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Nitro Gear’s Restored Trakka Troop Carrier | Feature Vehicle

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal, Summer 2020.

All too often, the vehicles we love are eventually lost. Old muscle cars are traded in for more practical sedans or wind up in a ditch, road trip vans succumb to high miles and blown motors, and our trusty camping trucks begin to rust after years of faithful service. Eventually, the automotive works of art that were once our pride and joy end up in a junkyard, scrap pile, or rotting away in someone’s backyard, doomed to deterioration. Yet, every now and then, the story doesn’t end that way. With immense dedication and often significant financial investment, an enthusiast will occasionally pluck a vehicle from the brink of extinction to give it a second chance at life—to once again carve coastal highways, wander lonely back roads, and keep a little bit of history alive. We live for these fairy-tale endings, and thanks to a man named Carl Montoya, the 1987 Land Cruiser shown here will live happily ever after.

Carl is many things: an outdoorsman, entrepreneur, and the owner of Nitro Gears and Just Differentials. But if you ask most people who know him, they’d probably just tell you he’s a gearhead. That’s because Carl loves anything mechanical, especially if it happens to be a Land Cruiser. When I first met him, the Washington native was wrapping up a painstaking conversion from a factory appearance 200 Series to a “TRD Pro” package. That trim was never offered on a Land Cruiser, but you wouldn’t know it based on Carl’s final product, which undoubtedly looked more the part than if Toyota themselves had produced it. Even so, it was only when discussing the gearing and nuances of the suspension that Carl really came to life, so I wasn’t the least bit surprised when he told me he had recently picked up a new Toyota project. What did surprise me was that it was a 1987 Toyota Land Cruiser HJ75. Not any HJ75 mind you, but a factory Trakka.

For those who aren’t familiar with Trakka, think of them as the Australian Westfalia. The founder, Dave Berry, started converting VWs in the mid-1970s but soon realized that the Australian market needed something more rugged to tackle the Outback. His solution was a VW-style pop-top on the Land Cruiser Troop Carrier, and it would prove to be a smashing success. Fastforward about 40 years, and there’s now a cult following for Trakkas around the globe. Unfortunately, the Outback has taken its toll on their population, and the number of them in drivable condition is dwindling. I was all the more surprised then to learn that Carl’s Land Cruiser was sitting right here in the USA.

It was far from perfect, of course. Like many of the Trakkas, this one had probably seen time on Australia’s coasts and was rusting badly throughout the roof and several sections of the body. The canvas top was aged well past its prime, the paintwork needed therapy, and to top it all off, the factory 2H diesel was blown. By most counts, this old Land Cruiser was rapidly approaching a parts yard, but Carl saw the potential and decided it was worth saving. Had he known what he was getting into, he may have felt differently.

RESTORATION AND AXLES

Once he had the truck, he began what he believed would be a quick job to strip out and repair the rust. What followed was more than six months of in-depth bodywork. As it turned out, the light rust around the roof was deep corrosion, and in many places, the structure had deteriorated beyond repair. The whole thing needed to be gutted and replaced with brand-new metal. Several other problem spots were uncovered and repaired during the process, and all new window gaskets and seals had to be installed along with a fresh coat of factory white paint. After the body was complete, they ditched the rotting canvas for a custom replacement made by a local shop from Sunbrella Fabrics. Carl mentioned that this initial process seemed to drag out for an eternity, but eventually, the truck was clean, and the mechanical revival could begin.

First up were the blown motor and aging transmission. To help the more than 30-year-old truck keep up with current speed limits, Carl had Torfab drop in a 4.2L 1HD-FT diesel engine with an upgraded G-turbo and PDI aluminum intercooler and radiator. Carl says this combination produces 450 pound-feet of torque, which is truly impressive. As with most modifications, though, solving one problem often creates another. The new motor needed more air than the snorkel would provide, so Torfab produced a custom intake box that has a switch to let it breathe normally for highway and city driving or change to the snorkel for dusty or wet conditions. It’s brilliant.

With the increased power, Carl also decided it would be prudent to revamp the transmission, so the Trakka received a fresh OEM Toyota H55 transmission with an appropriate input shaft for the new combination. With more power and weight comes a greater need for brakes, so the Trakka received a conversion to a modern braking system shared with the FJ Cruiser.

Of course, as the owner of Nitro Gears, most of his magic was worked in the axle and differential department. At the Just Differentials shop in Washington, Carl built axles with upgraded Nitro Pro Series chromoly 32 spline axle shafts, Nitro chromoly birfields, and Nitro HD 4.10 ring and pinions to give the Land Cruiser a differential and axle setup equivalent to or better than that of a modern Land Cruiser. While he was there, he threw in front and rear ARB air lockers and an ARB twin compressor for taking the Troopy as far off the beaten path as possible.

INTERIOR

At this point, it was safe to say that this old Land Cruiser was running and looking better than new. But it still needed some upgrades to turn it into the overland vehicle of Carl’s dreams—the largest of which was a complete overhaul of the interior. As any seasoned overlander will tell you, the interior living space can make all the difference in the enjoyment of your trip. That’s why Carl decided to turn to the experts at Goose Gear to create his ideal living quarters. From their new S-Series of products, the California-based team crafted a spaceefficient design with all the comforts of home, that somehow manages to function even better than it looks.

Lightweight cabinets with marine-grade hardware sit atop bed-lined floors with integrated aircraft track tie-downs. Taller cabinets line the driver’s side of the vehicle for standing-height countertops with drawers, an integrated sink, and a stainless steel Dometic fridge. The passenger side is lower for a seating area and packs additional storage under the cushions. Carl opted to retain one of the factory bench seats in the rear for extra passengers, but a cleverly hidden storage box is still incorporated underneath, perfect for securing valuables.

Goose Gear’s handiwork extends beyond the cabinetry and floor. They also made the custom upper sleeping platform that integrates into the new roof. Their setup keeps the top of the vehicle light and uses gas struts to raise and lower the bed. My favorite feature is the 70/30 split in the platform, which enables the owner to drop the 30 portion of the panel down to the lower part of the vehicle to make a second bed. This setup is not only useful for kids and guests but also stealth camping with the top down in cities or foul weather. Both the bed and lower bench are covered in matching custom fabric with memory foam cushions. They’re quite comfortable, but not nearly as much so as the two Scheel-Mann Vario seats Carl put in the front of the Trakka.

The Vario orthopedic seats are made in Germany and feature a range of adjustments to form a support structure perfectly tailored to your body. They’re available in a variety of colors and materials with options like heated backs and bottoms. “Even with all of the other upgrades, the Scheel-Mann’s are the only things that make driving an old vehicle like this across the country enjoyable,” Carl noted. Two years into my own Scheel-Mann ownership, I’d have to agree with him.

The finishing touch inside the Goose Gear cabinets was an Espar diesel heater, which burns fuel from the factory tank to create forced-air heating in the cabin. When running full blast, this unit consumes just 0.2 gallons per hour, which is hardly worth mentioning with this Land Cruiser’s factory dual tanks, especially given the massive benefit of a warm camper in almost any type of conditions.

EXTERIOR AND SUSPENSION

With the interior complete, Carl’s Trakka was ready for travel, but he wanted to go all out on his dream truck, so he lined up a few aftermarket modifications as well. He started with the suspension system and chose an Australian classic, Old Man Emu. As seems appropriate for this build, he gave it a contemporary twist, opting for the BP-51 internal bypass shocks instead of the standard monotubes. This gave the truck clearance for 35/11.50R17 Nitto Ridge Grapplers on TRD Pro OEM Wheels, which once again echoes the modern factory vibe.

In the rear of the vehicle, a custom Expedition One bumper provides protection and some handy storage space. The swingouts pivot with the door so that you don’t have to open four handles, and the passenger side has an integrated high-clearance bike rack for hauling Carl’s mountain bikes to the trail. The other swingout houses the spare tire, and an Expedition Essentials stove mount for the rear door. DC Customs Fab sliders protect the sizable investment made in restoring this Land Cruiser’s body, while a custom frame-mounted rear skid plate shields the undercarriage. And what Australian classic would be complete without an ARB bull bar? Carl’s is even paired with a set of ARB intensity LED lights and a Warn winch.

WHERE TO NEXT?

I was very keen to learn where Carl planned to take his rig once it was completed. He told me it had already been all over the Western US and Baja, but that any grander-scale adventures would have to wait. Although travel is the ultimate goal, Carl, like so many of us, has other priorities in life these days. Things like family, friends, and his business comprise the bulk of his plans for the immediate future. Don’t worry, though, this beautiful vehicle will certainly not be wasted.

Carl plans to explore North America as much as possible over the coming years, and on any given day, you’re likely to see his Land Cruiser driving up a Washington mountain with skis, snowboards, or mountain bikes in tow. For now, enjoying his home continent is exactly the adventure he is looking for, and with the Trakka, he’s doing precisely that.

SPECIFICATIONS

1987 Toyota HJ75 Land Cruiser Trakka, Factory dual fuel tanks

POWER

1HD-FT turbo-diesel engine with an upgraded G-turbo, Toyota H55 manual transmission

SUSPENSION AND DRIVE

4.10:1 axle gearing

Nitro Pro Series chromoly 32 spline axle shafts

Nitro chromoly birfields

ARB front and rear air locking differential

Old Man Emu BP-51 suspension

WHEELS AND TIRES

17-inch factory Toyota TRD Pro wheels

35/11.50R17 Nitto Ridge Grapplers

RECOVERY AND ARMOR

ARB bull bar front bumper

Warn 9.5XP-S winch, Safari snorkel

Custom rear skid plate

DC Customs Fab sliders

Expedition One rear bumper

Custom high-clearance bike rack

ACCESSORIES

Scheel-Mann heated seats

Goose Gear custom S-Series interior

Espar diesel heater, Dometic fridge

Dometic sink, 12-volt water pump and tank

ARB Intensity LED lights

ARB dual compressor


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Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Chris didn’t receive a real taste of the outdoors until moving to Prescott, Arizona, in 2009. While working on his business degree, he learned to fly and spent his weekends exploring the Arizona desert and high country. It was there that he fell in love with backcountry travel and four-wheel drive vehicles, eventually leading him to Overland Journal and Expedition Portal. After several years of honing his skills in writing, photography, and off-road driving, Chris now works for the company full time as Expedition Portal's Senior Editor while living full-time on the road.