Ingenious bush mechanics stop over in Canberra

National Motor Museum curator Michelangelo Bolognese with a 1962 EJ Holden station wagon from the first series of “Bush Mechanics”. Photo by Andrew Castellucci

MICHELANGELO Bolognese loves Ferraris, but never managed to get a job with the prestigious car firm. So the logical career move was to become a curator with the National Motor Museum in SA.

That’s exactly what happened and he’s brought a unique exhibition to the National Museum of Australia over summer.

It celebrates the ingenuity and imagination seen in the TV series, “Bush Mechanics”, first aired on ABC TV in 2001 and reaching more than three million viewers. It is credited with having been one of the first media programs to be in an Aboriginal language and much of the dialogue is in Warlpiri and Kriol.

The series, an indigenous take on motor mechanics, was directed by David Batty and produced by the Warlpiri Media Association, which follows a bunch of Aboriginal people from Yuendumu fixing cars as they cross the desert in their clapped-out vehicles.

Bush mechanics make do with what they have and audiences watched them solving various car problems with wild and wacky bush-repair techniques, turning branches, spinifex and sand into tools and spare parts to get cars back on the road.

Bolognese first saw it as a boy and was hooked.

“‘Bush Mechanics’ was one of the first TV shows I saw in Australia,” he tells “CityNews”.

“I was completely blown away, as a young Italian suburbanite, I’d never seen anything like it… then it lay dormant in my mind for a decade or so.”

Filming the 1962 EJ Holden station wagon in the first series of “Bush Mechanics”.

His own love affair with Australia is complicated. Born here while his father lectured in languages at Flinders University, he repatriated with his family to the mediaeval city of Altamura in Southern Italy, where he did his basic education. He returned, but says he is the only one among his six siblings to set up a permanent base in Australia.

“I’ve Aussified very well and it helps that I’m quite good at languages,” he explains.

Like a good Italian boy, he was passionate about cars, devoured car magazines and yearned to work at Ferrari. To that end, he later took out a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Adelaide.

Although he still had Ferrari lights in his eyes, his talent for tinkering around with cars was ordinary, so he enrolled in a history degree at the same university and looked around for jobs that might combine his passions.

“After I began working in museums, I got an interview at the National Motor Museum and it was then I suggested to them that they do a show based on ‘Bush Mechanics’,” he says.

The rest is history. “Bush Mechanics: The Exhibition” was developed by the museum in collaboration with the Warlpiri community in the NT and PAW Media, which had produced the TV series.

A Ford Fairlane decorated with Warlpiri designs.

In Bolognese’s view, the show will appeal to city people and younger people who’ve never heard of the show.

The process involved a steep learning curve.

“We Australians who live in the city don’t have any contact with Aboriginal people and how they live, but I found that in the Territory it’s great, there are a lot of welcoming, friendly and outgoing people to help,” he says.

It’s an interactive show, featuring original footage from the series, figurines from the “Bush Mechanics” Claymation collection and, above all, vehicles.

An amazing 1962 EJ Holden station wagon is on show at the NMA, which serendipitously had acquired it in 2003 from Francis Jupurrurla Kelly, the owner of the car and the co-director of the series.

In Episode One, the decrepit EJ, with the Yuendumu band’s instruments on its roof, fell apart. The bush mechanics chopped the roof off with an axe and turned it into a trailer.

Then there’s the 1972 ZF Fairlane which has the Warlpiri “Ngapa tjukurpa” sacred water dreaming image all over it.

“A strong element of the story was to do with Warlpiri culture, as the journeys replicated the ancient trading route from the desert to Broome, so an elder from Yuendumu came up with the water dreaming drawing,” Bolognese says.

Bolognese still tinkers a bit, despite derisive snorts from his friends.

“I’ve been restoring a 1970 Vespa and just sent it off to the paint shop,” he says, “I suppose the bush mechanics inspired a bit of jealousy in me.”

“Bush Mechanics: The Exhibition”, National Museum of Australia, until February 24. Free.

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