Building the perfect beast

(With apologies to Don Henley)

Given a clean sheet of paper, how would you go about creating your perfect overland truck? Gather ten overlanders and you will get twenty opinions. Everyone has different ideas and experiences; different needs and tasks for the vehicles, varied expectations of terrain and difficulties to face, different ideas of ergonomics and gut instincts.

                Coming from the UK to live in Cairo some years ago, with the sole intention of exploring as much of the Sahara and of northeast Africa as I could, this was the happy choice I faced. I have a well-equipped and much-traveled overland-spec Land Rover Defender 110 back in Britain, with over 350,000 trouble-free miles on the clock from several African and European trips, but bringing her into Egypt would have proven to be a nightmare of idiotic bureaucracy and ridiculous costs – cheaper, in fact, to buy a vehicle in Egypt, despite the fact that used car prices there are perhaps three times what they are in the UK.

                So what to buy? The range of available ‘serious’ 4x4s in Cairo was, and is, fairly decent. Toyota Landcruisers of various types abound – when Britain fell out with Egypt in the 50s, 60s and 70s, imports of Land Rovers, common across the rest of Saharan Africa, dried to a trickle. The Japanese marketplace was quick to step into the gap, and Toyota have large numbers of ‘Cruisers and Hiluxes all over the place. Close behind are Mitsubishi, with a range of Pajeros. Outnumbering both is Jeep. Not, however, Jeeps directly from Michigan, but Jeeps built in a subsidiary factory in Egypt. Quality control is not up to US standards! Nonetheless Cherokees, Liberties and Wranglers are commonplace.

                I wanted a truck capable of remote area and deep-desert travel. Fuel storage in excess of two hundred litres, turbodiesel, excellent offroad ability, 1000+kg payload and minimal idiocy from pointless electronics. Rugged enough to steal the Pearl Eye from the Temple of the Snake God with hat and bullwhip, reliable enough to bounce rocks off.

                In the end it came down to a straight fight between the 70 series Landcruiser and the Defender. Both have proven expedition pedigrees, good turbodiesels (with the big four liter slogger of the Jap having the edge), both can carry over the target payload (here the advantage goes to Land Rover, with a much more favorable payload-to-gross-weight ratio) and both manufacturers have lately fallen prey to increasing electrickery in their engines. So an older vehicle was preferable. Older, simpler and fixable in the bush. Off-road, Defender has better axle articulation, ‘Cruiser has more torque and power. So in dunes, the ‘Cruiser has the edge. In mud and rocks, it’s Defender.

                In the end I fell back on trust and reliability. At the time I’d owned three Defenders and a Camel Discovery, and all had been turn-key reliable for year after year, often in horrendous African conditions. I’d trusted Defenders as a single vehicle in areas remote from tarmac, and as far as I could see, the ‘Cruiser wasn’t appreciably better in any significant area, and in fact worse in some – so a Defender it was.

                A search turned up a base vehicle – a Defender 110 station wagon, built on Valentines Day 1990, imported into Egypt by an oil company for use as a desert survey and exploration team. She had been retrofitted with a Daihatsu 2.8 turbodiesel at some stage in her life, an unknown quantity. Generally she was in good order and I wasted no time getting into the desert on a test run. After a year or so problems began to occur with the Japanese engine however. The starter failed. The head gasket blew. The injector pump failed (car came back on a flatbed into Cairo at the cost of almost two hundred dollars). The big end bearing went (another flatbed, after being towed out of the desert by another Defender). Tedious. The list went on. It was a steep learning curve about Japanese reliability.

                The head gasket blew again, once more in a remote area. Enough was enough. I decided to take the car off the road for a year or so, and rebuild her. This is no small undertaking, especially in Egypt where Land Rover parts are rare and competent mechanics are harder to find than dinosaur wool. Shipping parts in from abroad can be horrendous, with port Customs known to take bits they like the look of, and rapacious shipping companies often charging vast amounts for doing very little.

                However the other side of the coin was that I now had a blank canvas to work from. The truck needed a new engine, and suspension, tires and fittings generally were all looking tired. With labour costs in Egypt being relatively cheap (you do, however, get what you pay for) I had an undreamed-of chance to build my perfect overland truck for quite reasonable cost.

                A project set up by a Defender-owning friend whose direction had been changed led me to a rebuilt Land Rover 300 Tdi engine. The Tdi, now not available from the company, is to many the best engine Land Rover have ever made – a combination of simplicity, reliability and adequate performance. Available in two models, the 200 and 300 series, with some detail differences between them, and produced from 1989 to 2006, the Tdi is a 2.5 litre 4-cylinder unit producing 111 hp and 195 lbf ft of torque. It’s used in the US Army as the powerplant for the Ranger Special Operations Vehicle – a modified Defender in warpaint used by the 75th Ranger Regiment. In essence it is a basic, tough and extremely reliable engine, free of electronic nonsense and easily modified to give better performance.

                The Tdi 300 was rebuilt with new pistons, refurbished head and various other ancillary parts, and topped off with a large intercooler from Allisport, bringing power output up to 150 hp. The Tdi is a fairly agricultural engine but amenable to all sorts of tuning, and overland specialist mechanic Ben Stowe of Black Paw 4×4 in Yorkshire flew in and tweaked the fuel pump (by now with Morgan Hill boost pin) to release even more horses into the stable, whilst keeping exhaust gas temperatures sensible. Total power output was now round about a healthy 180hp, with aftermarket exhaust gas temperature gauge, boost gauge and capillary water temperature gauge to keep an eye on engine heat in an environment where it regularly soars over a hundred degrees. The engine breathed through a military-spec Mantec snorkel topped by a centrifugal Black Paw prefilter. All engine and transmission breathers had extended breather pipes connected to a neat manifold from Fourby vehicle outfitters, who also supplied the boost pin. 

                Suspension was the next move. On my UK-based Defender, I’d kept suspension components stock for several years, as aftermarket spares have been hard to find throughout Africa. However that’s changing now as airfreight gets easier, and I started to look at aftermarket kits for the wagon in Egypt, looking for long life and toughness. Terrafirma proved the best and most cost-effective option, and their +2” Commercial Heavy Duty set-up worked well, proving durable under heavy loads.

                Much of the terrain the truck operated in was very soft sand, so wider tires spread the mass of the vehicle over a larger surface area. Equally, there is a substantial amount of rock-crawling in the Sahara, which argued for a chunky pattern. My first choice was Goodrich All-Terrain, possibly at wider than standard 235/85. However they proved unobtainable in Cairo at the time. My Defender-owning friends in the city raved about Cooper’s Discoverer STTs and a set came up, sized at 285/75, so on they went, helped by a set of aluminum spacers and mounted on rims from a Land Rover Discovery 1. At 7” these are wider than Defender rims at 5.5”, which are only rated up to 7.50×16. After some pretty severe testing I have been very impressed indeed by these monster Coopers. They are augmented by Trailhead deflaters and an ARB compressor that serves an onboard air system.

                Aftermarket safari equipment isn’t strictly necessary for overland Defenders, but it makes life a lot easier. My “other” Defender carries a lot of FrontRunner gear – their gas bottle bracket, storage drawer/box system, stashable safari table for example, and I’ve found it very good – so it was to FrontRunner I turned to equip this desert-dwelling beast, supplied again by Black Paw 4×4, who are well-versed in shipping overland equipment to strange places at short notice. FrontRunner’s Slimline II aluminum roof rack combines lightness and toughness, so that went on, along with an awning from the same company. A custom rear spare wheel carrier with integral twin jerrycan rack and HiLift mount, a large locker to replace one of the rear windows, and a set of Fourby brush wires to protect the windshield from overhanging branches appeared on what was now a purposeful-looking truck.

 I’ve long been keen on the South African military Wolff (“Wolf”) ammunition boxes. Expedition-proven, they are made of a strong recycled plastic and, tough, stackable and showerproof, they are excellent for storage either inside the vehicle or strapped to the roofrack. FrontRunner make a capable drawer system to store them – so you have the utility of a storage drawer system and yet can remove the ‘drawer’ and carry it through camp to where it’s needed (it’s a box after all). So added to the refit went a four-box storage drawer unit containing camp kit, kitchen and BBQ gear, tools and personal gear. This went into the rear loadbay of the Defender, sitting neatly on top of a custom-made 220 litre aluminum diesel tank to augment the existing standard 80 litre tank and a 40 litre underseat auxillary tank. All in all this gave an unrefueled range of over a thousand off-pavement miles – enough for a desert trip that might go into the Sudan or Libya.

Recovery gear is of course important – ideally self-recovery, both in the desert and in Subsaharan Africa to the south. This latter was important as the beast was planned to be heading on the Cairo-Cape Town route before long – it wasn’t just sand she would need to cope with. So a winch was important. My preference is for electric winches, so a Superwinch Tigershark arrived, by airfreight together with various British military airbag jacks, strops and shackles. Aluminum sand channels had a bracket on the roof rack. 

                Lighting systems needed attention. In North Africa local drivers tend to drive at night with either no lights at all, or all lights maxed out at full beam. Where tarmac roads exist they are often totally unmarked and with rough, loose edges. Ranged against this were the standard Defender headlamps, so LED lighting systems were an obvious addition. Two floods for the nose and a light bar for the front of the roof rack ensured that the flock of unlit goats in the highway ahead (plus goatherd) would be saved from their destiny as instant kebab.

                Obtaining the kit had often been problematic, and fitting it not without incident. When the Tdi was first plumbed in, the local mechanic installed it so that fuel ran from tank to water separator to filter to lift pump then to injector pump, rather than the more suitable fuel tank – lift pump – separator – filter – injector pump. So on her first serious trial trip the injector pump destroyed the lift pump. Having traced the problem I replumbed the fuel system, added an extra filter to cope with horrendous quality local diesel (easily the worst in Africa), and tied the mechanic down in the sun, covered in honey and staked over an anthill. The exhaust system has been welded up and ‘created’ by a local specialist known as Mahmoud the Muffler – it rattles a bit, but….

There had also been electrical issues. The standard wiring had been locally bodged so many times before I bought the beast that the wiring loom looked like something usually served with tomato sauce and meatballs, with a side order of duct tape, so a local electrician rewired her. Predictably this came with attendant chaos – the wire taking current to the starter was too thin to handle the load in high temperatures – result, when the engine was hot and the ignition was turned off, she wouldn’t restart. Investigation followed. By now the anthill was getting crowded.

Guts for the onboard electrics came from twin Odyssey batteries and a split-charge monitoring system from National Luna. Fourby provided a neat twin-marine-socket plus USB socket unit for the dash that gave power for twin Garmin GPSs – a Montana and a GPSMAP 62s – twin units because, after an older unit of mine failed twenty years ago, wiping waypoints next to an Algerian minefield, I prefer belt and braces! Also from Fourby was an engine heat exchanger system that provides hot water for showers, together with other creature comforts like an 80 litre Engel fridge for essentials like tonic water and lemons.

The result, after an eighteen-month rebuild, was a truck that far exceeded all expectations. Powerful, able and reliable, the Defender, named ‘Stella’ after an Egyptian beer, would easily last another 25 years of wild trails before her next major visit to the vet. On an early test trip she recovered a large bus that some clown had driven into soft Saharan sand, barely breaking sweat in the process, and continued to impress with her solid unpretentious capability. The final ingredient was to be a roof tent from MyWay, tried and tested as on my other Landy, though all that was really needed to be added were open skies – something Africa has plenty of.

Sadly, pretty much straight after the rebuild, I had to leave Egypt in a unexpected move to the UAE, where I currently am. Of course I wanted to bring Stella, but UAE laws wouldn’t allow it. So, with great regret, I had to sell her. 😦 Such is life….. she’s still out there, somewhere!


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