Israeli Gears

Originally Published: February 2008 Words: Steve Taylor Pictures: Bobby Cowling
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Having originally earned its off-road credentials in the Israel Defence Force, the expanding global popularity of the Tomcar looks sets to spread to the UK when it is launched here next month. Bridging the gap between a quad bike and traditional 4x4, the vehicle may only be two-wheel drive but still succeeds in delivering sensational off-road kicks.

When your usual experience of off-roading is being behind the wheel of a clunky old Series Land Rover, covering ground at a snail’s pace while closely scrutinising the route ahead to pick a line that’s least likely to inflict damage on the vehicle, it comes as something of a shock to find yourself in the passenger seat of a tiny mud-plugger speeding across a bumpy field at God-knows how many miles per hour and seemingly following no considered route at all! At least when a very large ridge rolled suddenly into view I thought we may perhaps revert to the proper off-road practise of slowing down to tackle the obstacle diagonally to avoid bottoming out.

To my alarm though, driver Neil Carpenter stepped harder on the accelerator and we quickly approached the ridge head on. Before I had time to protest, or fully understand what was happening, I dimly discerned that the ridge was being used as a makeshift ramp and in the next instant I found myself flying through the air. After several moments of intense seatbelt gripping, we returned to earth with a surprisingly mild bump and Neil turned to me to laugh hysterically like an insane baddie from a horror film. I found myself laughing too and, interpreting this as a firm sign of encouragement, Neil stepped even harder on the accelerator and we went round again. And again, and again, and again!

The vehicle in question is the TM-2 Tomcar and, having emerged from its cabin ten-minutes later a giggling, quivering wreck, I was already beginning to see why it has enjoyed such enormous popularity around the globe. In the United States this bizarre buggy-like contraption has spawned its own branch of motor racing and the current craze is to fit models with Harley Davidson engines; in Australia the vehicle is considered an essential accessory for the surfer lifestyle; in the Middle East it’s an important form of military and security transportation, and in Canada there’s a huge Tomcar community, with a large number of websites and chat forums dedicated specifically to the vehicle.

In spite of these impressive credentials though, in Britain the Tomcar remains comparatively unknown. However, that’s likely to change as of February this year, when the vehicle is launched by its only official importers, Tomcar UK.

The British company is actually an off-shoot of a firm called EPS UK Limited, which is best known for supplying goggles and other field equipment to the military. Owned by Neil’s father, Terry, it was while he was out on a business trip to the Tomcar’s birthplace of Israel that he was first introduced the vehicle and quickly recognised its potential back home in the UK.

History

Legend has it that the Tomcar dates back around 30 years when an Israeli farmer decided to build his son a car with the simple criteria that it would be as basic and flexible as possible. With all its vital components being accessible from the exterior and all its parts being symmetrically designed, repairs could be carried out quickly and easily on the field. A high ground-clearance also enabled the vehicle to traverse tricky off-road terrain, while its small engine allowed it to be driven on Israel’s road on a motorbike licence. This history is also said to account for the vehicle’s name, with ‘Tomcar’ being a simple corruption of ‘Tom’s car.’

The completed vehicle eventually proved such a success that several more models were produced and soon it began attracting the interest of the Israeli Army. As well as being small enough to carry in a helicopter and dropped onto the battlefield, its easy maintenance was clearly an attractive quality for a tightly-stretched force, and after testing several models the army bought the manufacturing rights and began producing models that adhered to nearly all the original specifications.

Although the manufacturing of Tomcar looks set to move to China, the vehicle is still very popular with the Israeli Defence Force; look closely at news footage from the region and you might just spot one with a mounted machine gun being used to carry out border patrols.

From these fairly humble origins the Tomcar has enjoyed huge commercial appeal around the world, and is currently used in mining operations, as a fire and emergency vehicle, and as location transport for film and TV crews.

Behind The Wheel

‘Goes places where a Land Rover can’t’ may sound like a very bold statement, though as this claim was repeated more than once by Terry, we were determined to put it to the test.

While the Solihull brand is still perhaps best known for the rugged off-road abilities of the Defender, the sparse, basic interior of this vehicle is nothing compared to the Tomcar. Feeling a little like being in the cabin of a Second World War Jeep, such a similarity was hardly surprising considering the first vehicle we tested was the military-influenced, left-hand drive TM-5. This model was so basic it lacked even a windscreen, though this hardly mattered as with all the flying mud we were soon to encounter, excellent all-round visibility was constantly assured.

While the adjustments of the bucket seat mean that a comfortable and supportive driving position can easily be found, there are several difficulties that need to be quickly overcome in order to get the best out of the Tomcar. A rather stiff gear selection lever on the autobox requires a certain amount of strength and assertion, as does the rather rigid, non-power assisted steering wheel, though once these aspects are mastered, the Tomcar proves itself to be a very easy drive.

With the 953cc diesel engine sitting at the rear, the TM-5 has a large supply of torque and power, and it is this feature that gives the lightweight vehicle such incredible off-road abilities. It may only be two-wheel drive, but Terry’s assertion soon proved true. Relying on sheer power and determination, and with a complete absence of grace, the Tomcar is able to quickly push itself through the kind of off-road terrain that the average 4x4 would have to inch over. Even more surprising though is the high-levels of comfort it provides, with the suspension system ironing out the biggest bumps; heading over a former quarry site above 20mph in a conventional 4x4 would be utter madness, but in the Tomcar it feels fine.

This is also perhaps due to a certain indestructible quality the Tomcar has. During the testing process we were encouraged to put each of the vehicles through their paces, and after performing airborne jumps and tackling the deepest, rockiest craters, all the models emerged completely unscathed.

Although the TM-2 has a smaller 725cc petrol unit, the fact that it’s considerably lighter than the TM-5 means it has a comparable power to weight ration and very similar driving characteristics. Heading through thick mud and slurry, the TM-2 slips and slides all over the place, though somehow its progress never falters. With a top speed of around 60mph the vehicle can get across a flat field pretty quickly too, and the manoeuvrability of this compact model is quite incredible.

The TM-4 also shows itself to be very capable, though by comparison to the other Tomcars it feels a little ungainly. Its larger dimensions mean that a certain amount of manoeuvrability is lost, as on tight corners we were forced to put it into reverse to get round, while its extra weight restricts the power output of its 725cc petrol unit. Although it may not offer the same amount of fun as the other models, as a vehicle capable of transporting four people through arduous off-road terrain, there is no doubt of its ability to do the job.

Safety is a strong feature of all the vehicles and it is this fact that gives the Tomcar a considerable advantage over quad bikes. As well as having four-point, racing-style seat belts, the vehicles’ roll cages and frames are welded together in a single, solid unit. During TOR’s visit, Terry was happy for his 16-year old son Phil to drive the vehicles across the site’s most extreme terrain and was hardly concerned when he rolled coming down a steep descent.

‘That’s the thing about these vehicles, they’re so safe,’ he said, and with Tomcar’s record of zero serious accidents, no-one could argue otherwise. However, it’s not all about protection - due to the vehicle’s very low centre of gravity actually rolling a Tomcar is quite a difficult feat: respect to Phil!

The Future

Not surprisingly given the vehicle’s origins, the Ministry of Defence has already expressed an interest in the Tomcar, while Strathclyde police are currently testing several models with the intention of using them to tackle youths illegally riding quad bikes and motorbikes on public land. At present the offenders are often able to escape conviction as the police do not possess a vehicle capable of giving chase. Another avenue Tomcar UK has been exploring is to produce a road legal model. Inevitably this will require a number of time-consuming and costly alterations, and although it may be some while before you pass one on your local country lane, this still shouldn’t be ruled out. Of course this hardly matters to avid off-roaders, as without doubt the Tomcar will always be at its best away from tarmac. Undoubtedly this 2WD buggy represents a bizarre rival to the long-proven abilities of the traditional 4x4, but get behind the wheel and you’ll find an off-road performance like nothing else on earth; it might involve a lot of airborne antics and hysterical laughter, but that’s all part of the fun.

Suspension

  • Front: Armoured steel double wishbones provide over ten-inches of travel while the heavy-duty dual gas shocks, located on the lower arms to provide even more movement, help smooth over bad off-road surfaces
  • Rear: Military-influenced independent trailing arms offer around 11.5-inches of travel

Drivetrain

  • Continuously variable transmission with high and low box. Oil-bathed chain distributes drive to rear wheels and is encased in a thick steel casing for protection from hard objects

Brakes

  • Hydraulic drums on all four wheels

Wheels

  • All models are fitted with AT 25x9-12 at the front, and AT 26x12-12 at the rear

Ground clearance

  • 317-378mm
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