Book review: Tom Sheppard’s Four-by-four Driving (revised 2nd edition)

Quick: How many four-wheel-drive systems can you name off the top of your head? Let’s see. Just from Jeep we have Quadra-Trac and Command-Trac—oh, and Selec-Trac. And, um, Quadra-Drive, and Freedom-Drive. BMW has xDrive; Mercedes counters with 4Matic. Toyota has ActiveTrak; Nissan offers the rather unimaginatively labelled All-Mode 4WD. That’s just five manufacturers. How many four-wheel-drive systems can there possibly be? Read Tom Sheppard’s Four-by-four Driving and you’ll learn that, once the marketing hype is peeled away, there are basically just three (with one arguable exception—you’ll have to read the book to find out which). The profusion of trademarked drivetrains are all just slightly tweaked variations on a trio of themes. 

Few people on earth can boast the expedition travel experience of Tom Sheppard, starting a decade before he led the 1975 Joint Services Expedition west-east crossing of the Sahara, and leading to more recent explorations of the most remote corners of Algeria. Since the vast majority of Tom’s journeys have been accomplished via a solo vehicle—with himself frequently the sole participant—you can bet his expertise in four-wheel-drive technique and equipment reflects the utmost attention to detail, an attention that recognizes the dire consequences of becoming irretrievably stuck 150 miles off-tracks in the Sahara. It’s likely no one short of a test pilot delves as thoroughly into the minutiae of his craft—and Tom Sheppard was a test pilot before he took up earth-bound journeying.

Click to enlargeFour-by-four Driving is frequently assumed to be a condensed version of Sheppard’s legendary Vehicle-Dependent Expedition Guide; in fact it is an almost entirely different book, and should be considered a prerequisite to the latter. Four-by-four Driving teaches you what you need to know—in terms of vehicle systems and driving skills—to fully exploit the awesome depth of expedition travel expertise contained in VDEG.

Four-by-four Driving reads less as text than as though Tom were an earnest but personable professor—or squadron leader—talking to you from the front of a classroom, pointer whacking diagrams on a flip-chart. And, as in a class, you’re expected to pay attention. Try to read section 2.3 without first reading section 2.1 and you’ll not only wind up confused, you’ll be parenthetically reminded of the material you should have already covered. If Four-by-four Driving were less engagingly written the depth of explication could have tipped over into pedantry, but, inevitably, just at the moment your eyes begin to cross with the details of, say, electronic differential locks, the following section will be titled something such as We have ways of making you torque, and you smile and dive back in. 

A bit less than the first third of Four-by-four Driving covers four-wheel-drive systems (and this is where much of the current edition’s revisions necessarily reside). The next fat third discusses driving techniques and recovery, and here Tom’s huge experience shines, especially regarding his overriding mantra of mechanical sympathy—the constant awareness of the vehicle’s strengths and limitations, vital to ensure one not only makes it through difficult terrain, but all the way back home. This section alone is worth the cost of the book, and even if you consider yourself an expert driver, I guarantee you’ll learn something. The last third, titled Expedition basics, is just that—an introduction into material covered in much more depth in VDEG

Click to enlargeIt feels monstrously presumptuous to point out shortcomings in any work by a man whose books are the bibles of overlanders the world over, but a book review without critique would be simply an ad. There are a few quibbles, albeit mostly due simply to limited space. The section on winching, for example, is (as stated right up front by the author) brief in the extreme, and inadequate as anything but familiarization in preparation for finding real instruction. The discussion doesn’t even mention synthetic winch line, which could fairly be considered a revolution in the application of the equipment. Similarly, the Hi-Lift jack, an expedition mainstay, merits barely a paragraph—and the photo of one in use shows the operating handle positioned ideally to cleave the skull of the user from the chin up should he lose his grip.

As far as I can tell reading back through my jealously hoarded collection of Sheppard’s articles (which date to a 1984 Car magazine piece testing a new 110 pickup in Algeria), he has rarely if ever equipped his vehicles with either a winch or a Hi-Lift, so perhaps this brevity is simply Tom’s own nod to his lack of complete intimacy with the devices. (On the other hand, I still plan to someday slavishly copy his cunning bespoke wheel claw adaptor, which allows easy raising of one tire out of deep sand using a simple bottle jack.)

Tom includes an comprehensive section (8.2) on tires and tire selection; however, I would like to have seen a primer on repairing tubeless tires with plugs—an easy and fast method to get back under way after experiencing what is by far the most common cause of breakdown. Also, Tom still seems to be under the impression that it takes a big, fast volume of air to reseat the bead on a tubeless tire. I’ve successfully accomplished it with very small compressors.

Okay, duty done—I’ve critiqued. The simple fact is, whether you’re an accomplished overlander or have just moved from your Corolla into a Land Cruiser and are wondering what that extra gear lever does, Four-by-four Driving is an absolutely essential volume for any expedition library—as well as a delightful glimpse into the persona of one of the overlanding world’s legends. You can order it directly from its author at Desert Winds Publishing, here: Desert Winds Publishing