Better brake lamps for older vehicles

LED brake lamps.jpg

It’s ironic that, as the car screeched to a halt scant feet behind my FJ40 while I sat helpless at a stoplight, my first panicked thought centered on the vehicle and not my cervical spine. 

But after all, the value of the Land Cruiser has arced somewhere northwards of $50,000 (my last offer from a walk-up stranger at the west Overland Expo). A rear-end collision would do no favors for that arc. So—for about the tenth time in several months—I determined to install better brake lamps. This time I acted on it.

The revolution of the LED has affected all areas of automotive lighting. But while most amazement centers around the astounding brilliance, power conservation, and durability of LED headlamps and driving lamps, we might better appreciate their advantage in brake lamps. Why? No, not just because they are brighter, but because an LED lamp reaches full brightness two tenths of a second faster than an incandescent bulb. That might not sound like much, but consider that a vehicle moving at 40 mph travels 12 feet in two-tenths of a second. So that slight advantage could very well mean the difference between a near miss and a car-and-cervical-spine-crunching collision.

My FJ40 wears a rear bumper/rack from Stout Equipment (now sadly defunct), and in place of the stock round lamps has oval Truck-Lite lamps, but fitted with the same dual-filament bulbs (Sylvania 2057LL) with staggered locating posts, common on millions of older vehicles. A short search led me to a kit from Aaron LED comprising a pair of LED bulbs and the requisite 50-watt resistors.

That requirement for a resistor confuses many people, as it confused me. The simple explanation is that an LED bulb retrofitted in an application such as this uses less current than the original bulb. Supplied with full current, on the turn-signal function it will flash far too quickly. The over-current condition can also reduce the lifespan of the bulb. The resistor simply converts the excess current to heat—which, the astute among you will guess, negates the energy-saving characteristic of the LED. Obviously in a brake and turn-signal lamp only on intermittently this is of scant concern. More so is the fact that the resistor can get quite hot and should be mounted to a metal surface to help dissipate this heat. (Other LED lamps are designed to use full current and do not suffer this loss of efficiency.)

The kit came with cheap Siamese clips to tap into the existing wiring. I hate those things, which expose the wiring to the elements and fail at a remarkably consistent rate. So I cut the wires and used crimped connections covered with heat-shrink tubing. (Those more purist than I might scoff that I did not solder the conections. However, I have crimped connections protected with heat-shrink tubing on this vehicle that are at least 25 year old and still working perfectly. For high-amperage installations I’ll solder, but I don’t think it’s necessary for low-wattage bulbs. And I do use a proper crimping tool, not pliers.)

Old and new.

Old and new.

The result was a satisfyingly obvious increase in the brightness of my brake lamps, not to mention the faster activation. I’m now considering adding even more security with a high-mounted LED third brake lamp from Truck-Lite. I really hate those screeching noises behind me.

A rant about ripoff products

An ARB bumper . . . and ARB driving lamps?

An ARB bumper . . . and ARB driving lamps?

“I do not prize the word ‘cheap.’ It is not a badge of is a symbol of despair. Cheap prices make for cheap goods; cheap goods make for cheap men; and cheap men make for a cheap country.” ~ William McKinley

There are few business strategies I loathe more than the one that involves ripping off a high-quality product with cheap copies made to look exactly like the original.

It’s not that I mind products made to a lower standard and price to compete with expensive products. If you can’t afford, say, a $1,000 set of driving lamps, do I think you should have to live without driving lamps? Of course not. But the company that produces the $200 set of driving lamps for you should be honest about it (and I suppose this means forcing you to be honest as well), and make its lamps to its own design.

Look closely up top at the distinctively red-rimmed ARB Intensity driving lamps I photographed on a 4Runner parked at a Tucson Toyota dealer. Note that the logo at the bottom of each does not say “ARB,” it merely, rather banally, says “LED.” These aren’t ARB lamps at all, but Chinese copies available on Amazon for a fraction of the price of the U.S.-made ARB Intensity lamps. Visually they are impressively similar, and if you were after the “look” of the prestigious ARBs without having to shell out the substantial chunk of cash they go for, you’d probably think you’d done well. I could guess that after springing for the genuine ARB front bumper, this 4Runner’s owner either didn’t have the cash left over for ARB lamps as well—or, as I hear more and more often, he turned the situation on its head and thought, ARB is ripping me off! Look what I can get on Amazon for a tenth the price! Same exact thing except without the brand name!


Or perhaps not.

I did some quick research, and found the cut-price lamp on Amazon. (Incidentally, technically speaking the correct term for the device is lamp. What it produces is light.)  It was listed as the “Lumitek 2X 185-watt Nine-inch Round Headlamp Lamp Round LED Off Road Light CREE LEDs Spot Beam Led Work Light Fog Light Driving Light Roof Bar Bumper for SUV Boat 4x4 Jeep.” Whew.  At $108.12 for a pair (Prime), an astonishing deal on the surface. And, to be completely fair, they carried a four-star rating, which is pretty good. So I began reading the reviews.

The good ones uniformly praised the value for money, as one would expect. Several buyers had had them installed for some time with no issues.

But then there were these reviews (and this is just a sample).

“I wish I could like these lights, but they may just be too cheap. I ordered a set based on the good reviews, but to my disappointment only one of the two lights in the set would turn on. I double and triple checked my wiring but still they wouldn't work. I eventually just hooked them up to a direct power source and confirmed that one was dead.”

“These do not seal out moisture at all. First wash and water sits inside. Lights still work, but idk how long they’ll last like that. Have to disassemble and place a sealant glue On perimeter. Other than that they work well!”

“I knew these were going to be cheap, so while I was disappointed with one not working, I knew I was getting what I paid for. However based on so many popular reviews I ended up returning mine and purchasing another pair thinking that a defective light wouldn't come twice in a row. Lo and behold, after receiving my second set today and hooking them up to a power source, yet another one of the lights was dead and not working. C'mon! I would've given these a good review If they had worked the second time purely because they are so bright (the one that did work) and the price tag.”

“After about a year, the two units I ordered started having issues. When one failed, I asked for a replacement under warranty and was sent one. I took the other dead one apart and discovered that all the LED chips are in parallel, so if one starts to fail, the others are sent too much current and also fail. I bought some replacement leds from an electronics distributor (CREE JK2835AWT 6V) and soldered them in.”

And then there’s that “185 watts” rating. The equivalent ARB 32SV2 Intensity lamp is listed at 165 watts. Several Lumitek users actually measured the draw of their copies—which is to say the output. And:

“Not as advertised! These only draw about 50 watts a light! Immediately sent back!”

“One tests at 57w, one tests at 63w. Far below 185w. Granted most lights nowadays come rated higher then actual output. This is very disappointing.”

Another—satisfied!—user reported:

“Unbelievably Bright for their cost. Very Satisfied. The 9" Light Draws Just Over 3 Amps Per Single Light.”

This user might have thought they were bright, but 3 amps means his lamps were actually producing about 40 watts—less than one quarter the advertised rating.

And such is the unpredictable way with cut-rate products such as this, as I’ve found with many others, from winches to cordless drills to Yugos. (Yes. I knew a woman who put 120,000 trouble-free miles on one). A few people will have great luck, others will have miserable luck, and, one suspects, yet others will have miserable luck but will be loath to admit it and insist they got a breat buy. (Come to think of it, did my acquaintance really have such good service from the Yugo?)

On one hand you can argue that, for the price, you can put up with going through three or four lamps to get a pair of working units, if you don’t mind the hassle and shipping. Lumitek offers a 12-month guarantee, so with luck you’ll have enough time to get sorted. Of course, the output of the lamps you wind up with might not even come close to the advertised rating, and it appears you don’t want to get them wet, but . . .

Okay, I’m being a bit sarcastic. But there’s another issue here: Waste. Do you think all those lights returned under warranty are shipped back to the factory in China and rebuilt? I’ll bet not. My bet is they’re simply trashed. Even if they are shipped back, it’s a waste of the crap components and fuel and pollution to do so.

I’m sure there are budget-priced driving lamps that are built better and would serve decently (do your research). The Lumitek approach rankled especially because of the blatant copycat styling.

ARB Intensity lamps.jpg

So, what about the real thing, the ARB Intensity LED lamps? We have a set on our Land Cruiser Troopy, and they have performed superbly. I was impressed by the huge margin of safety they offered when we were “forced” (by overly optimistic planning) to drive for several hours after dark on Highway 87 on the way to Alice Springs, with large hopping marsupials creating an interesting obstacle course. Recently ARB announced an updated version, the V2, and I’ve just installed a set of the AR21 V2 on my FJ40. I will report, but the specs (which I’m confident are accurate!) are even more impressive than the originals. Full review soon; however, I can already confirm that both of them actually came on when I flipped the switch.

P.S. For an in-depth technical look at the difference between high-quality brand-name driving lamps and cheap copies, take a look at the excellent piece from Baja Designs here.

Warn's 70th anniversary M8274-70 winch


Warn’s venerable 8274 winch is one of two—the other being the Superwinch Husky—that could legitimately claim to be the best electric winch on the planet.

Each has its advantages. The Husky’s worm drive means it needs no external braking system; it is fully controlled whether powering in or out. The 8274’s spur drive gear train does require a brake but is significantly more efficient (about 75 percent versus 40 percent). It’s more a personal (or patriotic—British versus American) choice rather than a which-one-is-better decision.

Now, to celebrate the company’s 70th anniversary, Warn has announced a limited-edition, uprated version of the 8,000-pound-rated M8274-50. Only 999 will be available world-wide, at an eye-opening retail price of $3,100 (although $2,500 seems to be the going street price). The commemorative M8274-70 is rated to a full 10,000 pounds, and includes 150 feet of 3/8” synthetic line, a solid-state, waterproof Albright contactor rather than a solenoid, plus a few odds and ends such as uprated bearings, a stainless steel spool knob, and a billet aluminum hawse fairlead. (Warn’s site also notes that the winch’s box “features commemorative packaging.”)

I’ve had an 8274 on my FJ40 for about ten years now, and it has performed flawlessly both in the field and through many training sessions. So I delved into the new one to see what had changed besides the extra power (courtesy of a series-wound six-horsepower motor rather than the 4.6 hp version in mine).

And immediately this caught my eye:

“Up to 50% faster line speed at rated load vs. previous M8274-50.”

Fifty percent faster? One of my only complaints about the M8274-50 is that it is too fast already. Speeding it up even more is the last thing this winch needs.

Winching, more than any other recovery technique, is fraught with the potential for errors that could have disastrous consequences if the operator is not properly trained, paying one hundred percent attention, and ensuring that every step of the procedure is conducted in a controlled manner. The best way to guarantee a safe and successful winch recovery is to go slowly. The only exceptions I can think of to this rule are if you have stupidly bogged your vehicle below high tide line with an incoming tide, or have gotten stuck in the middle of a fast-flowing river that is scouring substrate out from under your tires and sinking the vehicle farther. Otherwise my opinion is that it is impossible to have a winch that is too slow. Indeed, on most recoveries or lessons with my 8274 I rig a double-line pull out of habit, just to ease the pace (since a double-line pull halves line speed while doubling power). I can’t imagine it 50 percent faster.

I wonder if the impetus behind this drive for faster line speed comes from a misdirected emulation of competition events such as King of the Hammers, where winches are commonly modified to achieve outrageous line speeds. Suffice to say that for overland travel, you do not want to use competition rock buggies as your build inspiration.

This in no way (well, barely) diminishes my respect for Warn’s 8274 series winches. The new one would be a fine choice for a heavier expedition vehicle in the 7,000-8,000-pound range. But I’d suggest employing a pulley for most recoveries—unless shark fins are circling offshore or trout are showing up in the footwells.

Factory vs. aftermarket

Aftermarket starter on the left; Toyota starter on the right

Aftermarket starter on the left; Toyota starter on the right

If you’ve ever turned over an engine by hand you know it’s no easy thing to do. You’re working against a lot of internal friction, plus the compression as each piston rises on the firing stroke. Your starter has to do the same job, except a lot faster. So it clearly needs to be built well.

Take a look at these two starters for a Land Cruiser F or 2F engine—an aftermarket unit on the left and a factory Toyota unit on the right. If you’re not familiar with how a starter works, notice the small gear visible at the top of each unit. When you turn the ignition key to start the engine, that gear slides forward and engages the flywheel behind the engine, and spins it rapidly to enable the ignition to catch and start the engine. Once it starts and you release the key, the gear slides back out of engagement.

It should be obvious that that gear is subjected to a great deal of stress—which is why the factory starter has a nose cone that supports the end of the shaft on which the gear slides, hugely increasing its stiffness (and also possibly helping keep random dirt and debris away from the shaft and gear).

Now look at the aftermarket starter. No nose cone, no support for the gear. Cheaper to make, for sure.

Which would you expect to last longer?

Handbrakes. Don't be one.

This is a handbrake.

This is a handbrake.

Burned in my memory is the first time I read a post on a popular overlanding forum by a fellow who wanted to go on a particular trip, except, as he put it, “The handbrake won’t go if there aren’t bathrooms.”

I was confused for a fraction of a second, until I realized the guy was referring to a human being—specifically his wife.

Shocked, I looked at subsequent posts to enjoy him get flamed for such a demeaning reference. Not only did he not; he had plenty of company. Since then I’ve run across the term dozens of times.

So is this.

So is this.

I’m sure the guys who use the term would act like it was I who were offending them, and laugh it off as “just a joke” if confronted, just as my stepfather used to laugh it off as “just a joke” when he referred to people as Pollacks and Nips, and worse. Spare me. No one uses such a reference as “just a joke.” It is a dehumanizing put-down and points out its user as someone lacking even a vestige of class.

Now that I have that off my chest, I would like to address the very real issue of differing expectations and needs while on journeys, because there is no doubt that many couples have them—especially when dealing with divergent attitudes toward “roughing it.” And let’s be honest: While in some cases it is the other way around (I know of several personally), usually it is the female half of the couple who resists the inconveniences associated with “roughing it.” So what to do?

This is not.

This is not.

Easy: Just make it not rough.

One of the benefits of the explosion in interest in overlanding over the last decade is the commensurate explosion in equipment of all kinds. It has never been easier to bring along most of the comforts of home. Here’s a look by category.

Bathroom. This is the big point of resistance for most women. It’s easy for men to forget that for a woman, going “#1” is basically as involved as it is for a man going “#2.” Fortunately there are numerous ways to make the procedure both comfortable and private. You can store a pop-up enclosure in the back of the vehicle and deploy and un-deploy it in seconds if privacy is necessary or desired. Portable toilet systems now range from basic but surprisingly comfortable seats that fit over a five-gallon bucket with a liner, to porta-pottis with a water reservoir for flushing, and cassette toilets that simplify emptying later. Add something as simple as a tap on a five-gallon water can for washing, and you’ll have all the same things covered as you would at home: privacy, comfort, and cleanliness.

Shower. Closely related to the bathroom issue, since the enclosure can serve both. However, bathing and changing is much easier in a fairly large and decently windproof enclosure (i.e. not a pop-up), so there’s nothing wrong with carrying a compact pop-up for on-the-road bathroom breaks, as well as a larger enclosure for camp duty as both toilet and shower room. There are lots of excellent products on the market that will provide a hot shower, from simple but effective hanging bags heated by the sun to engine-mounted heat exchangers to propane-heated units with 12V powered pumps. Go with whatever level of luxury you feel your mate desires—or deserves.

Bedroom. If you have a camper or trailer this is pretty easy. If not, consider either a roof tent with a dressing room attachment, or a ground tent with standing headroom (e.g., a Turbo Tent or a Springbar, two of my favorites). Equip the ground tent with generously-sized cots, thick Therm-a-Rest camp mattresses, a flannel-lined sleeping bags, and a real pillow, and there’s a good chance your significant other will wake up the next morning and say, “That was more comfortable than our bed at home.”

Kitchen. You might be fine with spooning SpaghettiOs out of a can heated in the fire when you’re out on your own. Or you may have the full-on Snow Peak Iron Grill kit. In either case, when your mate is along you need to orient the kitchen and food to her (or his) taste. Does she do the cooking at home? If so, would she like to in the outdoors as well given a sufficiently well-equipped kitchen? Then make it so. If she cooks at home but has no desire to do so on the road, then do your finest to provide her with excellent meals. With the superb 12V fridges available now, there is no excuse not to bring fresh produce and meats and have menus fully the equivalent of those at home. And if getting her out means skipping camp food for restaurants now and then, do it. Along those lines . . .

Hotels. I’ve talked with a surprising number of both men and women who enjoy camping—just not for weeks at a time. If your situation is similar, then work out trips and itineraries so that camp days can alternate with hotel or lodge days on whatever schedule works best. Do this for a while and you might find you both start being happy with more days camping and fewer under roofs.

Overlanding does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, unless your loved one simply does not like camping at all, period. Even in that case it’s possible to compromise. Enjoy civilized trips together, then every once in a while you can take off on your own, skip showers for a week, pee on trees, and eat SpaghettiOs.

Just don’t be the handbrake on your relationship.

More praise for high-tooth-count ratchets

Top to bottom: and 80-tooth Snap-on 1/2-inch ratchet, a 72-tooth 3/8-inch Britool ratchet, and a 72-tooth 1/4-inch Proxxon ratchet.

Top to bottom: and 80-tooth Snap-on 1/2-inch ratchet, a 72-tooth 3/8-inch Britool ratchet, and a 72-tooth 1/4-inch Proxxon ratchet.

I’ve written here and there in these pages and elsewhere of my strong preference for ratchets with a high tooth count—at least 72 or 80 (some have even gone beyond that).

The advantage to this is the ratchet handle does not have to pivot as far to engage the next tooth (or teeth, as most ratchets engage multiple teeth). And that is a significant advantage when working in tight spots where you do not have much room to swing the handle. An 80-tooth ratchet needs just 4.5 degrees of movement to advance the socket, whereas, say a 48-tooth ratchet would need 7.5 degrees. It might not sound like much, but sometimes it means the difference between very limited access and none at all.

I had another demonstration of this advantage the other day, when I had to replace the clutch master cylinder on the FJ40. For some reason the cylinder I bought interfered just barely with the brake master cylinder’s booster, so I had to loosen the latter from inside the footwell. And the upper left bolt of the bracket sits just so between a reinforcing strut and the brake pedal, so that swing room for my ratchet was reduced to . . . well, just abut 4.5 degrees. However, that was no problem for the 80-tooth 3/8ths ratchet I had on hand. 

You might think that the strength of the ratchet head would suffer with such a fine engagement, but in fact modern ratchets are probably stronger than older, coarser models due to better metalurgy and that multi-tooth engagement. One of my favorite tool investments is a Snap-on SX80-A flex-head 1/2-inch ratchet, with an 80-tooth head and an 18-inch handle—the same length as a common, non-ratcheting breaker bar used for loosening the tightest large nuts on transmissions and suspensions. And that’s how I use this, knowing that Snap-on makes the same ratchet with a 24-inch handle. Obviously they have confidence in that head.