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Restoring the Ute, Part 3

A change in direction

By Julian Edgar

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Last time in Part 2 of this series we met my two new acquisitions – a pair of late 1960s Austin 1800 utes. Back in that story I’d got them home and started pulling them apart, working in the front yard while my new shed was being built. Now, things have moved along a great deal – and have also changed a bit in direction.

Mechanicals

I decided that of the two utes, the blue one had the better body - so that’s the one I am working on. I stripped the cabin interior, and then removed the engine/transmission unit.

Still working outside in the sun and the rain at this stage, the engine/trans (the trans is mounted beneath the engine - the engine and gearbox share the same oil) came out fairly easily, with just some hidden cable-ties on the gear-change cables causing some problems.

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Many weeks were passing, and by this stage I had a shed. We pushed the engine-less car into the shed, mounted the body to a purpose-bought rotating spit, and then I was able to remove the wheels and suspension units.

Nearly everything mechanical looked in decent condition – for example, only one of the high-leverage suspension pushrod seats was worn, while the steering tie-rod joints looked good. The front ball joints need replacement (or re-shimming), but overall, things looked pretty good.

With the exception of one of the hub nuts and the majority of the tailgate bolts (they were seized solid), everything undid as easily as it should have, and no threads were stripped or bolt heads rounded.

Body

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With a big project like this, I am happiest working on many things simultaneously – when I get bored with doing one thing, I can do another. So concurrently with the suspension removal, I started work on the body. Out came the glass, the rear quarter panels came off, as did the doors, bonnet and tail-gate.

In Part 2 of this series I suggested that the body had very little rust – and so it does, for a car of this age.

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However, the rust that I could see in the front corner of the tray proved to be more extensive than first thought, and the left-hand sill will need full replacement as it is perforated along its length. More rust may well be found on the right-hand side of the car – at this stage I am working only on the left side of the body.

But incredibly, there appears to be no rust more serious than thin surface rust in the tail-gate, doors and rear quarter panels.

Engines, engines…

But the big news is a radical change in engine direction.

It had been my intention to have the engine and transmission rebuilt to factory warm specs. The same engine with twin carbs and a higher compression ratio was used in an ‘S’ version of the 1800 sold in the UK, and the MGB sports car also used a warm version of the 1800’s engine. 

I found a specialist in rebuilding these engines, and asked for a quote. I also said that I wanted it done properly so that I didn’t need to do anything other than normal maintenance for a long time. Having owned an 1800 before, I also said I needed a bit more power than standard.

On the phone the workshop man was authoritative and everything he said made sense. I’d need, he said:

-       A warmer camshaft (and they had a good grind they used)

-       Full engine balance

-       ARP head studs and conrod bolts

-       Vandervell bearings

-       Boring-out to 1900cc

-       New pistons and rings

-       Valves the same size as the 1800S

-       Light porting of the head

-       Setting up of the head for unleaded fuel

-       Bosch electronic ignition

-       An alternator to replace the standard generator

-       Extractors

-       Twin 1½ inch SU carbies – and they’d need to be sourced new or be fully rebuilt

-       Throttle linkages and airfilters

-       Rebuilt gearbox with typically a new layshaft needed

He also made the point that I should expect everything to be worn-out – so not needing a quick recondition but needing a full rebuild.

I couldn’t argue with any of these points, and when you add up the cost in terms of parts, machining and labour, you’ll come to about the price he did… AUD$5,500 – 6,000. In fact, throw-in the sourcing of better con-rods (the engine came with two different designs, one much weaker than the other), budgeting for a few problems (eg if more gearbox parts were needed) and the price could easily hit $7000.

Seven thousand dollars! For what? – an engine with perhaps 80kW (up from 64kW), still with fuel economy around 11-12 litres/100km, and nothing special in NVH.

And even if I did all the work myself (and I haven’t rebuilt an engine for many years, so I’d need to buy or hire some tools), the cost of the machining and new parts would be unchanged.

(And yes, I did get a quote from another workshop – it was similar and the person was obviously less knowledgeable, so not an attractive proposition.)

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And it’s not like the engine is anything great, anyway. A pushrod design with iron block and iron head, the head doesn’t even have one port per cylinder – let alone a crossflow design. Utterly unlike the suspension system (which has advantages over even many current designs – see More than just bounce…) and the 1800’s body, which is incredibly stiff for the era of the car (see One Very Stiff Body!), the engine has nothing – nothing at all – that’s cutting-edge about it.

And my spirits sank at the thought of paying out so many dollars, only to have an engine that, in absolute terms, was still no performer.

So my thoughts started turning towards engine swaps. Or, engine, gearbox, driveshaft, brakes and fuel system swaps…

I looked around the web, and asked on the 1800 mailing list, to see if anyone had done an engine swap to an Austin 1800. Apart from mention of someone who had apparently shoe-horned a Buick V6 into one, and the Australian factory prototype that used an extended nose and ran a Leyland V8 (still with FWD!), I could find no mention of new engines in these cars.

And the reason no one had done it? Perhaps one reason is that the engine bay is actually pretty darn small. The manufacturer boasted that 80 per cent of the car’s length was devoted to carrying passengers and cargo – and it’s probably more than 80 per cent with the 230mm longer ute body. With the engine transversely positioned in the nose, with the gearbox beneath the engine, and with the radiator facing a front wheel, what you end up with is a tall but narrow 1.8 litre powerplant.

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In fact, a tape measure shows a width of 850mm, a max height of (a decent) 750mm, and – and here’s the issue – a longitudinal engine bay dimension that varies from 570 to 650mm, depending on the height at which you make the measurement. (And that includes leaving space for a front radiator.)

That last dimension is a killer, especially with the large intake and exhaust manifolds that late model engines use. The distance is especially small in the Austin because the front suspension displacers (combined spring/damper units) are housed in a horizontal tube that runs across the lower/middle of the firewall. This tube is inset into the firewall (that is, it intrudes into the passenger cabin as well) and with the original engine, made clever use of otherwise wasted space.  But with modern engines, it appears likely to be positioned just where the intake or exhaust manifolds would be…

Surprises

I am perhaps unusual in that I have pretty well never worked on an old car. I am very used to modern machinery – in fact, so used to it that I am amazed by some of what I have found in the 1960s, Australian-built Austin.

Like what then?

Well, firstly the build quality is lousy.

Clearly, the instructions were to spot weld the panels together at 1 inch (25mm) intervals. That’s very close spacing, and in part explains the car’s great body rigidity. But it’s not at all unusual to see spot welds that kinda missed the flanges…

And the (lack of) care of the people who built the car is obvious in other areas as well. Sound deadening installed crookedly. Panels roughly beaten down with a hammer to ease the installation of outer panels over the dented inners.

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Access holes cut out of the inner rear quarters to allow the wiring to the rear lights to be installed (and bulbs to be changed) – and the holes roughly made with an oxy cutting torch! (And both utes are the same in this regard – it’s just how they did it….)

The MIG welding (used in just a few places) is appalling – like a beginner’s attempt.

Another thing that strikes me as odd is the quality of the electricals. There’s not a relay in the car – instead all the loads are run right through the switches. No wonder the floor-mounted dipswitch has such thick wires going to it.

But there are other aspects of the car I find impressive.

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The body is so stiff that if you place the car on four jack-stands, and the floor isn’t dead level (and the car dead straight), one jack-stand will always be loose – the car simply doesn’t torsionally deflect sufficient to equalise the weight on the stands.

Another aspect I like is that there is not an inner panel that doesn’t have shaped pressings in the metal – even the panel that supports the seat is clearly a structural part of the monocoque. (And I previously have mentioned how the metal dashboard panel is a stressed member.)

Finally, in any modern context, the brakes are tiny, the engine/trans unbelievably heavy (try a quoted 250kg!)…. and the space utilisation outstanding.

Progress

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So right now I am working on the body, repairing the rust and straightening the (relatively small) dents.

But I am also looking and measuring engines and transmissions, scouring the auction and car sale sites, looking for something that will fit, has low kilometres, and will provide decent performance and fuel consumption…

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