sway-a-way racerunner shocks and coilovers

Long-term Mod Report Sway-A-Way Suspension

Every one loves their mod the first week. The real test is how you feel after a year or more. Would you do it differently, would you spend the money, is it a still worth it? Does it improve your off-road adventure?

Jumping into the way-back-machine, it was in 2007 that we asked Metal Tech to add a Sway-A-Way (SAW) suspension lift giving us a three inch lift. Our setup is mild as far as racing suspension go, 2.5″ diameter coil-overs up front and 2″ shocks and springs in the rear.  No auxiliary oil reserves or exotic bypasses just a straight coil-over. Built by hand and tuned for the FJ Cruiser at the factory this is a great all-around setup.

After a number of off-road adventures with thousands of miles of bombing down washboard riddled dirt roads, local 4×4 trails and more than a year of daily driving, the Sway-A-Way suspension continues to prove its worth. Born from a tradition of desert racing, the setup excels at smoothing out the bumps.  The ability to smooth out the terrain is clear when cruising on the dirt/gravel roads as well as torn-up city streets.

Although Sway-A-Way says the factory sway bar fits without modification, we had a significant amount of rubbing and squeaking as we sped down Alaska’s Haul Road.  When I say squeaking, think putting a loudspeaker next to the black board and Sister Mary Knuckle Buster drags her fingernails down its length. Not a pretty sound.

Although annoying there are two simple fixes for this problem. First you can take a grinder to the factory sway bar until there is a 1/4″ or so of clearance. This will allow your front springs and factory sway bar to pass each other unmolested.

The second option is to remove the factory sway bar altogether.  Desert racers are build to go fast over bumps with suspensions designed to keep the wheels on the ground through the ruts and turns.  As a result, Sway-A-Ways can manage the FJ Cruiser’s sway and roll on their own without a factory sway bar.  In addition, removing the factory sway bar gives you more flex when slowly picking your way through 4×4 trails.

While a set of SAWs will empty your wallet more then some other options, their reliability, ride, travel and flawless performance have been well worth the extra cost for our style of off-road adventures.

bullet cam

Lights… Camera… Action! – The Director’s Cut

bullet cam battery and power chargerSearch You Tube or Vimeo for “FJ Cruiser” and you will find off-road adventure videos showing a rig crossing a river, crawl over a rock garden or wheeling up hills.  They are great fun to watch and equally addictive, as I usually find myself forced to step away from the computer at two in the morning.  But after watching hundreds of video and trying to create my own I find myself wanting.

Most armature videos on You Tube are from the prospective of a bystander, rather than putting you into the action.  When you find a video with shots mixed in from the drivers seat point of view, you feel like you are participating in the ride rather than just watching from the sidelines.  Getting those driver seat shots is not easy since wheeling while holding a camera would be bad form and asking your passenger to keep the video camera steady as the rig tosses about is just plain silly.  Enter the bullet cam.

A bullet cam, or helmet cam, is that little camera you see attached to adrenaline junkie’s as they exit a perfectly good airplane or go cartwheeling down the face of a glacier just barely attached to their snow board.  While high quality video cameras can be costly and fragile, bullet cams are small, water and dust proof, designed to take a beating and relatively low cost.  They are also available with high quality chip sets making them perfect for action based filming.

mini microphoneWith all this going for them, what are bullet cams missing?  How about a recording component. A really bullet proof cameras receive and converts light into images but requires a recording device to make it useful.  Fortunately there are a number of options.  On the high-end are digital video recorders (DVR) designed to accept video input from as many as four bullet cams at once.  These specialized DVRs are built to be mounted in places out of the way such as under the seat and setup to run on 12 volts with wireless remote control operation.  But if you don’t want to invest a thousand dollars or more in a DVR you have another option.

With a few off the shelf items and your current video camcorder you are in business.  Most video camcorders have a video input and will record audio and video from other input sources.  Besides acting as a recording device for your bullet cam, using a video camcorder allows you to quickly unplug the video input and use your camcorder directly to tape the rigs behind you as they go through the section you just captured from the bullet cam, giving you several different angles of the same trail when you go into editing.

For our set up we started with our existing  Canon XHA1 Hi-Def video camcorder which will act as a DVR and accept input from the bullet cam.  Unfortunately bullet cams are not yet Hi-Def so we will be mixing together non-HD & HD video in post production, but this will give us that action shot look we are after.bullet cam mount

For our bullet cam, we chose the Bullet DVR 550TVL Pro Series camera from OnBoard.tv.  This camera is protected against the elements, and internally treated with a silicone based compound, to keep dust and moisture out of the camera body, and also to protect the electronic internals against failures caused by vibrations. The addition of an o-ring seal with an external protective glass cover ensures a 100% protection against condensation. OnBoard.tv claims the 550TVL will never fog up, under any conditions.  Boasting the latest CCD imaging technology by Sony Corporation, this camera provides a clean and crisp 550 TV lines of resolution, in full color, and is suitable for use with very minimal lighting.  There are less expensive bullet cams on the market with lower resolution so do a little searching to find one that matches your needs.

Bullet cams require a 12 volt power source in order to power its chip.  You can use a rechargeable battery pack or tap into your rigs electrical.  We decided to utilize a cigarette litter plug-in as our power source.  This will allow us to quickly plug in our power supply and completely remove it when the day is done.  And no worries about recharges or extra batteries to lose on the trail.

video rca to mini cableOur bullet cam has an RCA video out jack.  Our Canon video camcorder takes an AV jack.  Digging around in our spare parts bin I found an RCA to AV conversion cable (note to wife; this is why I keep all this junk).   The conversion cable will accept the video from the bullet cam and sound from an external mic, combine it all together and plug into the Canon’s AV input.

Part of any good video is audio so an external mic was also purchased from OnBoard.tv.  This mic is inexpensive and will pick up the road noise of the rig adding to the feeling of being in the driver’s seat.

Finally, for mounting the bullet cam, from OnBoard.tv an all-rubber mount with a Velcro base that allows the bullet camera to be mounted on any surface, including… yes even a helmet.  The bullet cam simply slides into the rubber mount and according to OnBoard.tv  “the camera rests on tiny dampers which act similar to a suspension system. This unique camera mounting solution offers good protection in the event of a crash, as well as the best anti-vibration features on the market.”

You can see in the diagram how all the wires go together.  This diagram shows a rechargeable battery pack, but as discussed above any 12 volt source will work.  The bullet cam and external mic are on separate leads but share the same power source.  This allows us to place the mic next to or away from the bullet cam depending on what we want to capture.

You can purchase this setup as a kit or buy the individual pieces alone.  The bullet cam, mic and all-rubber mount came to $323.90 plus taxes and shipping.  We already had the RCA to AV cable and cigarette litter power supply.  OnBoard.tv sells a complete kit for $349.00 which also includes a rechargeable battery pack, charger and hard-sided carrying case.  You may still require an RCA to AV cable depending on what you are using as your DVR.

bullet cam setup scmaticWhile the bullet cam may be mounted just about anywhere. We choose to initially attach the Velcro on top of the FJ Cruiser’s dash gauges and a second piece to a magnetic sheet. The dash mount will give a picture similar to that of the drivers without blocking the view.  The magnetic sheet, which we picked up for $2.99 at Office Max, will let us put the camera just about anywhere else on the rig including the outside of the door, roof, hood or bumper. Each location provides a different perspective and takes a little experimentation to find the locations that work best for you.

Using a little post production editing magic, we can now show viewers different angles of an off-road adventure.  Some shots with us driving and other shots of our friends.

…All right, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close up.

hula betty tattoo sketch

The Further Adventures Of Hula Betty

hula betty dashboard bobble dollRuby red lips, shapely hips and nails that shine like justice she can make an honest man lie, a rich man beg, a good man steal and a strong man cry.

It didn’t start out that way. She began life as a fabulous dashboard icon. Those who remember back to the Arctic Circle adventure, recall when Hula Betty joined the team and started appearing in the photos. You may also remember her mysterious disappearance. Although no charges were ever filed, rumors of her death continued to circulate on the Internet and grocery story tabloids.  There was even talk about resurrecting Molder, Sculley and the Lone Gunman based on a Hula Betty government cover up conspiracy.

I am happy to report that the stories of Hula Betty’s death have been highly exaggerated. In fact Hula Betty has started her own website dedicated to celebrating diversity and promoting tolerance. Hula Betty’s Twitter page and Facebook, chronicle her micro road trips around town and the Northwest with text snippets and pictures.

Like so many iconic Bettys of the past, Hula Betty has evolved.  Once a simple bobble doll perched atop the dash, she has taken on form and flesh that often only live in the letters to playboy.  But don’t hate her cause she’s beautiful…  She lives in the now, turning a drive to the supermarket into an road trip adventure and looks at a traffic detour as opportunity to explore the unknown.  Hula Betty lives her life to the fullest, taking every chance she has to meet new friends and encourage others to put an adventurer’s lens on the simple things in their own lives.

Hula Betty tries to bring out the best in all of us and we hope that we can live up to the standard she has set for us.

BTW: Those of you with a discerning eye were obviously drawn to Hula Betty’s little tattoo and yes…  it was inspired by the lore of the blue bunny.  She wears her blue bunny for Boy and his willingness to explore the world around him as well as his ability to live on a diet of ice cream, chips and Mountain Dew.

And if you think Hula Betty is just another pretty face…  It is with her help that we are able to bring you our off-road adventure videos.  You can see her work on her off-road adventure video channel on You Tube or off-road video Vimeo channel.  In her own words “It is all about the people.  They have stories and I want to tell them.”

defender 90 backing down 4x4 trail

The Hundred Acre Woods Meets Camel Trophy

defender 90 moab utahAs a boy I explored the woods, lakes and creeks around the neighborhood pretending it was the jungle of the Amazon, the deserts of the Sahara or the plains of Mongolia.  This spirit of adventure grew when I passed my drivers test and began to explore further out in my Baja Bug, which I held together with duct tape and chewing gum.  It was about that time that one of the most famous overland adventure competitions came to my attention, the Camel Trophy known to many as the the Olympics of 4X4.

History shows the British have always left their little island and explored the unknown (to them) areas of the world.  They also began their adventures with big fan fare and the Camel Trophy was no different.  Pulling teams from various countries and putting together some of the most adventurous locations and difficult terrain, the Camel Trophy threw British Land Rover onto the worlds stage for their go anywhere off-road adventure vehicle. A category they owned for decades. Think safari and I dare you to not picture a gear laden Land Rover with nation geographic photographers pointing cameras in every direction.

And you really gotta like that cross between the BBC and Wide World Of Sports commentary that accompanies a British adventure. They make even a trek through the swamps sound like they are discovering the cure for cancer.

The Camel Trophy hooked me on off-road adventures. All that adventurous adrenalin addiction, teams working against the elements and an Indiana Jones sense of style. What’s not to love!  I’ve come a long way from those back woods in my little VW Baja Bug but that same desire to see what is around the next corner still exists.

And with big tobacco out of the picture any ideas on lead sponsors… What do you think about the “Google FJ Trophy”? Maybe we can get the guys from Top Gear involved to keep that British flare.

metal tech front tube bumper fj cruiser

Bumper Talk with Mark Hawley

2007 toyota fj cruiser field arb bumperThere are a number of aftermarket products for the FJ Cruiser and the list continues to grow everyday.  For us one of the first mods we completed was a bumper swap-out to add protection and support a winch mount.  Originally we chose a shell style bumper designed for off-road adventures that would allow us to nudge a musk oxen or buffalo gently if it came down to it.  Later we swapped out to a tube style for its light weight high strength ratio.

When we purchased our shell bumper, the choices were limited.  Today not so much.  In fact there are more bumper options than pimples on a fifteen year old boy the night of his first dance.

Recently we had the opportunity to talk with Mark Hawley of Metal Tech and ask him about some of the things to look for when selecting a bumper.

Mark explained that there are two basic styles of bumpers, the shell and tubular bumper.  Shell style bumpers are characterized as a box type bumper such as ARB’s Bull Bar or All-Pro Off Road’s FJ front bumper.  Although the shell style bumper can appear beefy and protective, not all are engineered to take a blow and deflect the obstacle away from the truck.  Look for reinforcement of the outside wing areas and thick steel to prevent twisting into the body in the case of a collision with a rock or tree.  The trade off for sturdy, undeniable protection is weight which can be significant in some cases.

Tube style bumpers are designed from tubular steel presenting a more open airy look to the front end.  While appearing to be less protective, well designed tubular bumpers are designed to deflect the force of an obstacle away from your rig.  Tubular bumpers are typically lighter and reduce the weight hanging off the front end lending themselves to racing and rock crawling competition rigs.

Ultimately the style choice is a personal taste and based on the type of off-road adventures the truck will be set up for.  Always research your choices and talk with knowledgeable shops to determine if the bumper is truly designed for the off-road adventures you plan to put it through.  Also be sure to ask about installation and lighting options that can add to the cost and installation whoas.

Thanks to the ‘blue room forum‘ you can find a number of bumpers compared side by side.  You will also find a number of opinions from owners of the different bumpers.  Remember it is your responsibility to make an informed choice so always consult with several knowledgeable sources before putting down your hard earned money on any aftermarket product.

disabled explorers fj cruiser

An Overland Adventure By Any Other Name

When a guy (gender neutral, non-specific term use) has an important message, you listen and you offer a forum for them to spread the word.  We met Lance Blair at the 2008 FJ Summit.  Lance is the founder of Disabled Explores, a contributing writer for FJC Magazine and an accomplished overland adventurer.

We are pleased to publish Lance’s words on vehicle dependent adventures.  The following is an excerpt from Lance Blairs’ article “A Trip, Adventure, or Expedition”, available now in the October issue of FJC Magazine.
We each take a trip when we pull out of the driveway, and those trips sometimes become adventures, but what does it mean to embark on a true expedition? While it’s fun to use the term ‘expedition’ to give our trips or adventures a cool sound, it’s important to know the difference and understand why overlanding is gaining in popularity.

The definition from Dictionary.com for trip is long winded, and does not normally excite anyone. That’s OK, because much of the time, it is a “trip” that we took, a day trip, a camping trip, a weekend trip, but mostly something that wasn’t far from home, wasn’t dangerous or hazardous and we returned home as planned. The word “adventure”, on the other hand, stirs the soul and brings a sparkle to our eye. Many of us have had “adventures” with our 4wd’s. Again the dictionary gives us “a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome” as the meaning of adventure. Often these adventures aren’t planned, they just happen. These adventures are what we plan and prepare for, yet hope to never experience.

Different from a trip or an adventure is something else in the vehicle dependent travel world: an “expedition”. Defined by the dictionary as “an excursion, journey, or voyage made for some specific purpose, as of war or exploration”. Today we consider an expedition in the 4wd world to be an organized journey with a specific goal or purpose. A bit different than a vacation since there will be roles for each person, schedules, work to be done, and results to be presented. Expeditions are less about the journey and more about the task.

In truth, the word “expedition” is the word we know and use to convey our desire to do something more than a day trip, something more in-depth than a weekend get-away. We have other words to use like “overlanding” that are more precise and accurate, but somehow have not yet gained the emotional reaction of the word “expedition”.

While you often leave home on a trip, and those trips sometimes become adventures, strive for more on your next journey. Plan to go further, stay longer, be away from towns and cities, explore and experience the backcountry. And don’t forget to document it all so you can share and possibly inspire others with your “expedition”.

You can read the full text of this article, along with photos in the October issue of FJC Magazine, available right now for free.

Lance Blair is the founder and operator of Disabled Explorers, a non-profit organization dedicated to exposing disabled individuals to independent backcountry travel. He’s a regular contributor to the Expedition Portal, FJC Magazine, and FJCrusierForums.com.

4wd toyota owner Nov Dec 09 cover

Media Gets Behind Last Great Road Trip

Media Gets Behind Last Great Road Trip
By Last Great Road Trip
Dated: October 13, 2008

Last Great Road Trip receives commitment from 4WD Toyota Owner. The folks at 4WD Toyota Owner will carry the story of the Last Great Road Trip’s off-road adventure scheduled to follow the Baja 1000 course trail.

If an off-road adventure’s story is not told did it really happen? Based on the popularity of the Last Great Road Trip’s Arctic Circle Adventure story and pictures, 4WD Toyota Owner is committed to running a story on the up coming Baja off-road adventure.  This years team will include professional photographer Brad Day who will capture the trip on film to complement Paul Thompson’s stories of friendship, diversity and raves on the road.

Paul Thompson, the teams project manager and driver said, “We are please that 4WD Toyota Owner recognizes the importance of our celebration of diversity and promotion of tolerance which is weaved throughout the adventure.  Additionally, Although we post daily website reports (http://www.lastgreatroadtrip.com) of the adventure, a followup story in print media provides our fans with a unique way to connect to this adventure.”

Making all these off-road adventures possible, the Last Great Road Trip is supported by friends, family and sponsors along the way including:

Baja Designs – www.bajadesigns.com
Metal Tech – Protection… Evolved www.metaltech4×4.com
Metagyre, Inc – Project Management Experts www.metagyre.com
Taylor Made Graphics www.taylormadetshirts.com
Hula Betty Fans – www.WhereIsHulaBetty.com
Working Web Solutions Portland Web Design & Portland SEO Search Engine Optimization www.workingwebsolutions.com

About: Last Great Road Trip is a series of off-road adventures taken by a team of explorers and shared with others over the Internet. The website, an experiment in social networking describes the adventures, friendships, rants and raves on the road of life. Explore hidden trails, back roads and the diverse cultures that enrich this shared experience while adding your own comments to the adventure.

mercedes broken grill

Bad Car-ma Day

Sitting at a four way stop and Blam! Right in front of me two cars demonstrate my favorite law of physics with both of them trying to occupy the same intersection space at the same time. No injuries, just enough of an accident to scare the drivers and leave broken turn signal plastic all over the road.

After several minutes, it became clear they were not planning to move their vehicles as they looked around and sat back in their cars.  That is when it happened again Blam!  This time it was from my rig.  After making sure no one was hurt we pull off into the parking lot.

We won’t go into details, affixing blame is such an ugly game and my attorney has advised me to exercise my right to remain silent.  But I can tell you the other driver, we’ll call her Sally was not happy.  The rig…  you guessed it, no damage…  Sally’s Mercedes, well not so much.

Sally and I exchanged insurance information and all seemed amiable, that was until, her husband showed up.  We’ll call him Bob.  Bob started out polite enough, making sure no one was hurt and then took on a subtle change as he looked at me, the rig and the tattoo. I clearly matched the red neck, trailer trash profile in Bob’s mind, although the iPhone threw him.  As I said we had exchanged all the insurance information and Bob wanted more.  “Is there another phone number for you”, “Is that your home number”, “Let me see your driver’s license”,  “I think we should file a police report”.

The police were across the parking lot for the other accident, which until the officer arrived, still sat in the intersection.  Bob pulled the officer over to us and began the inquiry. The police officer explained no report was required since no one was hurt and we had exchanged information.  It was at that point Bob asked to have the officer take a report anyway, since he “didn’t know me”.  This meant we would all be hanging around for another hour.  After a little persuasion Bob backed down but not before hearing the story one more time and taking the officer’s picture.  If you ever want to raise an eyebrow, point a phone camera at a police officer and click away.  Not the way to win friends and influence people.

That would have been a cap to a bad day but as Bob and Sally left, the officer turned to me, smiled and said, “I’ve read your blog and that looked like a really cool trip”.  So we talked a few minutes about fishing at Haines, Alaska before the grizzly ran us off, work on the tattoo and a few other high points of the adventure.  Still having to go talk with the other accident folks, the police officer wished me well and I climbed back into the rig.

Accidents are never any fun and thank goodness no one was hurt.  In the middle of all this mess, finding someone who has read our Arctic Circle Adventure and enjoyed the stories, makes for a pretty cool silver lining.  Hats off to the great job the Poulsbo police force does everyday.  It has to be the most thankless job, somebody’s always mad at you for their mistake.

fj cruiser driving dirt road baja mexico

That Was Then This Is Now

The Toyota FJ Cruiser is just one more evolution in Toyota’s a rich off-road history. A quick look at the time line and you’ll see, Toyota has been in the truck business for decades and continues to build on that rich tradition with the FJ Cruiser.  Can’t wait to see what is next.

1935 – Toyoda initiates manufacturer of trucks with the G1
1937 – Toyota Motor Co. founded from its roots in Toyoda Automatic Loom Works
1939 – G1 becomes the GB, with 75-hp Type B engine
1950 – Development begins on 4×4 AK10 utility vehicle using the Type B engine
1951 – BJ sold to Japan’s National Police Agency
1953 – Large-scale BJ production begins
1954 – BJ named Land Cruiser
1955 – F-Series 3.8L Six adopted, FJ25 introduced
1955 – BJ discontinued
1958 – Land Cruiser introduced to the U.S. in September
1960 – 40 Series introduced, replaces 20 Series
1961-1965 – Land Cruiser 40 Series is the best-selling Toyota in the U.S.
1967 – 55 Series station wagon introduced
1968 – 100,000th Land Cruiser sold
1972 – 200,000th Land Cruiser sold
1973 – 300,000th Land Cruiser sold
1975 – 4.2L engine, four-speed transmission introduced
1979 – 55 Series production ends
1980 – 60 Series, second-generation wagon, introduced
1980 – Millionth Land Cruiser sold
1983 – Final year of 40 Series sales in the U.S.
1984 – 40 Series production ends
1984 – 70 Series introduced
1989 – 60 Series production ends
1990 – 2-millionth Land Cruiser sold
1990 – 80 Series, third-generation wagon, introduced
1991 – Full-time four-wheel drive introduced
1993 – 4.5L DOHC six-cylinder engine introduced
1993 – 90 Series introduced
1997 – 80 Series production ends
1998 – 100 Series, fourth-generation wagon, introduced
1998 – 4.7L i-Force V8 introduced
2002 – 120 Series (current Prado, Lexus GX 470) introduced
2003 – 4-millionth Land Cruiser sold
2007 – FJ Cruiser introduced
2014 – FJ Cruiser production ends

Like so many legendary trucks, Toyota continues to evolve its line of land cruisers.  Can’t wait to see where it will go.

fj cruiser scale model

You Know You Want It!

Every year car and truck enthusiast wait for the appearance of their favorite ride. My time at General Motors gave me insight into just how fanatical this anticipation can be. Like a kid on Christmas Eve, folks fidget, analysts yammer, and everyone tries to peek under the tree to gain just a glimpse into the future.

It is also difficult for manufactures to keep secrets. That doesn’t even count the company approved “leaks” of information designed to generate a buzz

Toyota has put out a list of the 2009 FJ Cruiser’s new goodies but no sightings of an actual rig. For those who are debating on a 2009 or 2008 here is the update on what the 2009 will have over the 2008.

For 2009 the FJ Cruiser adds:

  • driver and front passenger active headrests
  • roll-sensing curtain airbags
  • a VSC cut-off switch
  • front map light
  • driver-side vanity mirror as standard equipment

Three new colors appear for 2009 non-metallic Black, Silver Fresco metallic, and Iceberg White with all-white monochromatic finish. The Iceberg White will be the Toyota Trail Team addition signature color. Toyota is retiring Titanium Metallic.

There are a number of additional upgrade items and you can build your own FJ with all the goodies at Toyota’s FJ Cruiser site.

The base MSRP for the FJ Cruiser will range from $23,320 for the 4×2 V6 with a five-speed automatic transmission to $24,910 for the 4×4 V6 automatic. Toyota says you will also find a TRD and Trail Team version equipped for the challenge. Even in this tight market with high fuel costs, the price of the 2009 FJ Cruiser has increased by $275, or 1.1 percent. I guess that increase covers the cost of the vanity mirror.