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Restoring the Ute, Part 2

The practicalities of starting a car restoration

By Julian Edgar

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In Part 1 of this series (Restoring the Ute, Part 1) we met my new acquisition – a pair of 1968 Austin 1800 utes. The uniquely Australian vehicle was made in small numbers on the BMC Zetland production line in Sydney.  So what had I bought – and how was I to get them home?

But first let’s take a step back.

The eBay ad

Even before I saw the ad for the utes on eBay, I was aware of two 1800 utes for sale locally. Just on a random chance, I’d spied them through the fence of a Canberra wrecking yard - and had wandered inside. The price was $4000 and for that you got two battered and rusty utes and an unknown number of new parts stored in a shed. Given the condition of the bodies (even the better of the two would have needed major work like sill replacement) I’d decided to leave them.

But then, about 18 months later, I saw the eBay ad. ‘Rare pair of Mk 1 Austin 1800 Utes’ it said. The text went on:

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A pair of 1968 manual Mk 1 Austin 1800 utes both originally made in 'duck egg' blue but one has been roughly painted red at sometime.  Both are quite straight with only very small dents and neither appear to require  panel replacement.  Floors in both are good and load areas had surface rust in patches which was neutralised years ago

I have so many NOS parts for both collected over the years which would take me forever to list but just to whet your appetite, some NOS parts include hydrolastic displacers, front and rear lenses, gear change cable sets etc etc.  Those in the know will realise how valuable and rare some of these parts are.  I haven't even mentioned the used parts I have suitable for both vehciles. 

There was lots more but the upshot was that the utes had been stored in a shed for the last decade and they would come with lots of new and second-hand parts that had been collected over that time.

And the cars were located less than 10 kilometres from where I live!

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I arranged a time with the seller and, armed with a powerful torch, went off to inspect them. And what I initially saw was pretty good. I examined each car closely. The red one presented better but was less ‘honest’ – it had been repainted, had some body filler and the interior had been retrimmed (but was still pretty daggy). The blue one looked absolutely genuine: undercoat showing through the paint where the top coat had been worn away and it had a complete factory interior – although inside the cabin it was very tired.

And the available parts? The seller had a huge shed in which he was storing the two Austin utes, four Minis, a Humber and a Triumph Stag! His wife had an MGB, he had another four Triumph 2000s in the yard – and the shed was full of parts for all these cars. So sorting out what parts would be included with the 1800s was problematic; however the seller could show me Hydrolastic displacers (the foundation units of the rubber/fluid suspension), dashboard bits, taillights and new gear-change cables.

The eBay starting price was $2000 – much better value than the cars at the wreckers – and the vendor wanted the auction to run the full course. In the end, I was the only bidder.

Getting them home

Often at this point when someone is talking about buying a car to restore, they’ll airily say: “So I dragged it home on the car trailer and then…” Trouble is: what if you don’t have a car trailer? Or a car to pull that trailer?

My wife’s Skoda Romster has a towbar, but add the 1100-odd kg Austin to perhaps 400kg of trailer and not only is the towed mass greater than that of the towing car, but the towbar would be way overloaded. I rang my local hire equipment place and they came up with a solution. The owner would hire me his personal diesel Toyota Landcruiser, together with a car trailer - the total cost being $280 plus fuel. That amount covered the rig for 24 hours.

However, given how wedged the Austins were within the shed, I didn’t want to start the hire period until I knew the two utes could actually be extracted! So that was why, one Friday morning, I was lying half under an Austin ute rear wheel, the vehicle supported on a jack-stand, while I tried to unfreeze a drum brake that hadn’t turned in ten years…

It took us about three hours to get the utes out the door of the shed. All the tyres were flat, there was that seized brake drum, and both cars had to be slid sideways on dollies before they could be pushed forward. But at last they were ready to go and so I went off and collected the Landcruiser and trailer.

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Backing the rig into the yard was nearly impossible (the rear window of the Landcruiser was so high than you couldn’t see the trailer) and as soon as I’d finalised hire of the 4WD and trailer, it started to rain. The trailer winch had the disconcerting habit of slipping, and manually winching a car up a slope and onto a trailer takes lots of sustained effort!

The trip home was short but then the next question was: how do I get the cars off the trailer? Rather than place the cars in their final locations, I decided to park the trailer on a slope and let them roll off under gravity, the winch (and chocks) being used to slow the descent. If the trailer had been level, I think it would have taken three or four people to get the Austins off: none of the wheels turned easily.

The second car was a repeat of the first, and then I rushed the Landcruiser and trailer back to the hire place. The early return dropped the hire amount to $180 plus $30 of fuel.

By that stage it was too late in the day to collect all the parts that came with the cars, so I agreed to return to the seller the next day.

Just a bit mad…

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The night after picking up the cars, I was too excited to sleep soundly. So, at first light the next day, I leapt from bed, got dressed and then headed out to the two Austin utes, which at this stage were parked in the front yard.

Soon I was sitting in one, grasping the steering wheel and peering at the imaginary road ahead.

Just then, a neighbour drove by and I waved airily to him through the open window.

It was only later that I realised how mad I must have looked, sitting in what was clearly a decrepit car, pretending to drive – and at 6.30 on a Saturday morning!

The Parts

By the time I got back to the seller the next day, he’d been busy. Sorted-out on the shed floor was a large number of parts to suit the Austins. As I loaded them individually into my car, I asked the seller about each part. Mostly I asked in genuine ignorance: what is this?!

There were literally hundreds of bits, ranging from obvious (taillights) to obscure (throttle bracket), from decrepit (a clutch master cylinder) to brand new (two CV joints).

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When I got all the parts home, I decided to construct a spreadsheet with every part listed, together with its condition. That way, by looking at the spreadsheet list and then examining the cars, I’d know what parts I’d need to source. For example, nowhere in the parts list were window winders, and neither of the two purchased cars had a pair of window winders – so add ‘window winders’ to the list of bits to find.

In addition to the parts, I also got from the seller lots of workshop manuals, a parts manual and a stack of copies of old newsletters from the Landcrab Club of Australia.

The Cars

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The seller had told me that the red car had been running 10 years ago – but with a smoky engine. The blue car he’d never heard run, but he’d been told it had a rebuilt engine.

I considered briefly trying to get both engines started then decided against it. One of the club newsletters made the point that the bearings in these engines could be etched by acidic oil, and that this was quite likely to have occurred  if the car hadn’t run for a long time.

I wanted the (single) restored car to be reliable and long-lasting – so that pretty well required an engine rebuild, no matter which engine was picked.

That decision meant I was free to start stripping the better of the two cars – and further inspection showed that to definitely be the blue one. Off came the lights, the towbar (a cracked factory one – the red ute had a stronger but uglier aftermarket design), the front and rear bumpers and the radiator.

At this stage I was working outside: my new home workshop was yet to be built.

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I then turned to the interior, taking out the battered bench seat (and finding $3.95 in coins at the same time), removing the dash and stripping-out the interior trim. At each stage I was looking for rust – would there be great big holes behind this trim panel, or pinholes, surface rust or pristine paintwork? Incredibly, in nearly all areas there was just lots of red dust – and good paint.

However, looking through the inspection openings in the huge sill panels showed that there was some flaking rust within the sills – the exterior panels were not perforated, so perhaps it had not penetrated far.

And, at the base of the rear window, there also looked to be some rust. I took out the rear window (happy to cut the hard rubber seal because I knew that replacements are readily available – the rubber profile looks the same as the windscreen) and found that there was indeed some rust in this panel – but again it hadn’t resulted in holes.  (This was actually an odd place for rust to form – perhaps condensation had been running down the rear glass during the decade of shed storage?)

So things were looking good – no unpleasant surprises but still without any doubt, a lot of work in every single area of the car.

In Part 3: removing the mechanicals

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