As I gripped the garden hose thin steering wheel of the 1976 Toyota FJ40, seemingly large enough in diameter to seat a family of four for Sunday dinner, I shifted my gaze to Dean, my copilot for the morning’s session. My voice already hoarse from constantly shouting over the sound of what can only be described as a symphony of rattling panels, I asked him how many people he thought would have ‘driving a clapped out, 40-year-old four wheel drive across the world’s largest sand dune desert’ on their bucket list.

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To be honest, what he replied I couldn’t tell you. Not only was the volume of the acoustic experience so great that I couldn’t hear a word he uttered, the vibrations generated from the endless corrugations, amplified through the agricultural chassis and out through every fibre of Dean’s body, were such that my brain’s image stabilisation wasn’t capable of deciphering a head shake from a nod. I can only imagine that his response was something along the lines of “not many”.

Despite the obvious shortfalls of this age-old, battle weary vehicle, there was a rawness to the driving experience that woke the child inside me, a smile from ear to ear etched across my face as we crested yet another dune. In part, this was what the whole ARB Off Road Icons project aimed to typify. Not just a marketing stunt designed to draw attention to the brand, but also a shout out and a big high five to some of the vehicles that paved the way for the off road lifestyle so many Australians enjoy today.

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The premise was quite simple, really. Purchase four of the most iconic four wheel drives of the past forty years (see breakout), restore them to their former glory, prepare them for the harsh and unrelenting environment with a swag of ARB 4×4 accessories, fill them full of journos from around the world and drive them from Alice Springs to Broken Hill via the Simpson Desert. What could possibly go wrong?

The weather for one! No amount of planning and preparation can influence what Mother Nature decides to dish out, and by the time the convoy of Icons, support vehicles and attendees had gathered in Alice Springs, the forecast better resembled what Noah had foreseen when he built his ark than that of a typical September desert climate. Undeterred, though, we decided to push on.

The first few days of the expedition were designed to acquaint our guests with the Icons and provide a shakedown run before civilisation gave way to an ocean of red sand and countless dunes, where any assistance outside of the spare parts and mechanical expertise we’d brought along with us would be largely unattainable.

From Alice, we travelled south via the Old Ghan Railway Line to Chambers Pillar Reserve, before turning east towards a soggy Mount Dare, the last mechanical workshop and the last drop of cold tap beer on offer before reaching Birdsville on the other side of the desert. Despite a largely dry beginning to the trip, the final ten kilometre stretch to Mount Dare provided a taste of what lay ahead, with long stretches of road covered in water and sections of deep mud to contend with.

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It was in these initial days that the group’s love affair with our ageing quartet, complete with all of their idiosyncrasies, began.

To those unfamiliar with the raw, unrefined simplicity of driving an older vehicle, especially outside city limits, it’s hard to describe just how immersive an experience it is. There’s a certain allure to pulling the choke handle before starting an early model petrol engine, or kicking open the floor vents to allow fresh air to flow into the footwells. There are the panel gaps large enough to allow daylight through, that, in a new vehicle you’d be horrified to see, but in an old jigger, only add to the experience. Or the unexplainable phenomena, like a windscreen wiper that decides to dance across the rear windshield, despite the keys being nowhere near the ignition, or the fifty-one turns from lock to lock on the steering wheel that still requires a seven-point U-turn on a two lane road. It’s all of these things that epitomise the experience of driving vehicles from a bygone era, forcing you, willingly, to be an active participant rather than simply a passenger in the driver’s seat.

Departing Mount Dare, after downing one of their famous bacon and egg rolls, we set sail for the Simpson Desert via the impressive Dalhousie Springs. As anyone who has completed a desert crossing can attest, Dalhousie Springs, which sits inside the Witjira National Park, is an oasis for the intrepid traveller. At a constant 38°C year round, the expansive natural hot springs are enjoyed either as a final luxury before hitting the desert proper on a west-to-east crossing, or a chance to rejuvenate mind and body at the completion of an east-to-west crossing.

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The following day, honeymoon over, the convoy entered the desert to complete what would be the wettest crossing that even the most ‘Outback hardened’ of our group had experienced. Hard packed sand on the western side of the French Line and Rig Road, bound together with days of heavy rain, made ascending the smaller dunes fairly easy going. As we scaled each summit, the dead straight, ochre coloured tracks, seemingly cut into the landscape with a builder’s string line, pierced through the lush green foliage for kilometres on end, drawing us further into the unknown.

At this point, I should state that it’s one thing to gather a group of decades old 4WDs for a remote area expedition. It’s another thing entirely to do so without the support that an additional 20 years of engineering and manufacturing innovation brings. To that end, our convoy was bookended by the latest and greatest from Toyota, Ford and Mazda, in the form of ARB’s late model HiLux, Ranger, BT-50 and 79 Series LandCruiser.

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In stark contrast to the rawness of the FJ40, the experience from behind the wheel of any of these modern workhorses could be described as mundane. Not necessarily in a bad way, though. While they certainly don’t provide the same level of involvement and laugh-out-loud entertainment, they’re confidence inspiring, comfortable and capable on a level none of our Icons could ever hope to be, carving their way through the desert without so much as raising a sweat.

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As we made our way towards camp for the night, the sun sinking lower in the sky while shadows chased the light from the valleys, I turned the climate control knob in the HiLux for an additional 0.5°C of cabin temperature and wondered what the consensus of the group would be at the conclusion of our trip. Icon or Aircon?

Read part two to find out.

The Icons

1976 Toyota FJ40
Being the only petrol powered vehicle on this trip, the ‘Shorty 40’ was as thirsty as it was fun. When it was running that is. An electrical gremlin relegated the FJ to the title of ‘dead weight’ for half of the desert crossing, before repairs were made in Birdsville (see part two). A crowd favourite and the most iconic looking of the quartet.

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1990 Nissan GQ Patrol
Sporting 33” Cooper STT Pro muddies, ‘The Beast’, as it was aptly named, was more often than not the first vehicle we sent down any potentially challenging sections of track. Despite a temperamental alternator, the blown 4.2 GQ hardly put a foot wrong all trip and was the go-to Icon for respite from the punishing terrain.

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1994 Toyota HiLux
One of the last HiLux models to ride on a live front axle, the venerable (albeit slow) 2.8 litre diesel powered ‘Lux’ was the quiet achiever of the bunch. Nimble (in this company), comfortable and reliable are words that best describe this classic, with not so much as a spanner put anywhere near it for the entire trip.

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1995 Land Rover Defender
With a number of Landy fans along for the ride, the Defender was always going to attract some attention. The blood red colour combined beautifully with the orange hues of the desert and, despite some initial reservations regarding the more road orientated tread pattern of the Cooper AT3s, managed everything we could throw at it with aplomb, performing the odd recovery along the way to boot.

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