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.
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.
In the time that the Japanese police can legally hold you without a charge, we managed to achieve an almost impossible goal.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
The drive back home through the Hunter Valley scenery was uneventful, as this ute just keeps getting better and better with use.
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:
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.
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.
The event saw over 6,000 people through the gates and almost 1,100 vehicles including 700 cars packed into the Dubbo Showground.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 :
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.
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].
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!