'Desert Ute' ~ A pickup for the Sahara
in association with the Matt Savage Ute Institute (MSUI)

May as well let the cat out of the bag - a Taro is nothing more than a VW-badged Hilux sold in Europe during the 90s. No, I never heard of them until a week ago either. Hiluxes (and their derivatives, Surfs and 4Runners, aka Tacomas in the US) are effectively light duty Land Cruisers but how bad could they be for the desert? Their reputation is no worse than the TLC's, they're all over the Sahara (especially Mauritania) and there are plenty of old ones rusting quietly away in the UK.


A 70 would be too good but would a VW Hilux be good enough?

Hilux with twin long-range fuel tanks

Hilux - my rationale
If I was working a 4x4 year-round, a TLC have been the obvious choice, but all I do is a couple of desert trips a year while the rest of the time the car (well, the sort of car I can afford) rusts and depreciates and is a dog to drive in the UK. A Hilux pickup should handle the load and landscape, hopefully scrape through the dunes where power is a premium, use less fuel and all in all, be sufficient unto my needs even if it will lack the alluring grunt of a 2H engine.

I came upon the Taro after ebaying £847.12p for a '91 2.5 diesel Hilux (above) on its second owner with 180,000 miles. I met matey at the station, asked if there was anything I needed to know, and set off back to London, hoping I'd not bought a crate. After driving 60 and 80 tanks, the lightness of a Lux was a treat - at 1400kg it's 30% lighter than a 60 but with 80% of the horsepower... an idealised way of looking at it...

With the red Hilux's vibrating and clanking UJ and props It was hard to tell how it really ran, but it started, pulled and braked well, kept cool and didn't look too bad for a long time working pickup. If you think TLCs are complex, Hilux models are no less confusing to an uninitiate but it seems it's a Mark 3 LN105 with 24-volt starting, leaf springs (ie, not IFS) with a 4-cylinder 2.5 non-turbo engine (the turbo 2.5s found on Surfs etc are said to be head crackers).

After a TLC a Hilux's undercarriage looks unnerving skinny though, shocks like pencils, diffs like tea cups that sort of thing. The crux is obviously not to drive and load it like a Land Cruiser. That I can do if it means not coming home with two half Hiluxes.

A closer inspection at the newly-certified Matt Savage Ute Institute did not reveal any great dramas: filthy air filter, gravel in the tailgate, crappy rust repairs, a missing tailpipe and a UJ and prop bearing with more play than Wimbledon in June. Nothing too bent, broken or missing. With Milners just down the road Matt the Utemeister set to fixing the obvious flaws in advance of a secondary assessment prior to ratification.

Helen's Wheels?
But before we got that far Paul at Footloose 4x4 was having a clear-out and, stuck behind the heated leather sofa in the Footloose workers' recreational suite was a startled baby Taro, still in its nappies with only 70,000kms, LHD, white as an albatross' beak but missing a back tray where a cabin had sat. Matt hooked up trailer and we nipped down to Peterborough to take the fledgling back to the Institute for a closer inspection.

It turned out to be another early 90s LN105 in all but badge, but obviously in much better nick and only a couple hundred quid more than the red one. Right-across bench seat, horrid 16" splits and one 12v bat with space for another suggested an African 'export' model? Who knows but it did once belong to Linda McCartney who used it on some donkey salvage heist after which some bloke stuck a cabin on the back (I've seen a Hilux like that in the Sahara broken in half - see p.200 in the book). Since at least 2003 it's been resting.

A quick drive back along quite Peak district roads with Matt's 80 covering my bare rear proved it to be a bit gutless - the squashed header pipe we'd noticed or just the reality of a non-T 2.4 in need of a damn good thrashing (or a turbo)? Time will tell. And of course the unloaded back bounced all over. But the gearbox felt tighter than the red one so, with less than 50,000 miles I think I'll take the Taro please waiter. The red Hilux is heading back to ebay or off to Niger with the white 60's engine, box and other bits (see film above) stuffed in the back once we'd tidied it up and given it the Taro's springs and other spare unusables.

Look at those huge ape-mirrors to see past the former cabin. Checkerplate runningboards look like shin-snappers and were welded to the chassis and the sill - not so bright! 16" splits? Nein danke! We'll take the chance to steam and waxoil the back before we tuck in the new bed.

Taro Readings
This Taro will have to go a bit further than most for its first desert trip, lugging enough fuel and water for a week-long, 1000-mile stage across the Sahara's western 'Empty Quarter' from Mauritania to Algeria. But with only me in the vehicle the payload ought not top out at more than 600kg, and three quarters of that will be ever-diminishing fuel and water. Then early in 2007 it will need to carry a few bikes down to Algeria to support a Sahara tour and after that, 4x4x4 or whatever. So, apart from renewing the perhaps ageing rubber and repairing what is worn out or broken, what is initially needed is:

• New suspension. I hoped to experiment with parabolics again but none available, so after considering a cheap n cheerful Pro Comp kit, we sourced some OME springs from Italy.
• 16" steels on BFG ATs. Yikes, 6 of them cost nearly as much as the car but they do work.
A pokey 13" 265W Kenlowe fan. Hiluxes get hot working in dunes I'm told.
New timing belt (normally due at 100,000km).
A custom-made flatbed back tray. We did follow a rusty Mk 2 bed on ebay which didn't sell for 50 quid. But even at that price we thought it would be easier to start from scratch and built something better than standard.

Matt Plank confirms there is room enough for a flatbed

This tray is going to take some organising but a flat bed is easiest to make and flat darn useful. They are commonly fitted to Hiluxes in Australia (right). It turns out regular-tray Hilux wheel arches are much higher than they need to be so the flatbed can be not much higher than normal. Space underneath can be used for storage, fuel or whatever. I'm still undecided if I just chuck it all in and rope it down under a tarp, or make some built-in dividers. Probably the former as the marine ply floor Matt has lined will be easy to modulate.

For the SEQ the simplest long-range fuel solution is a 205-litre drum which I can dump or craft into another historic balise when I've finished with it. I found a couple outside a local garage which hopped obediently into the back to the red ute. Haven't had a chance to pin down a 105s fuel consumption yet but if a 4-litre 2H engine gets 15mpg (4kpl) at worst then I hope the Taro will max down at 20 (7kpl). Averaging 20 mpg for 1000 miles is 50 gallons which is the drum, the normal tank and a couple of jerries for afters.

After more tape-play Matt Le Measurer orders in some steel.

More news shortly as the flatbed takes shape, the OMEs arrive and Matt has a brrrrrilliant idea. Click

early June

© Chris Scott, 1998-2013