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Motion & Emotion

There Ain’t No Mountain High Enough to Keep Zeal Motor’s Fat Truck From Getting to You

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It is an incongruous thought as a vast red SUV drives down a steep embankment and towards a lake on this strange day. A damp interior would surely be the least of the driver’s worries when entering completely unknown waters.

Two swans paddle idly along, unaware that their world is about to be rudely interrupted. The water is well over the bottom edge of the door, the rear tyres are a foot above the deck, and yet the machine continues, slowly down the bank until all four wheels are in the water.

For a moment, it just bobs on the surface, like a giant rubber duck. But then the wheels are driven, and off it goes. The tyres provide the necessary thrust and slap the water like a modern paddle steamer.

So this is one of the giant toys in the world or one of the most impressive search and rescue machines, depending on how you look at it. It’s called the Fat Truck – no point beating around the bush with a fancy naming strategy – and it’s designed to be the next big thing for getting into places where machines have no business going.

It was built by a Canadian company called Zeal Motor in Bromont, Quebec, and is now being imported to the UK by Off-Piste Agri, where it is expected to revolutionise search and rescue operations. Fire services are interested in wind energy companies because the Fat Truck allows them to get to where they are needed, no matter what terrain is in the way.

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The Fat Truck is shorter than a Volkswagen Polo but almost three metres high, and with 1640/640 R24 tyres, it is one of the most determined vehicles globally. Everything about it is designed to allow people to operate it in extreme conditions with absolute ease. To this end, there is also no clutch, and if it had one, there would be a risk of it burning out during the slow ups and downs that are required.

Instead, it works with a hydrostatic system. A 2.2-litre Caterpillar diesel engine produces just 67 hp and 153 lb-ft and transmits that power via two pumps to a pair of timing belts, one driving each side, with ten forward and ten reverse gears in one high and one low setting (future models will be simplified to offer just four gears in each direction).

This may not sound like a recipe for extreme off-roading (I had a vision of tiny cam belts trying to turn those massive tyres), but each belt is made of carbon fibre and is two inches wide; and thanks to this set-up, the Fat Truck can turn in the blink of an eye.

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The Fat Truck is controlled by a simple joystick in the centre of the cabin (the passenger compartment seats six) and an equally foolproof series of buttons on a control pad that let you cycle through functions, such as selecting the terrain you are driving on – snow, mud, trail or water.

Crucially, all these functions can be controlled regardless of the size of the gloves you wear – an essential feature in the Canadian winter. Two body styles are available: this crew cab and a pick-up with a one-tonne payload. The pick-up weighs 2.3 tonnes, while our pick-up weighs 2.7 tonnes. The top speed is 25 mph on land and three mph in the water.

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A unique trick is the onboard compressor that inflates the tyres from a low pressure of 0.5 psi to a maximum pressure of 4 psi. It can do this while driving and constantly adjusts to the terrain. And unlike a vehicle like the Sherp (a similar-looking vehicle built in Ukraine), the Fat Truck uses air and not exhaust gases to do this.

When it first goes up an embankment, the sidewalls of the tyres flex and the compressor whirs, keeping everything in balance. The compliance of these massive tyres is incredible. Like a slow-motion video of a Top Fuel dragster, it looks like the rubber is constantly trying to break away from the metal wheel.

Given the short front and rear overhangs, you will not be surprised to learn that inclines and declines are no problem. The maximum incline/descent is 35 degrees, and the side slope is 22 degrees. The former is roughly equivalent to a steep black run on a ski slope. In other words, you would not want to walk up to it.

Yet, the Fat Truck is straightforward to operate for all its capabilities. Turn the key, let yourself be stunned by the sound of the Caterpillar diesel engine (it is mounted centrally, directly behind your seat, and no amount of sound insulation can muffle those dulcet tones), and you are ready to go.

This great truck is operated with a simple joystick; there are no pedals. Turn a knob under the control pad to release the handbrake, hold down a dead-man switch on the front of the joystick (like a machine gun on a fighter jet), push the stick all the way forward and off you go.

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It’s exceptionally smooth and civilised (which is offset by the deafening engine), but the trick to the controls is to push the joystick all the way forward for maximum revs and change speed using the gears. These are controlled by two simple buttons at the top of the joystick – one for up, one for down.

This kind of modulation is suitable for accelerating, but it’s counter-intuitive when you are going back down – at least that’s how it seemed to me. When I wanted to slow down, I eased back on the throttle and tried to steer at the same time, the Fat Truck did not like that at all, and it kicked and bucked like a bad-tempered stallion.

The balloon tyres have such a low pressure that they glide over rough terrain. At least until the speed increases. Thanks to the ultra-short wheelbase, it starts to wobble when the speed increases.

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I was probably more unnerved than I needed to be, but sitting in the cabin with trees and branches whizzing past me, I was glad that it was the demonstration driver, not me, who was responsible for this section.

For all its user-friendliness, however, it is the Fat Truck’s ability that will remain in my memory. At one point, our man demonstrated how well it holds up on a steep, muddy slope. The tyres offer so much grip, and the Fat Truck is so stable that it feels as safe as if it were driving on flat asphalt. But the real highlight comes afterwards: Thanks to the transmission’s control and hydrostatic system, it crawls down a 35-degree slope at millimetres per hour. In extreme conditions, that can differentiate between a getaway and a massive fall.

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