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Arctic Trucks in Iceland

By Scott Newman, 10 Jul 2014 Features

Arctic Trucks in Iceland

Scott crawls his way over Icelandic terrain in a steroid-fed Toyota off-roader

Iceland has all the hallmarks of a driving paradise. The 13,000km of roads that criss-cross the country are predominantly wide, well-surfaced and sparsely populated, while its aggressive topography means you're rarely too far from a twist, turn or crest. There's just one problem: the national speed limit is 90km/h and if you're caught breaking it by any significant margin, you can forget demerit points, they kick you off the island like some strange automotive version of Survivor. There isn't even a racetrack.

Therefore, Icelandic driving enthusiasts tend to head off the beaten track in search of driving thrills, climbing every mountain and fjording every stream. As the most volcanic region on earth, this presents its own challenges, with everything from rock-strewn lava fields to ice-covered glaciers to tackle. Such an extreme environment requires an equally extreme vehicle to tackle it, which is where Arctic Trucks comes in.

These steroid-fed off-roaders grew rapidly in popularity once it was discovered that the fitment of enormous tyres, run at extremely low pressures, allowed vehicles to effectively 'float' over snow. This suddenly meant locals could travel all over the island during the freezing winters yet still drive on regular roads, something not achievable with a snowmobile.

The modifications were initially offered through Toyota Iceland, but as the only way to fit these enormous tyres (up to 44 inches in diameter) was to raise the ride height dramatically, Toyota got cold feet when it was discovered that this had alarming effects on vehicle dynamics. Despite Toyota actively discouraging customers from having the modifications done and refusing to honour warranties, demand continued to increase to the point where one-time Toyota employee and now chairman of Arctic Trucks, Emil Grimsson, decided there must be a better way.

Emil and his team began to modify Hiluxes and Prados (what Icelanders call 'Landcruiser 120s') to accept these enormous tyres without unduly compromising the handling. After years of development, Arctic Trucks (the company split from Toyota in 2005) now has it down to a fine art, exporting vehicles for military and scientific use in environments as diverse as Afghanistan and Antarctica.

The vehicles are essentially offered in three levels of modification to accept either 35-, 38- or 44-inch tyres, though as the six-wheel drive Hiluxes custom-built for Antarctic exploration show (yours for around €150,000), the sky's the limit. Unsurprisingly, the smallest tyre option is the most common, but it's at the 38-inch mark where the re-engineering starts getting serious.

As most of Arctic Trucks' customers are new-car buyers, usually the vehicle is delivered straight from the dealership to the workshop. Then it is stripped to its component parts – including separating the body from the frame – and work begins. The wheelarches are cut away, the front body mounts are relocated and inner arches cut away and re-welded to provide enough clearance for the enormous rubber.

In order to keep the vehicle as low as possible and retain as much of the standard vehicle's dynamic capability as possible, the front suspension pick-up points are then all relocated down and forward, stretching the wheelbase to increase stability. If 44-inch tyres are specified, the rear suspension cops a similar treatment, extending the wheelbase by a further 16 centimetres. The steering geometry is then modified and a piggyback ECU installed to recalibrate functions like the speedometer. It's an incredible amount of work, so it's little wonder speccing an 'Arctic Trucks 38' adds roughly 50 per cent to the price of a new Hilux and takes four weeks to complete.

On the road the result feels like, well, a regular Hilux. Unsurprisingly, handling isn't its strong point, but there's none of the 'up on stilts' feeling that you'd think would come from jacking up a four-wheel drive ute. Performance doesn't seem to suffer and those massive, balloon-like tyres offer a lovely cushy ride. As we turn off the highway onto rocky, muddy trails, it soaks up everything we ask of it. Granted, none of the off-roading we attempted was particularly challenging, but it seems to be the ideal way to see the astounding scenery this unusual country offers.

The collapse of Iceland's economy following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis almost forced the closure of Arctic Trucks; from delivering 474 vehicles in 2007, orders dropped to just nine in 2009. Thankfully, an expansion of business activities and increased exports allowed it scrape through, and the future looks bright, with contracts with the Swedish and Norwegian military and growing business in Antarctic exploration. But its core business remains modifying road-going Toyotas and, best of all, offering them for hire, allowing regular tourists to experience Iceland's picturesque landscape up close and personal from the driver's seat.