Story by Jack Stuhler with an introduction by Paul May,
Jack Stuhler, the founder of Eezi-Awn, is an adventurous man and has spent his entire life exploring the African Continent. After driving from Johannesburg to the UK through the middle east in the early 1999, Jack set his sights on the Americas. He prepared a Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Series Troopy by the name of Tubby for his journey and shipped it to South America. With his significant other, Margaret, their epic journey from Ushuaia to Dead Horse Alaska took over 18 months to complete in 2005. They later returned south to Houston, and shipped Tubby home. Quite impressive for a couple in their 60s. Their adventures are an inspiration for us all.
THE AMERICAS WITH TUBBY XPLORER
Phase One – Vehicle Selection and Preparation
Being an adventurer and inveterate traveller, I traversed most of Sub-Saharan countries between the years of 1968 and 1994 – the latter being a very important year in the history of South Africa when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president of our country. The benefits of this transition were to prove a major boost not only for South Africans but also for foreigners. For the first time in many years we were not frowned upon as skunks of the world due to the apartheid system but we were recognized as a reborn nation – the Rainbow Nation – a Nation of multi ethnicity and cultures.
However, for me there was an added bonus. My newfound freedom was a passport to all corners of the world. I was not confined to Southern Africa, I was free to travel any which way the road would take me – for starters a ‘Trans Africa’ voyage from South Africa to Europe.
Planning such a trip started in all earnest and I realized that the mode of transport would be of extreme importance for such an arduous journey and having owned Land Rovers, Range Rovers and VW Syncros prior to this escapade I thought it fait accompli that I would undertake the trip in one of these, but all that went out of the window once I laid my eyes on a FJ75 Toyota Land Cruiser Troopy way back in 1995 and I knew which wheels it would be. The only problem was to find one – it was like looking for a needle in a haystack as the Land Cruiser Troopy was neither imported nor assembled in South Africa albeit plentiful in the rest of Africa. Eventually with a lot of foot slogging and many telephone calls later, I managed to track a rather well-worn 1993 high miler 4.2 diesel which was an ex UNO transporter, but still running and manageable. Months later with care, patience, and a lot of elbow grease, the Troopy was brought up to scratch both bodily and mechanically. Dubbed Tubby One and kitted out for a Trans-Africa trip which I duly completed in 1998. After having travelled 25,500 kilometers from Johannesburg, South Africa to John O’Groats, Scotland, sixteen punctures later, mechanically zero problems, I came to the conclusion that I had made the right decision of Land Cruiser over Land Rover. Land Cruiser - the most reliable 4 x 4 by far. Very simply the very best!!
No sooner had I sold the vehicle in England the next phase of my life began – what next? – how about the Americas? So began the purchasing of maps appertaining to this continent and the initial planning of my next Odyssey – The Americas with Tubby Xplorer was in motion. The year, 1999.
On my return to South Africa, by fluke I became the proud owner of a 1995 top of the range FJ75 Troopy complete with 4.2 diesel motor, limited slip diff, disc brakes all round, twin 90 liter fuel tanks (total 180 liters), air-con, rev counter, and then dubbed it, Tubby Two. Accessories were fitted in the way of Old Man Emu suspension, shocks, leaf springs etc. It was fitted with an ARB bull-bar, Warn 9000 winch, Cibie spotlights, dual wheel carrier on the rear bumper, mag wheels, 40 liter stainless water tank, rooftop tent, side-awning, and many minor accessories to add comfort for safaris.
Alas, I realized that no matter how comfortable I had made the vehicle it was not ideal for the Americas – not that it could not cope with the rough terrain – the problem lay in the steering wheel being on the right-hand side, but not very practical when driving opposite to which I am used to. Having had the experience once I left Kenya for Ethiopia on my Trans-Africa trip when I was forced to alter trajectory all the way through to Europe, especially when it came to passing heavy duty vehicles- not easy, the only time one wishes a big block V8 under the bonnet ha-ha!!!!
Knowing that we were unable to register new left-hand drive vehicles as from the year 2000, a law promulgated by the Authorities, the reason given to help stem the high rate of accidents involving such vehicles, especially large trucks. Mulling over this question for a long time I decided to consult Stuart Baillie of Baillie’s 4x4 who is known as a fundi – and whose forte is Toyota Land Cruisers from date of manufacture to the present models. His intimate knowledge of these vehicles proved invaluable. Between us we decided to do a body swap should we manage to find a left legger. So without further ado the hunt was on for such a monster. Low and behold not long after, out of the blue, Stuart called me. He had traced a 1997 left-legger Troopy virtually intact at a break-up yard ready for stripping to be sold off as spares. Only the motor and transfer box had been disposed of. Having negotiated a reasonable and amicable price the vehicle was loaded onto a car trailer and transported to Stuart’s workshop where is was methodically stripped of its interior, windows, headlights, wiring harnesses, mechanics, down to the bare bones, an empty shell on a rolling stock. The body, doors, hood, front mudguards were sent to a paint shop for a makeover and color change, a standard Toyota mustard color was chosen which would also be more visible during inclement weather such as dust storms and rainy conditions.
When the carcass was returned all dollied up in its new splendor it and the right-hand drive Troopy were stored under cover unattended to for a little over 18 months. The reason being simultaneously to the initial planning of The Americas trip we had commenced building a new home on a Game Farm approximately 300 miles east of Johannesburg – yes living amongst the animals – so due to time constraints the intended expedition had to be put on hold until construction of our new home was completed.
However, whilst construction of the house was taking place when time permitted, research and planning furiously went ahead and in order to have the best of all seasons through South, Central and North America we scheduled shipping the re-dubbed Troopy - Tubby Xplorer – third week January - and fly out 22nd February 2004 to meet the vehicle in Buenos Aires, Argentina from whence the odyssey would commence during the dry season.
Getting back to the original project - the conversion of the right drive to a left legger. Once we had the components it was actually an eye opener to see how easy the conversion was when you have a fundi of Stuart’s caliber to hand. Prior to delivering the road going right-hand drive Troopy to his workshop I removed the roof tent, awning, bull bar, winch and the dual wheels off the rear bumper and stored them for later re-assembly onto the re-vamped lefthand drive vehicle.
By week’s end Stuart and his staff had removed the batteries, all necessary connections e.g. electrical, mechanical, and all body to chassis mounting bolts had been undone and the steering column unbolted and taken out. The partially stripped vehicle was parked fully intact under a roof truss to which a chain block and tackle was attached. The windows behind the front doors were opened and a substantial broad 250 x50cm piece of timber plus minus 2 meters long and heavily wrapped in a blanket was passed through the openings across the inside of the body protruding either side of the vehicle to which the chain was attached. Slowly the complete body was hoisted off its mounting brackets and continuously checked in the unlikely event a connection had been left attached and could be immediately attended to.
Eventually the body hung high up above with various cables and pipes dangling from its frame. The chassis complete with motor, gearbox, transfer box etc. was slowly rolled out from under the hanging body and taken to the wash bay. The body was dropped onto a trolley and wheeled out to be stored for another rebuild in the future.
Once the rolling stock was pressure cleaned it was returned to the workshop where the cam belt, fan blade, plus fan and air-con belts including radiator hoses were replaced, the left-hand drive steering box was fitted. A further modification instead of the originally mooted suggestion of fitting additional shocks to the rear suspension was to fit Firestone Airbags. It was thought that these would ease and aid rear suspension dampening especially when one considers the extra load due to additional accessories added in and on the rear of the vehicle.
Subsequently to replacing these bits and pieces the chassis and all fittings were duly checked and scrutinized. All was in order. Well, what would one expect, the Troopy had only done ± 85,000 kilometers at this particular juncture. Really only just run-in!!!
The unit was rolled back into the workshop awaiting the re-painted left-hand drive body. Once we had done the same with it’s body – hoisted it off the rolling stock – rolled the clean chassis and its gear underneath the suspended body the whole process reversed itself. Slowly the Troopy body and chassis were married to each other and fixed onto the chassis mounts and most of the right-hand drive wiring harness, dash parts including steering column, steering wheel and instrument panel fitted to the new conversion. Lastly all mechanical connections were meticulously completed. Various minor parts e.g. fuse box were now for obvious reasons on the left-hand side. The central console was slightly different. However, it was marvelous and I repeat an eye-opener if you know what you are doing – it is oh so easy (eezi). Thanks to Stuart Baillie the fundi of Toyota Land Cruisers in South Africa. Within 3 days of doing the body swap I proudly drove Tubby Xplorer to our workshop. For the next stage of preparing the vehicle for The Americas Expedition see the next issue of SA 4x4.
Stay tuned for more stories from Tubby Xplorer!