I received a phone call in about March 1980, from the Managing Director of the Toyota Dealership in Darwin, informing me of the launch of the new ‘ARGO’ all-terrain vehicle. The dealer had taken on the franchise for these handy little machines, which would no doubt be of benefit to Government agencies, the Mining Industry and Station owners. Access in to all kinds of extremely difficult terrain could now be possible
The launch was to being held at the Leanyer Swamp on the outskirts of Darwin and Malcolm and I were invited along as representatives of the Northern Territory 4WD Association. I was working for the NT Government in a job where money was lent out to struggling tourism and small business developers. Malcolm was working for Telecom Corporation and his field of expertise took him through difficult terrain to get to communications towers. This was an opportunity to see how these little machines work and what they could do for the tourism industry.
We arrived at the given time and inspected the array of six wheel and 8 wheeled all terrain vehicles. Cute little blighters they were. The Manufacturers representative gave us a talk, and a run down of how these off road machines functioned etc. Then it was time for a test and Malcolm and I, the MD of Toyota and one of the manufacturers Reps climbed into an 8-wheel drive Argo and set off down a rather steep embankment towards the Leanyer Swamp. I recall the time was a tad after the wet season and the Leanyer Swamp was still what it was then, a Swamp. Lots of mushy vegetation, some clear moving water and quite a few mosquitoes. Other participants, set off across the rise next to the swamp in 6 and 4 wheel drive Argo’s to check out their off-road-ability and cross country traits. Seeing as Malcolm and I were deemed to have some 4×4 knowledge we were accorded the drive of this great little terrain tamer.
We proceeded straight out into the swamp with Malcolm behind the levers and at first the little machine performed admirably. The small aggressive tread pattern tyres churned through the mushy conditions. I was sitting in the rear of this open vehicle and noticed that with four heavy blokes in this little machine the draught of the water was quite close to edge of the body. I remarked to the Rep about this but he assured me that they were completely unsinkable. It would not have worried me unduly, as I am a good swimmer, but we were in crocodile territory and the thought of having to swim for safety crossed my mind. We bumped and lurched over a few hidden obstacles in the swamp but the little machine took it in its stride. Meanwhile the Rep was extolling the virtues of this All Terrain vehicle.
When we had traversed about a kilometre of slush, Malcolm turned the Argo around and we were on our way back to shore, so to speak. It was at about this time that we noticed that the vehicle was losing power and struggling to gain any speed. The shoreline looked very far away as the Argo chugged to a halt about 750metres from dry land. We all looked at one another.
It transpired that waterweeds had twisted around the axles of the Argo and had built up in numbers so as to render the wheels virtually inoperative. There we were, sitting in the middle of the swamp, with no means of rescue. A floating bog, so to speak. There were no Mobile Phones in 1980. We had no two-way radio with us. So we had no communication with the outside world. The two company executives were dressed in trousers and smart clothes and looked apprehensive of getting into water. So I took my shoes and socks off, and climbed over the side into the murky water and started swimming frog style with one hand hanging on to the Argo. The prospect of a wayward crocodile coming for a closer inspection was in the back of my mind and I told the others to keep a look out. After about 250 metres of tugging the floating vehicle I started to feel the bottom of the swamp and invited Malcolm to get out as well as the going had now become more difficult. Eventually the two of us got the Argo to the shore, had a good laugh about it and declared that the manufacturers needed to go back to the drawing board to iron out problems such as what we had just encountered.
We made the news the next day.
The death of a HI LUX
We, as the Northern Territory Four Wheel Drive Association, had completed building the Hidden Valley 4×4 competition and testing track, when the launch of the new 2.8 litre diesel Toyota Hi Lux took place. The year was 1989 and the Argo ‘incident’ had long been forgotten. The Toyota dealership wanted an area so show off the new vehicle and approached me to use the Hidden Valley facility.
The day started out fine. The marquees were set up, loudspeakers installed, a sausage sizzle was underway and invited guests were arriving. I was busy pumping water into a hole between two of the mounds and walked over to have a look under hood of the new Hi Lux. There were various people in attendance including some journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald and other motoring journalists as well. I noticed immediately that the air intake of the demo vehicle engine was positioned below the headlight and addressed a question to a Toyota marketing executive as to the functionality of it, given that here in the north of Australia, as with other parts of the world, there is a high incidence of water with many creek crossings to get to destinations. I was told quite sternly that Toyota knew what they were doing and who was I to question the capability of the Toyota engineers. I shrugged my shoulders and walked back, to where the hole was being filled. When this was done I sauntered back over to the main Marquee and told the organiser of the day that the track was now ready for use. The prologue for the days’ events was for the vehicles to be driven around the 4×4 course and then taken out on a set trek along highways and in the NT bush.
The Managing Director of the Toyota franchise walked over to me and asked if I could take him and two Sydney journalists around the track in a Twin-cab Hi Lux. After introductions, we made our way over to a very good-looking iridescent green Hi Lux Twin-cab and started to drive the track. I did a number of ramp-over runs, a deep gully crossing, a steep sideways tilt track. Then we came to the water hole.
I explained to the MD that maybe it would not be a good idea to go through the water as it was most likely over bonnet height and that the little truck might take water in.
The MD said, ” No, you drive through it”
I said, “OK. If you say so”
I inched the Hi Lux forward slowly into the waterhole, knowing that it would come over the bonnet.
“Give it some boot mate,” said the MD.
So I did.
A little bit of muddy water splashed over the front of the Hi Lux and as we got to the deepest part, the engine stopped.
Water started seeping in at the lower doorsills.
“I knew this was going to happen”, I said.
“What’s happened?” a journalist asked from the back seat.
“The engine is dead,” I said
I signalled for some help from my mates who were there. Soon there was another vehicle and a rope and someone who was prepared to get wet. The Hi Lux was towed out to the vehicle display clearing.
The MD said, “Turn the key to see if it will fire.”
I said, “It probably won’t.” It didn’t!
I said, “Now maybe someone will look at the position of the air intake!”
That comment went down as a lead balloon. And for the rest of the day, I was shunned by the Representatives of Toyota, and the Organiser. Once I glimpsed to see the Organiser talking to others and pointing his finger at me. I was as popular as rats under the house.
Later I was to learn from a Toyota mechanic that he had never seen such a stuffed diesel engine. A new engine was installed and the vehicle was sold.
By 1990 most Hi Lux light utes were fitted with a much higher air intake and many were fitted with snorkels as well.