by hand. Both Laurence and I had given it a spin.
In fact, here’s me in Laurence’s garage after we’d returned from Lawrence’s car-orchard, trying to illustrate how far off the current angular position of the crankshaft is when compared to the position the crank was in when it was buried in the chook shed (a chook is a chicken):
I wanted to remove the head so I could look at the cylinders and lather them in oil, but mostly because I wanted to lap the valves. In my experience, an engine sitting in those damp conditions is going to have some issues with valves sealing, and maybe a bit of surface rust on the cylinders, so let’s pop the head off to be sure, I figured. Laurence suggested we check out the bores and go from there, so we did.
Here’s Laurence, excited as ever, shoving a borescope camera into a spark plug hole:
The first few cylinders and pistons looked pretty good. Some of the walls looked a bit scratchier than one might expect (cylinders typically feature some kind of cross-hatching, but this wasn’t that):
But then we got to cylinder four, and it contained… a washer?
What the hell?:
The cylinder and piston didn’t look too bad; Laurence and I figured we’d pull it out with a magnet and try not to lose sleep worrying about it. Then we looked at cylinder five’s bore, and…it was bad. Really bad:
That’s heavy pitting in the cylinder wall.
Laurence and I were disheartened, but hopeful that most of the pitting was above where the piston rings would ride, anyway. Sadly, door number six was no better:
Look at those gigantic craters on the top of that piston. Shortly thereafter, I turned the crank over by hand so Laurence could see how much of that cylinder wall rust was above where the rings would sweep, and, well, the motor got stuck. Laurence and I had only turned it over a few degrees at Lawrence’s ute orchard; the crank did spin about 270 degrees, but then some rings hit rust and refused to continue gliding.
Engine number three was cactus, and so were my hopes.
Laurence and I headed into the house; to cheer ourselves up, we watched the incredible Australian car-cult classic, “Running on Empty.”
“You know Hud’s dad actually built that car,” Laurence told me. “Wait, Hud, the neighbor?” I replied. “Yeah, his dad converted that old Chev into a two-door.”
Up until that point, I’d been really impressed by Hud, even wondering if all Australians are just incredible fabricators. “Can you just knock on your neighbor’s door and expect them to weld up quarter panels and bend floorboards into the right shape?” I questioned in my head. “Or is there something about this Hud guy I should know more about?”
As you’ll find out next week when I visit his garage, the answer is the latter. Hud isn’t just the neighbor, he’s a hot rod legend. This discovery brought just enough of a spark to reinvigorate my hopes that maybe, just maybe, my chances at making the Deni Ute Muster in under three weeks weren’t entirely doomed.