Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal, Summer 2018.
Not all four-wheel drives are created equal. Years of long miles and harsh conditions separate the wheat from the chaff, and over time the survivors turn into icons. But what makes these legendary off-road platforms so great? What virtues defined the Patrol, separated the Defender, and gave the Land Cruiser a following of loyal fans the world over? Undoubtedly, there are an array of reasons, but they all whittle down to three: capability, versatility, and utility. Sadly, these traits seem to be lost on many of the plush four-wheel drives of today, but one company in West Chester, Pennsylvania, is working to bring them back. Their name is Main Line Overland, and this Toyota Tacoma is one of their latest masterpieces.
At its core, this project is defined by a simple concept: you shouldn’t have to choose between owning a comfortable off-road camper and having a useful truck as a daily driver. With the right selection of parts, you can, in fact, have your cake and eat it too. Of course, this is easier said than done. Building a vehicle that can haul contractor supplies during the week, motorcycles on the weekend, and a camper for overland trips is no small task, and Main Line Overland’s team needed to throw the standard Tacoma formula out the window to make it work. After months of extensive research, they did just that, throwing the stock bed out with it. According to Tom Henwood, the eldest of the trio of brothers that run the company, “We liked the modularity the Norweld tray offered—the lockable boxes with optimal departure angles, the clip-on step and prep table, and the easy on/off bedsides and tailgate, so that when we weren’t running the camper we still had the functionality of a pickup truck.”
In fact, the design is based around a Norweld tray, a flatbed born out of 40 years of product testing in the Australian Outback. It is lightweight, made from corrosion- resistant aluminum, and most importantly, modular in the extreme. They can be ordered in different lengths, mounted at various heights above the frame, and even come with adjustable wheel wells to fit your vehicle’s tire size. When combined with a matching Norweld canopy or Four Wheel camper, this system allows the owner to utilize three distinct truck configurations in one versatile package.
The tray installed on this Tacoma is 6 feet in length and mounts low to the frame; it’s ideal for customers running campers as it minimizes the cab-over gap. For storage, the Main Line team installed two front-of wheel toolboxes, a behind-the-wheel toolbox on the passenger side, and a 43-liter water tank on the driver’s side which can also be used as a fully-enclosed gray water holding tank. Each of the storage bins can be loaded with a variety of gear and are perfect for spare fluids, tools, firewood, and anything else you don’t want to keep in the cab or camper.
To increase utility, the tray comes standard with swing-down bedsides and a quick mount tailgate to provide a traditional bed when desired. There’s even a rear ladder rack for kayaks, surfboards, fishing rods, a rooftop tent, and of course, work supplies that you might have to haul. In this configuration, the Tacoma retains the fuel economy and versatility of a stock truck with the additional storage and options of a flatbed.
Unfortunately, an open bed doesn’t always cut it. A lack of protected and secure storage space can be the biggest drawback of a pickup, and that’s where the second configuration comes into play. Tom explained how they wanted “an enclosed option for the Tacoma that kept dust and the elements away from gear, had sunken panels for enclosed wire-ins and was built strong enough for heavy loads. It also needed to hold an Eezi-Awn tent and awning, and be modular enough to remove quickly.”
The solution was a Norweld canopy, a lockable aluminum shell that is TIG welded by hand and famous for its durability. It can be equipped with packages for fridges, drawers, dual spares, and even vented sections for working dogs or generators. At first glance, that may not seem so impressive. After all, you can store many of these things beneath a truck cap, but there’s one huge difference: the canopy is a self-contained, slide-on product. Whereas trailers used to be the only decent option for a grab-and-go camp setup, these canopies present a more compact and maneuverable solution. A truck can be used all week with no excess gear weighing it down and then quickly mated to the Norweld after work. Just drive in, drop it on, and head for camp.
For this concept to make sense, the transition from open truck bed to canopy needed to be easy, and Main Line has certainly made it that. It takes just 5 minutes to install or uninstall a loaded canopy, and by using the same jack system from the Four Wheel camper, it can be done by a single person. As Main Line Overland put it, they “have an off-road worthy, portable living system available at a moment’s notice.”
While the canopy is perfect for trail use and tent camping conditions, the brothers at Main Line knew that some people would want or require more. For those seeking a true live-in camper experience, they worked with Norweld to design a tray perfectly suited to a flatbed Four Wheel camper and then paired that with a loaded Woolrich Edition Fleet flatbed model. This limited run camper uses premium interior components and unique fabrics, the highlight of which is the heathered-gray, 22-ounce wool upholstery and custom-loomed wool buffalo check blankets and accessories. Both are made just an hour from Main Line Overland’s farm at Woolrich, in America’s oldest continuously operating woolen mill.
With the camper installed, the Tacoma becomes a home on the road, capable of taking you anywhere in the world in complete comfort. It features 160-watt rooftop solar for continuous charging, an 85-liter AC/ DC fridge, 26 gallons of water storage, a hot water heater, stainless glass-top sink, inside and outside shower, a 5-gallon cassette toilet, and a stainless, glass-top two burner stove. For four-season camping, it uses an Atwood forced air furnace, which can bring the camper up to T-shirt temperatures in cold conditions. The pull-out, cab-over bed conceals several storage compartments, and the rear window dinette can be converted to an auxiliary bed when not being used for eating, working, or socializing.
Just like the canopy, this camper can be installed and removed easily, letting you bring your truck back to a lightweight daily driver or work vehicle in a matter of minutes.
When it comes to building overland vehicles, the crew at Main Line always seeks to assemble something that looks great but performs even better, and this Tacoma is no exception. Its color-matched ARB Summit bar with integrated rock sliders is a perfect balance of form and function, and the silver Norweld components are equally well paired with the truck’s gray paint. The front bumper sports a set of AR32 Intensity LED flood and spotlights for improved visibility, and a Warn Zeon 10-S winch is tucked inside for when things don’t go according to plan. Other accessories include a Safari snorkel with cyclonic pre-cleaner, and an ARB twin air compressor which is wired through an sPod controller along with the other aftermarket electronics.
The suspension was where things got tricky. All three build configurations had to be balanced without the springs sagging under a heavy load or remaining stiff when empty. Their solution was an adjustable Old Man Emu BP-51 suspension system with a custom rear leaf pack suited to the Woolrich Edition camper. They then added individually valved Firestone Ride-Rite airbags with Daystar cradles, which augment the suspension as needed without impeding articulation.
This setup netted 2.5 inches of lift over stock, which was enough to install 33-inch BFGoodrich E-rated KO2 All-terrain tires on 17-inch EVO Corse Dakar wheels. They are the same race wheels run by 6 of the top 10 finishers in the Car category at the 2018 Dakar Rally, so they’re pretty good. Besides improving the look of the truck, the EVO wheels provide enough negative offset to avoid rubbing with the larger tires (by pushing the wheel/tire slightly farther out) and have a significantly higher load rating and rim-edge strength over the stock wheels.
At the end of the day, I’d venture to say that no modern vehicle boasts the prowess of the classic overland vehicles, but with the Norweld system, this Tacoma comes close. In an age of softroaders and luxury trucks, this do-it-all four-wheel drive is ready to take on any task you throw at it, and that’s what will make it legendary.