Street Machine - - Contents -

We take our ’63 Dodge Phoenix on an 1800km road trip into the dusty depths of out­back NSW

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 the Run­ning On Empty Fes­ti­val – though we were al­ready run­ning a 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. I 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 I 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.


Fresh out of the packet, the new plates were on for less than 10 min­utes be­fore we hit the road to Co­bar. We made it only 200m be­fore the Dodge conked out

ABOVE: The more we drove it, the bet­ter the Dodge got. We were run­ning in a new mo­tor so we didn’t give the 440 a hard time, but as we ate up the miles it felt even hap­pier Harry and Phil ar­rived to raid our Esky and lend a hand with the tailpipes. The boys tried to make it to Co­bar that night, but after a cou­ple of close calls with ’roos they pulled over to wait un­til morn­ing

The feel­ing of re­lief when we made it to Co­bar was in­de­scrib­able. What re­ally amazed us was the num­ber of peo­ple who knew we were headed north and con­grat­u­lated us on mak­ing it. Ap­par­ently not many peo­ple thought we would

on the bot­tom. They’re only flat of road The bumpier sec­tions butt-puck­er­ing gave us a few the low-hang­ing mo­ments, with against the header pipes hit­ting we’ll have to oc­ca­sion­ally; road about that do some­thing It may be ugly, but the Dodge still man­ages to draw a crowd. We gave it a wash as soon as we hit town, did some cruis­ing and then re­tired to the pub for a bit of lunch and a thirst-quench­ing ale

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