You’re out in the middle of the frozen tundra, deep within the Arctic Circle, mid-way into an Arctic Ski race. It’s utterly desolate, temperature are hovering around the “cooking freezing ” region of -40 degrees C, not counting the near-bladelike slice of Arctic gale, and the only people around you are, ironically, not exactly friends in the circumstances, being your competition.
The last time you saw buildings was days ago, and the cars they had standing outside those buildings were about as much use as a silk-ball-gown in a wartime skirmish. Even in those warmer climes further from the pole, the biggest four-by’s were flummoxed by so simple a task as getting to the end of the driveway; cars don’t really work out here. Here, people talk about half-tracks and earth-moving equipment as their “daily ride.” Which means things don’t really happen in much of a hurry, I’d imagine.
But what’s this you hear, as you trudge resolutely on into the icy hell? A motor? That’s not a chopper, that sounds like… a Toyota Hilux?! A few years ago, you’d have immediately assumed you had finally succumbed to the debilitating effects of the cold, and started digging yourself a shallow grave to spare the others the messy business of shooting you. But thanks to the efforts of a small band of men from the balmy republic of Iceland working for an outfit called Arctic Trucks, these days you’ll probably just wave as the cook, the cameraman and the medic go trundling past over a surface that’s a lot like a peppermint crisp dessert; lots of soggy bits, interspersed with hard shards sharp enough with which to perform surgery.
Led by the intrepid Emil Grimmson, this band of Arctic explorers first appeared on the radar through those most gallant of English numpties, the Top Gear trio of Jez, Dick and Jim and their exploits in racing to the North Pole. Armed with an Arctic Truck-prepped Hilux AT Spirit 38, Jeremy and James managed not only to knock the pasting out of Hammond, but in so doing become the first people to drive a car to the Magnetic North Pole. Let me let you in on a secret: it was mostly the vehicle.
Emil started Arctic Trucks as an accessories line during his tenure as President of Toyota’s Icelandic operations during the Nineties. When he moved on from that position, he chose to take his accessory line and develop it further, with the ultimate aim of improving upon the already capable vehicles’ off road ability. Naturally, they choose to focus on a Toyota product, although not just for the reasons you might imagine. Since starting operations in 1995, engineers have modified a number of different manufacturer’s vehicles, and have found more to have the rock-solid reliability and sheer bash-ability in the harsh and demanding terrain they are uniquely situated within.
But what they do to what is widely regarded as the toughest bakkie out there isn’t exactly a pat on the back to Mr Toyoda. (Not a mis-print; Toyota’s President is a Mr Toyoda. Those quirky Japs…) I spoke with Gisli Jonsson, the man behind designing this incredible machine: “What we say is we buy a nice bunch of parts from Toyota, and then we throw most of them away!” he quipped. “What we do is we take the front, and cut away everything from the load box back, and start again.” This means a comprehensive re-working of the entire ladder chassis to lift the suspension, altered mounting points for the body to allow clearance for those enormous balloon wheels (each a whopping 36kg!) and making space for the heavy-duty drive train and differential upgrades. They move the cab back 60 mm and the rear axle back 160mm, yet contrive to make a car that looks shorter than standard, despite being over 400 mm longer. These “trucks” also come equipped with onboard air compressors to regulate tyre pressure, GPS navigation, communications systems, uprated electrical systems incorporating extra batteries, massive roll bars in the event of either dumping it on its lid or falling into a crevasse, a crane… Hell it can even have a kitchen sink if you specify one!
Yet for all of the additional baggage it is required to carry, the finished vehicle weighs a scant 200kg more than the standard variant, which is utterly flabbergasting. The standard powertrain of a 3.0-litre common-rail diesel does duty up front, is legendarily reliable and quite happy to run on the diet of A1 jet-fuel they feed it, and it transfers its power to a specially developed dual-transfer case. For those of you who don’t speak 4×4, it is basically a box of gears between your motor and your gearbox that alters the relationship between the two, effectively giving the driver three different 5-speed automatic gearboxes in one car.
Now, seeing as gearboxes are really just car engineers admitting they’ve built a rubbish motor (think about that; electric cars require only one speed because they are much more efficient at producing their power over a wider powerband), having the equivalent of 15 gears is mighty handy if you find yourself in a bit of a spot in a vast pot of melting ice cream.
Now, by this point you’ve probably realised that this isn’t so much a laundry list of parts as a total re-working of the entire vehicle. This is made even more impressive by the fact that all of the components and chassis upgrades, like the transfer box above and the diff, are made in-house by Arctic Trucks themselves. Utilising local expertise from around 80 suppliers, they design and machine stuff to their level of strength. To give another example, that’s like deciding your bed isn’t big enough, but instead of buying a bigger one you make the entire thing yourself, out of petrified trees and diamonds. It’s a monumental effort, and indicative of the pathological level of engineering that has gone into every one of their products.
Pathological for a reason, though. Out here in these extreme conditions, things stop. Perfectly good electronics just cease to function, it can take an hour and a half to boil five litres of water and the toughest steel man makes today becomes so brittle that it can lose up to 90% of its impact strength, making it no stronger than hard plastic is in our normal temperatures. Add to this the very real risk of running into a bunch of live, fully grown polar bears, who, according to Gisli, are “very very clever, curious and quite aggressive!” This is why there are gun holsters down the sides of the vehicle. It’s not redneck chic. “They are very good at sneaking up on you, making no noise, and they know to go for the tent…”
But funnily enough, the biggest fear out here is ice cracks. No, not snow freezing between your buttcheeks; crevasses. You know something is scary when a big burly Viking chap who doesn’t look afraid of anything looks you in the eye with real fear on his face and says, “Man, but those things are scary…” The problem here is (a) GPS positioning and tracking doesn’t work when the satellites can’t see you, (b) most crevasses are wedge-shaped and murderously deep, and (c) it’s madasfarking hell-impossible to get back out again unless someone else is right there, and has not fallen on top of you. We are talking 3-kilometre-thick ice here people; they probably don’t make a rope long enough to pull you back out again if you hit the bottom.
So Arctic Trucks use a combo of a bit of McGuyvering and a spot of high tech. They use a special, boom-mounted radar to “smell” crevasses before they arrive at them, allowing them to map a route onto a GPS data logger so they know where it’s safe, although with constantly shifting ice this is not always accurate, if not current data. Hence, the McGuyver: they attach a triangulated “crevasse protection” bar, which protrudes about a meter from the front of the car, and hooks up on the far wall to prevent the whole car tipping in when the front wheels break through! Crude, but effective. And it doubles as a mounting point for the simple lever crane, which can be used with the winch for rescues, as well as loading and unloading of cargo.
In fact, the whole McGuyver thing rings true throughout. This is the kind of car cobbled together with chewing gum wrappers, sucker sticks and duct tape by Chuck Norris, the best efforts of the A-team and the McDaddy combined. I mean, it even comes with guns on the side! No car comes with guns on the side… that’s comic book stuff. This is a proper hero’s car, not a poncy “look at me” supercar but a big, swearing, bloody-nose of a thing. Just by looking at it, you know you will give up before it will. And it’s eco-friendly. Well… just hear me out. Consumption on the 3,500-metre-high plateau in Antarctica from where they just recently returned, having supported an extreme ski race, was an eye-watering 50-litres/100 km. This subsides somewhat as one heads for the thicker air of the coast, but you must be thinking I’m on the psychedelics for thinking that is economical. However, the only other forms of transport out here are bulldozers and tracked piste-bashers, which are industrial equipment with consumption figures five times that of the bakkies. Add to this the much bigger range of the wheeled vehicles over the track ones, and their far superior speed, and suddenly they become invaluable beasts of burden and rescuers of men. When you factor in that an airlift costs €150,000, it’s a no-brainer.
Thus, Arctic Trucks are now the go-to guys when it comes to modern transport in the Arctic and Antarctic wastelands, and are becoming increasingly popular in the sandy oil countries too, where the consumptions figures must be considered entirely reasonable. That said they aren’t exactly cheap. The 4×4 AT44 version cost €100,000, while their newly-developed 6×6 is yours for an entirely reasonable €150,000, depending on final specification. Look, you get a HELL of a lot of car for your money, a true go-anywhere, and I really do mean anywhere, capability. This thing makes any Hummer look like a cheap party trick.
So remember, as you come skiing in at night, spent from the exertions of the day, that welcome sight of the cook busy at his pots and the medic with his pain-killing drugs just would not be there if it weren’t for the Arctic Trucks Toyota Hilux that brought them. Right there, right then, that welcome sight might just move a grown man to tears…
The local connection
It’s not common knowledge to most, but the Arctic Trucks Toyota Hilux AT38 used in the filming of the epic Top Gear trek to the top of the world started life as a standard Hilux built in our own Toyota production facility in Rosslyn, Johannesburg. Due to the immense popularity of the vehicle in Europe and the British Isles, the waiting list on these bruisers is almost a year long; even someone with the clout of these guys struggle to source vehicles.
Because of this, an interesting situation has come about. Arctic Trucks have just recently brokered a deal with Toyota’s local Motorsport division, headed by the evergreen Glyn Hall, to begin building Arctic Truck-equipped vehicles locally. The reasoning behind this is two-fold: the cost incurred wing shipping the vehicles up to Iceland to be re-fitted is not insignificant, and many of the vehicles are used in Antarctic (South Pole) support missions, making the logistics a nightmare. This way, the lead time (typically six months from date of order) can be reduced, and it opens up a number of new markets to the company, including our own. So if you’re hankering after a bit of high-rise bundu-bashing, these guys should be able to scratch that itch for ya! Coming soon…
by Tim Hougton
Published in Playboy SA April 2012