Building an affordable Troopy camper

When your overlanding vehicle has a cargo area large enough to return echoes, you have a lot of options for configuring it. The basic, perfectly functional route would be to install about 40 tie-down loops in the floor, strap in a ground tent, cots, sleeping bags, a few jerry cans of water, a fridge (or three), and a chuck box, and go camping.

We sort of went the other direction.

Last year we drove our 1993 Land Cruiser HZJ75 Troopy (in the company of friends Graham Jackson and Connie Rodman in their own Troopy) from Sydney to Alice Springs and subsequently across the Simpson Desert via the Madigan Line (see here and here). Before the trip, Daniel Fluckiger at the Expedition Centre in Sydney neatly sliced off the roof of our perfectly sound vehicle and installed his signature clamshell pop top incorporating a full-sized drop-down bed and mattress. Although that was the extent of the modifications for that journey, the implications of having full standing headroom in the back of a Land Cruiser were clear, and we left the vehicle with Daniel to complete its transformation into a fully equipped camper that would retain the trim (?) original contours of the 78 body.

The first task was to eliminate the bank of internally-secured jerry cans we’d needed to ensure an adequate supply of water on the 600-mile no-resupply route across the Simpson. Daniel had the solution in the form of an exquisitely constructed 90-liter (23 gallon) stainless-steel tank mounted solidly under the floor between the chassis rails, in the perfect position to preserve—in fact microscopically enhance—the center of gravity. The tank’s multilevel construction ensures clearance for the driveshaft and axle at full rebound. A pump will deliver contents to a sink inside, and a gauge monitors the level. Despite the snug fit and complex construction, the tank can be removed if needed by simply disconnecting the driveshaft.

With dual (stock Toyota) fuel tanks totalling 48 gallons (and an efficient diesel engine), and 23 gallons of water, it’s unlikely we’d need extra capacity; however, it’s smart to have backup, and also a way to manually refill both fuel and water. So Daniel installed a Kaymar rear bumper with dual swing-out posts.

Daniel and Roseann inspect the jerry can/gas bottle holder for the Kaymar.

One will carry the spare tire (and our nifty outback braai); the other incorporates a bespoke dual NATO can carrier—one diesel and one water—and a mount for a gas (propane) bottle. The Kaymar rear bumper/rack is still the standard by which others are measured for strength and convenience, and the ball-bearing swing-outs have proven rattle-free after tens of thousands of kilometers of outback roads. 

No matter how clever the interior of the camper proves to be, we have no intention of holing up every night. On the inside of the rear door we find a drop-down table from Front Runner, this one distinguishing itself from similar items with the addition of a slide out side extension—brilliant. The Front Runner table, combined with our Kanz Kitchen chuck box (which incorporates a Partner Steel stove) means we can arrange an efficient outdoor kitchen in a few minutes. 

But what about shade for that kitchen in the desert? We have that . . . covered, with an Eezi-Awn Bat 270º awning, mounted on mighty aluminum brackets to the passenger (left) side of the vehicle. Fully deployed, it shades both side and back, providing plenty of shelter for cooking, eating, and relaxing. If desired, side wall panels can be added for privacy or blocking wind. 

Next up is the core of the Land Cruiser camper concept—interior plywood cabinetry made to our specs, with a recess designed to secure the Kanz Kitchen so it can be used in situ or removed to stand on its legs outside. We'll also be addressing the stock seats, completely collapsed after 23 years of what must have been ample Aussie backsides riding in them.

The Expedition Centre is here. Front Runner is here. Kaymar is here. Eezi-Awn products (and many others) are available through Equipt, here


Building a zero-hour F engine

If you’re only going to rebuild an engine every 20 years or so, you might as well do a thorough job. That’s been the guiding principle for both me and my master Toyota mechanic and friend Bill Lee, as he disassembled and inspected the six-cylinder F engine and transmission of my FJ40 (see this post for background). Actually it wouldn’t have mattered whether or not it was my guiding principle—Bill would have refused to do it any other way.

The engine had been showing distinct signs of power loss, although oil consumption was not unusual. Teardown revealed one certain cause: the camshaft was badly worn, and on a couple cylinders was clearly not producing much lift on the intake valves. Bill’s explanation for this was illuminating. Apparently on start-up of an F engine, the cam is the last part to receive oil from the pump. Generally this is no problem as residual oil provides plenty of lubrication—unless the vehicle is parked for long periods, in which case the oil will drain away from the cam lobes. The cam will then be without oil for the first 10 or 15 seconds after starting. And—surprise—for several years my FJ40 has seen long periods of idleness while we were traveling overseas, using the Tacoma and Four Wheel Camper for journeys in North America, and putting miles on various long-term review vehicles. Shame on me. (Bill suggested changing to an oil from Joe Gibbs Racing that displays cling properties superior to standard oils. And driving it more.)

Once Bill had the engine disassembled entirely, he called and we had a chat. The cylinders were in excellent condition, still within specs, even still showing factory cross-hatch honing marks. The pistons came right out, Bill reported—no wear ridge at all. 

However. The bores showed vertical scoring, and Bill and I were pretty sure where this originated, as I’d discovered a surgical-strike rodent intrusion in the air cleaner last year, the cleaner itself chewed through and remnants of comfortable rodent accommodations in the housing. I cleaned everything out, but it’s likely some debris had been sucked into the engine in the meantime. (Mystery: After the incident I put hardware cloth over the opening, but Bill found the air cleaner chewed again. Either one got in during the day or two before I installed the screen—likely—or I had the Harry Houdini of mice.) 

The consensus from the machine shop was that the scoring could not be completely honed out while keeping the bore stock, so we decided to bore the cylinders and install new pistons, Japanese-made units from ITM (Toyota pistons are no longer available for the F engine).

The main bearings were in good shape, but given the need for machine-shop work anyway we decided to turn the crank and install one size over bearings. Bill also suggested balancing the components—not a huge deal given the inherent primary balance and even firing order of an inline six-cylinder engine, but every bit helps. The machine shop matched the weight of all the connecting rods to the lightest one by judiciously grinding away material on the caps. (Hey! Less weight means more horsepower!)

Meanwhile, the head has been given a valve job, and equipped with new OEM valve guides and springs—which Bill had to source piece by piece from several dealers around the country. Factory parts such as these are becoming more and more rare. The replacement cam is an aftermarket item; however, it’s a brand Bill has used before with good results. The lifters as well are aftermarket Japanese manufacture. (The last few new OEM F cam/lifter sets sold for near $1,000; this set totalled about $400.)

What else? Bill wisely recommended replacing the oil pump, even though it was working fine. Toyota no longer makes the F oil pump, but the (improved) model from the 2F is still available—however, installing it requires a 2F oil pan as well, so that is in hand. New OEM timing gears will ensure precise cam timing.

Once everything is put back together (with a one-of-few-remaining factory gasket kit), we’ll have an essentially zero-hour engine. It should in fact be better nick than when I bought the vehicle from its original owner in 1978, with 24,000 miles on it.

The header was in good shape, and so ceramic-coated for re-installation.

Next up for attention will be the H41 transmission and transfer case.

Cummins-powered FJ40

As a general rule I’m not a big fan of non-factory-original engine swaps. I’ve seen the results of way too many back-yard hackers bolting Chevy 350s into FJ40s, and Ford 302s into Land Rover 109s. (Not to mention American V8s implanted in Jaguar sedans and even vilely stuffed up the rear of Porsche 911s.)

Even when it’s done well, the result in an FJ40 seems less a Chevy-powered Land Cruiser than a Toyota-bodied Blazer, at least in my book—especially when the engine is coupled to a Turbo Hydramatic auto transmission. Yeah, more power and better fuel economy, supposedly, but the fuel economy often turns out to be chimerical from what I’ve heard first-hand, and unless you want to tow a boat or something, 250 or 300 horsepower in a 90-inch wheelbase seems like overkill. The torque curve winds up in the wrong place. And the lopey firing order just sounds wrong compared to the smooth burble of an inline six. 

With diesel swaps my other-maker prejudice diminishes somewhat, since we’re now looking at potentially significant fuel savings, and a torque curve working in the same region (2,000 rpm) as the gasoline F or 2F. True, I’d still prefer a factory Toyota engine—a 1HZ or 13BT would be a tempting replacement in my 40. However, I’ve seen other options done well.

All this is leading up to the photo you see above. It’s a 1977 FJ40 belonging to Steve Sency of Durango, Colorado, who accomplished one of the most strikingly clean engine swaps I’ve ever seen. Steve sourced a Cummins 3.3BT four-cylinder diesel that had been powering a generator at a cell tower site, and coupled it with an Orion 4:1 transfer case and an NV4500 five-speed (manual) transmission. Notice the braided stainless hoses where a vacuum booster for the brakes would normally be. Since diesel engines do not produce the vacuum inherent in a gasoline engine (because the air intake tract is always wide open), Steve installed a Vickers hydraulic pump on the accessory port of the Cummins. The hydraulic boost system now services the brakes and the power steering. 

Steve reports up to 23 mpg at 60 mph (@2,000 rpm), which, given the roof tent, dual 12-gallon water tanks, and auxiliary fuel tank on the vehicle (not to mention the drag coefficient of the FJ40, roughly equivalent to that of a three-bedroom house), is pretty impressive.

Steve's wife, Linda, enjoying a perfect campsite.

Update: After several requests from readers, Steve sent a few more photos of the engine.

The new Defender is coming! (However . . .)

When the Land Rover Defender finally reached the much-delayed end of its production run last January, after 68 unbroken years rolling off the assembly lines of Solihull, it seemed like not just the end of an iconic expedition vehicle, but of the very image of exploration that fueled the early dreams of so many of us. Those black-and-white photos of a 107 or 109 wagon, cruelly overloaded, canted sideways on a muddy track in the Congo or parked under a camelthorn tree in the Kalahari, stopped us in astonishment as we paged though books or National Geographic magazines. 

That’s it. That’s what I want to do. 

How many of those who in the last few decades have done the most vital research in wildlife conservation, archaeology, anthropology—even astronomy—felt their first pang of yearning for an adventurous future gazing at a picture of a Land Rover in a far away place? How many thousands more became advocates for conservation after accomplishing more modest explorations, inspired by those same images?

For its entire history, the Defender (as it came to be called only in the 1980s) stayed true to a formula nearly ideal for an expedition vehicle and a product designed to suit developing world conditions and markets. A boxed chassis provided necessary torsional rigidity, and separate aluminum body panels bolted on, easily replaceable. Entire vehicles could be shipped in pieces in crates to remote regions to be assembled on site, a program known as CKD, for Complete Knock Down. 

The layout of the Defender—all angles and straight lines—meant the interior was ideal for storing cargo or modifying with interior cabinetry. Running gear stayed simple until the needs of the late 20th century mandated electronic controls for some engine functions. An increase in comfort and ability (with no loss of strength or dependability) came with the bold move to all-coil suspension, long before Japanese competitors copied the design.

Was it perfect? No. The factory’s stubborn six-decade-long refusal to galvanize the thin steel of the chassis severely compromised durability in damp environments (such as, er, England), and the equally stubborn refusal to offer cross-axle diff locks allowed competitors to exceed the Defender’s performance in severe conditions. Reliability as well lagged behind Japanese competition. But the Defender remained a viable choice for far-flung journeys right up until . . . it was gone. 

Only the name remained. But what a name—swirling with all the potential for adventure we remember from the actual vehicles. So it was inevitable that it would sooner or later be attached to a new vehicle. 

What would that vehicle be like? Speculation was rife. The faithful gathered on forums, lit candles in pentangles, and with false bravado claimed, “It’s Land Rover; it’s the Defender; they wouldn’t dare sully it.” Surely, they predicted/prayed, the new Defender would be much like the old—separate chassis, solid axles, simple, just modernized with whatever technology was needed to make it compatible with 21st century regulations. And bring it to the U.S.! With a diesel!

There was just one problem, the unmentioned elephant in the chat room: That simple old separate-chassis, solid-axle Defender wasn’t selling. Twenty thousand units a year is not sustainable for a modern manufacturer (by contrast, Toyota sells about 75,000 70-Series Land Cruisers annually). And it had been that way for some time. Even when U.S. Defender fans’ dreams came true and we were blessed with access to the federalized V8 Defender 90 for several years, sales peaked early, then sagged. Enthusiasm among a devoted fan base couldn’t compensate for the fact that the actual market for what most viewed as an expensive British Jeep Wrangler was miniscule. Elsewhere in the world, Land Rover steadily lost military and NGO contracts (not to mention sales to various insurgent groups) to Toyota and Mercedes Benz. There’s no reason to believe that even an extensive revision of the existing body-on-frame platform would have changed things. Thus, the vehicle itself had to change.

All the worst nightmares of fans regarding that change came true when Land Rover rolled out the DC100 concept vehicle in 2012, when the end of Defender production was prophesied but not yet calendared.

So not working, Land Rover

Even among impartial journalists the response was, at best, a sort of collective “Eew.” Among aficionados, the reaction was a bit more strident, as this photo taken outside LR headquarters in Whitley, Coventry, at the time, shows.

Land Rover reportedly hired magician David Copperfield, at huge expense, to make the DC 100 disappear, and it was never seen again.

The die, however, was cast. It was pretty clear that the new Defender was going to be a substantially different beast than its predecessor. Now that development mules for a 2018/2019 launch are circling secret Land Rover test facilities around the world, we’re getting what seems to be reliable information from such people as CEO Ralf Speth. No photos of the vehicles yet—Land Rover probably has SAS snipers with Barrett M107s deployed around each prototype—but we do know more about the construction.

Which will be . . . an aluminum-intensive unibody structure built on the same architecture as the current Range Rover and Discovery, with all-independent suspension. No more mechano construction, no more CKD vehicles in crates shipped to remote African outposts on bullock carts. (And no more changing out a rusted chassis in your back yard with hand tools, a few friends, and a come-along.) Furthermore, while the company promises that the new Defender will have four-wheel-drive capabilities beyond anything in the current lineup, those capabilities will be heavily based on sophisticated electronic traction-control systems and computer-controlled parameters for throttle response and shifting. You won’t be repairing your new Defender in Bamako with a multitool and a hammer.

This is not all bad news. First, despite myths to the contrary, unibody vehicles almost always display superior torsional rigidity to body-on-frame vehicles, even those with a substantial boxed chassis. In essence the entire unibody acts as a boxed chassis member. And independent suspension has certain advantages as well—especially, of course, in on-road comfort and handling. Land Rover's pioneering experience with electronic traction control systems will surely pay dividends.

It’s a good bet, in fact, that the new Defender will hugely surpass its progenitor in comfort, ergonomics, and efficiency—and in actual backcountry ability as well.

However, the Defender we knew, the one that inspired our dreams, is gone. The new one will be made for a different world.

The sky didn't fall after all . . .

A scant and diminishing few of you reading this might recall the dark days of the early and mid 1970s—dark at least for automotive enthusiasts, who were convinced that the seven-decade-long history of increasingly interesting—and fast—automobiles was over forever, thanks to OPEC embargoes and the rising influence of commie environmentalists who thought all Americans should have access to clean air and water. Executives from the Big Three stood before Congress and swore they would go bankrupt if forced to install catalytic converters on their vehicles. In 1975 a base Chevrolet Corvette’s 350 cubic-inch V8 produced a wheezing 165 horsepower, and the venerable MGB was choked down to 68—exactly the same as a 750cc Honda motorcycle of the day. 

Not all manufacturers simply wrung their hands and complained. Honda produced its CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) four cylinder engine for the Civic, which handily met all proposed pollution requirements without a catalytic converter. When the CEO of GM sneeringly dismissed the technology as suitable for “a toy motorcycle engine,” Soichiro Honda bought a Chevy Impala and had it flown to Japan, where his engineers designed, built, and installed CVCC cylinder heads on its V8, then flew it back to Michigan—where it passed EPA requirements without a catalytic converter. GM’s CEO immediately apologized and asked to license the technology. Actually he did neither.

In any case, aside from a few bright spots (Porsche managed to retain much of the 911’s performance by adding engine capacity and keeping weight down, not to mention introducing the Turbo version), the future looked bleak. 

For truck buyers the situation was similar. Although emphasis on 0 to 60 times was minimal, fuel economy was an issue, with single-digit averages commonplace (actually single-digit averages had been comonplace all along, but with gas prices skyrocketing from 30 cents per gallon to 80, it started to hurt). 

I was reminded of all this when I came upon an image of a road test of a Chevrolet C-10 pickup from a 1974 edition of Pickup, Van, and 4WD magazine. The truck’s 350-cubic-inch V8 produced just 145 horsepower and a surprisingly meager 250 lb-ft of torque (torque was generally less affected by pollution controls than horsepower, but apparently not in this engine). The truck took 12.6 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph with a three-speed automatic transmission, and averaged a wince-inducing 9.8 mpg in “normal driving.” Also, astonishingly, the weight capacity on the tested model was only 760 pounds including passengers (although options could boost that to 1,360). And this was a two-wheel-drive truck.

How far we have come, and how silly seem the predictions that reducing pollution spelled the death of performance. Consider the 2016 Chevrolet Silverado Crew Cab tested by Car and Driver. Its 5.3-liter (325 cubic-inch) V8 produces 355 horsepower—well above the one horsepower per cubic inch figure that was the Holy Grail in (completely unregulated) 60s muscle cars—and 383 lb-ft of torque. With an eight-speed auto it propels the truck to 60 in just 7.2 seconds (quicker than that 1975 Corvette), yet the testers saw 15 mpg in normal driving. (Other half-ton trucks are now achieving significantly higher fuel economy figures; I cited this review because its subject was the closest I could find quickly to a direct descendant of that C-10.) This on a four-wheel-drive truck capable of hauling 2,130 pounds and towing over 10,000. Need I add that it produces a fraction of the pollutants that ’74 truck did? And is vastly more comfortable and safe?

The Ford Ranger returns

If you’ve been reading this page for a while you’ll be aware that I’m a big fan of the current world-market Ford Ranger pickup (or ute, or backie, as it’s called in its major markets). In 2012 I compared it favorably with the then-current-generation Toyota Hilux here. (Note that my pipe dream of a U.S.-market Hilux failed to materialize.) Briefly, the Ranger combines a fully boxed chassis with sophisticated running gear, attractive styling, and, when equipped with the superb 3.2-liter turbodiesel, an astounding 31-inch fording depth.

Now Ford has announced that the Ranger will return to the U.S. market, built here probably starting as a 2018 model. In the short video on the Ford Truck Enthusiasts Forum, here, the spokesman notes that the U.S. Ranger will have “. . . unique front style, engines, and features.”

Hmm . . .

That statement could mean many things. Our Ranger might be identical to the world version except for a different front end, the addition of a U.S.-spec gasoline engine in addition to the 3.2 diesel, and “features” expected by Americans, such as backup cameras, Bluetooth connectivity, etc. Or it could mean a substantially different truck with no diesel. We’ll have to wait and see. However, since the just-refreshed Tacoma is still saddled with an open-channel frame and rear drum brakes, it won’t take much for the new Ranger to massively outclass it on paper, as does the current Chevrolet Colorado.

Also of note is the intriguing reference to the return of the Bronco. If I were the execs at Ford I would make one of my pre-release goals buying up every surviving example of the mid-70s Bronco II and crushing them, then erasing all references in company literature. Every time Ford named something the “II” back then it was a ghastly, emasculated shadow of whatever the “I” was: Mustang II (and, heinously, Cobra II), Bronco II, even LTD II. Better to try to pretend they never existed.

Even TLCs need TLC now and then

In 38 years, the 1973 FJ40 you see above has, with the exception of dead batteries, never once failed to start and run and get me where I wanted to go. The closest it came was just a couple of years ago, when crud in the carburetor meant I had to clean the float bowl before it would maintain an idle. And one time, in Mexico's backcountry, the combination of a dead battery and bad gas forced me to replace the fuel filter while the engine was running. Scant glitches in an almost unbelievable record of reliability. 

Still wearing most of its original paint, it also retains its original ring and pinion gears; until a couple of years ago it still had its original starter—a record of longevity I've never come across before. The front and rear side marker lamps? Original Toyota factory bulbs, all four of them, still burning 43 years after they were plugged in on the assembly line. Weird.

Now on its second F engine, in the last couple of years I noticed a significant loss in power, and inspection revealed low compression in one cylinder. At the same time, the H41 transmission and transfer case have been getting louder and louder with wear, also betrayed by significant slop when lifting off the throttle. So it's time for a bit of refurbishment, care of our master Toyota mechanic Bill Lee, formerly of Tucson but who infuriatingly keeps moving farther away from us, now 500 miles off in Farmington, New Mexico. Recently he called and said he had another FJ40 being trucked to him from southern Arizona, so we added ours to the shipment.

Bill is planning to install new piston rings and a new cam, do a valve job, and go through the transmission and transfer case. Anything else he notices he'll take care of as well. It will be a new lease on life for a loyal machine. 

I know what you're wondering: I paid $3,500 for this Land Cruiser in 1978 when I purchased it from the original owner. Since it's now worth several times that despite 300,000-plus miles of use, it's safe to say it was a good investment, no?

Early days. Three Feathers in Redington Pass

Leading sea kayak tours in Mexico