Caffeine&Machine cultofmachine Yard Visitor Northern powerhouse: the Top Gear Hilux

Northern powerhouse: the Top Gear Hilux

This big red truck has been to some of the toughest environments on Earth. What does it take to deal with the rigours of the North Pole, an Icelandic volcano, and, erm, rural Warwickshire?

Despite what it looks like, these images aren’t stills from Top Gear’s North Pole special. The barren, icebound landscape in which this small screen-starring pickup sits is the car park at Caffeine&Machine, mid-way through December 2022’s brutal cold snap.

This is a Toyota Hilux, with a smattering of aftermarket equipment added by Arctic Trucks, Icelandic purveyors of vehicles designed to make easy work of some of the most savage wildernesses on the planet. It’s not the truck that took Jeremy Clarkson and James May across sea ice and torturous boulder fields en route to the North Pole, but it did accompany them as one of the support vehicles.

It is the truck that May would later drive up the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, days before it brought European air travel to its knees. But it felt like the vehicle itself felt a little overlooked in its starring roles – understandable, given the enormity and majesty of the terrain it was heading into. So, let’s turn the spotlight a little more in its direction.

Three of these Hiluxes were supplied by Toyota GB for Top Gear’s trip to the Pole. They’re equipped with what Arctic Trucks refers to as its AT38 conversion. Despite the swollen arches and balloon tyres, this isn’t even the top-evel overhaul that Arctic Trucks offers for the Hilux. That honour goes to the AT44, which is visually only a couple of steps away from a full-on monster truck.

The AT38 isn’t exactly a shrinking violet, though. In person, the sheer size of the thing is almost overbearing. The ‘38’ in the name refers to the diameter of those tyres (which are capable of running as low as 3psi over the trickiest terrain), and they endow the Hilux with a truly towering stature.

They also make getting into it quite the task. It’s a case of one foot on the side step and haul yourself up using the grab handles on the A-pillars. It’s a similar process to entering something like a Defender, but you feel as though you’re freeclimbing up a cliff face rather than hopping over a small wall.

It’s a mystery, then, given the gargantuan exterior proportions, how it’s quite so cramped inside. It’s not city car small, but as a space for two fully-grown men and all the requisite paraphernalia for an Arctic expedition to travel more than 1,200 miles across a largely empty and monochrome landscape, it’s tight. It’s no wonder you see cabin fever start to set in in the film.

Monochrome is a good way of describing the interior, actually. We’ve become used to luxurious pickup trucks packed with leather and chrome, so it’s easy to forget that as recently as one Hilux generation ago they were primarily no-frills workhorses. The cabin is awash with grey, scratchy plastic and hardwearing cloth upholstery.

The whole truck is full of reminders of its heroic exploits. There’s an expedition-spec GPS system that still has the coordinates of the magnetic North Pole plumbed in, and a recreation of Clarkson’s infamous ‘bumper dumper’ toilet system that can be affixed to the rear (for want of a better word).

Perhaps the most impressive thing is how relatively little work the standard Hilux needed to make it Pole-ready. Besides the tyres (and the suspension and body upgrades needed to accommodate them), a reserve fuel tank, and a pair of locking diffs, the bones of the car are basically unchanged. So much has been said about the Hilux’s legendary mechanical endurance, but this is real evidence of it.

Having taken on the Pole and an active volcano, the Top Gear Hilux now leads a much more relaxed semi-retirement at Arctic Trucks’ UK outpost in Oxfordshire. When the weather round here turned suitably nippy, though, it was nice to see it back in its natural habitat for a while.

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