Johan Badenhorst recently spent some time in Iceland, birthplace of Arctic Trucks. Watching them at work in their natural environment, he wondered what purpose they really served in Africa
Between 1984 and 1990, Jón Páll Sigmarsson, a native of Iceland, was crowned “the world’s strongest man” a record-breaking four times.
Jon Páll, who has since passed away, was bigger and more muscular than most men. He was not like the power monkeys who frequent gymnasiums, their muscles pumped up by the excessive use of steroids. He had real power that could be applied when needed — very much like the Arctic Trucks that were developed in Iceland at about the time Jón Páll was winning his titles.
Arctic Trucks became a brand name for the big wheel vehicles that Emil Grimsson and others built in Iceland. They had their origins in the US, where vehicles with massive tyres were used for displays. The Big Foot vehicles were used all over the US and in other countries for their entertainment value. They were driven over massive obstacles and did rock climbing in apparently impossible terrains. But the Icelanders like Emil realised there was a different, practical purpose for trucks like this.
Driving in Arctic conditions requires a special vehicle. In winter, snowmobiles with Caterpillar-type tracks had to be used. But by attaching 38-, 42-, 44-, 46- and 48-inch tyres, normal vehicles had much more flotation, which meant that driving on glaciers all year round became a possibility.
To fit the bigger wheels, a number of adjustments had to be made. The fenders had to be enlarged, giving the vehicles a muscular look. Then they had to be raised by 10cm. This was done in special modification workshops. In essence, the support structure is lowered in order to raise the body. To compensate for the bigger tyres, a change also has to be made to the ratio of the differential.
In vehicles such as the Land Rover Defender, the vehicle retains its standard coil springs, but these are attached to a 10cm spacer. Vehicles with solid front axles are easier to raise than vehicles with independent suspension. When a Ford Econoline (very popular for transporting small groups of people, like a minibus) is transformed into an Arctic Truck, a F250 pick-up’s front axle, which is solid, is attached to the vehicle during the conversion.
Vehicles fitted with an independent suspension system are raised as well, even though it is more difficult and costly. Currently the Toyota Hilux, despite its independent suspension, is the top selling brand, specifically aimed for conversions, in Iceland.
The expense of converting your vehicle into an Arctic Truck varies, depending on the size of the wheels you choose. In general, it costs about half the original price paid for the new vehicle. A R500 000 vehicle will thus cost another R250 000 to be converted.
I recently had the opportunity to drive these adapted vehicles in Iceland, thanks to Isak, short for ĺslenskur Akstur, or Icelandic Driving, that was created by Jon Baldur Thorbjörnsson. He was also our guide.
Jon chose Land Rover Defenders for two reasons. The Defender has a solid front axle, and Jon also believes that most clients prefer Defenders because these iconic vehicles epitomise adventure.
Defenders have had serious reliability problems over the years and Jon, trained as a auto mechanic, often had to do running repairs. Yet most of his vehicles clocked up more than 200 000km.
Jon led our convoy, driving a 130 Defender with 44-inch wheels. The rest of us were on 38-inch tyres that were specially developed by Arctic Trucks.
The 130 Defender was difficult to drive. It was all over the place and at speeds above 90 km/h, it became a bit of a problem on tar. The other vehicles, which were all 110 Defenders, were less difficult to keep on the road. Still, one expects the road holding ability of these modified vehicles to be compromised. It is only when you get into 4×4 terrain, especially snow and ice, that you realise the advantages and application of these vehicles.
Today, Arctic Trucks are often used for leisure and fun. We had an eight-day excursion on the island, visiting phenomenal sites in a land that was created by fire and ice.
We crossed Springisandur, the desert in the interior, and drove onto the Hofsjökull glacier. On the glacier you had to drop the tyre pressure to 10% of the original. The Defender’s tyres were deflated to 0,16 bar!
But today it is not only leisure wheels that are adapted like this. The Post Office, electricity company and all other government agencies that have to service far-flung communities throughout the year also use them.
Apart from the increase in flotation and the softening of the ride on gravel roads (at approximately 1-bar), in off-road conditions these vehicles also have better road holding ability and versatility. In Iceland, many rivers have to be crossed on a journey into the interior, and here the increased ground clearance offers a distinct advantage. The 20% increase in fuel consumption is merely a statistic.
Big wheel pick-up trucks and mini-buses are part of the Icelandic landscape, and have very practical uses. When I see similar vehicles in SA I am reminded of the comparison between Jón Páll Sigmarsson and the steroid-induced gym babies. Both have the looks but only one has the application.