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Hilux on the rocks in Iceland

2010-09-01 08:25

HILUX ON THE ROCKS: An Arctic Trucks 38 model at the foot of an Icelandic glacier.

Les Stephenson

I'd always wanted to drive a Tonka truck for real, to somehow shrink, like Alice, into the miniature cab and simply drive over everything in my way. It took a trip to Iceland, a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, to make the dream reality – except for the shrinking.

How come? Well, Toyota SA has become closely involved with bakkie convertor and extreme tours company Arctic Trucks in Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, to the extent that the two businesses intend to produce "extreme" trucks similar to those in the picture above at a plant in South Africa.

The tech and international expertise will come from AT, the parts from Toyota SA, but the automaker will remain fairly remote from the operation because of Toyota's global business rules. Essentially, the required Toyota Hilux bakkie will be sold to a customer and the vehicle passed on to AT at a yet-to-be established facility in Johannesburg but, unlike other converters, the factory warranty will remain in place.

And you might as well know up front that the price of the basic Hilux will pretty much double by the time it reaches your garage with all its new bits. Into which, by the way, it might not fit with its hugely flared new wheel arches. The first SA units are expected to be delivered before the end of 2010, which happens to be the 40th anniversary year of Hilux production.

Toyota has for decades celebrated important increments in its market-leading trucks' existence with media events on an island somewhere – Mauritius, Reunion and (most recent) Madagascar. This past week the 40th "party" involved Iceland (a nation of 300 000 people in the North Atlantic Ocean), a number of South African motoring writers, a half-dozen of Arctic Trucks' fat-tyred, high-riding go-anywhere's, two glaciers and a lot of active volcanoes – one of which, you might recall, brought European air traffic to a halt earlier this year.

Oh yeah, and two grinding tectonic plates, some of the world's most spectacular waterfalls, a crashed US Navy DC3, a spooky beach of black volcanic ash, a hot blue swimming pool that claims to be able to cure psoriasis, and another simmering volcano that could bring the northern hemisphere to a halt two years from now in an eruption that will make the Eyjafjallajokull seismic event seem like a wind bubble in your bathtub.

It's an amazing country of many geological faces; a must-go target for adventure-seekers.

AT's super-outdoorsy board chairman, shaven-headed Emil Grimmson, explained to Wheels24 during a walkabout at the compact Reykjavik workshops that there's more to building a Hilux globe-cruiser than just fitting a balloon tyre at each corner to make it as comfortable on the road as it is rocking across the rock-covered, blasted landscape of an Icelandic volcanic ash-field, floating on the knee-deep snow of a sub-Arctic glacier or splashing through a river on hip-high rubber.

Hell, yes! And during the past week I've done all the above, and more… check out the gallery that's linked to this feature…

"Icelanders once used horses to get around on difficult terrain, especially in winter," Grimmson said, "but today we use bigger tyres to 'float' on the snow. We started with 35" BF Goodrich tyres back in the 1980's and in 1985, for the first time, Iceland was crossed from East to West by a motor vehicle.

"At first Toyota Iceland declined official involvement – there were warranty issues – but AT learned to listen to its customers and in 1990 we took off. Now 70% of vehicles in the Icelandic mountain glaciers are Hiluxes. We use Toyota parts in the conversions wherever possible – parts need to be universally available, especially when our vehicles reach Antarctica (see below).

"However we couldn't use the Toyota name on our products so Arctic Trucks came into being and we changed the styling of the trucks for individuals who wanted to be different."

The high-rise, balloon-tyred AT products use rubber starting at 35" (that's what will be offered in South Africa) but a conversion of a Prado (Land Cruiser 150) is a work in progress with 44" tyres at the Reykjavik workshops. A set of four starts at the equivalent of about R12 000 but the full conversion can almost double the price of the parent Hilux.

"We also teach drivers how to handle their AT units safely – our motto is 'understand both the situation and the vehicle'."

Part of AT's corporate credo is the care of the environment; it's one of the company's foundation stones. Once upon a time in Iceland only heavy trucks and tracked vehicles reached remote places. Snowmobiles were also used in winter but their unreliability, short range, fragile drive belts and no-snow areas discouraged their use.

"Then along came Arctic Trucks," Grimmson said, "and changed everything. We're also working in Antarctica, though at first people didn't believe what our bakkies could do - huge distances on one-third the fuel of alternatives, at greater speed and with much better comfort.

"We've opened up possibilities for further, easier, Antarctic exploration. We're supplying vehicles for an Indian Antarctic research unit and Arctic Trucks will be used for a televised celebrity race to the South Pole because our vehicles can achieve previously unachievable distances."

Those six three-litre turbodiesel all-wheel drive bakkies will be assembled in South Africa and feature on worldwide TV. Grimmson reckons SA's off-road experience will be invaluable in their production and that's how come I landed in Reykjavik with waterproof boots, thermal underwear and rarin' to evaluate AT's products – one of them the red Hilux 38" used in British TV personality Jeremy Clarkson's dash to the North Pole in 2007. I drove it up there in Iceland.

The 44 is a truly astounding ride; nothing except perhaps a brick wall will stop it and mud, snow, ice and river crossings go by almost unnoticed by the crew.

Another AT Hilux will in November be handed over to South Africa's Sanae Antarctic bases to improve access to that frozen wonderland - the first such vehicle the station has had in its 50 years of existence. AT will also establish a service base to be run by Sanae staff.

AT also does big-tyre work for the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish military but our focus last week was on the off-road performance of their converted Hiluxes, so back to the trip… and that simmering volcano. It's called Hekla and our travels in the AT AWD's took us right to it. Or at least to the Vanajokull glacier in which it lurks, and the country's highest restaurant that squats on a rocky mountain peak at the end of a twisting gravel road and gazes across 8600 square kilometres of ice.

It's a white sea that stretches over the horizon but is striated by bands black ash from the Eyjafjallajokull eruption – as are thousands of square km of other mountains and ash plains across Iceland

It's snow driving and it's what the fat-tyred AT's are built for. Apart from the bigger rubber, the suspension is raised by around 40cm, front and rear diff locks are installed, some have built-in air pumps, most have auto five-speed gearboxes (the standard item), seriously long-range diesel tanks can be installed, but all models can be customised according to clients' needs.

So, on the snow? The glacier's vast surface is uneven, narrow crevasses slice in parallel across the surface - wheel traps hidden under a thin mantle of white. We hit one and had to be hauled out with a winch. Bigger cracks have swallowed whole trucks. The ride on some areas was rough and back-wrenching but soon forgotten on flat virgin snow.

I wish the Antarctic drivers new snow on the south polar ice when their AT Hiluxes fire up after shipping from Durban.

The scale of the glacier is eye-numbing; leading vehicles shrink into dots and the only way to follow is to stick to their tyre tracks, picking up speed and hearing the fat rubber roar over the ice crystals with nothing else in sight but distant mountain peaks poking out of the whiteness.

Product range

An AT Hilux can easily be identified by its imposing stance, flared wheel arches and large tyres, the last being the key differentiator in the name of the conversion. These are the standard Hilux conversions available from Arctic Trucks but information on the others are on the  Arctic Trucks website.

They all have running boards and brackets, a fire extinguisher, torque wrench and a first aid kit. Conversions are done on all Hilux versions - double, single and extended cab.

AT35: 35” tyres, flared wheel arches and a suspension raised by 40mm. A popular choice among hunters, 4x4 enthusiasts, farmers and park rangers across the world. The 35x12.5R15 tyres are fitted to 15x10 wheel rims and are key to Arctic Truck’s proposition that the AT35 has better off-road capabilities, a softer ride, higher seating and, thanks to the tyres that can be deflated for soft sand or snow, better traction off the beaten track.

AT38: The version that carried the BBC Top Gear team to the magnetic North Pole. It has Toyota’s three-litre D-4D diesel engine that's capable of 126kW and 360Nm. It rides on 38x15.5 R15 tyres and 15x12.5 rims.

It can be ordered with auto or manual gearbox, heavy-duty suspension, a differential lock on each axle and the fuel tank can be expanded to 110 or 160 litres. Other extras include a compressed-air tank with waterproof compressor, an extra-heavy duty dual air filtration system, a 24V generator and more power outlets. Ground clearance is 420 mm under the vehicle’s belly.

AT44: Designed for the harshest conditions. This is the model that drove from the Novo airbase on Antarctica to the South Pole and back in 2008/09. The AT44 rides on 15x16 rims and 44x18.5/15 tyres which can be deflated to allow the AT44 with a 1.5 ton load capacity to cross ultra-soft ground. It can be ordered with manual or auto gearbox and a crawler gear with a 5.132:1 ratio in low range.

Maximum fuel load is 1350 litres if you order the trailer bowser, 190 litres without.

Under-belly ground clearance is 480mm, there is a 100% differential lock on each axle and heavy-duty suspension. Air tank, compressor and 24V generator are options.

6x6: Same features as other AT's but with a much longer load bed, three-ton load capacity and 400-litre fuel tank.The 6x6 can be ordered with any of the AT conversions and is powered by the same 3.0 D-4D engine.


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