Home » One Year Later, The Ute Nobody Expected To Live Is Thriving

One Year Later, The Ute Nobody Expected To Live Is Thriving

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It’s hard to believe that one year has passed since what many thought was an impossible, or even downright insane goal of myself and David Tracy’s was reached: We revived a long-dead, complete pile of scrap Aussie Chrysler Valiant Ute; passed inspection; and drove a round-trip of nearly 1,000 miles to one of Australia’s largest festivals known as the Deni Ute Muster.

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The fact that the only things that went wrong on the trip were a broken speedometer and a tyre blowout due to a shifting alignment (and my ute, the recovery vehicle, ran out of fuel!) was quite remarkable given the long nights and countless hours that David, my hotrod-building neightbor Hud, myself and a cast of about a dozen other people put into this mad project over the course of twenty-three days. 

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In the time that the Japanese police can legally hold you without a charge, we managed to achieve an almost impossible goal.

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If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’re likely quite familiar with the trials and tribulations we encountered on the journey to building a functional vehicle out of two that were destined for scrap, whilst using as many cheap, found or donated parts as possible. 

Over the next six months since David returned to the U.S. and relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles after somehow getting his rental deposit back after a wild party with many Death Wobbles consumed [Ed Note: I declined the security deposit. -DT]. I did some minor fixes to Project Cactus like replacing the downright-dangerously vague steering box to make the vehicle even more functional, and I took this unmistakable vehicle down to one of Australia’s largest car shows and back to what was once this ute’s home turf according to the remains of an old transmission shop sticker on the back window.

But Project Cactus has been anything but dormant since our last update in March; in fact, by my calculations over 8,000km (about 5,000 miles) have passed under the tyres in the twelve months since it passed an unregistered vehicle inspection (“blue slip”).

So crack a longy (NSFW warning, unfiltered Aussie language), put on some of Lismore’s finest (SFW, assuming your workplace can tolerate Aussie rock), and allow me to bring you up to speed with everyone’s favourite ute-that-could.

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After returning from the car show “Chryslers on the Murray,” Cactus went straight back to work. We have a hedge that runs down one boundary on my property, and it had become severely overgrown during the past two years of nearly doubled annual rainfall. Having two utes was extremely handy to carry the massive amount of garden waste generated from trimming back over 20 metres x 2 metres worth of hedge.

Cactus Loaded 3 Large

The next event we went to was the Wellington Show in May, about half an hour’s drive east. My 1974 Valiant Charger was entered in a number of classes including Best Street Machine and ended up taking out Grand Champion, whilst Project Cactus swept the field in Most Unique Vehicle and came home with a blue ribbon and some prizes! [Ed Note: Holy crap. An award winning machine! -DT].

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Now with winter starting to settle in (our “winter” gets about as low as 0C or 32F, and daily temps around 15C/59F), I decided to finally add a touch of luxury to this ute-of-many-colours and install some vent boxes. Now you can decide if you want the wind on your ankles and if you wish to be pelted by dead leaves when you reach highway speeds!

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One vent box came from the ‘Tottenham” ute, the OG project vehicle which switched to becoming the donor/parts car. It had a cute ‘stove door’ lid for the Driver’s/RH side; I figured this would be nice for Cactus. The passenger/LH side is making do with a later vent box with a broken flap which I have replaced with Gorilla tape and some cardboard for a more seasonal ventilation-delete and is being held in place with some bent fencing-wire. Hey, this is Project Cactus after all; were you expecting perfect pieces?

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Feeling some winter restlessness in late July, I decided to take a run out to the second-largest city in my state of New South Wales and the hometown of Silverchair, Newcastle.

Showing up with relatively short-notice to my mate Nick and his fiance Emma’s place in the outer suburbs, I followed them in Cactus while they drove their Toyota Cressidas (the rough one is an MX32, the newer model is an MX73) to a small car meet at a local shopping centre car park. 

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Given that the crowd were largely P-platers with a few in their mid 20s, the selection of cars was what you would expect — things like the 86/BRZ twins, mid-2000s Subarus, a rather nice NA MX-5, Skyline sedans and an ‘Itasha-spec’ S15 Silvia. There was also the odd Holden Commodore or Ford Falcon, but the crowd was mainly focused on Japanese vehicles.

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To say that Project Cactus drew some attention was an understatement. It was more like a spaceship had landed. I didn’t get many photos of the meetup as I was constantly fielding questions about how I managed to drive this into the city without being pulled over, what a manual column shift/carburetor/etc was, and how it worked and how we managed to turn two piles of scrap into a functional vehicle.

It was great to see enthusiasm for cars is still going with younger generations.

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The drive back home through the Hunter Valley scenery was uneventful, as this ute just keeps getting better and better with use.

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With a spare weekend, my mate Matt (owner of the red Regal SE from the Chryslers on the Murray trip) and I went out to the farm to strip more out of the white ‘Tottenham’ Ute junker David had assumed he’d be fixing up before turning that into a parts car.

Using Matt’s small loader, we flipped the ute on one side and then upside-down to make removing the suspension and drivetrain easier. Once the vehicle was on one side, we noticed large amounts of water ‘raining’ out of the valve cover of the Slant Six. No wonder the dipstick had dissolved!

With some persuasion from a ball joint separator, rattle gun and a hammer, the suspension was disconnected and the front removed:

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The rear end was only held in with a few bolts as it was what originally came in Cactus (we swapped axles) and so was merely holding the body off the ground in this application.

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There are still a few small pieces left to take off the hulk — after that this ute is off to the final fate at the scrap metal recyclers unless someone really wants some garden art!

For a country town of over 50,000 people, Dubbo somehow hadn’t had any truly big car shows for over a decade until the first Saturday of September this year. The inaugural Dubbo Motorfest was a massive success, with proceeds going to local mental health and men’s health charities.

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The event saw over 6,000 people through the gates and almost 1,100 vehicles including 700 cars packed into the Dubbo Showground. 

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I took responsibility for the main gate, admitting the cars, bikes and pedestrians and making sure nothing hit anything else. Everything went smoothly as it could for a first-time event, and I was able to witness a one-of-ten Leyland Force 7V (a P76 coupe that never saw public release) arrive from a few hours down the road with the owner driving it like it was any other old car. Likely the only one of these to see any serious road use, as the others pretty well all went to museums from day-one.

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For my work at the gate, I was able to park Cactus in the Concours/Elite shed, with everyone’s favourite bucket of bolts within sight of several half-million-dollar customs and perfectly-restored GT Falcons!

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Cactus Motorfest Large

I had a batch of Project Cactus stickers made up and left these out, along with appropriately rust- and lichen- coloured QR codes so that people could find out more about the only car in the shed with an actual rams-skull affixed to the front with baling twine. Street Machine has a great gallery of the event if you’d like to see more.

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As a bit of an anniversary present for both Project Cactus and my own ears, I took the vehicle down to Iron Knuckles Fabrication and Customs for an exhaust system to be made up with the swap-meet extractors/headers. Callum and Henry, the proprietors, had been a great help in getting the ute ready for ‘Deni last year and are great blokes with an incredibly positive outlook on life in general.

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Hud ‘The Legend’ Johnston and my brother did a great job with the rusty junk David and I had scrounged from local Chrysler Valiant junkyard owner collector Lawrence’s paddock, but due to the odd flared-fit from the cast-iron exhaust manifold to the down-pipe the exhaust shifted after they had set it up; as a result the muffler sat quite low. I managed to remedy this with some good ol’ wire and fencing-pliers, but the flared fitting just didn’t ‘fit’ properly and leaked badly. The result of this is that the ute just sounded like a demolition-derby car and meant that any trip required windows to be down as the carbon-monoxide risks were very high.

Cactus Ik Exhaust 4 Large Cactus Ik Exhaust 5 Large Cactus Ik Exhaust 6 Large

Henry and I tore into the old exhaust and had it out in moments. From there I was merely an assistant while the master worked his magic.

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Based on previous experience with my Valiant Charger, the decision was made to lengthen the ‘secondaries’ (the part where three exhaust ports or ‘primaries’ merge into one pipe) with 2-inch pipe so that they didn’t merge from two into a 2.5-inch single pipe until well after the gearbox crossmember. From there the new exhaust runs to a single muffler, clears the rear differential and then exits just after the rear wheel. I asked Henry to find a suitable exhaust tip, and I’d say he delivered!

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The final product gives an exhaust sound that I think suits the vehicle perfectly, and sounds like a proper “hotted-up ‘six”:

The last upgrades I’ve done involve changing out the old dash cluster with one that Fingers (the guy who sold me Cactus) gave me at Chryslers on the Murra. It is much more functional. On top of that, I swapped the original sealed-beam lights for Halogen units :

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My mate Gordo the electrical wizard had already upgraded the headlight wiring and added relays during the build last year, which can handle the extra electrical draw and heat of the Halogen headlights.

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Sealed beam on the left, new Halogen on the right

I’d still like to find some vintage driving lights to complete the lighting upgrade, I guess I’ll have to keep trawling the sale sites and old sheds!

I won’t be heading to Deni again this year, however in early November I intend to take The Ute That Lived north to visit the third state since its revival. I’ll keep you updated on any potential meetings in the hometown of Powderfinger and Violent Soho, either on the site or the Autopian Discord.

As I reflect upon the twelve months since this crazy adventure kicked off with my meeting of an internet stranger from the USA at Dubbo train station, it’s amazing just what you can accomplish through sheer determination, friendship and a shared mission. 

Seeing David move into a new chapter in his life has been great, as you always want the best for your friends and DT is thriving over on the West Coast, much like his Down Under project car continues to thrive. It still staggers me how well we hit it off, and he truly is a member of our family now. Things could have easily fallen apart right at the train station, instead the initial bond over weird old cars just became the start of something much more. [Editor’s Note: I feel the same way. Laurence will always be my brother from down under. -DT]. 

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It cannot be overstated just how vital the help David and I received on Project Cactus was to the ability to achieve the crazy goal of reviving a long-discarded vehicle. Many were friends of mine before the build, many were acquaintances and some I had never met but we are all very much good friends now from working together on this vehicle. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the business of daily life and walk around with blinkers on, doing your thing and forgetting the wider community around you and sticking to the sanctum of your own homes. As we’ve said many times here on the Autopian: We believe the car community can be a force for good. Volunteer where you can, donate blood if it’s something you’re able to do (I have since the day I turned sixteen) and get involved in your local area. Help out and be helped in return.

You never know: You may have a Hud ‘The Legend’ Johnston on your block! 

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PlatinumZJ
PlatinumZJ
7 months ago

Outstanding update! I’ve really enjoyed following Project Cactus.

STEPHEN WALTER GOSSIN
STEPHEN WALTER GOSSIN
7 months ago

Fantastic as always, mate. The first 20 longys are on me when you get to The States or when I finally get down there.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
8 months ago

At the neighborhood Halloween parade one year I noticed a new resident with some car stuff, got to talking, and was able to borrow a compression tester for my free old 2.2L S-10. Now 3 years later he is a great friend, and it turns out he is one of the most successful Champcar builders around and has an affinity for stuffing GM V-6s into rotary engine bays!

J Ludwik
J Ludwik
8 months ago

Great article and update!

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
8 months ago

That death wobble video somehow made me thankful that Australia doesn’t have milk bags. I know there are containers for bags! I know! Calm down, Canadians, I know. Yet for some reason, I just pictured a bag of milk getting fumbled all over the countertop, and I was like, yeah, that’d fit for this drink.

Also, dig out a spoon for that floater next time. (Wow, that sounds wrong.) Turn spoon upside-down, add pond scum alcohol smoothly without having to use the side of the glass. Way less messy, and more pond scum makes it in the glass.

Last edited 8 months ago by Stef Schrader
Jason Butler
Jason Butler
8 months ago

Such an awesome update on Project Cactus! Love to hear that the little ute that lived continues to thrive:)

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
8 months ago

Good on ya, Laurence! Terrific update … hope it’s OK that I read it while listening to Kylie instead of Grinspoon.

And congrats on the awards for the ’74 — it really is magnificent. Someday, I’ll find that HQ Monaro I’ve always wanted.

Ward William
Ward William
8 months ago

You should bring this back to the US just for shits and giggles David. The fact that it is not even worth the price of a cold beer and a meat pie, and would be a very bad financial decision makes me think all the more that you should do it.

Millermatic
Millermatic
8 months ago
Reply to  Ward William

Just for the enjoyment I’ve gotten reading about it… I’d pay at least enough for a cold beer and meat pie for everyone involved. (Wait… how may people was that, exactly? Ah, screw it. I’ll cover it).

CSRoad
CSRoad
8 months ago
Reply to  Ward William

Leave it in its natural habitat, where there are a lot more people who appreciate it for what it is. Way better than unused in the LA zoo, where maybe a few people would know what its significance is.

Start Sir Richard Attenborough clip of Utes in the wild.

Ward William
Ward William
8 months ago
Reply to  CSRoad

Ah, but WE would know its significant. And it would pull crowds at any car show just for the accompanying backstory alone. No my friend. This ressurected rusty but running pile of excrement should become part of the official Autopian Dystopian Fleet and used to promote the site and the writers’ absolute insanity. I don’t know where you are from but as an Aussie, trust me, nobody there would appreciate this delightful “bag of nails” as the Brits say. Nope, Mr Tracy needs to do builds like this atrocity in as many countries as possible and drag them back to LA. We are all Jeeped out. We need fresh metal and fresh blood (literally blood from all the knuckles skinned while wrenching). He was going to come to Brazil where I am these days, and I offered him a bed and a wrench but Australia seemed a better deal.

Dennis Birtcher
Dennis Birtcher
8 months ago

Good to see not only is Project Cactus thriving, it’s being put to work doing truck things! As it should be.

CSRoad
CSRoad
8 months ago

Cars are community members too.
It’s good to see an update and updates, thanks Laurence.
Opening the cupboard doors and getting a seasonal surprise brought back memories of my ’67 Dart.

Last edited 8 months ago by CSRoad
Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
8 months ago

This is awesome, and just proves we need more updates on this beast as well as more content from Down Under (and other international locales)!

Also, thanks to whoever instead that link to Silverchair – I had forgotten about that band, despite buying their debut album on release day back in the mid-90s. I need to listen to that again sometime…

Detroit-Lightning
Detroit-Lightning
8 months ago

In the time that the Japanese police can legally hold you without a charge, we managed to achieve an almost impossible goal.

I lived in Japan for a stretch, and found myself on the wrong end of a pretty horrendous speeding ticket (it was something like a 50 in a 35 or something). Fortunately (i guess) it was via a camera, so I didn’t find out about it until I received a serious looking notice in the mail weeks/months later.

Long story short I ended up going to a police station with my Japanese boss to work things out – a very irritated Japanese cop told me several times that they could put me in jail for the ticket. I guess my boss said the right things, and I was spared by paying like a $800 ticket or some shit.

Heck of a weird country, that japan – both the best and worst place lol.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
8 months ago

“Heck of a weird country, that japan”

I mean they had used schoolgirl underwear dispensing machines…

https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/the-love-machine/

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
8 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Some people just need a hobby.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
8 months ago
Reply to  Col Lingus

Still weird though.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
8 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

My bad. Should have indicated intended sarcasm.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
8 months ago

Yay! Happy to see this…this was the best article saga The Autopian has done…Thank you Laurence and David

SK2807
SK2807
8 months ago

You can’t kill a Valiant mechanically, they just go and go and go.

I pulled the trans pan off a BW35 in a 245 VG Regal 770 recently as it had never been removed since it was built in 1970. Took a quick look, threw it back on and it will be fine for another 50 years.

Strangek
Strangek
8 months ago

I’m delighted by this update, thanks Laurence!

David Escargot
David Escargot
8 months ago

Good to hear the Val is still trotting… on the odd chance that you reply… what’s your go to longy?

Laurence Rogers
Laurence Rogers
8 months ago
Reply to  David Escargot

Thanks David! I have three ‘longies’ of choice, depending on the weather:

– Autumn and Spring: Cooper’s Pale Ale

– Winter: Sheaf Stout

– Hot Weather, or any weather really: Reschs Pilsener

David Escargot
David Escargot
8 months ago

Thats some pretty solid sounding choices there, never had the chance to try Reschs Pilsener or Steaf Stout but I’ll put them on my list.

I personally take depending on the budget as follows

Summer: Boags St George

Winter: Boags Wizard Smith or Cascade Export Stout

Any other time: Boags XXX Ale, Cascade Draught or any of the local small brewery options in keg form…

Pretty much all forbidden fruits of the island to your south

Laurence Rogers
Laurence Rogers
8 months ago
Reply to  David Escargot

I have heard great things about the Boags that are Apple-Isle exclusive, one day I’ll get down there. I’m sure Project Cactus would make a stir on the Spirit of Tasmania!

Reschs and Sheaf were traditionally NSW beers that are now both owned by CUB.

Reschs started in Wilcannia over a century ago and Sheaf has been essentially unchanged since WWII, the label having only been expanded slightly to include the mandated government warnings and symbols.

David Escargot
David Escargot
8 months ago

I’m headed to NSW sometime in the near future so I’ll look into that,

Makes for some interesting beers under the CUB umbrella, being that they also own Cascade… really much the same story as their NSW brethren there….

Definitely do put Cactus on the Spirit, I’d be as entertaining as all get out and it’d make for a great read too

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
8 months ago

So Cactus isn’t quite so cactus anymore! Glad to hear it alive and well!

Marc Fuhrman
Marc Fuhrman
8 months ago

Are those exhaust headers what ya’ll got down under as factory equipment?

NebraskaStig
NebraskaStig
8 months ago
Reply to  Marc Fuhrman

By their length I think they are head-and-tailers lol

Laurence Rogers
Laurence Rogers
8 months ago
Reply to  Marc Fuhrman

No, we had a cast-iron manifold that bolted to the inlet manifold.

Had all sorts of drama with getting the bolts to turn that join the manifolds during the build of Project Cactus but we got it to work, the flared-fit to the exhaust pipe was where it was leaking so I bought some cheap well-used headers at Chryslers on the Murray which are now installed

That guy
That guy
8 months ago

Very disappointing they didn’t find a way to use a chainsaw in the repair.

JDE
JDE
8 months ago

Definitely think David should send you his I3 and this needs to go to LA to scare the crap out of people that find it parked next to them at the office.

sentinelTk
sentinelTk
8 months ago

I will never get tired of hearing about Project Cactus! And I will never again doubt David’s crazy conquests……I’ll mock them and point out that he may need mental help, but I’ll never doubt him.

Cheers to all of you and thanks for a great story that keeps getting better!

Jb996
Jb996
8 months ago
Reply to  sentinelTk

True. I was highly skeptical and dismissive of this car ever running. I believe I even posted that I thought David was being scammed.
But here we are. I’ve never been as pleased to be wrong. Laurence and David are Legends.

Very Cool.

Last edited 8 months ago by Jb996
Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
8 months ago

Great write up and thank you for the update. Great to see it doing what it was made to do.

A. Barth
A. Barth
8 months ago

The Ute Nobody Expected To Live

We weren’t sure if you and DT were going to survive either. 😉 That’s just an excellent story – thank you for the update!

When I was a kid, my family had a ’71 Plymouth Duster with a slant-six 225 and a three-on-the-tree; it had the same type of speedometer that you show in the pics. That car had a handbrake under the dash where you pulled an L-shaped handle straight out to engage, then turned the handle 90 degrees counter (anti) clockwise to disengage and allow the handle to to go back under the dash.

Whenever you did that, the handbrake made a loud clunk and the speedometer needle would jump. Does yours do that? Because it’s been ages and I haven’t found an explanation for the jumping. 🙂

Laurence Rogers
Laurence Rogers
8 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

We have a similar dash-mounted handbrake with a T-handle in these models, later models like my Charger has a ratcheting handbrake between the driver’s seat and the door.

SAABstory
SAABstory
8 months ago

This is like seeing a dog that ran away come back to the house, wagging it’s tail. So glad it’s back.

sentinelTk
sentinelTk
8 months ago
Reply to  SAABstory

This is like seeing a dog that ran away, got mange, lost a leg, and got ran over….twice, come back to the house, wagging it’s tail after somehow regrowing a leg and becoming the town mascot and going viral on a dog enthusiast website.

FTFY

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