There’s a time for subtlety and skill. There’s a time for brute power. That pret much sums up what off-roading is all about. Now, my cumulative off-roading experience is limited (rather severely, I might add) to mostly my building’s parking lot and the ‘roads’ that I’ve encountered on my trips out of town and I thought I pretty much had the measure of this dirt-bashing business. But this is different. How different? Well, when a giant-wheeled monster is pointing towards the ground at an angle of more than 50 degrees, it’s usually out of the normal for people like me.
For people like Raj Kapoor and Arjun Khanna, it’s a madness that fills up their world with things like approach and departure angles, suspension articulation, radial arms, giant shock absorbers, winches and of course, 4×4. Say hello to the Zuk.
One look at the Zuk is enough to…well, it’s enough. It looks like a mini monster truck, like one of those remote-controlled 4×4 miniatures, only this one is nothing to point at and snigger. Stand in front of it and there’s no mistaking the impact it has on you and the people around. It appears as if the mild-mannered Gypsy has turned into the Incredible Zuk. The first time I saw the car, I caught sight of the piece de resistance hung at the back of the Zuk – a talisman of sorts that can mean only one thing: To Take A Ride, Yours Must Be This Big. How very appropriate. Taking a few paces back, I took in the sight of this black beast and an involuntary shiver gripped me. I suspect it wasn’t just the freezing weather.
We reached the spot where Raj had suggested we take a few pictures – a steep and dusty downhill slope. How steep? Enough for me to say, ‘No way I’m going down there!’ At which point, Raj jumped in and took the Zuk to the middle of the slope, parked it, jumped out and was standing next to us before I could say ‘Zuk!’ Shots taken, he got it back up, kicking up a dust storm as he did so.
And the Zuk looked like it was barely stretching its legs, like a mountain climber tackling a flight of stairs. Emboldened, I got into the Zuk and headed down a dusty trail, the Zuk feeling right at home, wheels pounding the dirt. Soon, I found myself negotiating an uphill incline, the likes of which I’ve never experienced in a car, at the wheel or otherwise. Aneesh wants me
to park it just as the front right reaches the crest, and just this simple exercise takes up nearly all my reflexes. As I sit with the Zuk’s nose pointing at the sky, I realise just how tough this car is and just how tough off-roading is. Then, all it takes is a foot on the loud pedal and the Zuk has cleared the mound that would have broken any other car into two. Fantastic.
We head to a dry riverbed for some more serious action and on the way, we run into Arjun in his Landcruiser Prado. The Zuk being his pride and joy, he decides to tag along, not wanting to miss any of the action and perhaps to keep an eye on me, while I gingerly attempted to put wheels at angles that I’d never seen before. But it wasn’t to be. As soon as we reached the place, I saw Arjun bounding towards the Zuk and it was only prudent that I got out of his way, given that the size of his arms was way bigger than my legs. With a smile stuck on his face, I watched him go over mounds, into ditches and over berms until he was a speck in the distance. Eventually, he returned and turned his attention towards an eight-foot deep ditch at the top of which he was standing. ‘No way,’ I thought, but he obviously thought there was one. He eased it into the ditch a bit too gently, even as Raj exhorted him to floor it. And there it got stuck. No problem, we said and proceeded to push it into the ditch with Raj at the wheel. Once inside, the Zuk sunk a few inches into the soft sand. Before we could roll up our sleeves to dig it out, Raj had started rocking it back and forth with rapid gearshifts from first to reverse, with each oscillation providing more momentum than the earlier one.
It was a revelation watching the Zuk extricate itself from the pit. Next up, Arjun eyed the crest of the same ditch. Before long, he was steering the Zuk at the said crest, and again he did not give it enough gas and with an almighty ‘Whump!’ the Zuk was beached again.
This time it stayed there for good; no amount of pushing and shoving would move it and we started digging the mud out from the under the Zuk. Good time to shoot off questions between gasps for air. Save for the trick parts, all the designing and fabrication of the suspension setup, the body and the painting was done in-house at Raj’s Performance Auto workshop in Noida. The total cost of the project was Rs 6.5 lakh including the cost of a brand-new Gypsy King. He also says that the Zuk can be better. A bigger motor from the Baleno for more grunt, for example. Even more ground clearance, though increasing the height will change the centre of gravity and he’s trying to find a way around that problem. I’m sure he will, and am confident that the next time, the Zuk will fly over that crest.
He’s been making 4x4s for the Raid de Himalaya and Desert Storm for ages now. Oh, and the Zuk was finally pulled out
by a Mahindra MM540 with bald tyres, which in turn was pulled by Arjun’s Prado. Some 8×8 chain, that was. Finally, we went home, cars at their dirtiest, bodies dead tired and smiles at their broadest. Sigh, the joys of offroading.
I’m hooked, I tell you.
Raj is an ace at turning capable machines into superheroes – off-roaders and street machines alike.