Whether they were using spinifex to fill flat tyres, tree branches to replace axles or a doll’s head for an oil cap, the Bush Mechanics showed a quirky sense of resourcefulness when it came to fixing their cars.
The four-part television series aired on the ABC in 2001. It became a bestselling DVD and then a national touring exhibition, which has just rolled into Canberra.
Bush Mechanics: The Exhibition has parked itself at the National Museum of Australia until February 24, 2019, showcasing two cars from the series as well as a variety of interactive features, among them a specially built "driving simulator" made of discarded parts that must first be assembled before it can be operated.
Another highlight is a 2015 claymation film created by former Aardman Studios animator Jonathan Daw in collaboration with Jason Japaljarri Woods from indigenous media organisation Pintubi Anmatjere Warlpiri, which co-produced the TV series with Film Australia. The figurines from this film are on display in this exhibition.
Exhibit curator Mick Bolognese, from the National Motor Museum in South Australia, said the television series captured the imagination of many Australians at the time with its humorous exploration of the relationship between Aboriginal Australia and motoring.
“The touring exhibition on Bush Mechanics is the latest chapter in a story that started over 20 years ago in the little community of Yuendumu,” he said.
“It has been a privilege for the National Motor Museum to show this captivating aspect of life in central Australia to audiences around the country, and it’s wonderful to now see it in as important a venue as the National Museum of Australia."
The series followed five young Warlpiri men as they travelled through remote outback Australia in vehicles in various states of roadworthiness encountering a variety of mechanical problems. Stuck in the middle of the desert with no tools or spare parts, each breakdown required a certain inventive bush resourcefulness to fix. The show reached more than three million viewers.
The exhibition features a 1962 EJ Holden that appeared in the first episode of the series.
“In that episode the guys are carting some band equipment to the next town 150km away, the roof caves in, they chop it off with some axes, and flip it over and use it as a sled/trailer, with all their drums and kit in it, and off they go," Bolognese said.
“It just screams Australian bush, it's covered in red dirt, it’s one of the most Aussie things I can think of.”
He said subsequent research has revealed that the car might have been used in the official escort party when The Beatles visited Adelaide in 1962.
The NMA’s head of the Indigenous Knowledge Centre and senior indigenous curator Margo Neale said the museum deeply engages with indigenous ways of knowing.
“The bush mechanics’ ingenious solutions to broken down cars defy western systems of thought and attest to the importance of mobility at any cost,” she said.
“Mobility has always been important for Aboriginal people who are always on the move for family, ceremony, hunting and gathering. New ways for old practices.”
Five of the best Bush Mechanics hacks
Wiper fuel pump: Before electronic fuel injection became standard, most family cars were fitted with a carburettor fed by a mechanical fuel pump. When the pump fails, the fuel can be rerouted through the windscreen washer pump as a temporary fix to keep the car moving.
Boomerang clutch: When the clutch fails, the plate friction surfaces can be replaced with two boomerang-shaped pieces of mulga until a proper repair can be arranged.
Radiator patch: One of the more ingenuous bush mechanics hacks, especially handy in the relentless heat of central Australia, is to use molten lead from the interval plates of an old battery as a soldering agent to repair a cracked radiator. The lead pieces are removed and melted in a camp fire using a metal hubcap as a dish and the lead is then dripped into the radiator cracks.
Wiper pads: Although it doesn't rain all that often in the desert, when the rain does come it can be heavy. Rubber wiper pads that have perished in the sun are replaced with strips of blanket wrapped around the wiper arms.
Spinifex tyre: When a tyre goes flat and there is no spare, the inner tube is removed and the outer tyre tightly stuffed with spinifex.