We look back on Damien Lowe’s epic trip across the country in his award-winning VB Commodore. This article was originally published in the March 2009 issue of Street Machine magazine.
IT’S late afternoon in Midland, just outside Perth. Two cars wait at a servo while the passengers stretch their legs. Behind them lie Kalgoorlie, most of Western Australia, the Nullarbor, all of South Australia, Broken Hill and all of NSW up to Richmond, an hour west of Sydney’s CBD. Four days, 4104km. Crossing Australia overland is an iconic trip. People have done it in just about every model of car. This isn’t the first VB Commodore to make the trip but it’s almost certainly the neatest.
You’re probably familiar with Damien ‘Chubby’ Lowe’s SMOTY-nominated VB (SM, Mar ’08). It won Top Street Overall last year at Summernats, fulfilling a long-held dream, and this year moved to the Elite Hall. But Damien had another dream — to take CHU88Y to Motorvation, in Perth. And as he says: “I don’t do trailers.” With Summernats falling early, Damien and mates Matt Sims and Arron Wilpour had six days to get their shit in a heap. Any adventure needs support and since Arron’s VK was months away from rego, his 1990 Subaru Brumby got the nod to run as back-up.
Sunday, 11 January was D Day; 6am was the hour. At that time, Matt was in the shower, the VB was being loaded and its tank was dry. But by 6.50am the wheels were pointing west. The first few hours, travelling over familiar ground, didn’t really seem like a big deal. Stopping for lunch in Dubbo dented that aura; it’s pretty far west and after it everything started to look less like home. The real journey began somewhere out in those plains.
Just about the time the Brumby cut sick. Halfway between Cobar and Nyngan, a violent rumble suggested a flat tyre but with all rubber inflated, Arron suspected a halfshaft. With speeds reduced to a 90km/h limp, things seemed better. And after half an hour, they were: the problem fixed itself. By now air-con was looking good for two reasons — the hot air pouring through open windows bore the stench of sun-ripened roadkill. Shame neither car had it.
Worse, the VB made an attempt on the Brumby’s life. The passenger-side strut top rattled loose, fell on the road and was fired at the Scooby, bouncing off a front tyre and ricocheting off into the scrub. A brief search located the missing part on the far side of the road and despite serious scuffs it was intact and repairable.
More hours passed, punctuated only by fuel and refreshment stops, and at 6pm the trip meter clicked over to 1000km. Still 115km from Broken Hill, the intention was to stop at Silverton, where the entertainment included Chris Fraser’s Mad Max look-a-like XB, not to mention his awesome methanol drag engine. Before sunset there was just time to shoot CHU88Y at the famous Mad Max II Mundi Mundi lookout before a few celebratory bourbons, then dinner and bed.
Monday morning’s sunrise witnessed another early start. While Silverton slept, the two little cars who could got back into the game, small puffs of tyre smoke appearing now and then when CHU88Y bottomed through bigger dips. With the SA border not far away, the aims for the day were breakfast at Peterborough and Ceduna or further by the close of play. The convey reached the first quarantine station without a problem, and with no fresh fruit to declare it was straight on as planned.
After lunch the sun turned it on and the countryside became harsher. You wouldn’t be a sheep for quids out here, though there are plenty. It made a change from goats, and the smell was different — in place of the roadkill grill, it was a more pleasant kind of roast. Herbal, let’s say.
Horrocks Pass is by far the best bit of the run into Port Augusta. After a brief shopping trip in town it was back out of civilisation and onto 150km of very straight road to Kimba and the geographical halfway point — time for a cheesy photo. Just 9km past Ceduna the clock reached 2000km and then there was a brief glimpse of the Great Australian Bight before the road led inland to the Nullarbor Roadhouse — via a rabbit under the Brumby’s hooves.
That was the sole animal incident. A mob of ’roos bolted across the road far enough ahead of CHU88Y not to be a real danger and there were a few emus but no camels or wombats. While it was good not to encounter them on the bonnet, it was a disappointing safari. Still, the glorious desert sunset and sunrise made up for that and the meagre hospitality at the night’s stop when the cars finally rolled in at about 9.30pm. But a bed’s a bed and fish and chips was at least a change from bacon and egg rolls. Except Matt doesn’t eat fish.
Before hitting the road on Tuesday, Matt popped a bolt in the front guard, which had come loose. Then breakfast at the WA border. The wind there conjured nightmares for Damien as he imagined the damage gale-whipped stones would do to the paint. Which is a good time to explain the finish on the front of the car. It’s covered in Cardom, a clear, rubbery material you put on with a roller and peel off when you’re done. And it worked!
Refreshed with coffee and more bacon and eggs, it was time to cross the border and fall foul of the cops. But the friendly officers from Eucla were just running an RBT and thought the car and the journey were cool. Not so cool was the Panhard bar scraping the road. It was easily fixed as it just needed a bolt in one end but it was a reminder of how straight the roads were. If there’d been any twisties, Damien would have noticed the problem much sooner!
The 3000km point appeared halfway down the longest straight in Australia. That’s 146.6km of straight-as-a-dye tarmac. If it lay perfectly flat, you wouldn’t be able to see one end from the other but the hills add interest. The boring bits came after — what must surely be Australia’s second and third longest straights! At Norseman you’re into serious mining territory and to underline it, Arron counted the carriages on the train that passed — 126! But that soon seemed like nothing.
Rolling into Boulder-Kalgoorlie, we met Damien’s online friend Darryl. He’d not only arranged beds for the whole team at his place but opened up his workshop for running repairs, a semi-serious clean and a general check-over. Then he led the way up to Super Pit 1, which is a simply enormous hole in the ground and more than a quarter-mile deep! Dinner in Kalgoorlie was the best by far and it was a shame not to stay out later but there was still the drive to Perth to make.
Wednesday morning was given over to polishing, and fixing a handful of niggles like a fast idle and a leaking fuel filler, before the final leg. Everyone predicted the worst would come with the end in sight and fate didn’t disappoint. Some 400km from Perth, the front driver-side indicator came loose. Okay, hardly disastrous but the fiddly bugger took a while to settle back into its home. After that, a passing caravan fired a stone into CHU88Y’s screen, making a big star. Bloody annoying as it’s all new glass but not trip-ending.
Which brings us back to that servo. Street Machine’s Perth correspondent Boris Viskovic soon arrived in his Rambler to lead the weary travellers to Kwinana Motorplex for the Wednesday night drags and Motorvation preparation.
Tired as Damien was, he had one final duty — answering the questions of fans who knew the car was coming but still couldn’t believe it really had done it. It did, with hardly a fault. You don’t get more street driven than that.