Beauty In The Beast

Originally Published: February 2008 Words: Brian Hartley Pictures: Steve Taylor

A Mercedes-based challenge truck weighing only 1850kg should be enough to grab the attention of any off-roader. But when what you’re looking at represents the combined wisdom of two of the sport’s most respected elder statesmen, it’s a very, very good time to pay attention…

Here, to be sure, is a 4x4 which passes the Elephant Test. That is, it’s something hard to describe but instantly recognisable.

WAB 2 is the latest creation of Tony Baskill and Dave Needham, one of the best known and most enduringly successful teams ever to take part in a challenge event on these shores. Designed with dedication and fastidiously fashioned, it has a basic spec which reads as follows: rear-mounted 330bhp Mercedes 5.0-litre V8; auto gearbox with bottom gear lockup; standard axle differential locks; front and rear winches; 90° approach and departure angles.

Impressive? Yes, but these days no longer earth-shattering. So for the cognoscenti, here’s the small nuclear device: WAB 2’s chassis and axles are all Mercedes – and it only weighs 1850 kilos. Indulge me please while I impart a little background information before delving into the intricacies of this mechanical masterclass.

Like it or not, off-road vehicles have morphed into the complex electronic automotive creations we see today. Every branch of our sport, and challenge trucks in particular, have become highly evolved – again, whether we like it or not (and I suppose I would have to confess that I probably don’t). We regularly see specialist off-road vehicles (and here we are dealing entirely with real off-road motors) which are works of sheer genius mixed with a dash of engineering alchemy. Bowlers spring to mind, as do the Devon 4x4 creations of Simon Buck, to name but two of the pro builders, while individuals often build to standards that shame their vehicles’ original makers.

The vast majority are usually based on that hardy perennial and best loved British 4x4 from Land Rover. This alone makes it all the more fascinating to find that WAB 2 is no son of Solihull but sired in Stuttgart. The mechanicals may be German, but the creators are English, to the core.

Messrs Baskill and Needham have been true stalwarts of the off-road challenge scene for many years, during which time they’ve become synonymous with the three-pointed star. This team has many trophies to its name, all of them won in G-Wagens. No-one will dispute my assertion that Tony Baskill is the elder statesman of this esoteric branch of the 4x4 sport: quite what title could be bestowed upon David needs further reflection, but the words ‘quiet’, ‘shy’ and ‘retiring’ wouldn’t figure anywhere within it.

As a team, they are redoubtable. Dave’s a superb navigator with a fast mind coupled to dogged energy and enthusiasm. As an aside, he does a fetching line in taped up wellies and waterproof trousers not entirely becoming in a man, but which is thankfully balanced by Tony’s modest and respectable dress sense in these events. Tony, as the driver, has patience and a guile often missing in those of a more impetuous nature, coupled with a determination that belies his years.

They candidly admit that in recent times, they have fallen behind. Their appraisal was brutal and simplistic: their old truck, WAB 1, was too heavy and had excessive body overhangs. (Sounds familiar?) It had been overtaken by newer vehicles in the ability stakes; their own design of electric/hydraulic hybrid winch masked these failings for many years by providing both fast and powerful recovery when the beast bogged, but now it was struggling to keep up.

The decision to start afresh was taken at the Baskerville Challenge in 2005. Their new approach demanded less weight (a target of 1700 kilos was set), more power and, with events getting ever more extreme, better built-in safety. As an aside, it’s worth noting that they are also honest enough to confess that the events are getting tougher probably as a result of themselves and other suspects encouraging the organisers down that very road.

So, a new G-Wagen was in order, developed into the epitome of a modern competition car. This is where the phrase ‘back of a fag packet’ normally comes in. Not with this duo. Synapses and neurons were soon firing instructions into a Computer Aided Design programme, and their respective engineering skills meant this was one 4x4 destined for fine tolerances, not the Frankenstein fit you so often see.

Tony abhors a damaged vehicle, so designed-in panel safety as well as a redistribution of weight was called for. High ground clearance was a pre-requisite, but notably without resorting to portal axles – an approach they feel is something of a design cul de sac. A mid-engined layout was seriously considered, with dry sumping and the other such mods required to try make it fit, but despite much discussion and seeking of wisdom from off-road racers who have mid-engined specials, that too turned into a technological dead end.

Thus the rear-engined layout was born. Simple decision; truly Byzantine effect.

Much of the following should be held as being relative. What is achievable for our Merc team really is rocket science for most. Still, the creative process went something like this…

The engine and transmission sat happily in the chassis where they were. So, rather than upset that relationship, the team chose to turn the chassis back to front. That of course left the axles and steering needing to be swapped from the ‘wrong’ end; Dave’s CAD programme was used to ensure everything would fit and clear where necessary, and to design all the new bracketry and fixing points.

This approach also meant the axles needed inverting. Simple? Not on your life. The rear was relatively straightforward, and the opportunity was taken to replace the standard drum brakes, never much use in heavy off-road conditions, with discs. Peugeot 405 calipers were used as these have a cable-operated mechanical handbrake facility utilising the disc pads and also allowing the original Merc handbrake lever to be used. Mercedes discs, suitably machined down, provide the friction surface.

The front axle, meanwhile, needed serious surgery. This entailed physically cutting off the axle ends then re-sleeving and re-welding them on the other side. At the same time, the steering arms were moved to the top of the swivel housings, which entailed new arms from a left-hook version which were heated and bent to a new shape. As all the steering rods were now inverted, the track rod end tapers all needed welding up and re-machining with new inverted tapers.

The propshaft to the rear axle then had to be reworked, both to miss the gearbox and, even more importantly for this purpose, to ensure it always stayed tucked safely above the rear radius arms whenever the axle was on full travel. This was achieved by routing it in two stages from the transfer box to a chassis mounted centre bearing and thence to the axle.

The panhard rod bracket is a Land Rover item, as is the wing mirror (complete with polished stainless steel mirror to avoid breakage) – the only two parts conceded to Solihull, mainly on cost and convenience grounds. Interestingly, they didn’t go down the route of looking for massive suspension travel, sticking instead with D4 Gaz shocks and slightly taller coil springs. No diff guards are needed, thanks to the intrinsic strength of the original Merc diff pans.

Simple or not it was all done and again all previously worked out to fine tolerances by Dave and his cunning computer. The welding and alignments are on a par with anything Stuttgart does, but this was the easy part – the real test was the gearbox.

Why? The engine was from a written-off Mercedes CLS, but with no key and no registration book its electronics had to be altered to WAB 2 specification using a custom-mapped Motec ECU. (By this point in the conversation, I was actually surprised to learn that the mapping had been given to an ECU specialist, expecting instead to be told how Dave had written a programme and installed it himself!)

That cured the engine, but meant it now couldn’t ‘talk’ to its own auto box. Thus the original WAB 1 box had to be used. Not a backward step, as this was tried and tested, but the bad news was that it physically wouldn’t fit to their new engine’s torque converter housing.

At this juncture, I was losing the will to live just listening to this tale. But our dynamic duo are made of sterner stuff. They stripped out the auto box internals, cut the alloy transmission casings and then welded the front part (which fitted the new engine) to the rear part (containing the non-electronic internals). While they were at it, they also designed and constructed a new torque converter adaptor plate.

Hold on a minute, though, just recap. These are alloy castings, demanding micrometer tolerances with no misalignment allowable and requiring large scale welding of an easily distorted metal. Let me lie down for while and recover, please. This isn’t cutting with a hacksaw: it is machine cut to ensure perfect matching.

All the machining is done in-house at the Needham workshop, as was the welding – though that was done by Robin, an old colleague of Dave’s, who not only turned his many years experience to all the welding but became Tony’s right hand man during the rebuild while Dave was busy running a successful business and doing the design work.

Mercs are unusual in that their engines used to have two starter positions on the bell housing, for right and left-hand drive. The previous WAB motors used this to good effect as part of a ‘belt and braces’ approach – a second starter was fitted in the blank space to provide backup, useful with any mud-munching, water-wading challenge car but on an auto even more so.

However one change on modern Mercedes had slipped, Exocet like, under our boys’ radar. The latest engine no longer had that facility. Most would have left it at that, particularly as weight savings were an ever present priority, but no. Twin starters had been extremely useful in the past and weren’t about to be sacrificed to the temptation of an easier life. Consequently great effort was employed to machine a new ‘correct’ aperture in the bell housing and then convert a ‘wrong’ handed starter to fit within it, and of course still mesh with the starter ring gear in perfect harmony. I couldn’t make it up, honest!

Of course, reliability is not an optional extra. So everything was done only when they were certain it could be done properly. Consider the bumper/fairleads, which started life as 80mm stainless steel tube which Tony subsequently cut into 24 carefully angled pieces and small segments. Three eight-hour days and unspecified numbers of cups of tea were then expended as Robin carefully welded these together; each was also polished as the apparatus went together.

Why so much effort? To get a super-smooth surface and exactly the right radius from every possible angle so that even with a pull well in excess of 90 degrees (and I beg you to consider just how eminently, wonderfully useful it is to take your rope beyond a right angle when manoeuvring a challenge truck through the nightmare of trees and rocks considered normal for today’s events), the Plasma rope will just sidle round that slippery radius with no damage to the strands. The bumpers are far from solid, but I am sworn to secrecy as to the method employed.

Impressed yet? No? My, but you are a cynical soul!

Another three days went on the windscreen wipers. Yes, really. The first was on the computer, getting all the dimensions and angles right; another two were spent engineering the results into the wiper wheel boxes. No small matter when the crank angle of two unequal-length wiper arms has to be spot-on to ensure a clear screen.

A simple stainless bracket below the windscreen to attach the winch hook before diving into the deep and muddy stuff isn’t unusual. This one, however, is just tack-welded on one edge. What? Well, should the winch operator be just a tad enthusiastic, the bracket will peel back with no harm done to the superstructure and one simple tack weld to repair. That, my 4x4 friends, is attention to detail.

Now let us retire to the rear, and that virile V8 nestling under a huge custom-made silencer, coated with heat-reflecting paint (peeling somewhat, much to Dave’s obvious disgust) and exiting through two innocuous but hefty downpipes. This V8 has 16 spark plugs and eight coils, but experience has proved the standard waterproofing is more than a match for being dunked, the ECU being at shoulder height within the cab. Air is sucked, noisily when pressed hard, through a roof-height stainless drainpipe topped off with a K&N filter. Under acceleration, passing pigeons have been known to be sucked away from their flight path.

A stainless cage protects all the pulleys and belts, while the stainless rear roll bar supports are utilised for carrying coolant and power steering fluid respectively. The radiator is mounted to the nearside rear, with the spare wheel mounted opposite to balance its weight.

Cooling on previous WAB cars was always a problem (one that seems extremely prevalent on most V8 hybrids, from my experience), so great thought was put into the new set-up. Tony speaks highly of all the help, above and beyond mere customer service, he has had from Peter Eva of Pacet fans throughout all his challenge truck builds, and this was no exception. They were offered a prototype version of Pacet’s latest high-power units, the relationship being mutually beneficial for both parties. The final set-up consists of custom twin ‘soft start’ fans which kick in gently before rapidly building to their hurricane-emulating force. The soft start option is something Pacet is currently in the process of bringing to general availability.

The transmission oil cooler was mounted in front of the radiator to get the first shot at the cold air coming through. An unexpected downside to the cooling system’s new and extremely welcome efficiency was raised oil temperature – the fans rarely cut in, and then only briefly, to keep the coolant happy, but that starved the transmission coolers of air flow and allowed the gearbox to get hot under the collar. The cure was to move the oil cooler to the spare wheel side and fit another dedicated Pacet fan drawing air through the centre of the spare wheel.

The original electric/hydraulic winch set-up from WAB 1 (examined in detail in the February 2003 issue of TOR) gave powerful and faithful service, but is now deemed excess to requirements. Both winches are the classic Warn 8274, modified with roller bearings in place of the plastic originals, a Gigglepin modified brake shaft, 150 feet of Plasma 11mm synthetic rope and internal/external controls. Cleverly, they keep 25% of the rope to one side of the drum beyond the fairlead, using only the shorter amount for most work and gaining extra winching force as a result.

Tony has a hydraulically aided gullwing door (something at which all true Merc fans should nod with appreciation), which is useful for sheltering under. The smaller passenger door, meanwhile, is left off in competition use to allow easy access and egress. When shut, Tony’s door automatically fastens to become a rigid part of the external cage.

A mighty 100 amp hour New Zealand built Odyssey AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat) battery lives in the passenger’s footwell, while the dash panel is… standard G-Wagen. Oh yes. Amazing though it may seem, this creates a true Mercedes aura throughout the whole custom interior – much, one suspects, as intended.

A huge ammeter dominates the instruments to show current draw, often peaking in excess of 600amps under heavy winching conditions. No, that isn’t a misprint. A clever Adverc battery management system allows the standard Bosch 150 amp alternator to use its true potential by monitoring the battery’s charge, discharge and temperature. Most regulators only allow an alternator to charge a battery to around 80% of their rated capacity, but the Adverc uses electronic controls to allow this up to nearer 97%. A meaty increase for any battery being used for winching, and one that has proved its worth many times over.

And then there’s Dave’s design masterpiece. Yes, really, we’re only just getting to the best stuff now…

The uninitiated might not give them a second glance. But if you know your challenge trucks, you’ll realise how sexy rock sliders can be. WAB 2’s are bowed in two planes and frankly looked aesthetically ‘interesting’ at best on first viewing… they certainly didn’t excite the enthusiasm in me that they did in him. But aesthetics were secondary when viewing them in serious action deep in a Pitlochry forest. There, under the brooding half-light of a cold, damp Scots winter afternoon, they were almost magically effective at warding off a tree stump as big as a breakfast table and sliding the whole car smoothly across to where the stump could go safely past the rear wheel, like a near miss from a torpedo. Genius.

Equally effective are bonnet-mounted waffles which double as a great walkway for the winchman over the car and are easy to remove and replace after use. The locker for standard challenge paraphernalia, straps, shackles, snatch blocks, ground anchor, winch sail, hammer and mechanicals for a high-lift jack (which itself is mounted under the driver’s door) sits in front of the waffles and again is easy to access even when WAB 2, as it was when I first saw it in use, is mired up to its high stepping rock sliders in porridge.

All those details add up to time and effort saved. As in Formula 1, where fractions of a second separate the leaders, so in the Grands Prix of 4x4 events these seconds add up to minutes, which add up to more ground travelled and more points gained. Given that the original object of the exercise was to climb back up the leader board, you can see why the design aspect can make such a difference. Even the Merc-badged front bonnet is removed for events, to save damage to what is the only cosmetic part of the whole machine. As you should by now expect, though, all the many modifications have been faithfully computer logged so they can be recreated accurately should this be necessary.

In a sport which is seeing more and more high-spec vehicles coming through, WAB 2 is a beautifully engineered and thought out example of a unique, purpose-built challenge truck. It was never a ‘money no object’ exercise but money (and more importantly time) was not an obstacle either.

Still, both Dave and Tony are wise enough to know that the challenge field is a place where no truck is unbeatable, regardless of design or man hours expended. Magnificent though it is, theirs is no exception – they were sidelined on the Baskerville Challenge 2007, a whole two years after the car was first conceived, when the engine’s serpentine belt broke.

Yes indeed, it was a standard part (and a virtually new one at that) which let them down. What’s most pleasing for them is that none of their modifications has failed them in the short time they have been using the vehicle in earnest.

It’s safe to say that the same attributes which took Dave and Tony to the top of the challenge game have seen them through the design, gestation and build of their truly unique G-Wagen. And so for a conclusion let’s look not to one man nor the other, but to both as a team. Tony says he couldn’t have done it without Dave; Dave says he wouldn’t have done it without Tony. Dare I say… what a wabulous match!


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