4×4 Bio: A meandering, mostly automotive, history. Part 3.

How do you replace your first 4×4? Your original adventure vehicle. Well, like the difficult second album. For me it was a challenge that I didn’t get quite right…

What were the options? Most people would normally just upgrade to a newer version of what they had. Most of the key 4×4’s have long lineages, Jeep Wrangler, Nissan Patrol, Toyota Land Cruiser, and so it was with the Range Rover. Except I didn’t really fancy the later version of the Range Rover, known as the P38 model. It was basically the same as my Classic under the skin, live axles, larger version of the same V8. As you’ve seen my friend Ravi had one, it did all the Range Rover stuff just fine. I just didn’t fancy one. The styling just wasn’t Range Rover enough for me, it also had A LOT more electronics to go wrong. However, more to the point it was the adventure side of things that were starting to take precedent over the ‘cool car’ side of things. So I was looking for something simpler, which the P38 was not.


I thought hard about a Discovery 2. I had always liked the styling, and it basically just a younger version of what I had. However, word from the trade came back to stay away. By any means find the money for a Discovery 3. Which I could do, they were right at the top of my budget at the time, along with Land Cruisers and Patrols. However I wanted to try and spend some of the money on the rest of the fleet and do a bit more racing. Also the D3 made the P38 look simple in terms of complexity!

Other money pits toys.

I tried to think outside the box, Ssangyong? Honda MDX? Subaru Outback? I was trying to convince myself I didn’t need ‘proper’ 4wd drive capability, there isn’t much difficult 4wding in South Australia anyway (this is true), but these guys were a little bit too soft.

Mitsubishi Pajero. This was still classed mostly as a proper 4wd, alright it had independent suspension all round, but it had been that way for years now and it still got coverage in the 4wd media, it must be at least half decent off road right? How many times had Mitsubishi won the WRC and Dakar? Lots. Japanese reliability too. Most importantly significantly cheaper like for like than the Cruiser/Patrol. Sorted.


Looking back, I suppose going from the Range Rover to a Mitsubishi Pajero doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. However it seemed to add up at the time.

Since we left Queensland and moved back to South Australia, the regular challenging 4×4 outings had literally dried up. South Australia is the driest state in the world, it also doesn’t have much in the way of big hills or mountains. The ground tends to be quite hard and doesn’t get washed away like it does in Queensland. There are challenging tracks here, but you really have to seek them out. The challenges of 4×4 driving in SA tend to come from remoteness, rather than so much from the terrain.

It should also be noted that at the time I was pretty much the only person I knew into 4×4 adventure, and 4×4’s. I didn’t have the experienced friends and contacts I have now. Anyway, the best lessons are the ones you learn from your own mistakes.

So I found a Pajero, good condition, right money, it had LPG injection (more expensive than a regular LPG system) and had obviously had some money spent on it. The car yard took the Rover as part exchange, I knew if I kept it I would probably drag out selling it forever. So that was that. We had gone from a creaky but characterful Land Rover, to a mildly anaemic but hopefully reliable and worry free touring vehicle.

It didn’t really work out like that… It has to be said not really any of the following was Mitsubishi’s fault, mostly to do with the LPG installation. The Mitsi V6 in this form is an interference engine, so one of the first jobs was to put a new timing belt on it. I noticed that the old belt was a tooth out on one cam. I thought this must be the source of the minor hesitation misfire the engine had. Belt replaced and now timed correctly the miss was still there. More diagnosis, much more…

I eventually traced the miss to a burnt out valve (where the valve does not seal correctly against the valve seat, and  does not hold full compression pressure) using first a cylinder leak down tester, then confirming on the bench once the cylinder head was off. I had the cylinder head reconditioned, remembering that the machine shop had said when I picked it up “someone has done this head before”. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but unusual for a vehicle like this that wasn’t that old or had done that many miles…

Anyway, all buttoned back up. Hopefully that would be the first and last big job that needed doing.

A few months later the miss came back…

I stripped back down the front of the engine, only to find the timing belt again one tooth out. I reset it. Checked everything was as it should be. I had replaced the tensioner and idler pulleys as usual when I had done the belt. Before not long the miss was back again, same problem. I put another genuine tensioner on it. Before long, same deal. Thinking maybe it was a bad batch of tensioners I ordered a non-genuine timing belt kit. Weirdly, the only thing in the kit that wasn’t non-genuine was the tensioner… I fitted it anyway, same result.

I took some photos of what was happening and went to see the techs at my local Mitsubishi dealer. They didn’t have any answers. In the end I welded the tensioner out. This worked, but I knew it wasn’t a long term solution. In the end that didn’t matter… [I think I eventually worked out what was happening. It seems uprating valve springs is something that is sometimes done with an LPG conversion. When the machine shop said the heads had already been done I think that they must have had uprated the exhaust valve springs fitted at the same time, maybe a bit too much… If the engine stopped in the wrong position, the extra strong springs would slowly pull the tension off the hydraulic tensioner, loosening the timing belt on that cam. When the engine was restarted, the belt would jump a tooth before tension was regained. That engine was always really hard to turn over, even with the plugs out, again I didn’t think much of it at the time, I thought it was maybe the odd 4 valve per cyl/single cam set up. As you can imagine I spent many hours mulling this problem over, and kind of worked this out. Later confirmed by a very clever mechanic who worked it out in almost no time at all…]

So due to all these shenanigans and other reasons, it was nearly a year into ownership before we got to go away in the Pajero. It was a simple trip, down to the south east of South Australia. Stay at Robe. There seemed to be a few dirt excursions we could take on the way, plus a well known track between Robe and Beachport.

I had equipped the Pajero with new BFG All Terrain tyres and steel wheels (so the ‘off-road’ tyres could be easily swapped out when not in use, to keep them fresh and the edges of the tread sharp – those wheels and tyres are still doing service on a friends Mitsubishi Challenger, amazing!) for this trip. Loaded up, the Mitsubishi sagged slightly at the rear, but we weren’t planning any crazy off road, shouldn’t be an issue.

The drive down was great. tracking through Strathalbyn, across the ferry at Wellington and then again at Narrung. To take a dirt road that would skirt round the edge of Lake Alexandrina, and join the top of the Coorong.

We then headed south, on dirt and bitumen. Running alongside the Coorong, looking magnificent in the sunshine.

I had a slightly more serious off-road excursion planned before we left the lakes. Following the old dirt highway. We then took ‘Shipwreck Track’ a side track through the dunes. I sort of had a vague idea of driving out on this one and if the beach was in good condition, drive down that and then link back with one of the tracks further down.

The track was pretty straight forward, a few scrapes from the fully loaded Pajero but we were getting through fine. I came upon a medium hill, it wasn’t steep but did have a few lumps and bumps in it. Following the mantra of never driving down something I wasn’t sure of getting back up (not knowing the how driveable the beach was at the end of this track) I got out and had a walk down it just to be sure. It was fine, I saw nothing that would present a challenge if we had to come back this way. Sure enough we got down easy enough, a bit of left foot braking/judicious accelerator just to keep it straight, no worries.

I hadn’t really liked the sand driving I had done before, but I was quite enjoying driving through the dunes now. Eventually we got to the end of the side track and there was a short steep dune before the beach. Again I walked it, mostly to see if the beach was driveable, if not there was no point tackling this last dune.

I took these snaps from the top of this dune, looking back. We were less than 5km from the main track, less than 20km as the crow flies, from the main road, and yet, in Australia you don’t have to go very far to get a long way from everyone else.

The other side was the Southern Ocean.

One of those times where the vista was just too wide to take in, despite all the tyre tracks I got a real sense of being alone here.

I decided that with the beach pretty soft and chewed up, and the tide coming in that it wasn’t worth the risk driving down the beach. We would just head back the way we came and get to the campsite with plenty of time to get set up.

N snapped me walking back.

When travelling our dogs have their own special camping home.

Coming back to the lumpy hill, I advised N we should put them in there as we would probably need to use a bit of momentum to get past the lumpy section. When I first got the Pajero I had jacked up one front and one rear wheel at a time to see what the articulation of the independent suspension was like, pretty impressive as it turns out (articulating up anyway…), so I had no doubt we could clear that section, even if it took a few goes to judge the momentum.

I drove it like I would have done in the Rangie, relatively slow speed and let the suspension do it’s stuff. It didn’t work, we ground to a halt pretty quickly. No bother, I’ll just hit it a bit harder and we’ll just bounce through the larger holes but maintain enough momentum to keep going. Yah, that didn’t work either.

We were getting stopped in the same spot each time and stopped properly, more speed was just going to mean more chance of breaking the vehicle or one of us. We would just have to do it the hard way, a bit at a time. I’ve been in situations similar to this before and a bit of continuous effort will normally get you through.

I really wanted a set of Maxxtrax before this trip, but fixing the issues with the Pajero and bolting on a new set of BFG AT’s had meant it just wasn’t in the budget. I had borrowed some boards my mate had, that were supposed to be similar sort of device, plastic grated tracks covered in an abrasive coating.

I had accumulated numerous types of recovery gear over the years but knowing the terrain we were going to most of it just wasn’t applicable (a winch is not much good if there is nothing to winch off) so most of it was in the shed at home. With hindsight none of it would have made any difference, so not bringing it was the right decision, the Paj was already struggling with the load as it was. I did have a long handle shovel, snatch strap and weight bag, my mates boards, some old towels and my compressor.

I got to work digging out the worst sections that the Paj was catching on, as I said, the wheels could articulate up a decent way, but they ran out of travel real fast articulating down. Coupled with the fact that the independent suspension arms had to come a long way down in comparison to the wheel (for the bottom ball joint at the bottom of the hub) meant that these were dragging as they snagged on the sand that built up in front of them on and lifting the wheel up away from the traction surface, awesome.

Just for extra giggles the sump for the auto transmission was doing a good job of demonstrating just how bad our current breakover angle was by resting it’s lazy self on the sand at any opportunity.

Of course I didn’t take any pictures of the predicament as I was somewhat occupied with getting it sorted. I worked with a combination of the towels, borrowed boards (which tended to disappear into the sand due to the crated design, while the BFG’s just stripped off the abrasive coating when they did press down on it properly) and shovel to start making progress. It was painfully slow, and backing up and having another go just started it all over again. N, who normally knows just to hang tight and let me get it sorted, knew that after about half an hour we weren’t going anywhere. There have been very few times in our relationship where we have made the situation worse for each other, and this wasn’t going to be one of them either. She just said “right, what can I do?” I knew by then it wasn’t going to be an easy fix, so I said “take this knife and start getting some foliage that we can use to put under the wheels. Don’t cut yourself, keep drinking water and keep your hat on” it wasn’t hot by Australian standards but you have to make sure you keep yourself from getting in a state if you’re going to be at it a while.

Digging, towels, boards, shrubbery (sorry SA) were all used. A towel on each wheel gave a good indication of which were turning and therefore had the least traction, and then were we had to focus our efforts. Somewhat concerning, sometimes after arranging the towels on each wheel ready to try and move forward another few inches, I would jump in and click it into drive and gingerly press the throttle and go nowhere, only to jump and and all the towels were still on top of the wheels, meaning that we were getting NO drive at times. This was making me worried, I didn’t think N would notice when this happened so I just kept my mouth shut and kept at it.

Why didn’t you just drop the tyres to 10psi? I tried letting down the tyres more, this just exacerbated the suspension dragging issue, less pressure meant less sidewall height, meant less ground clearance. We were making progress but it was random and slow, the section we had to get through was maybe 10-15ft. But we were literally inching forward. However we were moving forward, so we kept at it. After about 3 hours, I stopped for a bit and tried to have a bit of a re-think, sometimes you just have to toil but sometimes you have to recognise that there is a limit to how long you can toil and is there a better way to apply your effort.

I knew I needed to drop the tyres more for traction, but to do that I needed more ground clearance, the only way to get that was to get some weight off those springs and increase the suspension angles. So I decided to take everything out of the car, tent, fridge, tools, water, anything with any weight. In fact N did this while I had a real good go with the shovel and cleared as much sand out from underneath as I could, I wanted to basically have a big effort and prep as much as possible to try and get us up there once and for all.

We spent close to an hour on this stage, I managed to get the tyres down to about 15 psi with no immediate clearance issues. I told N to stand behind because if it hooked up I was just going to mash that throttle with no mercy! We moved, not just inches but feet! Stuck again but with renewed effort we dug it out again, another good dose of progress. Dug again, this time we were close to the end of the holes, it bounced and then hooked up and I just buried the throttle, all manor of mechanical mayhem noises, bucking and wheelspin ensued but I kept it in all the way to the top.

We were out. 4 hours to conquer a ‘medium’ hill. We started dragging our gear up the hill, only when we had taken most of it to the top did I think that maybe taking a few photos of the spot of our ordeal might be a good idea, for relaying the story to friends. Literally up until then I had no thoughts for photos.

Looking up. Doesn’t look that bad, does it? notice the fine covering of sand on the recently dispatched gear, from the wheel spinning, and the by now decimated towels.

We re-loaded the car and drove out. The Pajero had an electronically operated low range switch, I had been pressing that button furiously over the last 4 hours, convinced at times we weren’t in low range, still majorly bugged by the apparent no drive situation. When we got back to main track and I stopped to air up, being attacked by the mother of all mosquito clouds for good measure, the thing wouldn’t go back into high range. I checked the auto trans fluid on the dipstick, from recently changed pink it was now dark brown, we were not the only ones to have had a bad day… So we had to drive the rest of the day in low range, top speed maybe 50km/30mph, this crystallized the thought that this wasn’t the truck for me.

N and I talked all the (slow) way back to the main road. I knew I had made a mistake, many times I had turned down an unknown trail with her protesting, always to get through no worries. I had totally under-estimated the lack of basic capability the Pajero had. As a touring vehicle it was fine, for what we wanted to do/had previously done, it was woefully inadequate.

We were set to camp that night, but when we eventually got the the next town, we bailed into the first motel, got take out, drank wine and slept well.

The next day I drove the Pajero round for a bit until it decided to finally come out of low range, the rest of the trip was going to be spent only in high range.

But the damage with the Pajero was done, I spent most of the rest of the trip researching the replacement and going down the rabbit hole of Land Cruiser model codes, tempted by the V8 but not willing to give up my beloved live axles we ended up with FJZ105R, traded the day after we got back, the LC coming in at approx twice the price of the Pajero, similar age and miles.

Learning to acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake is a great part of growing up, and analyzing these situations afterwards is a great learning experience for me.

Anyway, this brings us more or less up to date where vehicles are concerned.

Thanks for reading.

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