WHAT STARTED as a conversation between Shane Miles at MSA 4x4 and Mick McMillan at Australian Expedition Vehicles (AEV) has, after more than half a year of hard slog, finally transformed into what would surely be the most impressive family off-road tourer in the country.
Shane wanted a vehicle big enough to take his family of seven to the most remote parts of Australia, in comfort and without towing a trailer, so he needed a vehicle with three rows of seats yet still with enough cargo capacity to carry all of the gear and supplies required for extended trips away, and with a pair of rooftop tents to sleep everyone.
Mick McMillan, who has plenty of experience building six-wheel drive vehicles using the 6WD system he co-developed with JMACX, came up with a plan: extend a 4x4 wagon’s chassis, cut off its tailgate but retain its third-row seating, equip it with a JMACX 6WD system, and fit a bespoke service body on the back. The result would be a rig that would fulfill all of Shane’s requirements.
The pair then set about putting their incredible plan into action. Shane bought a new 200 Series Toyota LandCruiser VX wagon and shipped it off to AEV, while Mick came up with the methodology and timeline to transform it into a 6WD SuperCruiser. The only problem was a project like this had never been attempted before.
AEV HAS plenty of experience transforming 70 Series and 200 Series Cruisers into 6WDs, but none of these retained three rows of seats; so this project would require some special attention at the body shop.
The first step in the vehicle’s transformation went as planned; the tailgate and inner rear guards were removed, the body was lifted off the chassis, the rear of the chassis was cut off and a new extended section was slipped over the top. A JMACX coil-spring rear axle was then fitted to the 6WD cradle and the Cruiser was sent to David Taylor Spray Painting & Panel Beating, where new rear bodywork was to be fabricated.
Some delays at this early stage of the project were not entirely unexpected. “It’s not our normal conversion,” explained Mick at the time. “There’s a lot more custom manufacturing in panel beating than we initially anticipated … we’ve had to rely on the skill of a tradesman to put the many bits and pieces together.”
The bespoke bodywork included fabricating the rear panel for the Cruiser from scratch, and fitting a custom made rear window. “It’s not just a square panel welded on there,” said Shane. “It’s all shaped with wide-radius corners, so it has a factory look to the finish.”
The build crew then decided to add a couple of toolboxes between the rear doors and the wheel arches. “The toolboxes, although they added another two weeks to the project, they’re a huge bonus … they’re big enough to fit gas bottles or a generator,” said Shane.
The Cruiser’s rear wheel arches were also reshaped with a straight edge to match the Trig Point canopy, resulting in a cohesive overall appearance.
Then there were several issues to be taken care of inside the cabin of the LandCruiser, which in VX specification included a large rear air-conditioning unit that had to be flipped on its side and relocated, along with all of its associated wiring and plumbing. And then the team discovered the drainage pipes from the Cruiser’s sunroof would need to be rerouted, along with significant amounts of wiring. In all, the extra fabrication and fiddling around to complete this one-off job added about three months to the overall build time.
ONCE THE body work had been completed, the Cruiser was sent back to AEV where the Trig Point canopy was test-fitted, and the crew could stand back and take a good look at what they had created.
“When you see the photos you think, ‘wow, it’s a bloody road train’, but when you see it in person it’s pretty cool … it looks really good, it looks factory … as much as a six-wheel drive 200 Series can look factory, that is,” laughed Shane. “It looks extremely long, but in fact it’s not that much longer than a Hilux with a body on it.”
At this point in the build an auto electrician was engaged to sort out all of the vehicle’s interior wiring, as well as to fit two Electronic Rust Prevention Systems (ERPS); one for the body and one for the chassis.
With the test fit of the canopy done, the vehicle was sent back to the body shop for painting, before it returned to AEV where the whole vehicle was put back together.
Reassembly of the interior involved fabricating several unique covers and cowlings for the rear air-conditioning system, but the hard work put into it is reflected in its factory-like finish, with leather trim, premium carpet and a matching roof liner.
With the third axle in place and the Trig Point canopy fitted, the next step was to start equipping the Cruiser with accessories. AEV installed a 180-litre Brown Davis long-range fuel tank; Icon suspension in the front, middle and rear; Air Bag Man airbags; an ARB twin-compressor; an Air On Board 18-litre air tank; Icon alloy wheels with Mickey Thompson ATZ P3 rubber; TJM bar work; and Warn winches front and rear.
The TJM Outback bullbar and side rails are standard 200 Series parts, but the side steps are custom jobbies. “Shane sourced two sets of TJM side steps, and out of those two sets we’ve made one set to fit the vehicle,” explained Mick.
On the Road
ONCE THE vehicle was kitted out with its running gear and AEV (a second stage vehicle manufacturer) fitted compliance plates, the SuperCruiser was registered as a heavy vehicle.
With ‘MSA4X4’ plates attached, Shane proudly drove his SuperCruiser down the freeway from AEV in Townsville to MSA 4x4 on the Gold Coast.
“Driving down the freeway, it felt like a luxury car,” said Shane. “I was expecting it to be military-like and vibrating and shaking, but I’ve never been so happy driving a car … it’s similar to any other 200 Series wagon fitted with all-terrain tyres.”
As you’d expect, performance was slightly blunted by the Cruiser’s 6WD driveline and its extra weight, but initial impressions were still good. Shane was also impressed by its manoeuvrability.
“At roundabouts, you just drive it like a normal car,” he said. “You don’t realise that there’s all this extra stuff (the extra length and extra axle) behind you. Visibility is good, too, because we have our new MSA 4x4 towing mirrors on there, you can see right to the back of the vehicle. And the reversing camera and the OE sensors and all that sort of stuff still works as it should.”
WITH THE vehicle back on the Gold Coast, there was still plenty of work to be done before it would be ready for its first off-road family foray. Under-the-bonnet mods are limited to the fitment of a PWR intercooler and a Safari ARMAX ECU system, while the engine breathes through an ARMAX snorkel before spent gases are expelled via a 2.5-inch aftermarket exhaust system.
“We’re going to be around the five-tonne GVM mark when we’re full, so in a way it will be like towing a ’van. So we’ve dropped a little bit of performance, but with the intercooler, the Safari ARMAX and the snorkel, it brings the performance right back up,” said Shane.
The ARMAX ECU system offers several user-selectable modes to suit different driving conditions such as towing or off-road driving, and it has built-in protection systems designed to prevent engine and driveline damage; it constantly monitors the vehicle’s exhaust gas temperature (EGT); and if abnormally high the ECU decreases the amount of fuel injected into the engine, reducing load until a return to normal EGT levels.
Direction-Plus fitted a ProVent oil separator kit (catch can) and a ProVent fuel/water separator to provide further engine protection, the latter equipped with an alarm to prevent potentially costly engine problems. To ensure the vehicle is 100 per cent road legal, Shane has kept the DPF system intact despite the fitment of the aftermarket exhaust.
“It’s got the standard twin mufflers at the front and then twin 2.5-inch pipes all the way back to the twin resonators, and both DPFs have been retained,” he said.
Like earlier model 200 Series LandCruisers, you’ll see this one is equipped with two starting batteries. Shane’s theory was if there’s space to fit one in there, then fit one in there. The OE alternator, located in a vulnerable spot at the bottom of the engine, has been replaced by a 220amp Rapid-Power alternator, which not only provides more output but is also fully sealed, so it’s not prone to damage when driving in wet and muddy conditions.
Should the big Cruiser struggle in off-road conditions, Warn Zeon Platinum winches have been fitted front and rear, while ARB Jindalee fitted Air Lockers in the front and rear diffs. The middle diff sports an Eaton mechanical soft locker.
To haul up the extra weight of the SuperCruiser, Rugged Brake Systems has replaced the OE front brakes with an Extreme Big Brake kit consisting of slotted rotors and big six-piston calipers manufactured from lightweight aircraft-grade aluminium. The four brakes at the rear have been upgraded with Rugged’s BlackLine pad-and-rotor kit.
Tough Vehicle Accessories supplied the Icon Vehicle Dynamics suspension package. Up front this consists of Icon 3.0 Remote Reservoir CDCV coil-overs and adjustable Icon billet aluminium control arms, while the rear has JMACX’s progressive-rate springs mated to Icon 2.5 Remote Reservoir CDCV shocks.
The shocks are manufactured from corrosion-resistant CAD-plated bodies with one-inch shafts in the 3.0 Series and 7/8-inch shafts in the 2.5 Series, and they are fully re-buildable and re-valve-able. They also offer tool-less compression damping adjustment by way of a dial, so they can be tailored to suit different load and driving conditions.
The SuperCruiser’s alloy wheels are also Icon units, and there are eight of them – six on the ground and two spares mounted to the back of the Trig Point canopy. They are called Rebound Satin Black 8.5 x 17 rims and have a 25mm offset and 1250kg load rating. The Icon alloys are wrapped in LT285/70R17 Mickey Thompson ATZ P3 tyres.
CAMPING WITH a family of seven requires plenty of load-carrying capability, lots of sleeping space and a generous power supply, and the SuperCruiser’s got all this in spades. As it’s mounted directly to the vehicle’s chassis, the Trig Point canopy offers a lower floor height than a tray-mounted service body, which means it’s easier to reach gear in the back. Shane has kitted out the canopy with an MSA 4x4 drawer system, MSA drop slides and MSA fridge barriers.
“We put 1170mm drawers on the bottom and stacked 1030mm drawers on top of them,” said Shane. “On the driver’s side there are four drawers and a DS50 Fridge Drop Slide that holds a SnoMaster 60-litre fridge, and this has one of our new fridge barriers that line up perfectly with the top of the stacked drawers.”
The cooker resides on the other side of the canopy, also in a fridge barrier, and across the top of all this is a flat floor that’s ideal for storing bulky items like bags and camp chairs.
When it comes to accommodation, there are two iKamper rooftop tents up top. A Rhino-Rack Pioneer Platform on the Cruiser’s roof home to an iKamper Mini, while there’s a bigger iKamper Skycamp 4X for the kids atop the Trig Point.
Ensuring there’s plenty of power for fridges, lights, accessory charging and more, there are six Revolution Power Australia 60amp/h Slim Lithium batteries hidden away in the canopy, and these are managed by a Redarc DC to DC charging setup and a RedVision system. There’s also a 1000W Redarc inverter that leads to a double 240V power outlet in the canopy, and another one inside the vehicle’s cabin for charging camera batteries and other equipment.
Making sure Shane and his family don’t trip over in the dark are Lightforce LED work lights on either side and at the rear, while there’s a Lightforce LED light bar up the front of the Pioneer Platform. The Rhino-Rack setup also provides a fitment point for a reversing camera and a Cel-Fi Smart Repeater Booster antenna on a GME fold-down bracket. Plus, there’s a GME XRS UHF radio inside the cabin for vehicle-to-vehicle comms.
There are a few small things still to be completed, but Shane has given the SuperCruiser its first official shakedown run with his entire family along for the ride.
“We went out to Witheren Heights Bush Retreat (near Canungra),” said Shane. “There’s a bit of dirt to get in there and then the tracks are quite rutted … and over the back side of it are really nice, hilly areas with open campgrounds and a few streams running through there, and four-wheel driving and stuff as well.
“I took the family with me and they absolutely loved it,” he said, adding that there was plenty of space for all seven of them; although, at 19 years of age, their eldest one is now happy to tag along on family trips in his own vehicle.
“We’re a blended family,” explained Shane. “Tameka and I both have 13-year-olds, and they were in the middle seats, and then we’ve got the 10- and 11-year-olds, and they were seated in the back row. There was heaps of room; more than enough space. They have heaps of leg room, they all have their own individual cupholders and it’s really cool. They love it; they’ve all got their spots now and their charge points for their electronics and stuff.”
Once they’d found the right campsite, Shane said it didn’t take long for the kids to set up the two iKampers.
“We set up around a campfire and played with everything on the car. The kids set up the rooftop tents and they were up there just mucking around, and there was heaps of room for them in the bigger of the two tents.
“Those iKampers are so quick and easy to set up and pack up; you don’t dread packing them up because it’s just not a chore.
“The Darche 180° awning, it covers the area we use as a kitchen perfectly, and we can pull the barbecue/cooker out really quickly because it’s mounted on a drop slide,” he added.
DESPITE ITS overall size, Shane is quite surprised by the manoeuvrability of the SuperCruiser and says he’s measured the turning circle and reckons it’s tighter than a LandCruiser 79.
“We went out and did a bit of four-wheel driving and the thing is just incredible off-road,” said Shane.
“I put it into low range and the traction is amazing. The wheels went down into ruts that were a foot-and-a-half deep and it had no problems whatsoever.
“The wheel travel is just incredible, the way the rear wheels articulate – one wheel will drop down into a rut and the other one just keeps driving, then it drops into the rut and the other one takes over.”
While the tracks at Witheren didn’t present too much of a challenge, Shane is confident the SuperCruiser will have no problems tackling more serious off-road terrain in the future thanks to the fitment of front and rear air lockers. The fact he has Warn winches front and rear will also instil plenty of confidence as he becomes more familiar with driving the vehicle.
THERE’S BEEN a some social media hoo-ha about the SuperCruiser being too big to be effective off-road, but Shane disagrees.
“The turning circle (14.2m) is fantastic,” he said. “It’s my daily driver and I haven’t had any issues driving or parking it.” There’s some tyre scrub at the rearmost axle on full lock, but an Airbag Man self-levelling system should resolve this (like a truck with a lazy axle).
As for off-road axle articulation, that’s one of the highlights of the six-wheel drive system; there’s plenty of it. And it has locking diffs and two winches!
THE EXTENDED build time meant Shane and family have had to postpone a few trips but there are still plenty being planned.
“Because we missed the bigger trips we had planned, we’re going to do a lot of smaller weekends away, like Stradbroke, Morton and Fraser islands, and then next season we’ve got a trip planned up the Cape with some family and friends,” said Shane. “We’ll also do some open days and trade shows, including Brisbane next year.”
Shane’s also keen to ship the SuperCruiser stateside next year, to attend the Overland Expo in May and to take his family touring. “At Overland Expo we can use it to show off MSA 4x4 products and all the other equipment that’s been fitted to the vehicle, but that’s its secondary purpose,” said Shane. “It’s really all about family, with some promotion along the way.
“We’ll do four, five or six weeks touring in the US, probably around the canyon area, Monument Valley, the Colorado Rockies and then further east to Moab … so we’ll just go and drive around those parts.”
So was the SuperCruiser worth all the heartache, time and expense that was involved in its creation?
“Absolutely! I love it,” exclaimed Shane. And so does his family.