“There is even dust in the drawers. I’m done with this Mongolian Gobi dirt!” Karin-Marijke exclaimed while she carefully removed a thick layer of fine sand from the inside of the Land Cruiser after a full day of desert driving.
While thoroughly enjoying days of driving up and down massive dunes and through gorgeous valleys, the mood changed on arrival at a rough camp destination when lots of cleaning was required (if we didn’t want to sleep in heaps of sand).
Read More: Overland Travel in Mongolia
Getting dust in our Toyota wasn’t new. Long ago, Karin-Marijke installed a dust screen in the rear. It sticks with Velcro on the inside of the ambulance doors as the bulk of the dust normally enters through the worn seals in the back. But these days we got dust coming in from somewhere else, gathering even inside the drawers.
A few weeks earlier, I had bought a few sheets of adhesive sound-insulating material at the car bazaar and we still had a full tube of PU sealant. Using that, Karin-Marijke and I spent a couple of days at the Taiga overlanding campsite near a river in Ulan-Ude (Siberia) sealing minor cracks in the bottom of the bodywork as well as on the sides.
So the sight of even more dust than before was an emotional setback. Not just because of the dust itself, but we both knew what this entailed and weren’t thrilled with the idea of yet another disassembly of the interior, which would be overhaul #4 in 16 years on the road.
Not that we don’t look forward to having an improved home on wheels, but the whole organizational side of it is a headache when traveling. The Land Cruiser had to be empty for welding, which required a place to store all the woodwork and our belongings.
Additionally, we needed a place to sleep, and, most importantly, where could we find someone who was willing to take on the job which we calculated would take a month.
Finding the Right Guy
Last January we had driven from the Siberian winter into Central Asia, through Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan. The plan was to do the overhaul in summer; however, before we flew out to warmer regions to spend the rest of the winter we tried to get as many preparations done as possible, so we would be able to get to work immediately on our return to Kyrgyzstan in June.
After having talked to various workshops in Bishkek we were growing desperate. The quotes were ridiculously high and the mechanics planned roughly six months of work, which didn’t sit well with our budget nor visa allowance.
After Karin-Marijke overheard the last mechanic explain why he really needed so much time, she concluded they wanted the Land Cruiser to be in showroom condition.
Read More: How to Prepare for a Siberian Winter
Finally we met a young mechanic who was willing to weld the cracks in the bed of the tub and to straighten and reinforce the side panel on the driver’s side for an acceptable price. Additionally, he would paint the whole Land Cruiser in our signature yellow. At the same time we found a landlord willing to let his spacious ground floor apartment with ample parking, so we could strip the car and store everything inside.
Of course things weren’t that simple – they never are – and when we got back from our long-distance hike in Turkey, the young welder had disappeared into thin air. We forced ourselves to go ahead as planned and stripped the Land Cruiser of its innards and started asking around once more.
Things were looking good!
Read More: Bishkek – A Place to Rest & Relax
Meeting Nikolai, the Retired Master Welder
The universe must have heard our cries. The stars aligned and we were connected with Nikolai through some GPS coordinates and a vague description of where he lived. We drove six miles out of Bishkek and turned off the main road onto a dirt road lined with big trees and fenced-in houses.
At the designated house we knocked on the gates and shouted his name, but all we got in return was the howling of dogs. No sign of Nikolai. After ten minutes we turned the Land Cruiser around, ready to leave and contemplating our next step. Right then we spotted a smiling man walking down the dirt road with a bag full of groceries.
“Nikolai?!” I asked.
“Da” (yes), he responded. “Shopping”, he added, pointing to the plastic bags filled with groceries.
The gate gave entrance to a narrow path along his house lined with discarded metal and empty carton boxes sporting famous 4×4 brands. On the left a roofed, open workbench with a big vise and more metal surrounding it.
Farther down stood a big shed constructed of two 40ft containers, spaced with a roof joining them. Bolted between the two containers stood a massive lift. I noticed battery-operated angle grinders, drills and other tools of the trade. Branded, mind you, not some Chinese junk.
First impressions are important and I knew right away that this guy knew his turf. Behind the shed extended a large garden full of tires and other junk. At the back were stables where his daughter kept a handful of beautiful horses.
After hearing about the Land Cruiser’s issues and our thoughts on how to fix them, Nikolai did some thinking of his own and then shook his head.
“The welding you propose will only make the structure of the body even weaker. Your car is old and suffers from metal fatigue. In order to keep it going you will need to make some structural improvements, not superficial repairs,” he said.
“Look,” he demonstrated, taking a long metal ruler and placing it along the inside of one of the rear doors. “This door is dead straight, however…,” he said, placing the ruler against the inside of the doorpost, “this is not straight anymore. The rear is sagging and welding a few patches on the floor won’t straighten it nor will it fix your dust problem.”
Check it out: the Landcruising Adventure Sketchy-Ride Collection
Meanwhile, I had just received a few images with sketches from a friend who drives the same BJ45 as ours. He feels Toyota made a serious design flaw by placing the two rear frame mounts too far inward, thus leaving the doorposts without proper support to bear the weight of the roof. His suggestion was to weld a reinforcement on the inside and adding another frame mount between the frame and the tub. I liked this idea.
Nikolai, on the other hand, wasn’t thrilled and took us to his horse trailer. Here he demonstrated the difference in stability between the original cart and the same cart but with the addition of a simple horizontal bar, locked into place.
“This is what your Land Cruiser needs. Stability, especially on those rough roads you are planning to take.”
He then took a turnbuckle and a heavy-duty chain and clamped those on the rear doorposts. When he turned the buckle, the Land Cruiser was pulled back into its original shape.
“This is how your doors are supposed to look and then they will close properly. We only need to find a way to keep it like this,” he said.
It was the same story on the driver’s sidewall. We had long suspected the connecting pin between the upper and lower panel to be broken, thus forcing the wall to stick out a good inch or so, if not more. I had ‘repaired’ the badly closing door by adding more weather strips on the top and bottom of it.
Nikolai shook his head disapprovingly when he saw my improvisation and set out to straighten that part of the Land Cruiser as well. By applying the same turnbuckle technique, he showed us what a straight sidewall should look like. Marvelous.
Over the course of a couple weeks I returned every day to work with Nikolai on structural improvements. We kept welding to a minimum and applied his engineering logic of brackets and supports made with bolts and fasteners.
The Engineer Solution
We set about fixing the rear lower catch. It was rusted and the rear doors didn’t stay closed on non-paved roads. Luckily I had sourced a good second-hand catch a few years earlier and it came in handy now.
To improve the closing of the rear doors we made some drawings to apply Nikolai’s horse trailer design. However, for the Land Cruiser we needed to not only put it in place but to be able to tighten it as well (like the turnbuckle). To replicate the turnbuckle’s characteristic, Nikolai welded two big nuts inside a pipe and made two flat hooks on either side. We now needed a way to hook these into the rear panels.
This needed some thinking because of the woodwork that would be placed there afterwards. For the two not to interfere with each other, we experimented quite a bit. Eventually we cut the pipe and fabricated a sleeve on one end so I would be able to slide and shorten the pipe to remove it when setting up camp, or extend it when locking it into place before driving.
Next was the bulging sidewall. We needed more metal to implement Nikolai’s suggestion to build an internal roll bar. His take was to make it as strong as possible, whereas I preferred to keep it as light and inconspicuous as possible. To complicate matters we also needed a structure that could be bolted in and could be bolted out if needed.
Once more we returned to the drawing table and rulers were flying left and right. When we were both satisfied with the result, we made our way to the metal yard with a shopping list.
We bought two 2 by 2, 4mm-thick beams that were welded together for strength and sat as the basis of the roll bar across the floor, held in place by sturdy u-bolts. On the driver’s side Nikolai welded a single beam on a 90-degree angle up to the roof. The other beam, on the passenger side, was bolted on the bodywork in order to keep it detachable.
Apart from the floor attachments we made two brackets on each side beam to keep the walls from warping. At the top, a curved beam followed the roofline. The latter part would be out of sight, covered by our wooden ceiling paneling. Brilliant.
It took ages to get the job done, Nikolai was not a fast worker (plus, at age 62 figured that five hours of work a day was enough – good for him!) but incredibly meticulous. Everything was measured, remeasured, put in place, checked again, taken out, adjusted, checked once more, and on it went. It was trying at times, because I couldn’t always be of use to him and so I did a lot of little chores from my own to-do list.
This was summer, bloody hot with temps running up to 109 in the afternoon, which made it even more exhausting. But I wasn’t complaining. I knew he was doing an excellent job, one, in fact, we had needed during our disastrous first overhaul, nine years ago in Bolivia.
Every other day or so, with no fixed schedule, job and time permitting, we would venture out in the Land Cruiser to get a bite to eat at Nikolai’s favorite eatery 5Ks down the road. With heaps of tea we would just linger a bit and chat about nothing in particular.
I had one more concern: the reinforcement of the auxiliary battery bay. I had figured that just a few strips of extra metal would suffice, but Nikolai was, again, shaking his head.
“Rubbish!” he exclaimed. “Scrap it.” And he went on to explain that the previous owner had made a big mistake by bolting brackets and a box onto the rear-wheel arch and body. The box as such was not the problem, however using it to store two really heavy batteries (30kg each) was a problem.
For years this weight had been bouncing up and down, pulling and tearing at the Land Cruiser’s body. It arguably had led to the metal fatigue of the driver’s sidewall. Normally, Nikolai added, batteries are bolted to the frame.
“Let’s see if we can find an old battery bracket at the antique/flee market this weekend or at the new, big car bazaar,” he said with a smile. I think he rather enjoyed that outing himself.
By scrapping my idea of simply reinforcing the battery box, Nikolai, in fact, had created two more items on the to-do list rather than one. Additionally, I now also wanted to find a sealed box that could be used to hold recovery gear and other light stuff instead of the heavy batteries.
That Saturday we headed for the weekly antique market full of Soviet-era stuff. We bought stainless-steel platters and tools which were old hospital surplus. However, on neither bazaar did we succeed in finding the coveted box nor brackets or a battery holder with the right dimensions.
Back to the drawing board it was, and while Nikolai went on to fabricate two sturdy holders for the batteries, I made a carton mockup for the recovery box. With a few modifications the master accepted it and he subsequently built the box out of the stainless steel we had bought at the bazaar. (Edited to add: a year later we indeed had to find a new solution for a new structure in Tashkent after the household batteries got busted – read that story here).
And with that we had our Land Cruiser back in shape –albeit still empty. Karin-Marijke and I would need another four weeks to complete rebuilding the inside with some modifications due to the new metal structures. But after that, we would be ready for the ruggedness of Central Asia.
Let the adventure begin once more!
All Posts Related to the Land Cruiser Restoration Projects
- #1 Bolivia – Part 1 – The Overhaul
- #1 Bolivia – Part 2 – Car Welding & Engine Testing
- #1 Bolivia – Part 3 – Car Part Shopping & Conquering Hurdles
- #1 Bolivia – Part 4 – Our Home Back on Its Wheels
- #2 Brazil – Part 1 – Aluminum Welding of Two Major Cracks
- #2 Brazil – Part 3 – Welding or Fiberglass Repair?
- #2 Brazil – Part 2 – Welding Stainless Steel for the Land Cruiser
- #3 Guyana – Part 1 – Welding the Land Cruiser
- #3 Guyana – Part 2 – From Water Canisters to a Water Tank & Sink
- #3 Guyana – Part 3 – Woodwork in Suriname
- #4 Kyrgyzstan – The Turnbuckle Method
First published in Toyota Trails – find their magazines here.
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