The Land Cruiser Restoration in Bolivia (1) – Starting the Overhaul

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“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” ~Peter Drucker

Introduction:

Trustworthy as the Toyota engine of our Land Cruiser is, rust is a massive, recurring challenge. The bodywork suffers from metal fatigue as so does the chassis, which has several cracks. And so, this summer we are staying in Kyrgyzstan for a big Land Cruiser restoration project. In fact, it’s the 4th overhaul in our 16 years on the road.

These overhauls make us bloody nervous.

Why? you may wonder.

In 2010 we took up the first Land Cruiser restoration project, in La Paz, Bolivia. It is by far the biggest and most intense overhaul we’ve done. We had no clue what we had gotten ourselves into.

A planned 8-week job grew into a 6-month dramatic and in ways traumatizing project which jeopardized our journey and, in a way, even our relationship. We needed months on the road to recover from the tension and frustrations.

It took me three years before I could even write the Land Cruiser restoration story, which I did in a series of five stories for 4WD magazine in the Netherlands, as well as a short one for Toyota Trails. While these stories scratch only the surface of that experience, rereading it after so many years still makes my heart beat faster and my hands sweaty.

Nonetheless, to put in a better perspective where we and the Land Cruiser come from in this journey, I’ve finally translated the story into English to share it with you.

Read More: 16 Years of Overlanding the World Without Killing Each Other – How Do We Do It?

During our time in La Paz, Top Gear filmed their spectacular road trip of the Top-Gear guys through Bolivia. They left their vehicles in La Paz, this is one of them.

Why This Story, After so Many Years?

While it has taken me years to write it, I have always felt this story belongs here. I think it’s fair to say that our website is a bomb of inspiration, of stories that motivate and give trust to get out there and overland the world yourself. Our travels, our meetings with local people, our experiences in workshops and with officials have overall been good, beautiful, and yes, inspiring.

However, an overland journey, like life in general, never just consists of good things. There are ugly things too, and this Land Cruiser restoration project is one of them. I believe life is about balance, the yin and yang if you like. While this is impossible to see this when so deep in a pit of shit, like in this workshop, it’s easy to see in hindsight – even if that takes years.

And so, without further ado, here’s the Land Cruiser restoration story, part 1 of 4.

Let me emphasize that this is not the default working method in South America. As you can read on our website, we have had numerous good encounters with workshops and mechanics throughout our journey.

Car workshop in the streets of La Paz.

The Land Cruiser Restoration in Bolivia – part 1

The verdict: The Land Cruiser needed an overhaul.

Did we feel like it?

No.

Did we have a choice?

No, not really.

But as it goes in situations like this, the right people seemed to cross our path. As it goes with projects like this, we were bursting with enthusiasm and in good spirits.

Why worry that the welder didn’t show up?

Because he was going to be there mañana.

Car workshop in the streets of La Paz.

“Of course you can continue driving with a car in this state of rust. I have the impression that you have been doing that for a long time already, haven’t you? However, if you want to properly repair the support beam that broke off the chassis, you need a proper restoration of the Land Cruiser and take it apart,” Ernesto concluded.

Apart from the many holes and cracks throughout the bodywork, the rear of the Land Cruiser sagged, the rear doors were difficult to open and close, and there was an alarmingly growing crack under those doors, among the many issues at hand. Although we trusted Ernesto’s judgment, we had hoped that he could replace the support beam without too much fuss.

It was not to be.

Now what?

Car Workshop in the streets of La Paz.

Car Repairs at Ernesto’s Garage

Ernesto Hug is an in-Bolivia-born Swiss. He studied automotive engineering in Switzerland after which he returned to his native country. His garage is anything but Bolivian and would not look out of place in Switzerland.

The workplace sits behind a high wall with a gate, and not out on the street like most other workplaces in La Paz. The concrete, painted work floor is so clean you can eat from it. I didn’t even dare to wipe the few breakfast crumbs off my plate onto the floor but threw them in the trash can.

At Ernesto Hug’s garage.

At exactly eight, four technicians promptly rang the doorbell, ready to work in spotless overalls. Each had his own trolley with Swiss and German tools in drawers, which they cleaned and tidied at the end of each working day. All cars were thoroughly washed before they did any work on them.

“Cleanliness and Order” would have been fitting words on a signboard above the gate.

Read More: Ernesto’s Garage – The Best Workshop in South America

At Ernesto Hug’s garage.

Ernesto’s garage was a world away from the surrounding, typical Bolivian workshops that were on the street, often on steep slopes. Many were black with sand, oil and grease, and between the smear on the mechanic overalls you could just see that they had once been red.

There seemed to be no Working-Conditions Act or anything that resembled one. The mechanics sanded and painted cars without any protection such as earplugs or mouth caps. Only the use of welding glasses appeared to have become part of their safety standards.

Ernesto’s garage is not for everyone. Cleanliness and Order have their price. This is a garage for the richer middle class and expats. Additionally, Ernesto had built a name among overlanders, not only because his work was so reliable but also because he allowed overlanders to spend the night here and work on their rig themselves.

And that was exactly what Coen needed for a maintenance job, which had nothing to do with a possible renovation of the Land Cruiser.

We had stopped by at Ernesto’s Garage because the steering wheel made such a terrible noise. One thing led to another and, in the following ten days, Coen took more or less everything apart that was front wheel-related. Steering rods, drive shafts, steering bearings, bump stops and front axles were among them.

Ernesto gave advice where necessary, e.g. about whether to replace or repair a part, or not. He made use of a man whose sole job it was to search for parts in the extensive car-part areas of the La Paz (I believe he worked for different workshops).

Planning the Land Cruiser Restoration Project

While this process was in progress, we talked about the chassis’ issues such as the broken-off support beam, which had happened at Salar de Uyuni Ernesto’s verdict was clear: The car was due for an overhaul.

How? What? When?

Only the Why was clear.

Ernesto knew somebody who was interested in taking up the restoration job (Unfortunately, welding and spray painting were not done in Ernesto’s garage – if only!). Ernesto also knew somebody who let an apartment. For 250 dollars a month we suddenly had a spacious place to live, which was large enough to store the entire contents of the Land Cruiser as well.

The latter had been an additional worry, which we could now tick off our list. Apparently Bolivians had an eye for gadgets and you couldn’t just leave your things somewhere, not even in a workshop, we were repeatedly told. I was even warned by a local to, “Just be careful that your new parts on the wheels are not exchanged for old ones during the restoration of the Land Cruiser.”

Read More: Tips for Overlanding on Salar de Uyuni

On Salar de Uyuni

Don Edwin, Ernesto’s acquaintance, came to see the Land Cruiser and to determine a price for the work. He walked around the Land Cruiser, half listening to all the details that Coen was bringing to his attention. For 2000 US dollars he would do the restoration, taking the Land Cruiser apart, fixing it, painting and reassembling. The works. He expected to need eight weeks, which fit well in our schedule.

“Think it over during the weekend and let me know,” he said.

Day 1 – Let’s Get to Work

On Monday morning we walked to Don Edwin’s place to agree to his proposal. We suggested starting a week and a half later as the following week there would be Carnival with everything in La Paz being closed for four days.

Don Edwin had different ideas. “Let’s start this Wednesday. From then on I will have a dedicated chapista (mechanic) available.”

That sounded great even though we first needed to empty out the Land Cruiser. Not just that. The Land Cruiser still stood at Ernesto’s place and couldn’t be driven yet. But we appreciated such an ambitious start, even more so in this typical mañana mañana country, and so we made it work.

Carnival in La Paz

Back at Ernesto’s, Coen put the Land Cruiser back together and we drove to Aldo, our new landlord. At the end of the day we had stripped the Land Cruiser of all our belongings. We were shocked by the amount of stuff we have accumulated during our ten years on the road. It filled the apartment.

“Time to clean up,” Coen concluded, the collector of stuff. That sounded fine to me, the one who always wants to throw stuff out.

Day 2 – The Dismantling of the Land Cruiser Begins

On Tuesday we worked like crazy to take as much out of the Land Cruiser as possible to store in the apartment. Part of that was easy, such as the benches, ceiling, rotating fans, and lights. We came across the inevitable bad and old screws, not to mention bolts and nuts that were rusted as a result of an ever-leaking vehicle. Many were stuck for eternity.

The first challenge was the insulation walls. The previous owner had installed them and while they radiated a German Gründligkeit on the outside, he had used a jumble of screws to hold the insulation wall in place at random spots.

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The biggest problem to dismantle was the side windows. The caravan windows are super practical in daily use but not so evident to take apart. We suspected some sort of click system. No matter how we searched and tried, we couldn’t get ‘the lock’ deciphered (remember, this was in 2010, and searching for such things on YouTube wasn’t a thing yet – well, at least not to us). The system was not just clicked in place but additionally it had been glued together. As a result we had to demolish the frames so we could remove the insulation wall.

“Okay, let’s write it down: buy new caravan-window things,” Coen said.

It was the start of a long, long ‘unplanned-and-unexpected items’ list.

Behind the insulation wall we came across the original, small Toyota glass windows still in place. From the outside it looked as if they had been replaced by a piece of metal. We had no clue! When we had finally dismantled the second insulation wall, evening has fallen and we quit working, exhausted but happy with the progress we had made.

Day 3 – To the Workshop

Don Edwin welcomed us. He had started his business years earlier with a small garage. Over the years he had expanded it into a professional tire-alignment workshop which in the back had a Drivetrain Repair Services to provide an extra service to his customers.

What exactly made him take on the renovation job of our Land Cruiser, we will never know.

He was by no means as organized as Ernesto, which was visible in his workplace. For example, there was no soap at the sink. Every technician and mechanic brought his own tools, towel, and soap. You also had to bring your own toilet paper.

When, weeks later, I forgot my bottle of dishwashing detergent at the sink, it was gone within a few hours. Nobody knew where it was. No wonder Don Edwin couldn’t be bothered with supplying these basics.

Still, this garage was a lot better than the average street chapero. The garage could be locked and the Land Cruiser stood under a roof (with Ernesto Hug’s workshop and the Toyota Garage, these were the only three in La Paz that had a roof!). La Paz did have a Toyota Garage, but it was – in accordance with the policy from Japan – only for the latest, officially imported Toyotas.

They didn’t want the classic vehicles such as ours, nor the 90% of Japanese cars in Bolivia that was unofficially imported (yes, that is a thing here) and that had undergone a (dodgy) change of the steering sides (because right-hand drives are not allowed in Bolivia). This change gave them the dubious nickname of Transformers (like the popular cartoon series).

Land Cruiser Restoration in La Paz, Bolivia (©Coen Wubbels)

Apart from that, prices at the Toyota Garage were exorbitant and when, over the weeks that followed, I was ‘forced’ to buy parts there because there was no other option, I came to the conclusion that the Toyota Garage was an abhorrent, unreliable place in every possible way.

Don Edwin made a thorough inventory, “Do you carry a radio or spare tire? What tools do you have with you?” He wrote everything down. He was doing whatever he could to minimize the possibility of theft, which we appreciated. All the stuff we dismantled here in the workshop, we could keep in a separate room (I don’t remember if we could lock it).

This potential thievery continued to come back in conversations. For example, when I was working inside the now empty Land Cruiser and was making a drawing of the wooden beams against the side panels (to which the insulation walls had been screwed) and numbering them, a mechanic commented on it.

“Nothing gets stolen here, you know.”

As if someone could think of stealing blocks of wood?

Apparently so.

“Oh, but I just have to make a drawing so that I will know how to put it back in,” I answered him.

Land Cruiser Restoration in La Paz, Bolivia (©Coen Wubbels)

That was, as far as I could number them to begin with. On the ground next to the left side panel were only crumbled pieces of rotten wood. When not rotten pieces, beams were glued together with – again – German Gründlichkeit. How were we going to get those separated from the bodywork?

The chapista – the man who was going to do the actual welding and painting – was nowhere to be seen.

Mañana,” Don Edwin said – “Tomorrow.”

It was a word to be repeated for the next 22 days.

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Day 5 – Dismantling the Roof

Don Edwin gave us three of his men to do disassemble the roof. All three climbed onto the Land Cruiser at the same time and started turning a random nut.

“Ho, ho! Back! What are you going to do?”

In the absence of a chief (Don Edwin had left), Coen took on that role.

“We must remove roof must,” the men said.

Coen explaining how layers of roof and roof rack.

“Yes, I know. How are we going to do that? The roof together with the roof rack, or the roof rack first? That stuff is heavy!” Coen asked, pointing out the glued layers and the rusted bolts.

Oh. Well, now what?

After discussing the options, the team worked in a structured way to dismantle the roof rack and roof. It was done without damage, which felt like an accomplishment.

Land Cruiser Restoration in La Paz, Bolivia (©Coen Wubbels)

Day 11 – First Feelings of Despair

It was a depressing sight, the carcass of our rotten Land Cruiser. How could it ever become our home on wheels again? I wondered as I continued making and writing labels for 100,000 electrical wires. Or rather, how was it possible that the Land Cruiser ever reached this workplace?


To be honest, it was a miracle that we had not crashed somewhere in the middle of the desert, the altiplano or the jungle right through the chassis. A collection of holes with some metal around it served as bodywork. What a mess!

From the moment the roof had been removed the previous week, Coen and I were the only ones still working on the Land Cruiser. Everyone was busy with other things.

And the chapista? He would be there mañana!

Land Cruiser Restoration in La Paz, Bolivia (©Coen Wubbels)
Esteban and Simon

Day 15 – Where Was the Chapista?

At last we got help. Two technicians, Simon and Esteban, worked all day and the result was impressive. With them we removed all woodwork, including the loading floor. The guys disassembled the aluminum roof edge, as well as the top layer of the side panels.

Don Edwin finally apologized for the absence of his chapista. He had arranged one from outside, specifically for this job but the man had not shown up yet. Don Edwin now promised that Simon and Esteban would take care of the Land Cruiser.

It was February 20.

Eventually, Esteban would start on March 4, and Simon on April 14.

What in the world had we gotten ourselves into?!

Here’s part 2

 

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