“We’re going to die, aren’t we?”
In fairness, my co-pilot’s response was to be expected. With a budget of just one thousand dollars, finding a suitable car to drive from Melbourne to Cairns via the Australian outback as part of the Shitbox Rally was always going to be a tough ask. Sure, there were a wide variety of Falcadores that could eat up the distance with relative ease, but they were hardly going to be a suitable choice for a driving team that consisted of a Japanese vehicle import broker and a Japanese parts importer. Besides, getting behind the true spirit of the rally (aside from its main purpose: raising money for the Cancer Council) involved choosing a car that had everyone wondering whether or not you were clinically insane.
My weapon of choice? A 1998 Daihatsu Move. A cursory glance over the specs is enough to cause heart palpitations for most car enthusiasts: 3 cylinders, 850cc, 31kW, 67Nm and fuel tank capacity of just 32 litres. A dry weight of just 749kg provided us a brief glimmer of hope until we realised the occupants alone would add nearly another 200kg before we’d begun to pack our gear into it. Just the thing for a 4000km journey through the bush then.
Having scoured the ‘eucalyptus tree’ website for a suitable vehicle Australia-wide for many months, the Move, amazingly, was advertised just a few blocks away, and owned by a young bloke very keen to offload it quickly. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but many of the things that turned off other buyers (such as the Perspex rear window) simply made it suitably shitty for the Shitbox Rally. With the deal done, and sponsors already keen to get involved, it was clear that the fridge-spec white paint scheme wasn’t going to cut the mustard.
Courtesy of my friends list, I located a graffiti artist nearby who was willing to paint the Move. In hindsight, I should’ve smelt a rat when our mutual friend mentioned he hadn’t seen any of this guy’s work. The resulting paint job was a melange of fluoro orange and green handprints, stars and love hearts stencilled onto the white background. To add insult to injury, the artist had also stencilled ‘HELP CANCER’ all over the car. Like the rest of the ‘art work’ it was done with the best of intentions, but we hardly wanted those reading it to take up smoking unfiltered cigarettes and baking themselves to a crisp every time the sun came out.
The response to the new design was pretty much as I expected. The mate who’d dropped me off had to drive away for fear that I’d see him bent over double with laughter. Kindergarten children began claiming the art work as their own. Dogs howled. Fellow road users suddenly found a need to turn their heads the other way. You get the idea. Photographs of the car in this state exist only on the phones of a select few people, and shall forever remain the case. (Update: until now. Enjoy.)
With little chance of getting corrective cosmetic surgery any time soon, I swallowed my pride and drove the Move in this state to a friend’s workshop to get a pre-rally service while I arranged the new paint job. As fate would have it, the workshop is situated on a major arterial road, and once the work was done, the Move was dispatched to the car park, in full view of vehicles cruising by. This in itself didn’t bother me – after all, there were no stickers connecting the car to me at that stage.
It had been parked there for no more than a few hours when I got a rather nervous phone call from my friend, the workshop owner. “Mate, this car of yours is a stolen car,” he said, just managing to cover some fairly raised voices in the background. Confused, I replied that I had done a REVS check prior to buying the car, and it had come back clean as a whistle. “That’s because the [insert illegal motorcycle club] don’t deal with the police.” So not only was the Move stolen, but it had been stolen from bikies. Awesome. The blood began to drain from my face as I pictured the scene: the owner and his fellow club members ride past on their Harleys and spot the car, looking like a float from the Sydney Mardi Gras. It was little wonder they weren’t too happy.
Having explained to them that I was using the car for a charity run, my mate then gave me the phone number of ‘Bear’ (nickname changed to protect the not-so-innocent), so I could call him and sort it all out. In fairness, Bear was surprisingly understanding about the situation, given that he was hardly going to be able take the car back with its new paint scheme. In the end, we agreed that, if he was unable to sort the situation out with the person who sold the car to me, I’d drop him five hundred dollars, a figure I was most happy to pay, despite already owning the car. With the formalities out the way, he began asking about the Shitbox Rally and how it all worked. His response: “Oh you’ll have no worries making it to Cairns in the Move. We used to drive it back and forth to Melbourne all the time.” So, to summarise, I may be the first person in history to inherit a drug courier car stolen from the [insert illegal motorcycle club], paint it like licorice allsorts and come away with both my kneecaps intact.
Oddly enough, preparations for the rally became a good deal smoother from that point forward. The factory steel wheels were replaced by some 13×5.5” aftermarket rims, mainly to give us a more common tyre sizing should we happen to shred our tyres in the middle of nowhere. Local Adelaide street artist, Ben Koller, volunteered his time to produce the amazing designs you can see now gracing these pages, all painted freehand. The chunky sub-woofer in the boot was removed with a shovel. When we had problems with tyres scraping, the rear guards were rolled and widened with a hammer and a crow bar. The front guards were flimsy enough that we could pull them out by hand. Ghetto mechanical work at its finest.
A few days before the rally was due to start, the Move got a shakedown run, doing the trip from Adelaide to Melbourne where further work could be completed at Import Monster HQ, supervised by my co-driver, boss Aaron Klaver. Resident spanner-twirler Drew McPhail was full of great ideas, the first of which was to ditch the factory rear springs and replace them with some Commodore jobbies, giving the car a little more height at the rear and making it less prone to bottoming out with a full load on board. I later lost count of how many times we thanked him for that once we hit the dirt roads.
Knowing that the route contained a number of river crossings, rally organisers warned us that we may want to check the height of our air intakes to avoid drowning our rides. In the case of the Move, the intake pipe dropped down below the right headlight, so it was clear that a snorkel setup was needed. After much head scratching, Drew hit upon the idea of flipping the factory intake pipe so that it faced rearward and upward, poking out near the base of the windscreen. Once cable-tied to the firewall, this new arrangement necessitated removal of the plastic windscreen cowl panel, only to then find the intake was fouling the driver’s side windscreen wiper. The solution? A backyard single wiper conversion, achieved by fitting a larger wiper blade to the passenger’s side wiper arm. British Touring cars, eat your hearts out.
And so, with all the necessary modifications complete, we filled the Move’s petrol tank and jerry can and began the lengthy process of loading all our gear into the back. Having binned the rear seat to create more luggage space, we were rather amazed to find that, with clever packing, our gear barely reached the tops of the seats rather than hitting the roof as we’d expected. Having not tested the car fully loaded, that was a challenge that we’d have to leave until the rally itself.
Day 1 – Melbourne to Wentworth
Loaded to the gunwales with two beefy blokes, a full tank of fuel and a mountain of gear, the Move’s acceleration had been reduced from ‘noticeable’ to ‘majestic’. Being dragged off at a set of lights by a Ford Festiva on the way to the rally start point was a sign of things to come.
Seeing our fellow entrants for the first time was quite a heartening experience, in that we were starting to feel like our choice of vehicle was relatively sensible. In keeping with the vibe of the Shitbox Rally, there were a wide variety of Alfa Romeos, Fiats, Saabs, Range Rovers and even an old 1960s Vauxhall Victor taking part. With one hundred and forty teams, the procession out of the city was quite a sight, and many a small Victorian country town came to a standstill to watch the mayhem as we coughed, spluttered, creaked and tooted our way past.
One South Aussie team that thought it was a great idea to purchase a $1000 Mercedes Benz were left questioning their wisdom when their ride blew its engine before they had even reached Bendigo. Amazingly, they managed to locate a local crash repairer who offered to swap their car for another similarly-shitty Mercedes Benz he had languishing in the back corner of the shop.
As for the Monster Chef team’s fortunes, we soon discovered why Daihatsu chose not to lumber the Move with air conditioning: it would’ve forced the driver to choose between forward motion and cold air. With the autumnal sun still packing a fair punch, travelling at highway speeds was therefore a compromise between passenger comfort (windows down) and maintaining the speed limit (windows up). The Move’s tall-boy styling and massive windows meant that my trucker’s tan quickly spread from my arm right up to the side of my face, forcing me to wear my cap sideways to prevent getting burnt, much to the amusement of the other Shitboxers overtaking us.
The highlight for the day came when, after much cajoling by our team mates via UHF radio, we wound the Move’s rubber band up tightly enough to overtake some grey nomads, although admittedly it was a wind-assisted attempt, courtesy of slipstreaming another entrant in a Falcon. Nevertheless, much hooting, hollering and high-fiving ensued once we’d completed the manoeuvre.
After stocking up on supplies (slab of beer) in Mildura, we crossed Australia’s two largest rivers, the Murray and the Darling, in the space of about five minutes as we slipped over the border into New South Wales, and reached our first campsite in Wentworth.
Day 2 – Wentworth to Tibooburra
Wentworth greeted us with a gorgeous, peaceful sunrise, sadly shattered by periodic yelps courtesy of a cold communal shower in the local footy team’s changerooms. Turtles were retreating into their shells, left, right and centre. What was initially thought to be fog was soon attributed to Volvo station wagon belching white smoke while the owners tried to locate the source of the problem.
With the pre-drive checks all completed, we filled the tank and hit the Silver City Highway, bound for Broken Hill. A quick check of fuel consumption suggested the Move, even with a full load, was still sipping fuel at a rate of just 7L/100km, prompting envious moans and groans from some mates in their dual-fuel Range Rover, who’d manage to empty their 70-litre LPG tank in the first 250 kilometres.
After driving for an hour or so, the Move, without notice (or permission, for that matter) began losing power, to the point that we were no longer able to hold the car in fifth gear and maintain our cruising speed. On the previous day, we thought we’d heard the motor pinging a little, but dismissed it, partly because the motor was hardly a highly-strung performance unit, and partly because there were a wide variety of similarly strange noises coming from other parts of the car that didn’t seem to be causing any issues. To add to the confusion, the power-loss problem disappeared after the car was given a rest.
Concerned that the two symptoms were related, we gave the Move a tank of fresh 98 octane, and the three cylinder powerhouse was soon purring like a kitten again, albeit a vibrating, slightly schizophrenic one. Just like flicking a switch, driving north from Broken Hill meant stepping out of modern society as we knew it. Mobile phone coverage began to disappear, and the generous two-lane highway that led us into the city was replaced with a narrow, bumpy 1.5-lane wide strip of bitumen, interspersed with some bump-stop-testing dips down into creek crossings bearing signs of recent flash flooding.
Of course, had we known about the state of the dirt roads that were to come, we would’ve held our tongues. Read the next instalment as we hit the dirt and tackle some of Australia’s toughest terrain.
First published in ‘High Performance Imports’ magazine, July 2012. Special thanks to Aaron Klaver for his pics!