What began as an idle thought while sitting under a tree in the wilderness has become the thing of dreams.
In 2010 I was sitting under a tree in the Hoanib River in Namibia (while looking for desert elephant), all on my own and I began to think. It was hot - about 35°C. I hadn’t had a shower for a couple of days and I thought, ‘How nice it would be right now to have a shower’. But it being so hot, the effort to set one up seemed too much. So instead, I pulled an ice-cold coke from the fridge, sat and began dreaming.
The vehicle I was driving was a Toyota Land Cruiser 105 Station-wagon. This vehicle is a 100 series, but with an 80-series chassis – to my mind, one of the most brilliant vehicles ever produced by Toyota. But being a station-wagon meant it has its limitations in terms of living out of for extended periods. So my mind drifted toward the Land Cruiser 78-series wagon, known in Australia and some other countries, as the Troopy. This reliable light truck with its cavernous rear load bay would make the perfect basis for a live-in camper style vehicle, while still being small enough to be used as an overland transport that could reach places larger trucks simply cannot go. This would be my 11th 4x4. To cap all this dreaming, I thought, why not design, build and then market such a vehicle?
Jump forward two years.
I have started AutoGraph4x4. (www.autograph4x4.com) My Troopy is complete and I’ve already taken it to the Richtersveld for ‘builder’s trials’. And now I have the ultimate trip planned – to drive from Cape Agulhas, Africa’s Southernmost tip, to John o Groats, Scotland’s Northernmost tip. And I am to do it in my Troopy and make a TV series about the adventure. So here I am, three months from departure and I have orders for four similar such vehicles for clients.
The vehicle began as a South African-spec Land Cruiser-78, with a 1HZ normally aspirated, 6-cylinder engine and four-speed manual gearbox and auto-locking front hubs. As standard equipment it came with double 90L fuel tanks and front and rear differential locks.
Work began about six months after receiving the vehicle, when I handed the vehicle over to Alu-Cab, a Cape Town company doing very nice custom work. They were one of very few companies who were genuinely interested in my ideas, as opposed to some who were hell-bent on letting me know how good their deigns were and wanted to push them on me. While I respect them for pride in their own designs, I wanted it built to my specifications, not theirs. Alu-Cab on the other hand were excited about what we both as a team could bring to the project. And the results are, I think, superb. My design ideas were not complex and I wanted it simple and efficient with a mandate that I should be able to erect my tent, have the bed made, have the 270° Ezi-Awn shade awning out, a fire going and a cold one in the hand all within five minutes. And, packing away everything should not take any longer than 10 minutes. Proving camps in the Richtersveld showed that this set-up easily betters these times.
First, the interior was stripped and then the roof was cut open like a can of beans. It was very painful to watch. An inner steel chassis to strengthen the roof was then build, rust-proofed and inserted, glued and bolted in place. The tent unit was then built to fit. It makes one of the roomiest roof-top tents I have yet seen, and requires very little effort to erect or pack away. Inside the back, the tent lifts up, increasing headroom so that one can stand and walk around. The load-bay benches permit me to use the interior for anything other than aerobics; writing, editing or to watch a movie in the evening should the weather turn foul. Access to stuff is via two slide-out drawers. I have not fitted a kitchen because I want to be able to choose to cook inside or out. There are two Snomaster fridges: a 70L fridge-freezer combo in the back and a small, cool-drink fridge between the front seats that doubles as an arm-rest. Two 70-AH Blue-top Orbital batteries run things. A CTek charger handles the current and a 180W Sanyo HIT solar panel on the flip-up roof helps keep them going. There is a 1000W pure-sin wave inverter and 220v plugs in the front and back. I can charge camera batteries without having to find chargers etc., as they are all in place, as is the power supply for the computer.
There were no limitations to what I could do with this vehicle and never before had I been given so such opportunity to go mad. So I did.
A gas geyser and water tank and pump feed a simple shower device, that provides hot water in about 30 seconds. Takla, a South African company making superb seat covers provided those, as well as helped me develop a sound insulation flooring cover. The standard flooring is ugly and the cab can be quite noisy, and this did the trick. While we were at it we developed the same product for LR Defender, Jeep Wrangler and Mercedes 290GD Pro. Underside protection is minimal, but includes Goby-X side step rock sliders and a steering protection plate.
I upgraded the springs and shocks, but found that the standard product I was considering was too firm at the back, and so I removed one of the eight rear leaves. Now the ride is pliant and very nice on the open road, while also not too soft for rough tracks and a heavy load. I added Firestone Air-springs. This is for when I am particularly heavy and acts as a great help to the springs during very rough going, and goes some way to prevent rear spring breakages.
I changed the wheel rims from the very heavy split rims, to wider rims originally supplied with the 105 series. But they are also extremely heavy, so I have decided on a set of alloys. These are still to be fitted, but will be KMC XD series with BF Goodrich AT tyres. I carry two spares on a replacement rear bumper. The alloys don’t just look nice, but are proper off-road rims. Combined, they will reduce unsprung weight quite considerably and, more importantly, may make the difference between me being able to lift one of them onto the wheel carrier – or not. The expanded wheel arches are made by a company called Onka, and while not quite the quality of the Australian equivalent, do the job just as well.
I’ve enjoyed my summer break with my kids, and in between have been tinkering in my workshop, preparing the Cruiser for the huge undertaking ahead of me. I’ve mounted torches, easy-access boxes for my camera gear, fire extinguishers, pepper-spray cans, an extra light or two, a back-up inverter, and a decent sound system. I up-rated engine performance by a low-pressure turbo charger fitted by SAC. I elected to upgrade the exhaust to a wider bore, but in an effort to keep things as simple as possible, did not fit an intercooler. Small Hella HID spot lamps were selected because of their size. A turbo-charger is going to need all the cooling it can get and large lights are out of the question. These Hella units produce an unbelievably bright, white light, more than enough for my needs. They stand on a TJM winch bar in which is a TJM 9000lb plasma-rope winch in mounted. Lastly, I upgraded the brakes by replacing the front discs and pads with those made by Powerbrake. It’s made a remarkable difference.
And now it’s mid January and this big trip is looming, but with still so much to do!
The last bits and pieces include auto-armour anti-smash-and-grab window tint, a Baillies Offroad 180L tank at the back (To extend range from 1000kms to 1500 kms) a secret, diesel anti-theft cut-off switch, and some security measure to prevent the rear slider windows being forced open. And I think that is it!
The vehicle will be on show at the Beeld Holiday Show, 15-17 February at the Gallagher Convention Centre, Midrand. See you there.
After this, I’m gone!