Beauty and the Beast
When Nigel Baines and Gus Ferguson set out to build a challenge truck from scratch, they created a vehicle that’s turned out to be a bit of a beast off-road. But even if it’s not the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen, it’s a perfect example of how beauty need never be skin deep…
When the All Wheel Drive Club started getting involved in organising challenge events, it was only a matter of time before the sort of weird and wonderful home-brewed buggies that have dominated the club’s Class One trials for decades started appearing on the scene. Competitive winching has come to be associated with Land Rovers, Jeeps and Suzukis that look like Land Rovers, Jeeps and Suzukis, but just as Muddlers and vehicles like them came to dominate trialling as a result of inventive builders making the most of the freedoms given them by the rules of the sport, it was inevitable that before long, people would start building specialised vehicles developed specifically for the peculiar disciplines of challenge off-roading.
It’s often been remarked that the average Class One could turn up to most winch challenges and collect every punch without getting stuck once. Indeed, one of the earliest such UK series, the 1994 Warn Challenge, was put in a bit of a pickle when the local pairing of Dave Wallis and Richard Scourfield turned up in a Bowler 88 without a winch and drove the entire course unhindered, pausing only to help others (and collect the Spirit of the Event award for their troubles). But the specials being built for this kind of event are very different to the sort of vehicles used in trialling – even if many of the principles behind them are the same.
A fine example is the machine you see in these pictures, which belongs to Nigel Baines and Roger ‘Gus’ Ferguson. Long-standing mates since college days, they’ve been off-roading together for years and now run a 4x4 business, Cynwyd-based Up To The Axles, which sells tyres and accessories as well as undertaking fabrication work.
Between them, Nigel and Gus have put together what Gus calls a ‘cliched selection’ of 4x4s. This includes a Series II, 101 and Range Rovers of two-door and four-door vintage. ‘We would be called enthusiasts,’ he admits.
Another Series II, which was built specifically for challenge events, carried them into this growing corner of the off-road hobby around the turn of the decade. ‘We constantly modified that,’ recalls Gus. ‘It became quite extreme towards the end of its life. Everything we learned from it, we incorporated into this one.’
‘This one’ is a purpose-built challenge buggy based on the chassis of what Gus calls ‘a basket-case automatic Range Rover someone had kicking around.’ Built in six months of weekends in 2003, it’s as close to first principles as you can get: ‘We started from scratch,’ says Gus. ‘We stripped it down to a bare chassis and started from there.’
As is usual with this kind of project, the first task was to dress the chassis for its new life. The swan neck was lopped off the back, and its wheelbase was shortened to a somewhat unusual 89 inches – Gus’ justification for this being that ‘that’s what it ended up at!’
Also rather unusual is the fact that the chassis now doesn’t have a rear crossmember. ‘We cut it right by the rear springs, so there’s no rear overhang at all. The back end of the vehicle is actually the back of the tyres.’ There is, however, a winch mount between the spring seats, and this acts as a crossmember in the absence of the traditional variety.
On top of the chassis is a full six-point roll cage made from blue band tubing. It is, as Gus says, ‘heavy and strong – and cheap. We don’t like CDS. We did it all with a hydraulic bender, and for CDS you need a mandrel bender, which we don’t have.’
The cage itself was designed to add strength to vehicle as well as protecting against rolls. ‘The bodywork is formed on the cage,’ explains Gus. ‘So the front hoop also forms the front bulkhead, which is linked into the chassis by outriggers underneath. The rear hoop is the same, on to outriggers again, and the back legs come down on to the chassis. We also have front and rear horizontal hoops above the chassis, for pushing trees and so on out of the way, which form the wing tops. They’re also linked into the chassis at the front edge. There’s a certain amount of triangulation built into it as well, and we have steel bulkheads front and back.’
The body panels, meanwhile, are simply galvanised steel sheeting which is formed into place and riveted to the cage. Challenge regs don’t forbid riveting into the structure, so unlike for some forms of off-road competition there was no need to attach flanges to the cage to which to attach the body.
With strength taking priority over weight in the vehicle’s design, torque was always going to be critical in the team’s choice of engine. And they knew exactly where to get it. ‘We are a bit enthusiastic about Daihatsu diesel engines,’ says Gus; he has one in a Range Rover, while Nigel has one in his Series II. The unit in question is the 2.8TD engine from the Fourtrak, which has been in place since the vehicle was built and has required precisely no maintenance.
Behind the engine is a Land Rover Series III gearbox. This replaced an earlier Series II unit, which doesn’t have a seal on its first motion shaft and kept oiling its clutch as a result. ‘It has a little drilling to suck the oil back,’ says Gus, ‘and when you’re vertical down a slope all the gearbox oil runs out on to the clutch. So we tried to found a way round that, but in the end decided to use a Series III gearbox instead.’
With the vehicle’s sole purpose being to compete off-road, no compromises needed to be made on its overall gearing. Hence the choice of a Series I transfer case, which is the lowest-ratio compatible unit around. The version used is a later Series I unit, meaning the vehicle has part-time four-wheel drive; ‘we find the two-wheel drive part very useful sometimes, for spinning the back end around in tight spots.’
Downstream of the transfer case is a set of Range Rover propshafts, modified to suit the vehicle’s shorter wheelbase and treated to wide yokes to cope with the greater angles at which they operate. The axles are from a Range Rover, too, with modified seats and strengthened mountings but otherwise largely standard. The vehicle doesn’t even run diff-locks, though it does have a Truetrac LSD in the back.
Incredibly, all the axles’ other internals are standard. ‘We haven’t broken any yet,’ says Gus, ‘which a lot of people can’t believe. And to a certain extent neither can we! Particularly since we put the big tyres on – it’s all bog-standard 1980s Range Rover. We do drive it with consideration, but it does get well used and it does get hammered. We sometimes use the technique of spinning the back end round on the winch, when you’re against a tree or something and you light up the back wheels and pull the winch sideways, and you wouldn’t expect it to like that.’
‘It’s all been done on a cost basis,’ says Nigel. ‘If the day comes when we break a halfshaft, then we’ll take a look at what our options are.’ Not that they’re being complacent and simply waiting for something to let go. ‘We do take them out regularly to check and see if they’ve got a twist in them,’ says Gus, ‘and they haven’t even done that yet. We did think it was going to be a problem, but suck it and see!’
Helping locate the rear axle is a modified A-frame, which has been rose-jointed to cope with the extreme angles of articulation which were beginning to rip away the original ball joint. Gus and Nigel experimented with a wide range of spring and shock rates, as well as trying various locations for the mounts, in order to maximise axle travel, before finally settling on a combination of Old Man Emu shocks and plus-two Britpart springs.
The latter are rated to 200lb at the back and 220 at the front, which is as soft as they get. All four springs sit on lifted mounts, which have been raised by between one and two inches from the axle, thus giving a theoretical overall lift of somewhere over three inches. Gus confesses not to being convinced that the team has yet got the best from them in the year since they went on: ‘we ran it for two years with a set we pulled out of the skip. We just had them lying around. This year, since we were doing the Scorpion Challenge, we thought a nice set of yellow springs would be nice! To be fair, it does go places it never used to – the articulation has improved on it.’
Helping make the most of all that flexibility is a set of 35x14.50R15 Pit Bull Rockers. These run on steel eight-spokes fitted with beadlockers, which is just as well as they only tend to have 4psi of air in them. ‘The traction off-road is awesome,’ reports Gus. ‘Particularly because it’s got open diffs – ours goes places where others have to engage their lockers.’
The height of the tyres, and specifically the affect this has on the vehicle’s overall gearing, is why a Series I transfer case was in order. The Daihatsu engine is plenty strong, but there’s still no point in taxing it unnecessarily.
This is particularly the case as the team regard their engine as a semi-disposable item and certainly wouldn’t want to spend money on modifying it. They’ve tweaked the pump to give it a bit more get up and go, but it’s still running standard boost and remains in its original non-intercooled state.
‘There’s two schools of thought on intercoolers,’ remarks Gus. ‘A lot of people don’t tend to use them because the intercooler tends to goo up with mud and salt. If you mount the intercooler in front of the radiator, it tends to make matters even worse. We have had one occasion when we sunk the front end in muddy water and it blocked the radiator right up. We went off and did another couple of flags and it was boiling up – the mud had just set as soon as it got in the radiator. An intercooler may make that worse, and to be honest for challenge events the benefits of doing it are marginal, because you’re only going in quick blasts.’
The other reason for not intercooling the engine is that they don’t see any point in spending money on something that’s probably going to die a horrible death anyway. The Daihatsu unit might need more revs than a Land Rover Tdi, but it has an unbreakable timing chain rather than a vulnerable cam belt and, should the worst come to the worst, can be replaced for the price of a night out. ‘In a light vehicle like that, it’s cost-effective,’ says Nigel. ‘If we blow it up, it doesn’t matter, we’ll just get another. If you blow a Tdi up, it’s going to cost you a lot of money. The other problem is that the last thing you want to do is submerge an expensive engine under water. At least if this one sucks a load of water in, we can just replace it.’
Even so, they’re doing their best to avoid any hydraulic dramas. The vehicle runs a snorkel made from 2.5-inch vacuum tank suction hose and a Daihatsu air filter. Price? Zero.
Although the vehicle is a special built specifically for the task it’s doing, that doesn’t mean it was ever going to be a budget-buster. ‘It was built with least cost in mind,’ says Gus. ‘As many of the components as possible are standard or fabricated. We’ve only really bought a very, very limited number of parts.’
Among these are its winches, but even these are the result of careful shopping and clever thinking. ‘We don’t run an 8274 like everyone else in the challenge scene!’ laughs Gus. ‘We’ve got a Come-Up on the front, with a larger motor in it, and we modified the mounting so there’s plenty of space round the actual winch rope so we can bunch it on without having to worry.’
The winch itself is Come-Up’s 9000A. ‘We’ve found it to be very reliable, and when it has gone wrong it’s been very cheap to fix and very easy to get parts for. ‘It usually keeps working, too – we mashed the gearbox, which was my fault because we turned it over and it landed on the winch, but it kept working and we finished the day. There were only two flags we couldn’t do.
‘To be honest,’ concludes Gus, ‘we wouldn’t swap it for an 8274. The cost of them initially, plus the modifications you have to do to them for challenging, makes them very expensive.’
‘I think it would be difficult to justify the cost,’ agrees Nigel. For what we’re doing, this one’s doing the job adequately.’
The uprated motor is rated to 5.7hp, rather than the standard unit’s 4.7. ‘It’s still a Come-Up motor, a modified one,’ says Gus. ‘It’s a recognised upgrade. It just keeps pulling away.’
So, what happened to the 4.7hp motor, then? It went into the vehicle’s rear winch, that’s what. This is a Husky, which Gus and Nigel rate highly – especially with the Come-Up motor. ‘That makes it pull a little bit better. No faster, but it’s that bit more powerful. The Husky’s superb. Mostly it’s used for lowering; they’re so reliable, you can just let it go and you’ve no brakes to worry about or anything. We use it mostly for shuffling the back end around and stuff, pulling it sideways.’
The Husky’s performance is all the more impressive as this is the second challenge truck it’s been on – originally, it was fitted to the old Series II they used to use. ‘A lot of the manoeuvres in that vehicle in gulleys involved turning it around just with the winches,’ recalls Gus. ‘There was no power steering, so you’d just be dragging it around.’
Both winches run steel cable, which is one of the things UpToTheAxles sells. ‘We find that they’re really flexible,’ says Gus, ‘and they last a long time. We’ve seen too many synthetic ropes snap. Okay, it’s frightening when a wire rope does snap, but we’ve never, ever broken one.’
‘It pays to look after them, too,’ adds Nigel. ‘The only downside is they’re a bit heavy to handle. But they take the abuse.’
On the subject of abusing things, the vehicle’s steering and diff guards are all home-made. ‘We cut the chassis very, very short,’ says Gus, ‘as short as we could get away with, so most of it ahead of the steering box is missing. So the only steering guard we could get in was a bit of a comp safari affair with a bar coming down. We’ve put a bit of flat plate on it, just to try and get stuff to slide down it a bit.
‘The actual bars themselves we just armed with tube and box section. We just replace them periodically, because we do bend them. It doesn’t matter what you do, on a challenge vehicle you will bend it, because you’re driving around on stumps and all sorts. We just work on the basis that when it gets bent to an appalling shape, we’ll swap it for another!’
Many challenge competitors use strengthened steering bars, but Gus has an interesting point of view to support the team’s policy of sticking with original units. ‘You’re just moving the problem to the track rod end. If the bar doesn’t give, that loading is just moved to something that will. You can finish the day with a bent steering bar: you can’t necessarily finish the day if the track rod end is busted.’
Going back to the front of the chassis, so to speak, this was cut away from the crossmember which, in a similar fashion to the back, was replaced with the winch mount. ‘We did it in such a way that we didn’t interfere with the steering box,’ says Nigel. ‘That’s still in its standard position. We’ve probably lost about six inches off the front of the chassis, which means that at the front, the chassis is still the thing that sticks out furthest, which is a bit of a shame. It would be nice if it was the tyre that was the thing, but to do that we’d have to move the axle forward and move the steering to the back of it. You never know, though, it might happen!’
As this suggests, like most projects and competition vehicles this one is still in a constant state of evolution. For its debut in the AWDC Scorpion Challenge, for example, it gained a set of doors to replace its old side guards. ‘We’ve got suicide doors, actually,’ laughs Gus. ‘It was the only way of getting them to hang, but we tell people it’s stylish! They do let the water out, too – unfortunately they also let it in at a high rate of knots as well!’
Despite the addition of the ever-rakish suicide doors, plus the use of flat bar to tidy up the gaps in the body panels, this is a vehicle which unashamedly puts function ahead of form. They even got rid of the driver’s car seat and replaced it with a Land Rover vinyl pad, as this was less prone to collecting mud and water in what it definitely a hose-out cabin.
All the same, anyone who appreciates off-road engineering will look at UpToTheAxles’ creation and see a thing of beauty. It may be a bit of a beast off-road, and Nigel and Gus would argue that it’s the result of a no-expense-spent approach to building a challenge truck, but it’s both distinctive and very, very effective. There may be prettier vehicles on the scene, and there are certainly more expensive ones, but you’ll look long and hard to find anything capable of delivering more off-road ability per pound spent on building it.