Vehicles

The latest Defender teaser video . . .

While it’s tempting to try to infer more technical or performance details than we already know for certain, I’m not going to. Why? Because this is a teaser—a promotional video produced by Land Rover. It should be obvious that it’s not going to show us the vehicle in anything but the very best light. So of course the performance in this carefully edited sequence is going to look excellent.

Sure, there are certain things anyone who’s paying attention can see. The new Defender—particularly the two-door 90 version—appears to have class-leading approach and departure angles. Suspension compliance looks to be excellent, as we would expect. The wheel diameter seems to be larger than I would have preferred—certainly larger than the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon’s 17-inch versions—but the glimpses of brake discs indicate there might be room for smaller-diameter wheels to allow more tire sidewall. Impossible to say.

The point that struck me most forcefully was the marketing approach taken by Land Rover. Ads for the original Series vehicles stressed their utility, their strength, their versatility. Not any more. This time it’s all about a pseudo-Paris-Dakar, high-performance, high-environmental-impact attitude. More than half the tracking shots of the vehicle show it at various degrees of side slip, and there’s a whole lot of sand being spewed and snow being flung. That indicates clearly where the company believes its sales lie, even if it actually tells us very little about the vehicle’s everyday utility, strength, or versatility.

The new Defender will be a unibody vehicle with all-independent suspension and a high degree of reliance on electronic traction aids to gain what the company promises will be a new high in all-terrain capability for a Land Rover.

It will be an entirely different vehicle than its predecessors.

I suspect most of its customers will also be entirely different.

Tom Sheppard's Four-by-Four Driving, 5th Edition

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Can you learn to be a better 4x4 driver from a book?

The answer is yes. And no.

Don’t stop reading, because that’s not an evasion. 

The “no” part of the answer is easy to explain. Simply put, nothing can substitute for having an experienced human instructor in the seat next to you, or outside your open window, to give you second-by-second advice on your control inputs and choice of lines. Not long ago I watched Tim Hüber stand next the the driver’s window of a Range Rover while he had the owner repeatedly back up and slowly inch over a soccer-ball-sized boulder. Back and forth, back and forth. The aim was to hone the driver’s ability to gently ease over an obstacle or down a ledge, rather than bouncing and compressing the suspension, which reduces ground clearance and increases the chances of contacting bodywork. The fellow finally nailed it, and negotiated the following driving course with consummate grace. I can think of dozens of other instances I’ve watched (or, indeed, have experienced as a student), with such skilled and patient instructors as Sarah Batten, Graham Jackson, or any of the ex-Camel Trophy team members who’ve taught at the Overland Expo for a decade now. 

Having a live instructor is especially vital when learning to drive in conditions new to you, or more extreme than you’ve experienced before. This applies to such procedures as driving on side slopes, negotiating steep hill descents or difficult climbs, and similar situations where inexperience might either make you overconfident (unlikely), or too timid to fully exploit the capabilities of your vehicle.

However. You can significantly enhance your level of preparedness for that personal instruction by reading the right book. And I know of none better than Tom Sheppard’s Four-by-Four Driving. I’ll offer full disclosure right now: I wrote the chapter on winches and winching, and the section on the Hi-Lift jack, for this and the previous edition. But that’s a fraction of what this book is about.

(And in case you think you’re beyond such a primer, note that Four-by-Four Driving is the mandatory textbook for several trainers I know who contract with two governments to teach Special Forces operators advanced driving and recovery techniques.) 

Why is it so good? I think the answer lies largely in the fact that Sheppard was a test pilot in the RAF before he took to solo exploration of the Sahara. And when you’re flying an experimental jet aircraft, poor preparation and bad driving won’t just get you stuck—it will get you killed. Thus Tom insists that a thorough knowledge of the vehicle itself, and especially its driveline and four-wheel-drive system, is the key to being an effective driver. Think of it in terms of a maxim:

If you don’t know how the vehicle operates, you won’t be able to operate the vehicle. The more you know about how it operates, the more effective an operator you will be.

For this reason, a full 20 percent of Four-by-Four Driving is devoted to an exhaustive look into the drivetrains and systems of vehicles from the Suzuki Jimny up to and including the Bentley Bentayga. While you might be tempted to find your own model in here and only read about that, don’t. Learning about other approaches will help you understand both the strengths and weaknesses of your own ride. Besides, if you ever have the opportunity—or need—to drive something foreign to you, you’ll look like a hero if you hop in and immediately turn that LR4’s Terrain Response dial to the proper setting—or, for that matter, are aware that you’ll need to get out and lock the hubs on that Troopy before pulling back on the transfer-case lever.

Just a partial table of contents

Just a partial table of contents

The driving section then begins with another vital subject: mechanical sympathy; that is, how to drive with awareness of the vehicle and the right touch to avoid stressing or breaking it. Further discussions cover suspension articulation, low range and when to use or not use it, throttle and brake control, followed by extensive sections on types of terrain and the techniques used in each: sand, mud, tracks, deep ruts, rocks, water. What is the correct way to ascend or descend or traverse a steep slope? To cross a deep ditch or sharp ridge? Negotiate snow or ice? It’s all in here.

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The following extensive section is all about recovery, both assisted and solo, and includes an utterly brilliant chapter on winching. :-) A short but fascinating chapter on advanced driving covers such arcane skills as changing from low to high range on the move, or driving a non-synchro transmission—just in case you ever get the chance to take a Bedford RL on safari. There are also useful sections on trailer towing for those of you with adventure-type trailers.

That would be a complete book, but Tom continues with a section on expedition basics—sort of a flash introduction to the last word on the subject, his Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide—as well as sections on loading and lashing, equipment, fuels, oils, tyre repair, and vehicle selection for expeditions.

That front section, however, is why you should buy this book. For the fifth edition Tom immersed himself in the latest models and technology and updated anything that remotely hinted at being past its sell-by date. There’s even a brief flash of a disguised Rolls-Royce Cullinan careening along the face of a sand dune, with a typical Sheppard wise-cracking caption: “No, your Ladyship, the brake is on the LEFT! And Rolls is the marque, not the aim.”

Read this book. Then go get some professional instruction. I’ll bet you at some point your instructor will look over at you and say, “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”

African trail hazards

The offending limb

The offending limb

It was Connie who alerted me, in her inimitable style, as we stopped at the entrance gate to the Moremi Game Reserve to pay the entrance fee.

“Jonathan,” she said, deadpan, “You have a stick up your butt.”

I realized even without checking that she was speaking metaphorically, so I looked at the next obvious spot—the rear of our Troopy. And there it was: a pretty stout limb as a matter of fact, wedged somewhere firmly in the vehicle’s undercarriage and dragging on the ground. Wedged so tightly as to be scoring an impressive furrow behind us. I was pretty sure I’d heard it get there, but the forest track we had followed had been littered with such limbs of various sizes, and I’d gotten used to the odd one smacking the undercarriage when a tire flipped it. The strategy with such limbs lying crosswise is to drive over the middle if possible, as this reduces the chance of flipping, but it wasn’t always possible, and many of the limbs were concealed in undergrowth.

A glance under the truck showed the limb angling up to the rear axle, where it took an abrupt bend in front of the tube and up into the chassis. I got down and slid under the Troopy, gave a yank on the limb, and  . . . nothing. It was well and truly jammed in there. So I slid in all the way, and found that the end had somehow crammed its way past brake, water, and diff-lock lines to lock itself behind a frame crossmember.

And then I noticed the sheen of some sort of liquid. Uh oh.

I could see the water line from our chassis-mounted tank, and it was intact. My next, worried thought was brake line. But the brakes had felt fine as we stopped. By now Graham had crawled under as well, and said, “Gear oil.” We smelled it and sure enough. The stick had ripped off the air line fitting for our ARB diff lock, and severed the line itself. Some differential oil had come out with it.

It took some serious heaving to free the end of the limb and remove it—I’m still mystified as to how it managed to insert itself that firmly in a fraction of a second. There was no way to repair the line—it was now too short and the fitting was mangled. So Roseann found a wood skewer of the approximate inside diameter as the fitting on the diff housing; I cut a short plug from it and used Gorilla Tape to securely fasten it in place. 

We drove the rest of the trip through Botswana and Namibia with the bandage in place. There was no more leakage, so the truck went into its shipping container that way. I’ll fix it properly when it arrives in Arizona. (I’ll check carefully to make sure no oil is being pumped up the air line toward the compressor, which can happen in certain circumstances with ARB lockers.)

I only forgot about the issue once, on the challenging track we took from Twyfelfontein to the Ugab River Canyon. I paused before a short but very steep and loose climb and, without thinking, hit the compressor switch for the locker.

“Uh, watcha doing?” Roseann asked. Oh, right. Of course we made the climb with zero drama and no locker.

In this case I don’t feel that I did anything wrong driving-wise, and I don’t feel that I was remiss in not having spare air line and fittings along. You just can’t predict everything. I did learn, however, to pay attention when Connie Rodman says there’s a stick up your butt.

And the damage

And the damage

High-mileage champions

My first car, at about 110,000 miles.

My first car, at about 110,000 miles.

“As with old Toyotas, nice old Hondas are perpetually rare. People buy the cars and squeeze them of use, then wake one day to find the things spent, not worth enough to rebuild. The curse of ordinary nobility.” Sam Smith, Road and Track

I remember when my first car, a 1971 Toyota Corolla 1600, accumulated 100,000 miles on its odometer. My friends were impressed.

Nearly two decades later, when my FJ40 passed the mark, I started a tradition by pouring a shot of single-malt whiskey into the radiator.

In between those events, much had happened in the automotive world. We’d passed through the dark days of early emissions controls, when Corvettes came with 160 horsepower and everyone thought performance was dead. Then came the magic of electronic fuel injection and ignition, through which a central processing unit (CPU) could precisely control fuel delivery and many other engine parameters—and thus hugely reduce emissions while increasing power. Slowly at first, then rapidly, power began to rise again, and before long we could buy cars that produced more horsepower than we had ever experienced during the so-called glory days of muscle cars. And yet those cars also used far less fuel—it was a win-win-win triumph of technology.

But that wasn’t all. In part due to the cleaner-running internals, and in part due to better machining methods and higher quality control, championed at its best by Japanese makers, engines and transmissions began to last longer and longer as well. Soon, racking up 100,000 miles on a Corolla or Civic was not even worth mentioning, and these days pizza-delivery kids still run clapped-out examples with 200,000 miles and more on engines that have never had the head off. Without doubt, 200,000 is the new 100,000—and yet even now statistics show that only eight tenths of one percent of vehicles reach that mileage.

My FJ40 now has 322,000 miles on it, and a comprehensively rebuilt engine courtesy of my master Toyota mechanic friend Bill Lee. So I wondered how many vehicles reach the 300,000-mile mark—and the answer came through the site iSeeCars.com. Herewith the stars, and the percentage of them that survive to that lofty distance:

Ford Excursion: .2%

Toyota 4Runner: .2%

Toyota Sequoia: .2%

Chevrolet Suburban: .2%

Toyota Tacoma: .2%

Toyota Tundra: .2%

Notice a trend? :-)

Incidentally, the all-model average for reaching that distance is just .1%. Also incidentally, the five longest-lasting sedans/vans (and the percentage of them that attain the 200,000-mile mark) include, in order, the Toyota Avalon (2.5), the Honda Odyssey (2.5), the Honda Accord (1.9), the Toyota Sienna (1.8), and the Toyota Prius (1.7). Note, especially, that last one, all you doubters who claimed the Prius would bankrupt owners with expensive battery replacements at 50,000 miles.

The 10 longest-lasting vehicles by brand look like this:

  1. Toyota

  2. Honda

  3. GMC

  4. Chevrolet

  5. RAM

  6. Ford

  7. Accura

  8. Subaru

  9. Dodge

  10. Cadillac

I was surprised to see Nissan in 14th place, below Volvo, Jeep, and Chrysler. I was also surprised to see that Volvo was the only European manufacturer to appear anywhere in these lists.

Of course, as they say, your mileage may vary . . . 

African safari guides and tire pressure . . .

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I’m not exactly sure why, but a lot of African and Australian 4x4s still run on split-rim (or, more properly, retaining-rim) wheels and massively belted bias-ply tires with tubes. It might be cost, the supposed (but illusory) ease of servicing in the field, or the brute resistance of those ten-ply tires to the abuse dished out by guides and other drivers who aren’t responsible for actually buying the equipment.

A related archaic practice is the resistance of drivers on those wheels and tires to do anything remotely resembling airing down in difficult conditions. Admittedly you cannot air down a tubed tire to the same degree you can a tubeless tire, for fear of tire squirm ripping the tube’s valve off, but you can certainly vary pressure to more or less suit conditions.

Uh uh, not these drivers. 

Graham Jackson and I recently got a hilarious example of this in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana. We were parked at a pan watching hippos, crocodiles, and a very nonchalant leopard, when an open Land Cruiser equipped with the standard lodge safari seating module arrived, with two guides and a single guest. The driver came over and asked if I had an air source, as he had a right rear tire that was worryingly low. I pulled our Troopy next to his vehicle and hooked up the ARB Twin compressor, while Graham used our gauge to check the pressure in the suspect tire. He suppressed a smile and showed me the dial, which read a full 45 psi. Dutifully we hooked up the compressor and added ten more pounds. “Okay?” asked Graham, but the guide shook his head and pointed to the barely visible bulge in the tire above the tread. So Graham hooked up the hose again and said, “Say when.” The compressor buzzed, the tire tautened, the guide watched, Graham and I traded glances. Finally the guide nodded and said, “Okay,” apparently satisfied with the appearance of the tire.

Graham quickly checked the pressure again, and handed me the gauge. I snapped a photo before putting it away, with the needle pegged above 75 psi. (At the time we were riding on 24 psi in the rear and 20 in front (in a heavily loaded Troopy), to comfortably negotiate the sandy tracks in Moremi.)

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The amazing thing is that the guides get anywhere at all, although Graham has rescued some and Roseann and I have done likewise in East Africa.

Repairing hubs in the field

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Recently I was going through archived travel images to illustrate an article for Wheels Afield magazine. While doing so, I noticed a consistent thread running through our photos of Africa and Australia: A significant number of them were of me working on the hubs of various vehicles. There were two sequences of me rigging bodge wire fixes to keep grease caps on the rear hubs of Land Rovers, and one of me (repeatedly) tightening the nuts on the full-floating axle of a 45-Series Land Cruiser. All these, incidentally, involved the use of a multi-tool because the vehicle in question hadn’t been equipped by its supplier with adequate tools. 

Then there was our last trip through Australia, during which we found that a mechanic in Adelaide had comprehensively screwed up a simple front hub and bearing service on our Troopy, leaving one loose and one reassembled incorrectly so that it would not engage. (There was also a different color of grease in each hub, leading to guesses that he had actually only “serviced”—i.e. buggered—one.)

It brought home what torture the hubs of an expedition vehicle go through on the rough tracks of the world. The number one cause of backcountry breakdowns is still (according to several sources) tire punctures, the second is battery problems. I’d bet the third is hub and wheel-bearing issues, especially if you include the assembly all the way in to the CV or Birfield. 

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Therefore I’ve decided that from now on, I’ll make sure our spares kit includes a complete hub servicing kit including bearings and seals. It will take up less space than a hard-cover book but could save a lot of time and grief.

I’ll also make sure I have along the correct special tools needed. In Australia when I disassembled the hubs I was faced with the external snap ring Toyota uses on these hubs.

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Graham and I had a decent selection of tools with us, but nothing suited to this fiendish part. Graham finally filed the outside ends of a pair of needle-nose pliers flat, which worked pretty well. How much easier it would have been if I’d had these Knipex pliers made for the job.

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Deciding which and how many spare parts is always a conundrum, and will vary with the length, remoteness, and difficulty of the journey. But a complete hub kit is compact and cheap enough to be a permanent fixture along with fuses and belts.

Better brake lamps for older vehicles

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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.