4x4 Driving by Tom Sheppard, Edition 4

How do you review a book to which you made a small, but full-disclosure-needed, contribution? One way might be to simply avoid reviewing the bits you contributed, so that’s what I’m going to try here.

Tom Sheppard’s classic and comprehensive book on four-wheel-drive technique had its genesis in 1993 as the hard-bound The Land Rover Experience—a User’s Guide to Four-wheel Driving, sponsored by the manufacturer. I picked up a 1994 second edition, which I still own. Despite its exclusive focus on Land Rover vehicles, as an exhaustive and authoritative guide to four-wheel-drive technique in general it was like nothing I’d seen. By that time I’d owned a Land Cruiser for 15 years, had negotiated some of the most difficult trails in my region, and was using it to lead sea kayak tours to remote beaches in Mexico, yet many of the lessons—especially those dealing with driving in sand—were instantly useful.

Of course 1994 was the Paleolithic in terms of four-wheel-drive technology. Electronic traction control, then a brand new feature on Range Rovers, barely merited a sixty-word paragraph. Axle differential locks weren’t mentioned (not surprising, given that Land Rover has yet—in 2016—to embrace the feature). Hill-descent control? Electronically disconnectible anti-roll bars? Not even invented yet.

Flash forward to 1999, when Tom’s own nascent one-man publishing company, Desert Winds, took over production of the book, and the title was changed to Off-roader Driving and, in 2006, to Four-by-four Driving. Printing was changed to soft cover and monochrome to hold down the price, but each time the contents were thoroughly updated to explain the latest in four-wheel-drive systems and technology, until in the current, fourth edition, it takes up nearly a third of the book.

Why? As Tom puts it on the back cover, “ITDS.” It’s The Driveline, Stupid. Understanding how your vehicle works—how it converts engine power into traction on the ground, or how it can fail to do so—is absolutely critical knowledge if you want to exploit its full potential. Whenever I hand someone a copy of Four-by-four Driving, I say, “Don’t skip the first two chapters!” From explaining how an open differential works to investigating the astonishing traction-control system of the $250,000 Bentley Bentayga, Tom describes each advance and feature with the thoroughness one would expect from a former RAF test pilot—not sparing the criticism where necessary.

The driving sections, too, are set apart from similar books, chiefly by the overarching Golden Rule practiced by someone who has driven thousands of miles completely off-tracks in the Sahara, solo: Mechanical Sympathy. Everything from accelerating to braking is discussed with consideration for the vehicle as the number one priority. Learn the lessons here and you’ll not only be able to drive places you couldn’t before; you’ll do it with a lack of drama that will mark you as an accomplished operator. The analogy I like to use is of a pool player who has become fairly proficient at the game and shows off by slamming balls into pockets, versus the real pro who drops each ball in with a whisper, and sets his cue ball up perfectly for the next shot. Ascending and descending steep slopes, side slopes, water crossings, ice and snow, rocks, ditches—all covered.

Four-by-four Driving then goes on to a discourse in vehicle recovery, and much of this section I’ll let you critique on your own since I contributed the sections on Hi-Lift jack use and winching. Sheppard, you see, mostly eschews such crutches while playing around solo in the Algerian desert.

There is a further, valuable, advanced driving section, a primer on driving with trailers, and a useful introduction to expedition basics.

Criticism? Okay, a small one: In the last edition of the Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide Tom allowed me to debate his, um, stubborn adherence to tube-type tires for heavy-duty expedition use. There’s no such second opinion in Four-by-four Driving, so I’ll restate here that I believe tubeless tires have surpassed tubed equivalents for virtually all practical use. A significant majority of tire problems in the field—even in remote regions—involves simple punctures, which with a tubed tire require complete breakdown to repair. A tubeless tire can be durably fixed with a plug in a couple of minutes without even removing the wheel from the vehicle, and if more extensive work is needed a Tyreplier and a set of tire irons will facilitate everything up to and including complete removal from the wheel. Any properly equipped expedition vehicle will be carrying a compressor capable of reseating the beads, so the overall time and effort spent on tire repairs is hugely reduced. There, I did my reviewer’s duty. 

So—okay, I contributed a tiny section; yes, we sell this book on the Exploring Overland site. But Four-by-four Driving is simply too important to ignore for reasons of vested interest. If you are seriously interested in becoming a better backcountry driver, it’s a worthwhile investment. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go, because as I was skimming through the book to review it I found some stuff I, er, need to get caught up on.

$45 well spent. Find it here. Need I add it would make an excellent Christmas Present?