It’s early on a Sunday morning and Gurgaon’s glitzy skyline is now in our rear view mirrors. Metalled roads have given way to rock strewn mud paths and it’s only getting worse every couple of hundred metres. Our destination is a place many of Delhi’s off-road junkies like to call home. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to the ‘Monster’. It’s a 1995 Gypsy that was picked up by Delhi-based Sumeer Tandon in 2010. Sumeer’s visiting card says he runs a textile business but just seeing the sheer amount of work he’s put into his Gypsy, you’d be fooled in to thinking modifying off-roaders was his vocation. Continued..
To be honest, many won’t even identify it as a Gypsy. It sits a lot higher, wears massive 33-inch diameter Yokohama mud tyres on 15-inch rims and features massively flared fenders. The front bumper is gone and the body at the rear is 10 inches shorter (though the basic ladder frame underneath is untouched). It certainly looks the business. I bend down to find that the axles are different too. They are Dana 44s, which have been drafted in from an old Mahindra to deal with the additional stress of the larger tyres. But before I can take a more detailed visual inspection, Sumeer is already buckled up in the driver’s seat raring to take the Monster to where few Gypsy’s dare to tread. Front wheel hubs locked, we’re good to go. Continued..
The first thing I notice is the ease with which we are clearing the path. The additional 3.5 inches of ground clearance courtesy the larger tyres mean we are going over obstacles rather than around them. It feels quite unusual, really. As we go deeper into the wilderness, Sumeer calmly informs me, “We’ll go through that,” pointing into the distance. “That” happens to be a gully with fairly steep sides and a base that’s just about wide enough to walk through. Gulp. We stop, switch to four-wheel drive and tip-toe our way forward; left side tyres in the rut and the right side on the incline. The horizon looks dramatically different with each passing inch, and by the time we’re at the point of no return, there’s just about a foot and a half between my face and the muddy side of the gully. I’m convinced we’re going to tip over, so I’m grateful for the four-point harnesses and roll cage. But my fears are unfounded and we make it through without a scratch. Continued..
The secret? Articulation. Off-roaders generally roll over when there is too much weight transfer to one side, causing the outside tyres to lose contact with the ground. But with all four wheels grounded, weight transfer is reduced and you also get that much-needed traction at all four corners. To this end, Sumeer has replaced the Gypsy’s stock leaf springs (37 inches) with longer 48-inch ones from the Mahindra Thar’s rear assembly. Generally, the longer the springs and longer the travel of the shocks (14-inch Bilsteins in this case), the better the articulation. The front springs also get missing link shackles that open under extreme articulation to further increase droop or the amount the wheel can drop. As a result of the revised suspension, maximum wheel travel in the front has increased from about 11 inches stock to approximately 25 inches! It’s possible to increase that even further with a spring-over-axle setup (as opposed to the standard spring-under-axle the Gypsy comes with) or a radically different coil-over setup but those mods impact steering geometry, disturb the driveshaft angle and could lead to an axle wrap. Higher lifts also impact the centre of gravity, which limit on-road safety and are best suited for specialist rock crawlers. Continued..
Back to the trail, Sumeer steers us towards a steep hill. The surface is loose mud so, despite the tyres, the going won’t be all that easy. We gather momentum and attack the climb. The start is good but just before the crest, we begin to lose traction. The spinning wheels are kicking up quite a dust storm and we have just about enough grip to make it to the top. We repeat the exercise again. Just that this time around, Sumeer activates the front and rear differential locks. Yup, the Gypsy’s open diffs are gone and have been replaced by Australia-built ARB air-operated locking differentials on both axles.
The system uses compressed air drawn from a 12-volt compressor positioned behind the seats to pneumatically actuate the locking and unlocking mechanism. And I can tell you from experience, it really changes the way the Monster behaves at the flick of a switch (actually two, one for each axle). When it’s time to climb, there’s simply no drama. With all wheels effectively rotating at the same speed, all we get is smooth and steady progress. In fact, photographer Chaitanya frantically gestures he wants some dust being thrown up. At the top of the hill, Sumeer also narrates an incident where he was able to manoeuvre the Monster in a tight space on an icy road near Shimla solely because he could lock the rear diff, and let the car get into a slow drift. Continued..
We’re far from ice today but I see rocks. Big, bad boulders. My pilot for the day obliges by turning towards the rocky bit. The Monster’s mud tyres are suited for rocky trails but we’re still mindful of sharper edges that could damage the sidewall. As you may know, rock crawls require mega torque right from the word go. And this is where the Monster’s reworked gearing comes into play. To compensate for the increased diameter (and hence lower rpm) of the larger tyres, final reduction was geared down (to 5.38:1). The transfer case is also quite different from the donor Gypsy’s. It’s actually part new Gypsy (that is, from the Gypsy King 1.3) transfer case and part old Gypsy (1.0-litre) transfer case. The result is a crazy 4.16:1 low ratio. Crazy because, engaged in ‘4-low’, the Monster just crawls up a series of boulders, almost worm-like. You could literally measure the boulders I’m talking about in feet, not mere inches! Helping us here is the option to switch the front locker off as and when we need to make steering corrections to our approach. The Monster seems pretty much unstoppable. Unreal.
In case you are wondering, all the mods have added about 300kg to the Monster’s weight. To counter some of the increment, Sumeer has replaced the standard 1.3-litre engine with the block and injectors from the Baleno 1.6, though the head is from the Gypsy. Interestingly, as Sumeer tells me, modifying the transverse engine for the longitudinal layout on the Gypsy is not all that complex, if done carefully. But that’s another story. Other mods include a free flow exhaust, performance air filter and of course, a heavy duty clutch to deal with the torque increase. Continued..
On the journey back to civilisation, I take the wheel and get a feel of the big, red Monster. Obviously, I take it easy. But even then, on the hillocks, through the ruts and past the gullys, it’s easy to tell this is something special. The fact that the Toyota Land Cruiser 80 (our support car for the day) was not pressed into service to winch us out from tricky scenarios says a lot. Unwanted attention apart, it’s not all that bad to drive on the road either which was one of the key considerations of the build. But today, I saw the Monster in its natural habitat. Doing things you wouldn’t imagine a Gypsy could, would or should do. I’m certainly gobsmacked, but I still can’t wait to see the Monster in action when the heavens open up!