RRRRRRRIIIPPP ! BANG ! BANG ! BANG ! CLATTER ! CLATTER ! CRUNCH !!!
No, don’t worry, you haven’t picked up the latest Jilly Cooper bonk fest by mistake – the words above are the best way I can describe the noises and sensations you don’t want to hear whilst travelling through the Australian wilderness, 80 kilometres from civilisation in either direction. On a totally deserted highway. You haven’t checked the spare. Can’t remember if you have a jack or wheel wrench. And if you think there’s going to be a mobile phone signal out here, think again. Ermmm …
The initial plan had been a simple one. Arrive in Sydney, buy a car, set off around Australia, see as much as possible, back to Sydney, sell car.
Following my arrival in Australia there had been a fruitless trawl around many a wannabe Frank Butcher style car lot, poking around old Japanese imports and ex backpacker station wagons, complete with tents and camping gear at an old underground car park in the ’lively and interesting’ Sydney suburb of Kings Cross. Whilst this appealed for a time, I couldn’t find myself trusting the word of a fellow traveller who was about to jet off into the sunset never to be seen again.
What I wanted was a real Australian car, a Holden Commodore or Ford Falcon. If possible one that had not been to the moon and back, but nothing flash and not too new.
I found the answer to my quest a week later in the form of a 1980 Holden VC Commodore, in white with black slatted rear window shade and a tasteful hint of chrome to the bumpers. A brief train ride later and I was stood admiring the beast. And a beast she was. 3.3 litres of straight six power clothed in what was known in Europe as the Opel Record and to us in the UK as the Vauxhall Carlton. For similar money I could have gone for something newer and possibly more comfortable but my reckoning was to run something mechanically simple, classically Australian, and familiar to grease monkeys countrywide.
Simple is a word, basic is a better one, to use to describe this car. Although in excellent condition, the climate helping to preserve the bodywork and mechanicals, it was short of the sort of luxuries we now take for granted. No power steering, or electric windows, or air conditioning, just nice shiny powder blue vinyl seats and a mere 4 gears.
The lack of more gears I thought may be a problem as I would be mostly cruising the open road, but they proved to be tall enough and well spaced to cope, the engine didn’t so much as rev as growl a bit louder so a steady, and very legal, 100 km/ph became the norm.
Following a trip to the local Kmart to stock up on camping gear and other essentials I set off west into the vast open continent of Australia.
The first stop just happened to be the motor racing town of Bathurst, famous for the 1000km touring car enduro, and following a look around the small but informative museum it was time to give the VC its first test.
This partially public road course hosts the blue ribbon event for the domestic touring car series the V8 Supercars. Populated by monster Ford Falcons and Holden Commodores powered up to the hilt with rumbling V8 engines they hurtle around Mount Panorama once a year in what is an extended round of the series. As it is considerably longer than a regular event teams use two drivers with sports car style changes that often feature familiar names to European race fans such as Matt Neal, Jason Plato and in years gone by BTCC legend John Cleland.
The day of my track debut was as wet as you can get, and as this is also a public highway I wasn’t going to do anything silly. Myself and a few other sight seers managed a tentative slither through the Esses and I gripped the thin wheel rim just a wee bit tighter for the plunge through The Dipper before counting my blessings, and four intact wings, to head on westward.
The following couple of weeks passed relatively uneventfully as I clocked up kilometres counted in the thousands – Melbourne (including the Albert Park Grand Prix track), Philip Island (yes another race track!), Adelaide (erm, yes, a part time race track), across the vast Nullarbor Plain with the longest straight in Australia at ninety miles, competing with other straight parts of the road long enough to act as emergency air strips for the Flying Doctors Service !
There followed a very pleasant few days in Perth and Freemantle before heading for the wet and humid north towards Darwin, and the speed limitless highways of the Northern Territory.
It was at this stage that I should have started thinking about the reliability of my trusty steed. We had so far covered over 4000 trouble free kilometres, and in a 24 year old car that couldn’t last forever. I had checked that the car was equipped with a spare wheel, a jack and other equipment, but crucially had never tested them.
And so it came to pass, on an oppressively hot and humid Northern Highway the right rear tyre decided to go its own way. Although the tread was deep enough to pass inspection the rubber was almost as elderly as the vehicle itself and it simply ripped from the body of the tyre and wrapped itself around the rear axle. This was accompanied by the previously mentioned noises and vibrations.
The tyre however was still inflated so whilst I was able I decided to continue, albeit very slowly, in the hope of finding an appropriate place to stop and make repairs.
Within a couple of kilometres I came across a rest area, with no facilities but civilisation in the shape of a VW camper van and its two occupants, parked up, taking a break in their journey.
I set to and quickly had the rear end up on the jack but came across a problem. The wrench for the wheel nuts simply spun around them, far too big ! Fortunately the occupants of the camper van were glad of the distraction and came over to look for the source of all the swearing and lend a hand. They were keen to help and fetched their own tool box which seemed full to overflowing with all sorts of handy equipment. Everything in fact, except the much needed wheel wrench!
Luckily for me a local family stopped a short time later and they were properly prepared for such an eventuality and were able to lend the necessary tools to change the wheel.
They were thanked in the form of my last bag of none liquid chocolate for their children and the camper folk with my useless wrench, which fitted their wheel nuts perfectly!
After releasing the shorn tread from its cosy hug around the rear axle I continued for 80 kilometres farther north and stayed that night at the small community of Fitzroy Crossing, which is blessed with a very well run roadhouse and mechanical engineers ready to assist the weary and incompetent traveller.
The Australian roadhouse is an oasis of welcome service dotted every 100 kilometres or so along the highways. You can be sure of refreshment for you and your vehicle whatever the hour and here too the next morning I had my fill of bacon and eggs, and just to make sure for the rest of my journey, the Commodore had four nice new tyres. Oh, and a cross style four sizes wheel wrench, just in case lightening does strike twice.
As I continued north to Darwin and then headed south through the ‘Red Centre’ of the country the time and many hundreds of kilometres passed by without serious incident; Alice Springs, Uluru, the moonscape like opal mining town of Coober Peddy were interesting stops along the way.
However I had a deadline to make. You may have noticed a theme running in my first few rest stops along the journey, it wasn’t meant to be a tour of Australian race circuits but when nearby it would be wasteful for a motor racing fan not to indulge themselves.
And so the trusty Commodore made it back to Melbourne for the beginning of March and first free practice for the Australian Grand Prix.
I’ve decided she was entirely reliable and the one unplanned detour was due in the whole to my poor preparation.
The Commodore had been a comfortable, spacious and not too thirsty a companion with which to explore this great continent, I hope she’s still running the highways to this day.