Shitbox Rally

Once again, due partly to bad planning and partly bad luck, preparation of the Mini for this year’s effort in the Shitbox Rally had come down to the last minute. That would prove critical.

However, the trip to Perth for the start was without incident.

I drove the Mini to Adelaide, revelling in the newfound ability of the engine. Apart from fuel stops and a couple of other unscheduled interruptions it was plain sailing.

The first stop was less than an hour from home, to make some adjustments to the wheel alignment.

There was an unexpected stop just south of Ararat, to wait for the Overland train to Adelaide to pass by. I also made a short stop in Kiata, to again visit Rod Warrwick at his P76 museum, and stopped for a quick look at an old run-down building at Lillimur, near the South Australian border.

A final stop for a kip at Coomandook then an easy run into Adelaide, arriving after dark.

The next morning the Mini was loaded onto the flat tray truck of Cliff Mayes, who had offered to carry the Mini over to Perth for me.

I wasn’t concerned about driving the Mini to Perth, but the additional 3,000km or so before the rally even started was something I preferred to avoid. Thanks to Cliff, and his boss Andrew, for organising the truck.

Cliff and I got away from Adelaide after the morning peak (yes, Adelaide does have a peak period) and headed for Perth.

Again, there were no incidents and we had a pleasant four-day trip, sharing the driving. Camping was the order of the day, with me in my tent, and Cliff in the back of the truck’s cabin.

We stopped over at Wudinna (the truck wasn’t permitted in the camping ground, but larger mobile homes were); Eucla ($3.50 for 600ml of month-old, frozen plain milk!); and Norseman (a great night had thanks to BMCE readers Greg and Judy Wiseman).

A police road block just out of Eucla, proved an interesting interlude. They had over a dozen police cars and were working around the clock in shifts, to check mainly on log books, illegal cargo and driver fatigue with truckies. Not surprisingly, all the truckies were aware of the four-day “blitz” and many were sitting it out at either end of the Nullarbor.

We arrived in Perth, at Cono and Ruth Onofaro’s place, amid torrential rain on Friday night, so delayed getting the Mini off the truck until Saturday morning.

Unfortunately, Cono had been rear-ended in his Mini on the way home from work, and spent much of Friday evening at the local hospital. Thankfully there was no serious injury, but the Mini was a bit worse off.

The next week was spent doing some final preparations on the Mini, some last-minute shopping, a couple of photo shoots for the magazine and catching up with some old friends.

I also popped in to the annual general meeting of the Mini Owners’ Club of WA on the Sunday.

My brother Gary arrived on Thursday night, then there were a few final chores, a visit to our uncle for lunch, the Friday night briefing for the rally, then an early start for the rally on Saturday morning in Kings Park.

The excitement was palpable, as hundreds of people had come to see the start. Wilf Chambers popped in with a few mates to see us off, and there was much fun as people readied their various Shitboxes.

The cars lined up and we were away.

The Rally

Fast-forward four days...

We had arrived at Fitzroy Crossing in the far north of Western Australia, on the end of a tow rope – thanks to regular faces in this magazine, David and Jane from the MG Car Club of Victoria.

This was because, only about 50km from the day’s destination, the Mini had expired amid a huge cloud of smoke.

After reaching camp I set about pulling the head off the engine, with memories of last year’s oil-burning, valve chewing engine still vividly clear.

This time, though, there was to be no easy fix. I stood staring forlornly into the bowels of the engine, my head torch clearly illuminating the small hole in the top of the piston in number-two cylinder.

“That’s it”, I said. “Our rally is over.” I was gutted!

I have to admit, I was completely stumped. A head gasket or exhaust valves would have been no problem, but this was something completely beyond my experience.

I take full responsibility for what had happened. I hadn’t explained clearly enough to David Walker, the engine builder, the need to have the engine able to run on 91 RON petrol. I knew from all my other travels around the country that getting 98 RON was next to impossible once you get off the main highways and away from the big cities, but I hadn’t passed on the info. “Don’t forget”, David said just before I left Melbourne, “you must run this engine on at least 98 octane. Better still if you can give it some octane booster.”

Er…right. Well, I didn’t have time to get the octane booster in Melbourne and completely forgot about it in Perth. After all, I’d had no trouble getting good fuel up this point and the engine was a ripper.

It pulled really well from low down and cruised happily at 110 km/h, thanks to the 3.21:1 differential. The engine had been overbored 100 thou, making it about 1250cc, and had high compression, flat-top pistons. It was a good, strong, reliable, fast-road engine.

Unfortunately, when I really needed the octane boost, I couldn’t get it. They don’t sell that sort of thing at places like Meekatharra or Marble Bar, let alone Paynes Find or Capricorn Roadhouse.

The first three days were almost without incident for us, apart from one flat tyre on the first short bit of rough dirt. On the morning of Day 4 we also had a hold-up after dislodging the radiator while getting off Cable Beach in Broome.

We had no trouble keeping up with the rest of the convoy and the engine was, we thought, running sweetly.

The irony was that while all our problems last year were due to the engine being crap, this year all our problems were because the engine was too good.

It didn’t help that I had let the car run out of fuel on a number of occasions, which apparently is not good for a high performance engine.

Having been warned by David on Facebook that this could cause us to burn a hole in a piston, I immediately removed it from the daily routine. I was also able to fill the tank and replenish the two jerry cans with 98 RON fuel at Broome, but the damage had already been done.

The result was the aforementioned situation that greeted us at Fitzroy Crossing.

I was unable to think of a solution and had resigned myself to the fact the Mini would be going home on the back of a truck – Gary has RACV Total Care and we had already sussed out with them that they would get the car home.

There were dozens of ideas thrown about and discussed, but after having a word with the chief mechanic, Alex Hallowell, (and after Gary had helped drag me out of the doldrums) I said that I would be happy if we could patch up the hole in the piston and continue on three cylinders.

Alex suggested a radical approach: plug the hole with a pop-rivet, remove the two pushrods from number-two cylinder, bolt it all back together and give it a go.

So, that’s what we did. Once the decision had been made, it was all action and the engine was back together in about an hour – thanks in no small part to the help I received from another rally entrant, Steve Thompson from Melbourne. We also left the spark plug in place, to avoid the engine ingesting any dust.

Fuel would still be an issue, but by retarding the timing only two degrees, we didn’t have any more problems.

In fact, the engine ran remarkably well on three cylinders – although our maximum highway speed was reduced to around 85 to 90 km/h. On the dirt it was almost unnoticeable.

So, we headed off on Day 5 toward the Gibb River Road, not knowing if the engine would survive 10 km, a day or until the end of the rally.

Before the Gibb, though, was the Leopold Downs Rd, which took us to Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge. Both these sites were spectacular, especially Tunnel Creek, where we had lunch after spending a good hour or so exploring the area.

But the road was already taking its toll, with a number of cars on trailers before we’d even reached the Gibb River Road.

The Gibb has earned its reputation of being one of the roughest in the country, but conditions vary greatly depending on the weather and how recently it has been graded.

From where we turned onto it, the first 20km or so was quite smooth, as a grader was in the process of improving the road after the recent wet season. This gave us a bit of a false sense of security, but once we had passed the limit of the grading the road quickly turned nasty.

Yet the Mini ate it up without a hint of trouble. The suspension soaked up the bumps, provided we could keep the speed up, but some of the rough sections where we had to slow down just about shook all the fillings out of our teeth. Not to mention all the items that shook off the parcel shelf in the Mini.

We arrived at Mt Barnett roadhouse, about half way along the Gibb, a bit after dark, to find about 20 patients in Triage: the service area for sick cars. The road had taken its toll and it was a scene of carnage. Remarkably, all but two of the cars were rescued thanks to the incredible bush mechanics on the rally – and the sacrifice of many parts from one of the “dead” cars.

The next day was “the big one”. Not just for the distance, which was considerable, but because we had about a dozen creek crossings, topped off by the crocodile-infested Pentecost River. We had an early start, leaving camp at around 8am.

If you would like to read the rest of this story, grab a copy of the magazine from your local newsagent (in Australia) or subscribe today – or download the digital version.


The BMC Experience Issue 11. Oct-Dec 2014 Magazine

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