Triumphant in snow, can the Toyota Hilux handle the Dubai desert?

Kevin Hackett heard the Toyota pick-up that Top Gear's team successfully drove to the North Pole was in town, so he took it to the desert for a different extreme.

The Hilux that conquered some of the most extreme climes on Earth runs aground in the Dubai desert. Photos by Kevin Hackett / The National
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Kevin Hackett heard the Toyota pick-up that Top Gear's team successfully drove to the North Pole was in town, so he took it to the desert for a different extreme.

When it comes to Earth's inhospitable places, there are many to choose from if you want to experience extremes. From the impenetrable jungles of Borneo to the arid plains of the Australian outback, mankind's taste for danger and adventure has seen practically every place on this precious planet explored, mapped and endured by those who feel compelled to get out there and be at one with nature. And we have some of the most extreme terrain on Earth right here on our doorstep in the UAE.

I'm experiencing extremes right now. I'm in the middle of the desert, near Al Madam, between Dubai and the border with Oman. Outside it's hovering around 50° Celsius and, inside this heavily modified Toyota Hilux, the temperature is climbing to uncomfortable levels because the air conditioning is playing up. We're stuck, run aground on the sharp peak of a high sand dune and both the front CV (constant velocity) joints have disintegrated, weeping thick black oil back into the ground from whence it may well have originated in the first place. This very Hilux, which has been to the magnetic North Pole and to the edges of an erupting Icelandic volcano, has finally been broken by the UAE desert.

As the wind whips up, the dunes are visibly shifting. The cabin is getting very, very warm but we can't open a door or window lest we're blasted by airborne grit. Hjalti Hjaltason, the Icelandic man mountain beside me, has just managed to skin his own palms while trying to dig the Toyota free. It's fair to say we've both had better days. Thanks to the marvels of mobile phone technology, we've summoned help, but it may be some time reaching us. So it seems like an opportune time to talk about this incredibly famous vehicle.

Like some sort of James Bond car, anything that enjoys a decent amount of screen time on Top Gear, the BBC's incredibly successful television show, becomes as famous as the stars that drive it. The show's dynamic trio obviously get to drive dozens of new cars for each series, and I've experienced some of them, too, because they're mainly press fleet vehicles. But now and then there's something out of the ordinary. Something like this.

It was July 25, 2007 when I watched Top Gear's "Polar Special" - an hour-long one-off that saw the three presenters up to their usual antics, but this time in a very real battle for survival against the elements, heading as they were for the Magnetic North Pole - somewhere no man had ever driven a car. They were making history and, as the show unfolded, I sat mesmerised by the amazing production, the hilarious dialogue, the jaw-dropping landscapes and, it goes without saying, the incredible vehicle that took them there. It's still, even now, the best thing ever done by Top Gear.

Yet, sorry to disappoint, but this isn't "the" car. The one driven by Jeremy Clarkson in the show, while James May navigated and Richard Hammond got covered with canine poo as he battled across the ice fields on a dog sled, is held by Toyota in the United Kingdom and used as a very successful marketing tool. This one did make the same trip, covered the same terrain and was used for many of the "hero" shots in the show, such as when the team is seen performing spectacular jumps. Don't believe everything you see on television because the three presenters had already been flown home while those shots were being filmed - it's the expertise of the programme's editors that makes it all so seamless.

But they did, indeed, drive this thing to the North Pole. This particular Hilux was also used by May to visit the rumbling Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland a week before it properly blew its lid. Its toughness credentials, then, are beyond question. So how come we've managed to do what the frozen wastelands of the North Pole and the lava flows of Iceland failed to? How come we're stranded atop a sand dune of all things, having to wait for help?

I'm being unfair. Just because a car has been proven to be tough, it's impossible to say what will eventually fail and when. In recent times, this Hilux has been used and abused by many individuals. And, even if the drivetrain componentry had remained in its original state, there's no guarantee we wouldn't have got stuck, and that's due to its engine.

Hjaltason explains: "On snow and ice, a vehicle needs torque. It needs to be able to put down its power in a controlled and often quite slow manner, whereas sand driving is where you need lots of horsepower rather than torque. Speed and power are vital to get over the dunes and this car has a diesel engine - great for torque, not so good for instant power and speed." It all seems to make sense to me - no wonder we didn't make it over the precipitous dune edge.

Perhaps it also has something to do with those enormous tyres. This Toyota was, after all, modified to cope with extreme cold, to cross frozen seas and creep across powdery snow. The front suspension was lowered by 50mm and moved forward 40mm to accomodate said tyres, although the mechanical bits and pieces that make up the drivetrain (including the ones just broken) were left alone. The engineers tasked with making these cars Arctic-proof reasoned that the Hilux had shown itself to be up to the job, so what would be the point in changing anything that worked?

Five-millimetre-thick aluminium skid plates were fitted underneath, to protect the bumper, suspension, transmission and transfer case and the locking front and rear differentials were modified to cope with the extreme cold. An extra fuel tank was installed under the rear of the cars and special exhaust systems fitted, along with heaters for fuel, engine oil and other lubricants.

The 38-inch diametre tyres are fitted to 15-inch rims with two valves per wheel and can run on pressures as low as 4psi. The wheelarches had to be extended by 300mm to cover the wide rubber.

On top of all this, extra electrical systems had to be installed so that the GPS, camera equipment, radios, satellite phones and air compressors could be powered by the cars. Heavy duty winches were fitted fore and aft and the headlamps were upgraded to more powerful Xenons. So it's safe to say they're as far removed from standard as any Toyota Hilux out there.

As I survey the stifling cabin, I can't help but notice that large sections of the dashboard have been cut away. "That was so the film crews could attach their various cameras and other equipment," he says. "Airbags, speakers for the stereo, they were all removed."

Hjaltason was on the same expedition that made the Hilux famous. When Toyota told Top Gear it would be possible to drive to the North Pole, the company turned to a specialist firm in Iceland for the significant modifications necessary for the expedition. That firm was Arctic Trucks and Hjaltason was an integral part of the team that carried out those mods - it's just that these days he lives and works in Dubai, where Arctic Trucks turns its attention to changing these vehicles into desert-beating extreme machines.

Anecdote follows classic anecdote - if only I could share them with you. It's obvious from talking with him that Top Gear's reach around the world surpasses even my expectations. How did the show impact on sales of the Hilux?, I ask him. "It was a risk. Everyone was terrified about what Clarkson would say, but he was extremely impressed with the car and its abilities. Once the show had been aired, demand for Hiluxes [the majority, he says, painted red] went through the roof. Everyone was ecstatic."

The perception of critics in other parts of the world is very different to here and what Clarkson says about a car can make or break its chances of success. It's entirely understandable that Toyota would have been chewing its collective fingernails before the show was broadcast. The fact that he loved it, marvelling at the way it had put up with so much abuse without breaking down, could only ever affect sales positively. Love him or loathe him, you can't ignore Jeremy Clarkson - he has an opinion and you'll hear it whether you like it or not. He changed motoring journalism forever and, even though he manages to grate my nerves whenever I watch him, what he says in print I rarely contest.

Arctic Trucks, as well as Toyota, emerged from the show in an extremely good light. So much so, says Hjaltason, that whenever he mentions the company name, no matter where in the world, there's an immediate association with taking Top Gear to the North Pole. But why is there an Emirates division? Turns out that Al-Futtaim, the importer and purveyor of Toyota (and some other motoring brands) here, wanted to involve the Icelandic specialists in producing a range of modified pickup trucks and SUVs called "Extreme". They're changed, made tougher and are much more expensive than their donor vehicles but they're built to survive the extremes this part of the world is privy to.

And, speaking of privy, there's a toilet seat on the back of this Hilux. In one of the funniest scenes in the show, Clarkson takes this seat, inserts it into the rear bumper of the Hilux and takes a pew while James May stands nearby with a loaded rifle in case of a surprise attack by polar bears. Hjaltason says the "Bumper Dumper", as it became known, started out as a joke but they're now used on other expeditions. I'll take his word for it.

Also still attached to this Hilux is the case for the rifle that was loaded at all times. "No firearms were permitted inside the vehicles," he says, "so we had to attach these hard plastic cases to the sides of the cars."

It's fascinating being sat inside a vehicle that has done so much in its time and become so well known to millions of television viewers all over the world. But sadly, today at least, these dunes will remain unbashed.

I blame the litter-dropping louts that come here every weekend, because all we wanted to do was take a few photographs without dozens of discarded plastic bottles and cans spoiling the shots. The sand looks clear just beyond this dune but now there's a red television celebrity stranded halfway up it. Where's a film crew and medical team when you need one?

Help? Anyone ... ?