Shitbox Rally

It was the oddest position to be in. I was sitting inside a type of igloo, made out of two poly-tarps, around the back corner of the Mini, while Brett and a couple of other guys weighted it down outside with numerous objects. 

Sitting inside, while I worked away at replacing all four wheel studs, I had time to ponder how we got to this point.

I was inside this makeshift igloo because the rear wheel had come off, breaking two studs and bending the others. 

We were 4km from Birdsville, in a sand storm, but inside the “igloo” was completely free of wind. It was the only way to replace the studs, and in the process to expose the rear wheel bearing, without filling everything with sand.

The reason the wheel had come off was that someone (I shall remain nameless) had neglected to tighten the wheel nuts properly after rebuilding the rear brakes the previous night. My excuse was fatigue, as I had worked on the car until 2am, and the one shot of Tequila I’d had before starting. 

There were four jobs to be tended to after the Birdsville Track. These were the aforementioned rear brakes; fixing the passenger side window that had fallen into the door and could not be wound up (taken care of by Brett); re-attaching the front number plate (simple and quick); and jerry-rigging a major repair to the floor.

The damage to the floor was the result of hitting a rock, about the size of my head (yep, huge), at around 90km/h. OK, it was simply a case of driver malfunction. 

Everything happens fairly quickly at 90km/h. The Birdsville Track is at times extremely rough and tackling it in a 1969 Mini Van requires total concentration as you dart from side to side of the track, looking for the smoothest path, avoiding the many large rocks and trying not to belly out on the high ridges formed by the countless 4WDs that usually ply their way on the Track.

It was late afternoon, we had been going since 8am and the Mini had been running brilliantly, when I saw two very large rocks directly in front of me. I swerved slightly to the left, but not far enough, lining up to put the right wheels between them, straddling one in the process. At the last second I realised that there was no way this mini Uluru was going to fit under the car.

I braced. Brett braced (he couldn’t believe I’d virtually aimed straight at the rock). The rock hit! The Mini bounced into the air and came down with a thud. I said the f-word. 

I didn’t stop, but quickly checked that everything was working. The steering was fine; brakes worked; all gauges showed normal. The rock had missed every vital and mechanical part. The brake line, fuel line and power cable were untouched!

But my knees were almost around my ears because the whole of the driver’s side front floor pan had been pushed up about four inches (100mm). The main cross-member had been similarly dislodged, which tilted my seat skywards. I felt ready for lift-off.

To say it was a big hit is an understatement. Even after I had bashed most of the floor back into shape with a large hammer, and pop-riveted (memories of last year’s piston) two of the torn pieces of metal together so the floor remained roughly intact, there is still a gaping hole, about the size of my fist, under the cross-member. 

We were very lucky it wasn’t more serious, as it could have been the end of our rally – or much worse.

A little later we wrecked a rear tyre on the rough track, but unrelated to the rock incident, so it was changed and we continued on, arriving at Birdsville well after dark.

After getting all the jobs done on the Mini I headed off to bed around 2:30am.

I have no defence about the wheel nuts though, except I’m a bit of a dill.

The next morning we had free time at Birdsville, with a late start for the drive to Boulia. Brett and I had decided to drive the 35km out to Big Red – the first major sand dune that forms the official entry into the Simpson Desert. This was something we had been planning since before leaving Melbourne. I had dreams of at least having a go at it, but knew there was no chance.

So it was that only about 4km out from Birdsville the rear wheel fell off. Luckily, I had packed four new studs and seven wheel nuts (three of which had already been used). The only problem was how to change the studs in a sand storm – hence the “igloo”.

When the job was finished we had run out of time to go out to Big Red, so returned to Birdsville just in time for the official departure.

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

The BMC Experience Issue 14. Jul-Sep 2015 Magazine


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