Driven: Top Gear Toyota Hilux AT38

Love ’em or loathe ’em, there’s no denying that Top Gear has created some genuinely jaw-dropping programmes over the years. Carlton Boyce spends the day exploring his personal favourite.

Iconic is an over-used term but few would deny the two Top Gear Toyota Hilux pickups that label, surely? Heavily modified by Arctic Trucks, they were the first vehicles to reach the magnetic North Pole –  and their exploits catapulted the Icelandic company into the public’s imagination.

The project started with two identical standard Hilux pickups being dispatched to Iceland where the Arctic Trucks’ team wasted no time in stripping them down. They took an angle grinder to the chassis, extending it and relocating the front axle further forward to enable the fitment of 38” tyres fitted on 16-inch rims.

The front suspension location point is also moved 45mm forward and the body is raised by 50mm. The springs are upgrarded and the vehicle is lifted by a total of 90mm. The rear suspension points are then altered to give the same 90mm lift at the back. The suspension dampers are heavy duty, and the steering geometry is altered to compensate for the new design of the chassis and suspension.

Huge fibreglass fender flares cover the tyres and add substantially to the pickup’s overall width. Finally, the final drive ratio is lowered to help the Toyota maintain some semblence of performance.

And those huge tyres are the key to the pickup’s success in snow; the tyres can be deflated to pressures as low as 2psi, at which point their footprint is around three times its usual size and the pressure it exerts on the snow is inconsequential. The vehicles then float on top of the snow’s surface rather than digging in, as would be the case otherwise. You can drive over a gloved hand, and the pressure barely registers.

The two Hilux pickups – along with a modified Toyota Land Cruiser 120, which acted as a support vehicle – romped to the magnetic North Pole (strictly speaking they didn’t; they used a widely accepted notional point, something James May made clear at the time but it didn’t make the final cut…) without a hitch; much of the on-screen struggle was filmed on the way back in order to produce a bit more drama.

One of the pickups is now owned by Toyota GB, while the second is owned by Arctic Trucks. It’s this second vehicle, the one James May took to Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, that I had the chance to drive.

Some days are good, while others are biblical. This is one of the latter.

I’ve covered hundreds of miles in the fleet of Hilux AT38s that Arctic Trucks Experience run in Iceland, but to be able to drive one of the actual vehicles used was a real privilege. The first thing you notice as you climb up into the cab is that great chunks of the dashboard are missing; TV is an unforgiving medium and the need to install cameras, as well as a whacking great GPS unit, meant that aesthetics plays second fiddle to practicality.

On UK roads, it’s wide but not unmanageably so. Anyone who’s driven one of the AT35 pickups from either Nissan, Isuzu or Toyota will recognise the driving position and the tyre noise. But, in here, the Daddy of them all, everything is magnified: the tyre noise is intrusive; the steering lock appalling; the brakes are marginal, and the stance is ridiculously OTT for UK roads. Performance is pedestrian, and every single one of its hard-earned miles shows in a myriad of creaks.

And yet, until I drive a McLaren F1, this is now my favourite vehicle. Throw £20,000 or so at the project and you could build your own.

And yes, I’d use one as a daily driver…

Carlton Boyce @motoringjourno

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Happiest in the snow, Carlton is an ex-police officer and prison governor who has migrated to the world of adventure travel via motoring journalism. Carlton drives boats and pickups with more enthusiasm than skill, and is currently working on his first novel in addition to his prison memoirs.