Riverine Herald

Teaching an old Dodge new tricks

By David Chapman

After years of faithful on-farm service this 1924 Dodge ute had been pensioned off, consigned to a forgotten corner of the farm where it became overgrown, rusted and rotted – and then caught in a fire. Yet DAVID CHAPMAN discovered one crazy man who genuinely believed this carcase could stage the biggest comeback since Lazarus.

"It had a magneto start. You would press the starter button and if the battery was flat it didn’t matter, you just got out with the crank handle and crank started it. One pull would usually do it. It was a magnificent machine."

MENTION the 1924 Dodge Brothers utility to Kevin McAsey and the memories just come flooding back.

“I learnt to drive in it,” the 85-year-old said.

“I left school when I was 14 and learnt to drive in the Dodge.”

That was on the family farm at Bamawm, where the ute was used as a work vehicle, carting fruit and tomatoes from the orchard to the shed.

For Kevin and his brothers Rodney and Barry, the battered old Dodge was a glorious nostalgic part of growing up on the farm.

“We had a lot of good times in that old Dodge,” Kevin said.

“We used to hit 60mph up the road in it, being young blokes.”

For Kevin, the Dodge has always been a constant in his life.

“Dad bought it before I was even born, and that was 86 years ago. And it’s been in our family ever since.”

The Dodge ute was bought second-hand by Kevin’s father Jack McAsey in 1928 when he was living with his parents on a five-acre farm in Bamawm.

Jack grew tomatoes on the farm and transported them in wooden crates to the Strathallan Railway Station where they were put on the train bound for the M.O.N factory in Echuca for processing.

Jack married in 1930 and purchased a 50-acre property which he ran as a dairy and fruit farm.

He took the Dodge with him, where it was used for occasional social outings and as a work vehicle.

“I can remember as a kid we’d ride in the back of it going to show,” Kevin recalls.

“We’d just sit in the back of the old Dodge and away we’d go.

“They were the good old days. It was a good machine.”

When asked if the Dodge ever broke down, Kevin was emphatic with his answer.

“No, no, no, no, no. It never broke down, not that I can recall anyway.

“It had a magneto start. You would press the starter button and if the battery was flat it didn’t matter, you just got out with the crank handle and crank started it. One pull would usually do it.

“It was a magnificent machine.”

The proof of the Dodge’s durability was borne out when it came to restoring the vehicle — an extraordinary feat considering the state the 95-year-old machine was in.

The ute was a working vehicle through the 1930s and 40s and remained on Jack McAsey’s farm until the end of the 1950s, when a grey Ferguson tractor and trailer were purchased.

After that the Dodge was only used by Kevin and Rodney to travel to and from various jobs on the farm and as a fun paddock basher.

When it was finally retired, the ute was parked in Kevin’s orchard in Bamawm and left there for almost 20 years.

Weeds grew through and around the old ute and it was later badly damaged by a grass fire.

In the early 1970s its less-than-mortal remains were reinterred in a small shed on Kevin’s dairy farm.

Where it stayed until 2014, when it was purchased by Ian Colston who had heard a rumour about a forgotten old Dodge hidden away on the McAsey farm.

Ian had his own early connection with old Dodges through his father Neil Colston, who had a lifetime love of Dodge Brothers cars.

In his childhood years, Ian had watched with interest as his father had restored a 1917 Dodge Open Tourer.

He also spent many fun hours pretending to drive his grandfather’s 1925 Tourer his father had retained from his own early years.

The McAseys’ 1924 Dodge ute was in extremely poor condition when Ian purchased it, leaving him a little unsure whether he would be able to restore it to its former glory.

The original Dodge-4 engine was still in the ute but not much else was left of the vehicle itself.

It had been driven into a shed and left there and over time the wheels had rotted and the body had virtually rusted away (what body was left after the fire).

Despite not having been started for almost 50 years, Ian spent a few hours tinkering with the engine. Incredibly, he was able to get it running, a stunning testament to the incredible endurance of the machine.

Having initially bought the car for parts, sparking the engine back to life actively encouraged Ian to give the ute’s restoration his best shot – a shot that would need every ounce of the love in a labour of love.

Not only was it a chance to bring back to life a magnificent vehicle of a bygone era, it also opened a window on the skills and craftsmanship which are kept alive as they are passed down from father to son through the generations.

Ian completely dismantled the ute and rebuilt it from the ground up.

His initial target was to strip and rebuild the engine, gearbox and differential, but the more he delved into the project the enormity of the work needed to restore the ute became obvious.

The chassis rivets had all rusted and become loose, so they were drilled out and replaced using the old methods of red-hot rivets and a riveting gun.

The body panels were badly rusted which meant Ian had to fabricate pieces and weld them in place, using methods learnt from his experienced father who at one time had owned and operated a panel beating and spray-painting shop in Echuca.

Other essential were sourced from all over Australia and even some from the US.

As all the wooden framing had rotted or had been badly burnt so that was remade by hand – even the wooden spoked wheels had paid the price of old age and had to be replaced, which was creatively achieved by Keith Wilson in Queensland.

New split rims were manufactured by Steve Hood of Vintage Rims Australia.

The windscreen glass was cut and fitted by Stephen McKee of Campaspe Glass, while the seat upholstery was carried out by Laurie Hayes of Echuca.

The wooden tray was built by Ian, using metal fabrication methods his father had taught him and carpentry skills handed down from his father-in-law, Jim Campbell.

Jim was a carpenter in the 4th Australian Advanced Ordinance Workshops during World War II.

After the war, Jim did a lot of work on the old Echuca council building before finding a job at the Echuca Hospital, where he continued his carpentry until he retired.

Jim Campbell no doubt gained his interest in this field from his father, who was a more than competent blacksmith and coach builder in Echuca in the early 1900s.

His name remains to this day on the wall of the Old Coach Works in the Port Precinct.

With the Dodge restoration being completed, Ian decided to have its doors sign written in Jim’s name, to honour the man and his carpentry skills of the past.

The signwriting was hand painted by Greg from Greg Chandler Sign Writing of Echuca.

After almost 50 years, the ute has returned to the road.

In the past few weeks it has been registered on club plates.

Kevin McAsey first set eyes on the restored treasure of his youth a fortnight ago and was stunned.

“Oh well, he’s done an excellent job,” Kevin said of Ian’s restoration.

“It’s better now (than it ever was).”

Kevin was not surprised to hear Ian was able to start the engine after so long sitting idle.

“It was going when I dove it into the shed (in the 1970s),” Kevin said.

“People came to me and wanted to buy if for parts and I said no and I just let it sit there.

“It was still all there. The wheels, the radiator, the diff, the gearbox.”

Its complete restoration is now a physical and permanent reminder of a bygone era and serves as a chance for people to re-visit local history.

According to Ian, the ute transports our thinking back to an interesting past and speaks to us of a local family of farmers, who relied on the productivity and pleasure it supported.

It makes us grateful for those now gone, who generously shared their competent knowledge, as their artisan skills passed down, remain with us as a basis for today’s inventiveness.

This ute’s re-emergence from the mud was a project well fought — and won — for the interest of many with fond memories of the olden days.