AFTER three weeks of thrashing to build our ’63 Dodge Phoenix (see p182 for the full rundown), the moment had arrived: I was attaching new number plates and we were ready to hit the road. All the pain, the missed weekends, the late nights, the angry looks from the wife – it was all worth it. We were headed north to Cobar in NSW for Running On Empty Festival – though we were already day late.
With a loaded Esky and enough tools and spares to support a V8 Supercars team, Paul ‘Gus’ Cronin and I waved goodbye to Telfo and the SM crew and headed out the gate. Following behind we had the video and photo duo of Matt Bourke and Ellen Dewar in a Ford Ranger. But Telfo hadn’t even walked back to the office from the car park before he got the first message from Ellen: “We’ve stopped already!”
In my wisdom, I’d decided to fit a plastic spacer under the carby to help keep the heat out, but the four holes of the spacer were slightly misaligned with the four holes of the Edelbrock carb; I could feel it catching slightly every time I touched the accelerator. With a half-inch spanner in hand I loosened the nuts, gave the carby a wiggle to align it and cinched the nuts tight. The linkage felt good, so we hit the road again and headed for the Monash Freeway.
The Monash is legendary for its traffic jams, but thankfully the traffic seemed to be flowing okay for a Friday. Then the Dodge died. One moment we’re cruising at 100km/h, the next we’re coasting. I hit neutral on the push-button auto and hit the key. The Dodge fired back to life with a pop. We made it another minute down the road and it died again, so I headed for the breakdown lane.
At this point I was thinking it was out fuel, but then I was mentally exhausted from three weeks of 16-hour days and not thinking straight. I changed the fuel filter, gave it another crack and got another couple of minutes of forward motion out of the Dodge before it packed it in again. So we found the Toorak Road off-ramp and pulled into a quiet car park by the Yarra. Cyclists and joggers looked on as we pulled the fuel tank out to check the pick-up for dirt. It seemed clear, but I removed the intaketube filter anyway; I figured we had a filter up the front and several spares, so I rolled the dice.
With the fuel tank back in, we were on the road again – and in less than five minutes we were stopped once more with the bonnet up. At this point we were all looking at each other like: ‘Bloody hell, we’re going to be doing this all day.’
My tired brain finally conceded the point: There was nothing wrong with the fuel system, so I started looking at the ignition system. checked the wires on the coil and one came off in my hand; it was a dodgy crimp, so I checked the rest and they were much the same. For peace of mind, I re-crimped all the ignition connections; for the record, I didn’t crimp them originally!
At this point I was feeling pretty good – we’d found a problem and solved it. But we had the notorious Domain Tunnel in front of us, and you don’t want to break down in there. I could feel the gaze of the tunnel’s safety cameras; we jokingly took bets that the control room guys were screaming: “Don’t do it!” at their screens as we jumped back into the Dodge and entered the tunnel.
The 440-cube big-block sounded awesome echoing off the tunnel walls and the Dodge cruised through without incident. At that point we reckoned those control room guys were high-fiving each other and giving us a big thumbs-up; then the Dodge died again. Over the hand-held radio Ellen suggested we head for the United servo just off the freeway; we cruised the two kilometres to the servo having to do a rolling restart a further three times.
Is this stop number five or six, we asked ourselves. We couldn’t even remember anymore. I swapped in an old coil I brought as a spare, but the engine sounded worse, so swapped it back. Then my gaze hit the ballast resistor and my brain went: “Hmmm”. Any 60s/70s Chrysler fan knows you carry a spare ballast resistor at all times, but with an aftermarket HEI ignition I suddenly realised we don’t even need the bloody thing. I made a short cable to bypass the resistor and plugged it in. This was the last shot – if this didn’t work, we’d have to pull the pin, pack everything into the Ranger and leave the bloody Dodge there.
We hit the key and it fired up, but that didn’t prove anything; it had done that a dozen times already. Would it run for 10 minutes? We decided to find out.
We were at one end of the Westgate Bridge; could we make it to the other end? Like the tunnel, breaking down on the Westgate would create traffic chaos and ruin the afternoon of several hundred thousand people. With that in the back of our minds, we headed over the bridge, and made it. Ten minutes down the road the Dodge was still purring along, and it just kept on going.
We made it to the BP at Wallan, north of Melbourne, for the first of many refills. The big Dodge is a thirsty beast, but it seemed like we’d found the problem so the team was all smiles. We were up for a big weekend.
At Seymour we diverted from the mighty Hume Highway and headed up through Shepparton to Tocumwal, with the Dodge so loaded up the tailpipes clattered against the leaf springs all the way. Just before we hit Tocumwal I’d had enough and pulled over to remove the pipes. When I announced my intentions, Gus looked over at me incredulously and said: “Really?”
We were just about to get started when Harry Haig pulled up with his mate Phil in an HT panel van. Over a quick coldie we discussed the problem and then jacked up the Dodge. We removed the back wheels, unbolted the tailpipes and slid them out. “Now what are you going to do with them?” Harry quipped. I slid the two very long three-inch-diameter tubes into the Dodge’s cavernous boot and closed the lid, grinning like a Cheshire cat. “Well f**k me,” Harry exclaimed. “That’s a big boot!”
We filled up at Tocumwal and ran into a Carnage fan: “I just watched the first episode of this car this morning,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s here!” To be honest, we couldn’t believe it either, but we’d finally made it out of Victoria.
As evening approached we started looking for accommodation. Skippy and his mates were pretty thick along the roads, so we pulled up in Griffith for the night.
Early the next morning we broke the silence with 440 cubes of Dodge’s finest and woke everyone in the motel. Without tailpipes, it was just a little loud, so Gus and I closed the doors in unison and left as quickly as we could. The 55-year-old speedometer decided it was not long for this world and was making some serious grinding noises, so I climbed under the dash and disconnected it at the first opportunity. For the rest of the trip we used a GPS app on my phone, which we mounted on the dash. Thankfully the cigarette lighter worked to keep the devices charged.
With a fresh tank of fuel, we headed north from Griffith to Hillston. The Dodge only gets around 300km to a tank, but after two hours in the old bench seat you’re looking for an excuse to stretch your legs anyway. Without the clanging of the tailpipes or the speedo grinding, the Dodge made for a pleasant cruiser. Up the back, the combination of tall 275/60 BF Goodrich tyres and 3.23 diff gears saw us burbling along nicely. We filled up one more time at Hillston for the last 260km section to Cobar, but with nowhere to buy fuel along the way we filled a couple of plastic jerry cans to make sure we’d make it.
As the vineyards were replaced by red dirt and scrub you could really see the impact the drought has had on central NSW. The kangaroos were camped out along the road during daylight hours looking for every bit of food they could find, and the amount of fresh roadkill was beyond belief. It didn’t pay to travel too close behind trucks, as we discovered; they’d swerve to miss a dead ’roo at the last moment, leaving you with nowhere to go. We scored at least one solid hit on the front wheel, but luckily the Dodge is built like a Soviet-era tank and just shrugged it off.
The countryside was amazing with the contrasts of the red dirt and scrubby bush; you can see why the Running On Empty producers chose Cobar as the location for Mike and his companions to go “burn a few wood ducks”. We would have loved to stop in at Mt Hope for a beer, but we had our target in sight and before long we were rolling into Cobar just as cars were coming back from the cruise out to Rebel’s Garage. It was a glorious sight, seeing all that fine metal rolling into town.
But best of all, we had made it in a 55-year-old Dodge with soggy suspension and a thirst for fuel; actually that probably described the passengers as well. I can’t even describe how happy I was to be standing in front of that Cobar sign.
You can read all about the Running On Empty Festival on page 74. I’ll just say we had a blast, but in less than 24 hours we were headed back to Melbourne with nothing but empty pockets and memories that’ll last a lifetime. As for the Dodge? It just improves with every mile, and we’ve got plans to make it even better.