Before Tom and Will head off on their continental adventure, they’ve had to kit their cars out so they’re prepared for what’s awaiting them…
There are no roads – or trees – on the Mongolian Steppe. The sand and grass stretches to the horizon and there’s not a single sign of life. The earth is baked hard with boulder-like ruts, but when it rains everything changes. When it rains hundreds of square miles become impassible. The grassier parts become bog and the lower areas turn into rivers and lakes.
Beyond the Steppe lie the dunes of the Gobi desert; a mixture of pure sand, rock fields and dry wadies – great places to shelter unless it’s raining, when you realise your tent lies in the path of a flash flood. It’s a vast desert, an ocean of rock and sand containing barely a drop of water. Crossing it is a very serious proposition.
All of which begins to explain the weird and less-than-cool appearance of the Citroens Tom and Will have prepared for this journey!
Car 1: Citroen 2CV
Designed 80 years ago, this car was designed to go virtually anywhere at a time when roads were little more than tracks. This makes the super-lightweight (600kg) 2CV a great starting place.
By the end of the Swinging Sixties the 2CV was just… old. The Mini was the height of cool, whereas the 2CV was basic and a sales calamity. Thankfully, a Parisian marketing chap had a moment of inspiration; when asked how can Citroen sell this dated, austere relic, his idea was to modify the car so that it could cross deserts – and to encourage students to travel anywhere their mind took them. His pamphlet Ici Commence l’Aventure explained not just how to improve the car, but also listed all equipment and spares needed to cross continents, how to get visas, and even how to wash in the desert!
The car upgrades were simple and all the parts were made available through dealers. The old ladder-like chassis was plated to make it smooth, protecting the engine gearbox and fuel tank from rocks and allowing the car to slide rather than become stuck.
The steering rack had a channel section welded to it to stop it bending when the going got tough. The same applied to the suspension arms. It wasn’t to improve the performance, but just to make sure it lasted.
The response was staggering. In 1970, no less than 1,300 youngsters drove their upgraded 2CVs from Paris across Syria, Iraq, and Iran to Kabul. In 1971 an even greater number drove to Persepolis in Iran. A further 60 cars crossed the Sahara in 1973, an act that was to inspire the infamous Dakar Rally.
While the Beatle was cool on the streets of LA, and the Mini a fashion item paraded in London and Milan, the 2CV become a true instrument of discovery for the coolest and most adventurous of that most carefree generation.
Will and Tom’s 2CV was built following the pamphlet guidelines, but with a few modern extras, such as seats from a Mercedes SLK and a Quaife limited slip differential. The seats just add comfort (sadly weight too – still less than 600kg) but the LSD is a magical ingredient when the going gets slippery. When fording rivers and climbing sand dunes the Quaife differential stops every ounce of the mind-bending power (34hp) being sent to the front wheel with least grip. By limiting the slip it sends power to the other wheel, enabling the car to slowly and miraculously pull itself out of all sorts of sticky spots.
Car 2: Citroen C4 Cactus
Like just about every other modern ‘soft-roader’, the distinctive C4 Cactus is most at home climbing the kerbs in the supermarket car park. It’s not the most obvious start point for a Gobi-crossing, river fording vehicle, but on the plus side it’s lighter than most, has front wheel drive, has a diesel motor for pulling power and a turbo which means it still pulls when a couple or more miles above sea level.
But as a start point it’s still way behind the air-cooled 2CV. The C4 Cactus is water-cooled and the radiators dangle low, unprotected behind the front bumper. The exhaust catalyst also droops, similarly waiting to be whacked by an innocent rock, along with the plastic fuel tank. A split fuel tank in the Gobi is likely to be a near death experience.
The first upgrade is a combined alloy radiator and sump guard, which is designed also to defect any rocks beyond the catalyst. Similarly, the fuel tank is now protected by a moulded, Kevlar outer skin – it’s actually bullet-proof and certainly resistant to penetration by jagged rocks.
But the C4 Cactus was still too low to avoid a constant pummelling. The only solution was to raise the car on its suspension by fitting taller, stiffer springs at the rear, manufactured by specialists Springcoil of Sheffield. At the front, stiffer springs of standard length help limit roll, but bespoke spacers lift the strut by 2 inches.
Like the 2CV, the C4 Cactus runs on All Terrain tyres for improved traction. The trick is to deflate the tyres to as little as 12lbs/sq inch before you attempt to cross slippery surfaces. This boosts traction enormously, but the tyres must be re-inflated before resuming speeds above walking pace. This makes the battery driven, inverter-charged air pump the most critical of tools.
The first piece of kit to be junked was the C4 Cactus’ 17-inch alloy wheels, replaced by dowdy-looking 15-inch steel rims to accommodate the taller tyres. One could find perfectly good-looking alloys, but once an alloy wheel is out of shape it’s junk, whereas you can find a man with a special hammer to repair all steel rims from St Petersburg to Tehran and beyond.
Importantly and surprisingly the combo of Maxxis 717 Bravo AT 205/70/15s and 15-inch steel rims, weigh just slightly less than standard 18-inch alloys shod with XXXX 205/50/17 rubber! If the opposite were true, the dampers would take a punishment they weren’t designed for. Finally the increase in rolling circumference is less than 5 percent, meaning that the speedo reads only fractionally lower than the actual speed.
The most difficult task preparing the C4 Cactus centred on the towing eyes! No matter how skilled a driver and however well prepared the car, on a journey like this you are going to get bogged down in sand dunes, in swamps, and in rivers. The solution is usually a truck. You hook up and they yank. And the yank is normally of neck-snapping ferocity. Unless the eyes are properly engineered, it’s quite possible for the most helpful of truck drivers to pull so hard that the chassis is twisted out of shape. Worse still, it can see the entire front end of the car ripped off. With the C4 Cactus the towing eyes are screwed into the crash structure, itself re-inforced by the sump guard.
Finally, both cars are filled with battery recharging equipment. Leisure batteries and inverters power laptops and camera equipment, while power outlets power mobile phones, sat phones, tablets and a whole host of other necessary equipment.
So there we have it! Our fearless pair have already set off across Europe, and we’ll be filling you in on their adventure as soon as we can. Keep your eyes peeled on here and our Facebook and Twitter pages for the next leg!