One headlamp, one set of overalls, some GoPro mounts, a single sock and a packet of Anzac biscuits that smelled like unleaded petrol. These are some of the things I found in the chaotic mess that was my shed after David Tracy left for home after Project Cactus.
Somehow we had managed to revive a long-dead Valiant Ute which, according to the last owner, was previously earmarked for either a demolition derby or as rust cuts for another much rarer Valiant. We did this using another Valiant as a donor that appears to have been in a flood yet somehow escaped the traveling scrap metal collectors from 15-odd years ago when steel was worth really good money.
We somehow managed to accomplish this without throwing chairs, having drunken arguments or losing the shop.
G’day Autopians, Dave has asked me to write about my experiences with Project Cactus and having him as a houseguest for the better part of five weeks.
This project is honestly still a bit of a blur, much of that may be from the multiple back-to-back 18- and even 24-hour sessions on the tools in the final week before rego. Watching the story unfold in the articles and videos for the project was sometimes as new to me as it was to you as well, especially in the final 10 days or so.
To start at the beginning, this all started when DT bought a Valiant as his winter car. I’d been reading his articles for years like most of you, following the Moab and other mechanical adventures with the likes of Slow Devil, Redwood and Postal. These adventures are actually the whole reason I bothered with Instagram, as I saw that there was always bonus content and off-the-cuff pieces like the legendary Corn Palace that Dave would upload on that site.
With him now having a car that was much more familiar to me, I decided to message Dave on Insta and let him know I was sending him a bumper sticker. From what I can gather, “Another Valiant Still Going Strong” was a sticker that Chrysler Australia dealers would give out to owners that were still servicing their vehicles at the dealer well after the warranty expired in the late 1970s.
Dave received the stickers (with shipping being nearly triple the cost of the sticker!) and proudly placed one on the rear bumper of the ‘65. You can see it in his video where the ‘65 does some snow-nuts to ring in 2022.
We started conversing here and there from that point, and Dave was fascinated by the very diverse Valiants we have Down Under. The esteem that these cars have here seems to be much different to the “grandma’s car” stereotype that seems to be common Stateside, or at least was when those cars were more common on the roads.
Once DT saw photos of my 1970 Valiant Ute I named “Lenny” (after a local comedy author from the 1920s, Lenny Lower), he casually said “If you can find me a Valiant Ute I’ll come down and we can rebuild it,” or something to that effect.
I found the ex-spotlighting ute—most kangaroo and feral animal shooting like foxes, rabbits and feral pigs is done at night with a spotlight—near Tottenham whilst out there for work.“Buy now, think later” kicked in for both of us and the rest is well-documented history on this site already.
What people don’t know is there was another prime candidate for the project before the Tottenham purchase. Much closer to home I had come across a CL-model (1976-78) ute that was almost complete, in reasonable shape minus the rusted floors and badly damaged sill panel that may have been repairable with careful dent-puller usage and other panel-beating tricks. The seller was reluctant to part with it, so we left it at that.
There is also a 1942 Ford GPW on the same property that I am sorely tempted to purchase, including the original blackout lights. Project Tassie Devil, anyone?
People have asked in the comments why we didn’t buy the CL ute that we took the bullbar from. The answer is simple: that ute is not for sale as it is a donor/future project for Lawrence’s son, Dave (yes, two Daves and two people named Lawrence/Laurence were involved in Cactus. It takes a village.) The bullbar was kindly donated by the other Dave, but that was all that we were allowed to take from that CL ute.
Just before I went to hand over the cash for what at the time was to be the main project-ute and have the thrilling experience of dragging on a vehicle with three seized wheels using an understrength winch (then with an excavator plus a cabover truck assisting), I had a video call with David and Torch. Those who have met the duo know that their personas are in no way a performance, they are truly like this 24/7.
A highlight of the call included Torch having an audible gasp when I showed him my Chrysler dealership poster which includes the Dodge Phoenix models, which look like U.S. B-bodies with a perplexing mix of last-year styling that is part Dodge and part Plymouth with some alt-universe lighting. Hopefully someday Jason can make it over here and nerd out on our lighting systems to test the limit of our police force’s patience. I hope there is a recording of his reaction when I slipped the Charger into reverse and lit up those rear indicators, though it may be banned in several jurisdictions on obscenity grounds.
From that point, Dave and I had semi-regular video calls and frequent messaging to work out the logistics of the project. I had completed a full mechanical restoration of two Valiants at this point (my ‘74 Charger and Lenny), so managing this aspect of the project was familiar territory.
Something I did behind the scenes was to disassemble the front suspension that came with the 215 Hemi six from Facebook Marketplace, the ‘second’ engine to be found unusable if you counted the horrifically-corroded Slant in the shooting ute as number one. I never met the vendor as this setup was already paid for and delivered to where I would pick up Cactus, and for $175 for the whole shooting match including a starter motor, ignition system, manual pedal box and clutch linkage it was a good buy to acquire all of the bits needed for the conversion in one sweep.
I removed the arms from the K-frame, took the spindles and balljoints from the upper and lower arms, cleaned them of gunk and then submerged them in a plastic tub with 15g/L of Citric Acid for a week, followed by a spritz of Lanox (Inox’s preservative cousin) on the now bare steel.
From all the conversations we had over the months leading up to his arrival in Dubbo, it felt like I already largely knew Dave by the time he stepped off the train in late August. Being fellow shade-tree mechanics and Autopians we had no issues bonding quickly once we met in person.
With my job, I work from home but am on the road generally three days or more per week, arriving home just before sunset pretty frequently. As a result, I would usually knock off at around 6 p.m. and then get changed and work in the shed until about 11 p.m or midnight most weeknights, working from 7 a.m. to midnight or even later on weekends to try and get further progress.
From the start, I could see that David and I have rather different working styles when it comes to vehicles. I try to be as organized as possible, put tools away in labeled drawers as soon as I finish with them and try to put fasteners in labeled containers as I am going. Dave’s approach is quite a bit more, shall we say, laid-back. Tools wound up in some very bizarre locations, fasteners had a management system indecipherable to regular mortals and the bonnet which was upside-down on a panel stand from early on became the repository for just about everything.
The shed in general started to take on qualities more akin to a black hole; we ended up buying two sets of battery hold-downs as the first one evaporated into the ether (and is yet to be located, even after a massive shed cleanout last month!). The second set was nearly swallowed by the bonnet storage system and it took a third party to locate this item in the general morass.
For any organizational foibles and occasional awkwardness, the level of patience and iron will that Dave exudes into these hopeless causes is nothing short of inspirational. I think the jet lag took so long to leave him (if it ever entirely did) because he was burning the candle at both ends pretty much the entire time he was here, between turning spanners from around 9 a.m. to near midnight and then staying up until unknown hours of the morning working on The Autopian to doing podcasts on my verandah at 6 a.m. to dialing into video conferences at other hideous scheduled times due to the tyranny of longitude it would have reduced most into a frazzled mess. He took it in his stride, with fatigue rarely showing and the pace rarely slacking.
To see this master of Rust Belt repair at work first-hand is a unique experience. You can tell there are hard-won lessons behind the bespectacled visage, a gritty Midwest determination mixed with the occasional streak of Teutonic stubbornness which wouldn’t let any problem continue to exist until it was properly vanquished. If you ever want to see Dave’s eyes light up, issue him a challenge on a rusty fastener. The brake fitting in ep 5 was going in the bin along with the brake line and wheel cylinder, but the moment I challenged Dave to remove it without damaging the line there was no way he was giving up the fight.
For a man of German origin who doesn’t like beer, he certainly gave it a good try while he was here! That’s all I will say on that subject….
Moving along to the Deni trip, things definitely were going what seemed a little too easy up until the tire blowout on the Hay Plain. The speedo in Cactus threatened to explode about 40km into the trip and was promptly disconnected, and the fuel tank leaked a fair bit from the new sender seal. That was all that seemed to be wrong up until that point.
My preconceived notion of DT as a road-tripping machine was being tested. I began to suspect that perhaps he was human after all.
Unwilling to get much above 90km/h at times (not that Dave knew as per above), seemingly keeping a Grandad-pace and getting really tired on the return trip had me wondering if this man truly was a long-distance king. I hadn’t driven Cactus at all until we got back to Dubbo and then decided to swap cars for the last 15-minute leg to my house. I’m sure my verbal exclamations upon exiting the service station were heard for some distance. How he was able to keep this vehicle driving straight and hanging on behind the wheel for so many continuous hours is a mystery to me. Truly either an iron will or a blind stubbornness, you decide.
I drive at least 50,000km (about 32,000 miles) per year for work and frequently drive my Valiants on long-distance road trips, but there is no way I could have driven Cactus the way David did for hour after punishing hour. The steering box was so bad, and the lack of directional stability so great that driving those 16-odd minutes home felt like driving well over three times as much from all the fighting with the steering wheel. It is both a blessing and a curse that he didn’t drive Lenny (stable well over 110km/h) prior to that short victory lap, as there is no way someone would have voluntarily driven Cactus afterward. I wish we had recorded the reaction on both our faces that evening after learning what the other had been driving for 1,500-odd km. When Dave then said that Postal was actually about the same or better during the Moab trip I was speechless.
The reactions we got at Dubbo Cars and Coffee the next day were priceless. If the GoPro wasn’t full, we should have set it on the dash to record the people going past! Most comments were along the lines of “you drove THAT 1,500 kays?!?”, “How many times were you pulled over?”, and so on.
Dave hosted a farewell party at the local brewery, Devil’s Hollow with most of the people who were involved in Project Cactus in attendance. Due to the schedule, many of them hadn’t met each other until that party, and it was great to help connect a few people in the local car community with other like-minded people. And that was one of the best parts of the entire project for me, seeing these people I knew and some I had just met pitching in to help me and a rust-crazed man from the other side of the planet achieve a silly goal while bonding over a love of cars and forming friendships that will likely last for decades.
In the time since David left, I have been using Cactus regularly. As my shed only went up at the start of 2022, I have a lot of stuff I am still moving over from my mum’s farm and having two Valiant utes ready for use on the weekend has been really handy. Cactus also makes for a fun “pub truck.”
With no time pressure hanging over my head, I have had a chance to go through and fix quite a few things. The fuel tank no longer leaks from the sender seal, the rear exhaust mount is in a better (less feral) location, battery tray has been replaced with a much better item that was originally from my Charger (the other tray cracked in two on the return trip from Deni), tie-down points added in the tray plus a bit of tidying the wiring.
The only failure Cactus has experienced that left me stuck fortunately happened on the farm. I had just loaded up a seized GM 6.2-liter diesel engine block to give to Callum and Henry that they can use to mock up small-block swaps at Iron Knuckles (the block was my dad’s; my earliest childhood memory is bouncing all over the bench seat as we went to get firewood in his C10). I went to select 1st gear and it seemed like I was in 3rd. I then went to select reverse gear and nothing happened. I managed to get underneath and manually shift the ‘box to reverse and then got into a forward gear and rode the clutch like blazes to get the ute into mum’s shed and left it there as I was late for a party.
I came back the next weekend and discovered that the selector “fork” on the column-shift sleeve had come loose and so could barely move the shift rods/levers at all. I swapped in a spare late-model column and got Cactus home.
Since then, I have replaced the beyond-awful steering box and rebuilt the correct steering column with another shifter sleeve.
Being that ‘tis the season, Cactus has been decorated and is now rather festive!
The ‘roo shooting ute has been returned to the paddock. Cleaning it out a bit for the return trip back to the farm, I think I found the reason why this ute was so cursed.
As for the future of Cactus, I am negotiating with DT to purchase the ute from him. I plan on putting Lenny on historic rego ($150/year vs $1,000!) and using Cactus as the workhorse to do ute things. No solid plans yet, but Dave and I have been talking about him returning to Oz and working out another road trip for Cactus. I’m not at liberty to reveal anything yet, but there exists a high likelihood that the next road trip will be more than triple the distance.
I am considering taking Cactus down to Chryslers on the Murray, held in Albury/Wodonga in mid-March 2023. If you are in the area, come and say g’day. You can see the legend for yourself.
As a fellow Australian (in Melbourne) I can truly appreciate the level you have to go to to get that hunk of rust roadworthy enough to get a set of plates. I am also amazed that Highway Patrol did not see it and declare it illegal right there and then.
I thought David was naïve and crazy to take this on (not the first time I have thought this) but it makes (a little) more sense knowing that you were on the team.
Excellent writing Laurence! I also vote for you as the Australian Autopian correspondent!
It’s amazing that David discovered you/you discovered David halfway around the world!
I personally look forward to more articles from Down Under about Cactus and any other adventures you care to send our way.
Great account Laurence, you should, from now on, become the official Down Under Autopian Correspondent “DUA Corro” in Australian speak!
Glad to see Cactus isn’t cactus anymore but well alive and running.
Happy New Year from France!
Good read, Laurence! Thank you from North Dakota!
I think Autopian definitely needs and may have hopefully found it’s Australian correspondant!
Well written, Laurence! I know David calls Hud “the legend” but from my vantage point, you’re it. No normal man would spend this many hours of nights and weekends wrenching on a disaster like the Valiant. It was also great to get some insight into car culture in Oz. Hopefully there is more to come!
Thanks for your part in bringing this story to us, Laurence! The bitabout decade-long friendships forming over wrenching on what 99% of the world would consider scrap metal really hit home. That’s what people don’t get about car culture. You can’t really give a dictionary definition of it, but stories like this explain it perfectly.
As I watched the videos and read the last article I was wondering what happened to Cactus after David left. Thanks for filling us in on the BTS details!
But if you (unlike, apparently, David) are attached to a Significant Other, there’s a real story begging to be written by your partner: What it’s Like Having David Tracy as a Houseguest for a Month!
Enquiring Autopians want to know!
Thank you for adding your perspective to this project you two, and much of your community made happen. Having wrenched on just about every variant of U.S. spec Mopar a-body over the years it was fun watching David sink his teeth into something very familiar, but with a bit of an alternate universe vibe compared to the Darts, Barracudas, Dusters etc that I’m familiar with. Now I want a Valiant ute damn it!!! Seeing the Dubbo community pull this project together was just awesome, I hope that sequel road trip happens and hope to hear more from you on the site.
Lawrence, that was a great write up! I hope there is more from you. What a great story! This whole thing has been wonderful to watch and read about. Thank you!
I live in a small town in the Hudson Valley in New York and Dubbo’s car culture lines up with ours .We’re not always politically correct but that doesn’t matter when we pull your stuck ass out of the ditch in 15 inches of snow on a 10 degrees Friday night …
Your user name is among the best and most fitting I’ve seen!!!
Thank you so much for this site. There is nothing else remotely like it on the internet. It really shows your love of cars and the car community.