Like many Australians, I’d traveled throughout the world but I’d never driven around my own country - Australia. I'd done various trips throughout the country and have been to all the capital cities. But there was still a lot of the country I’d never been to. “See Australia first” is a common saying in Australia. But very few Australians seem to do that. As soon as they get enough money together for an overseas trip they’re off and generally looking for a job in a foreign land. Seeing Australia is something one can do at any stage of one’s life, preferably in the later stages. I suppose that is true. It takes a little more stamina to put up with the trials and tribulations of traveling in a foreign country especially when you don’t know the language and customs.
So, at the ripe old age of 52 years, I decided that it was time to go out and take a closer look at my own country. A trip all the way around the country. I’d thought about the idea of driving Hewie around the country for some time. The final push to do it was when I met some people who introduced themselves and then said that they were from the state of Victoria.
“Where in Victoria?” I asked, assuming they would probably be from Melbourne.
“We’re from Warrnambool” they replied.
I must have looked puzzled. I was. I’d heard of Warrnambool but I’d never been there. I couldn’t place it in my mind exactly where it was. I thought that it was slightly inland. Before I could say anything more they decided to ease my embarrassment
“It’s on the Great Ocean Road.”
I’d never been anywhere near Great Ocean Road. Luckily I knew where it was, but still, I didn’t know where on The Great Ocean Road, Warrnambool was. Yep, I felt somewhat dumb. I thought to myself, get off your ass and drive around Australia so that you know as much as possible about the country you call your own!
Just after I’d left school in 1969 I set off from Sydney to hitch-hike around. I hitched to Adelaide and then caught the train to Perth. From here I hitched up to Port Hedland on the west coast. I was hoping to make it through top Broome and then onto Darwin but it was the wet season. The monsoon rains poured down in the Kimberleys and flooded the track through to Darwin. And that’s all the main road was, from 300 miles north of Perth, right the way through to Katherine – a dirt track. I had to cheat and fly into Darwin and then continue my hitch hiking trip down through the Northern Territory, across into Queensland and back down to Sydney.
I was in a good position to do an extensive trip again. My work is maintaining a website, so there was no real need to be in the same place. Anyplace I could connect my computer to a phone line and I was back in the office. In fact if I was able to connect and make the required changes to the site at regular intervals, no one would ever know that I wasn’t in the office. It’ll be kind of like living in Cyberspace – that sounds cool, I thought to myself.
What better car to do it in than Hewie? Good old side-valve reliability! At least that was what I thought. Family and friends thought differently.
“In that thing???” they'd say.
“You’ve got to be joking!”
“Let it die in peace, for god sake”
“Why flog a dead pony?”
“You need a four-wheel drive to go around Australia”
Naturally, this just made me more determined to do the trip. I’ll prove them all wrong. Does it matter if Hewie does break down?. He’s small and simple, I’ll be able to repair him myself. I’ll write a book about the ordeal, I thought. Yeah, that’s a great idea, write a book. I thought back to one of my favourite stories, a true story by Canadian author Farley Mowat, titled The Boat That Wouldn’t Float. It’s the tale of a yacht the author bought with the intention to go cruising. The boat leaked like a sieve, but he still set sail hoping to fix the numerous problems the boat had along the way. The most serious of these problems was that the boat was continually attempting to sink.
I suppose Hewie was a little like Farley Mowarts' yacht. Hewie was well cared for but had never gone through a ground-up bare metal, restoration. He’d been repainted in three different colours. The first was a light blue, then he was then resprayed a dark green and now the final colour is a light cream. Some of the wiring is still original. The engine is not the original. As far as the gearbox and differential go, whether they’re original or not, I don’t know.
With my mind made up that I was going I took the carburettor off and sent it away for a complete reconditioning. The gaskets were all leaking petrol and I could wobble the butterfly shaft around in the hole, it was so worn.
Hewie had started to use a lot more petrol than usual in the last couple of months. A strong smell of petrol was coming up into the cabin. When I sat at traffic lights smoke from the tappet cover and oil pipe would drift up from under the bonnet. If I sat too long with the engine idling at traffic lights she let out a cloud of blue smoke when I took off. The oil pressure would run at 40psi when the engine was started from cold. But once the engine warmed up and got to maximum operating temperature, the pressure would drop down to around 10psi. while idling and 30psi at normal running conditions. The engine was on its last leg. It would probably run for a lot longer if I’d just used it to go shopping in, but, a trip around Australia? I don’t think so.
While the carburettor was off being repaired I took the head off the engine. It confirmed my worst fears. The top edges of the numbers two and three pistons were both broken. They were only small breaks but it was obvious that they’d both give trouble in the near future. I went back to the old highlight side-valve engine that I’d placed in the side of the garage in a box. I pulled off the top of the box and undid all the head bolts and slid the head off. Inside she looked as good as it sounded. The engine was in almost new condition. The tops of the pistons still had silver patches where carbon had not been deposited. When I say “new” I mean reconditioned new. The valves were also in good condition. I thought about grinding in the valve seats but I was far too impatient to get moving. My main job was to remove the old engine and get the “new” one in and get on the road.
It was late September 2004. My plan was to head north to near Cairns, then drop back to Townsville, across to Mount Isa, then up to Darwin. From Darwin down to Perth across the Nullarbor to Adelaide, then Melbourne and back up the east coast through Sydney to Ballina where I was leaving from. December is the beginning of the monsoon season. Not only is it wet but roads are often blocked due to flooding. I thought that I’d probably have enough problems along the way, let alone getting stranded by rising flood waters.
So I got to work with the help of my brother. First we unbolted and took off the front grill and removed the radiator, unbolted the manifold, battery leads, engine mounts and tail shaft and slid the whole engine and gearbox out in one piece. Once clear of the body we separated the engine from the gearbox and bolted the “new” engine onto the old gearbox, leaving the “new” engine with its own clutch. I was a little apprehensive about using the clutch that came with the “new” engine. I wasn’t sure of its condition. When I first acquired the highlight I drove it around the backyard and the clutch worked fine. Hopefully, it’ll still work the same when I put a load on it, like a handbrake start on a steep hill. I crossed my fingers and tightened up the bolts that hold the gearbox and engine together, then chained it to the small workshop crane that I’d hired from a local tool rental company. I wheeled it over and with some help slid the engine and gearbox back into position. As I was replacing the radiator I touched some of the fins and they crumbled into a powdery copper dust. “I wonder how well that’ll work as I travel through the hot Australian outback.” I thought to myself. I crossed my fingers again and bolted the radiator into place and fitted the radiator hoses. I then bolted on the chrome, as I lifted the heavy bumper bar I thought to myself how heavy it was and how much petrol I’d save if I just left it off. I looked at the heavy spring steel that it was made from. Then, as if to make it even heavier they’d included a chrome strip. I thought about the light plastic bumpers that are on the modern cars of today. I then climbed inside the car connected the clutch lever to the clutch pedal, screwed on the odometer cable, bolted up the tail shaft, rear mounting bolts, bolted the top back on the gearbox and secured the floor back down. We were nearly ready to hit the road.
I ordered a new head gasket but when it arrived in the mail it was damaged. Someone had tried to fold it! Copper-plated head gaskets don’t take kindly to this type of treatment. I sent it back and asked for a new one. It was slow in coming so I took off the head gasket from the old engine and gave it a couple of coats of silver paint. I then let it dry until it was just a little tacky and carefully placed it over the bolts and slid it down onto the engine. My brother came over and saw what I was doing.
“You get the new engine for free but you can’t even be bothered to wait to put a new head gasket on it. That won’t work!” he said.
My father stopped to have a look as I worked on Hewie, he was equally appalled at the sight of such shoddy mechanical work.
“The new head gasket hasn’t arrived yet. When it does arrive I’ll put it in a safe place, somewhere in the car. If this head gasket blows I’ve got one to replace it with. Hey, it’s a side-valve! How long does it take to replace a head gasket? Less than an hour!” I told them.
They didn’t agree. “Why not get the job done properly before you leave.” they told me.
I blew the last spot of dust off the head with an old vacuum cleaner and slid the head down over the new gasket, then hand tightened all the bolts then tightened them all down in sequence to 45 psi using a tension wrench that I’d borrowed from my father. He’d picked it up for $5 at a trash and treasure sale. It appeared that the people who were selling it had inherited it. They didn’t know what it was and were glad to see it go to a good home for $5. Whatever it was and wherever the good home was they didn’t really know or care.
I found a new manifold gasket in a box of spare parts that came with Hewie when I bought him. I, gave it a light coat of grease, placed it on the bolts and carefully tightened up the manifold, careful not to break the small bolts that hold the manifold on.
Australian Morris Minors had an oil bath air filter fitted and Hewie was no exception. On the new motor, the original oil bath had been taken off and replaced with a small light modern air filter. Arnold, the owner, told me that the car was used as a paddock basher just before he bought it. Replacing the heavy oil bath with the newer lighter model was a good idea. An SU carburettor specialist once told me that the extra weight of the old oil bath sitting on the end of the SU carburettor would often cause the neck to break, especially if the car was continually driven over rough roads.
I was very tempted to take the oil bath off for the trip and substitute it with a new, modern, air filter. It’d probably save a few gallons of fuel over the whole trip, but it would be a sacrilegious act. I thought of the people I’m probably going to show the engine to on the length of the trip. Everything under the bonnet was original – I’d better keep the character of the car intact, I thought to myself. Plus, I didn’t have any plans of going off-road on the trip. The main road all the way around Australia is sealed.
I drained the old oil out and filled the engine up with engine flush; a solution of cheap solvents. I turned it over with just the starter and drained out the sludge. The oil was so black it looked like it had never been changed. I then filled the sump up with the cheapest oil I could find - that cheap recycled oil you find in hardware and cut-price stores. I then polished up the points with a point file and gave it an estimated 18 thou gap. I lent someone my feeler gauge some time back and didn’t get it back. So I had to use the sharpness of my eye.
With it all set and ready I turned the ignition key, and the petrol pump started kicking away, then stopped. I crossed my fingers and pulled the starter. She kicked the first turn and ran smoothly. I stopped the engine and filled the radiator up with water, kicked “her”, sorry “him” over again and placed him in gear and let my foot out. There was a slight shudder when I let the clutch out. Once I got Hewie out on the street the engine sounded like it was singing. So smooth, so tight, memories of when I first bought Hewie 6 years earlier. I took him for a 20-kilometre drive. It was like I had just bought a new car. Arriving back, I dropped the sump plug and let all the old oil run out and filled him up with new oil and changed the oil filter. While I was changing oil I also changed the gearbox and differential oil, something I’d neglected since I’d last changed them about 10,000 miles ago. The whole engine change had taken me 3 days with help from my brother.
Hewie was now ready to roll.