BUYING a new 4x4 can be easy: read a few reviews, whittle down a short list with the specs and features you want, then test drive them all ’til you make a decision.
The only problem is, unless you’re using your 4x4 to ferry milk from the grocery store to your house, chances are you’ll want to modify it. Bar work, engine power-ups, suspension lifts and interior modifications can all drastically change the way your shiny new 4x4 performs.
What was once a great bit of kit might not be up for the job anymore, while a 4x4 that didn’t tick all the boxes could be leaps and bounds better once it’s modified.
What’s a bloke to do? Well, if you’re Ken Johnston, you drive straight past the new-car yards and head to some of the best 4x4 modifiers in Queensland to suss out how highly modified versions work and if they’re right for your needs.
It’s a system we’re seeing pop up more and more these days, where the base vehicle is seen as nothing more than a blank canvas towards a bigger goal – a vital component, yet just another piece in the overall plan for a dream 4x4.
After lugging around an off-road camper with their Land Rover Discovery through the far reaches of Arnhem Land, Ken and his partner Sonya figured a boat would be an absolute must if they wanted to truly explore the remote region.
“It was sort of obvious you can’t be up there without a boat, and the camper couldn’t take one,” Ken told us.
“I don’t want to carry an outboard in the passenger compartment, and [it] had dust concerns having it on the camper, so a dual-cab was a no-brainer, ideally something coil-sprung.”
After eyeing off a flashy new 79 Series, Ken and Sonya ran the numbers on what it’d take to get it where they wanted, and they figured a stretched Land Cruiser 200 Series would be a substantially more versatile platform for their needs. Let the build commence.
Before the new-car smell had worn off, Ken and Darren Vassie from Custom RV Creations & Repairs had put together a plan that’d turn Ken’s near-stock LC200 into a touring behemoth that’d eat up remote tracks and spit out stunning campsites.
In typical Darren fashion, step one was to warm up the grinders and cut not only the body in half, but the chassis, too.
The rear axle has been moved back a huge 650mm to provide more room for the trick tray set-up and centre the weight over the rear axle for maximum longevity.
Where many ute-chops look like they were done by a blind monk on a three-day bender, Darren has sliced and diced Ken’s Cruiser neater than many factory ute offerings, with some trick profiles and metal work giving a better than stock result.
With the rear glass out of the way and an additional 650mm in the chassis, there was plenty of room for one of Darren’s custom tray set-ups. The alloy unit punches in at a huge 1800mm long, giving plenty of storage room inside.
It’s broken up into a few key compartments: on the driver’s side is a trick slide to carry Ken’s 15hp Yamaha outboard motor, while the front box has been left empty for storing bulky items. Up on the roof, the tinnie is hoisted up onto a custom rack system with a 4000lb winch running through a series of pulleys.
“The way he’s built it, I don’t really need a boat loader,” said Ken.
“I put the boat with the stern facing the car, hook up the chains to the clips near the front seat, and it pulls it straight up.”
The passenger side houses a 52-litre Bushman fridge on a drop-down slide, as well as a set of drawers for cooking gear, and the whole lot is powered by a huge 12V system.
A Redarc 1240 BMS pulls juice from the factory alternator set-up, and there’s also solar input when Ken and Sonya are parked up for extended stays. It’s all tasked with keeping twin 120AH AGM batteries positioned under the tray charged.
Underneath the tray is 140 litres of on-board water available at the flick of a switch thanks to twin 70-litre stainless-steel tanks.
While the grinders were out, Darren pieced together 300 litres’ worth of diesel storage with a 120-litre tank in the rear and a mammoth 180-litre unit up front.
The two are connected with a transfer pump, so Ken can have the weight sitting exactly where he wants it and still get a huge 1500km range between drinks.
Of course, you can’t lug around a set-up like that on stock suspension, so it shouldn’t come as a shock the 200 has stronger legs all ’round.
It runs a full Dobinsons GVM upgrade system, but that doesn’t go half way to explaining how much effort has gone into making it perform. Up the back, 600kg constant weight springs get the job done when loads are light, while a set of airbags prevent sag when things are loaded up.
With simplicity and reliability at the forefront, Ken optioned a set of simple inlet valves at the rear so the bags can be adjusted by simply airing down tyres. No fancy digital gauges to go wrong here.
There are Dobinson MRR remote reservoir mono-tube shocks on each corner, too, with a three-inch lift overall making room for the 35-inch ProComp Xtreme A/T tyres.
On the drive train front, Ken has followed the tried and tested path of reliable power. The stock 4.5-litre V8 is punching out more power thanks to a full three-inch stainless-steel exhaust system, and with an ECU remap, it has no dramas hauling the big Cruiser and camper.
An oil catch helps prevent the intake from gunking up, and a secondary fuel filter will be in before it sets off for its maiden voyage to Arnhem Land.
In an uncommon move, Ken also roped in the guys from Wholesale Automatics with one of their torque converter lock-up systems. It allows him to manually lock up the torque converter, making the six-speed slush ’box operate like a manual cog-swapper to keep the bent eight singing in its sweet spot.
Down the line the diffs retain their stock gear ratios, but both are stuffed full of E-Lockers from Harrop.
While Ken’s massive Cruiser looks impressive on paper and in person, there’s no skirting the fact it’s no show pony.
It’s a purpose-built rig with everything it needs and nothing it doesn’t, and all in the name of remote travel. While some are occupied with 20-inch lift kits and low-profile muddies, the spirit of adventure still runs deep.
And as long as there are talented builders making it happen, we don’t expect to see it die out any time soon.