The "jeeps" of Iceland: here there do be monsters

Click above for high-res gallery of Iceland's "jeeps"

Not too long ago, we posted a bit about Iceland's "jeeps". This blogger has just returned from ten days in the North Atlantic with those very brutes, and they're every bit as massive -- and cool -- as they look. We even got to go for a spin in one, get a look at another one, and take pictures of a whole bunch more. What was it like? The same thing we said before: "big-wheel badness." Follow the jump for the story, and be sure to check out the gallery of hi-res images below.

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What is there to do in Iceland? A lot. What did we want to do? See some of the trucks riding on those ocean-going bladders that Icelanders call tires. As luck would have it, our host knew a gent named Aron, whose father was one of the first folks in Iceland to start jacking things up and calling them "jeeps."

Aron wasted no time picking up his father's habits, getting behind the wheel of an off-roader before he even had his driver's license. Now he's got a Ford F-350 Super Duty on 40-inch tires, and a CJ-7 on 38-inch rubber. CJs are popular because they're easy to work on, and because they're light they usually just get 38-inch tires. Aron did say that Nissan Patrols are probably the most popular, because they're old fashioned, have solid axles, and aren't so expensive.

What we didn't expect to discover is that the F-350, which was mainly built for towing, is a daily driver and "a family vehicle." In fact, everyone seems to use their "jeeps" as basic transportation -- they're everywhere. The places they were really made for are ninety minutes to a day's drive away, and they're built to be toys, but that doesn't stop folks from using them for the grocery run. Go out for a night on the town, you'll see one parked in some tiny (by American standards) Reykjavik street in front of a restaurant or club. Although Aron did admit "parking is always a problem."

Aron said it all started when the Americans came during World War II with their Jeeps -- the real deals. Icelanders started playing around with them, taking them further and further afield. In the really early days they used Mercedes Unimogs, going so far as to add an extra axle to spread the weight. But they were just too heavy and too slow, so they moved to lighter vehicles, putting huge tires on them. Then they discovered that folks in Africa were dropping the air pressure in tires to drive on sand, so they did the same and started driving on the ice fields and glaciers.

Icelanders do most of the work themselves. Aron's Ford -- done by his own hands -- is not highly modified. It's got a 5-inch lift, 40-inch tires, aftermarket exhaust tips, and locking differentials. The huge fender flares are needed because they don't like to lift the cars too high -- it messes with the center of gravity. So they lift them just a bit, and then cut out as much of the body as necessary to give the wheels a good fit. Voila. Bring on the glaciers and polar bears, please...

How's the ride? Awesome. It could have been the makeup of Icelandic roads -- or the constant wind -- but tire noise really wasn't bad, even with 40-inchers pounding the ground. There is, of course, more maintenance with the big wheels, but the real issues are blowing tires and having a wheel come off. A tire can cost as USD $1,200 -- Iceland is really spendy -- and the stresses created by the wheels can cause unintended excitement. Aron said he had a wheel come off while he was driving -- hub and everything -- and he watched it roll away. The car stayed up on three wheels -- Citroen DS, anyone? -- but he couldn't brake or else it would have tipped over, so he coasted it to a stop. Then beefed up the bearings when he got the truck back home.

The real big dealy-o of the trip was getting a look at the truck we're going to call Hi Ho Silver. It's owned by an Iceland Air pilot who built it up himself over two years. He wanted a truck that would climb the 5,000-ft high Mt. Hekla, Iceland's most active volcano. No surprise: he did it, and he was the first.

Hi Ho is a Dodge Ram 3500 Super Duty, with the 5.9-liter Cummins diesel augmented by a twin-turbo kit from Gale Banks and some ECU modifications. That's about all that's been done to the engine, but underneath, where there's enough space to park a smart car and have a cookout, it's all Frankenstein.

Hi Ho Silver's owner had tried a Unimog before the Dodge, but it kept getting stuck in the mud. So he took Unimog pieces like the axles and brakes, and mounted those on the Dodge. Notice that the hubs are below the axles, for extra clearance. There's an extra transfer case for extremely low gearing. There's an extra gas tank. Then he threw 54-inch tires. The tires are bolted to the rims. The air pressure can be controlled from inside the cabin. There's an additional valve on the rim to let air out quickly. And do you know what he did then? He ran over the Earth.

The car has cameras front and rear and a suite of GPS aids in the cabin. The light on the cab is for finding the hut they're looking for in the dark of winter. When it's nothing but dark all day long, they navigate by GPS, but they still might drive right by the hut. So when they're on the X that marks the spot, they turn the light and scan the winter wonderland for the night's digs. As for us, we dug Hi Ho Silver a lot.

On our way to a hilltop lookout over Reykjavic, behind the wheel and running over absolutely everything in Aron's Ford, I asked him about HUMMERs. The quote was "You can't do anything with them. We tried all kinds of things, it was no good." But on our last day in Iceland we managed to catch a decked out HUMMER at the airport. Of course, it was just decked out for show.

Of his Ford, Aron said "This truck will do anything," in that matter-of-fact Scandinavian way that lets you know he truly means it, and has probably tried almost everything just to make sure. We, for one, believe him. But we should probably go back this winter for some glacier riding, just to make sure.

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