Some travellers seek longitude and are never happier than when they’re skipping time zones and messing up their body clock.
Others, and I include myself here, prefer playing fast ‘n’ loose with latitude, trading the Saharan sun for the bizarrely addictive Polar winter in a race of extremes - and while I’m not sure I could live with snow for all twelve months of the year, I’m certain I couldn’t live with perpetual sunshine and heat.
So, the invitation to join Arctic Trucks in Iceland for a three-day tour of the south of the island was irresistible. I’ve been a huge fan of the company’s work since the late eighties but it was the Top Gear ‘Polar Special’, in which Jeremy Clarkson et al drove an Arctic Truck-modified Toyota Hilux to the magnetic North Pole that sealed the Icelandic company in the collective UK conscience.
After a quick briefing by the expedition leader on how to drive across a glacier (“If you fall into a crevasse, stay in the car until we can rescue you” was about the only piece of advice I’ve ever received in my professional life that literally made me gulp…), we assembled outside in the car park to be assigned a vehicle.
A car you climb into
Mine sported the registration number ‘AT8’, marking it as a later Toyota Hilux with a 3.0–litre engine and sleeker bodywork than that of the earlier cars. I climbed inside – and you really do climb into a car with 38-inch diameter tyres – to find that it was fitted with an automatic gearbox. This seems to be the ‘box of choice for the dedicated off-roader these days, if for no other reason than it saves slipping the clutch at slow speeds and leaves you with one fewer job to worry about when the adrenaline is spiking and your hands are shaking…
Driving any vehicle this tall and wide through narrow city streets is never going to be a whole lot of fun, and while there is real joy to be had in steaming through any city in a bright-red, seven-car convoy, I was glad to see Reykjavík disappear in my rear-view mirror as we finally hit our stride on snow-covered, and much wider, roads.
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Winter tyres on steroids
We pulled off the main highway and stopped to adjust the pressure of our studded winter tyres; even tyres this wide need a little help, and lowering their pressure from 30psi to just 5psi flattens the tread that is in contact with the ground. This leads to a much greater footprint, which helps grip on low-friction surfaces.
Because, despite all the evidence to the contrary, beneath the metre-deep snow lay a road that that had escaped the attention of the local snow plough. We engaged low-ratio and four-wheel-drive on the gearbox and set off.
The next leg of only a few miles took eight hours, and despite appalling weather and deep snow, no-one got stuck. This was entirely the result of the modifications that Arctic Trucks made to the vehicles; we came across two standard four-wheel-drive SUVs, one a Jeep and one a Toyota, both of which had become almost irrevocably stuck within just a few feet of the main road. We towed them out and carried on our way. (Feeling just the tiniest bit smug, obviously.)
The modifications include cutting and lengthening the chassis at the front to make room for those huge tyres; lifting the suspension and body; installing flared wheelarches; bolting on front and rear recovery points; engineering in front and rear differential locks; and wiring in an on-board air compressor to enable those 14.5-inch wide tyres to be re-inflated after the off-road fun is over.
The challenge of REALLY deep snow...
Hitting even deeper snow meant exercising even more care and the use of both front and rear differential locks, which locked the drivetrain to ensure we would stay moving even with three out of the four wheels churning uselessly.
Which they did.
Snow this deep is a real challenge even in a car like this and the trick, I discovered, is to try to keep moving at the lowest engine revs possible and when you come to a halt – and you will when the snow is this deep – to reverse back and take a bit of a run up to try and ‘pop’ the front tyres over the top of the wedge of snow that had built up and called a halt to proceedings.
This technique helped us climb over every single mountain we came across without once ever having to be towed out of trouble.
...and geothermally heated rivers
We also forded geothermally heated rivers, dropping down one side at such an impossibly steep angle that the view through the windscreen comprised only fast-flowing water.
After a gentle paddle (I say ‘gentle paddle’ but we seemed to be safe at anything up to a metre-deep, which isn’t something I’d recommend in anything other than a car like this with experienced guides fore and aft…) we swapped a watery view for one of clouds and sky as we clambered out the other side.
As a motoring journalist, I get to drive an awful lot of interesting machinery, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had more fun on four wheels, no matter what the price tag.
And since you’ve asked, no, you can’t buy an Arctic Trucks-fettled Toyota Hilux AT38 in the UK yet (although you can buy an Isuzu D-Max AT35, which is only slightly smaller) but you can drive one: Arctic Trucks Experience in Iceland will hire you one by the day or week, either alone or as part of a guided tour like mine, which is a brilliant way to get to see parts of the island that are unreachable any other way.
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If you’ve ever wanted to emulate Jeremy Clarkson, now is your chance; driving a car like this in rivers, up mountains, and across glaciers really is the chance of a lifetime and should be on every petrolhead’s Bucket List.
Power – 150bhp
Torque – 252 lb ft
0-62mph – a long, long time
Top speed – if you can reach 10mph in the snow you’ll be doing very well
Official average fuel consumption – single figures in the snow
Towing capacity (braked) – 3,500kgs
Towing capacity (unbraked) – 750kgs
Price – depends on how long you want to hire one for but a similar tour to mine would cost around £1,700 plus fuel and flights
If you love cold weather and the snow then nothing but nothing is more fun than this. And if this is still a bit wimpy for you, then you might be interested to know that you can drive an even larger six-wheel-drive Hilux AT44 across Antarctica – stopping at the South Pole for a quick selfie. The only snag might be the $150,000 price tag…
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The best of the rest
The Isuzu D-Max is the only vehicle you can buy in the United Kingdom that has been re-engineered by Arctic Trucks.
An old Mercedes Unimog might outdrive an AT38, and prices start at about £10,000 for the ultimate Big Boys’ Toy.
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