VW MAN 8.136 ~ A small truck for the Sahara

Next ..........Desert driving impressions............... . Last

With only a couple of days before I leave for Algeria leading a bike tour I've finally done a couple of hundred miles in the lorry and in a nutshell, it's easier to drive than it looks.

The whole lorry deal can be daunting if you've never done it before and every time I see it after a while I've thought "cripes, I can't drive that safely", but then again we all thought the same about cars and bikes once - only difference is we were young and carefree then!

Fact is, you just need to remember it's no wider than any other bus or lorry, and about as short as it gets, being only half-a-metre longer than Matt's VX Tojo.

Before I left Matlock we nipped down to Anchor for a tarp and strung it up over the uncovered back (mostly hidden by the tail lift), and then bolted a couple of pegs to the tail lift platform to keep the steps or sand plate/bike loading ramp in place. That tail lift is going to be a real boon; I just hope it lasts as the greased runners are exposed to dust and sand. At least if it packs up we'll have enough of us to reload it by hand. The lift platform has been locked out against the frame with a hinged hasp for off-roading and is switched off in the cab to deter messing about. In the cab is also a switch for a back floodlight which has already proved useful for unloading and reloading bikes until they all jammed in with 3 inches to spare.

The auxiliary batts are new and now running a 24-volt inverter and 4-way cig jobby with a 12-volt dropper. Main batts are original but look OK. The the 4-jerry rack on the fuel tank side now gives 220 litres or around 800kms. Most of what you can see is now a shade of sandy 'blush' with matt black trimmings.

What's all that smoke on the left? Surely the Pope isn't dead already? No, we were just playing with the back heater and wondering how it works other than on diesel and with a fan. A little metre indicates it's clocked up 347 hours warming Danish cockles over the years which makes me think the MAN has not been as idle as it's speedo indicates.

Right now there is little use for this heater apart from stopping the bikes catching cold across France, but it will be handy to incorporate into the camper body which may come later.

Driving impressions
Coming down the M1 I kept a close count of the vehicles I overtook topping out at around 2: a 12-axle mega-crane being escorted by vans with flashing lights; and a propane-powered roadsweeper that must have got lost on the way to the tip. The MAN sat steadily on 80 kph up all the grades and touched 90 when I wasn't looking, but 80 seems fine. Engine is lovely and smooth like any six, it didn't feel strained or crude or wander the lanes and was altogether a pleasant surprise.

There are some great sound effects besides the roar of the 5.7 being gunned: there's a superb whistle in the middle gears as zillions of cogs mesh about, and of course that squirrel-traumatising psssSHTTT as the air tanks blow off every time you touch the brakes.

Steering feels good even on those knobbly tyres. Suspension is like any empty 4WD with the edge taken off by the suspension seat. Cab noise is OK (Defender-ish levels - you can talk OK although it's more rewarding if there's someone else in the cab with you), and the cab heater could double up as a mobile beef jerky factory. For a full-time 4WD there virtually no drivetrain lash which is a relief - must be the low mileage and chunky leaves.

Only the air brakes take some getting used too - they lack the progressive feel of hydraulics and the potentially destructive momentum of the 4 or 5-ton brick is probably the most intimidating thing about driving it at the moment. Although the brakes are powerful enough to lock the tyres, all in all I'm quite pleased it will only do 80-90 max.

Those Mich XL knobblies are not as bad as the squishy and slippery XSs they resemble. I did notice the overlanding lorries at the Adventure Show last weekend all ran my sort of tyres. I suppose the weight has a lot to do with it but I would prefer normal XZY-type road tyres - and in the more widely-used (in Africa) 14" size instead of the 12.5s it runs now. Here, they cost hundreds of pounds each of course, but I may be able to pick some up in Algeria. There is a faint hope 14s may raise the gearing and so top speed a notch, but it has to be said the gearing feels spot on right now; you pull away in 2nd and reach the long range of 5th asap.

All this heavyduty gearsticking, ginger braking and clutch hauling, as well as the stress-of-the-new and even just getting in and out of the thing is tiring of course, so it's a relief Matt is coming with to Marseille to share the load.

Have you ever noticed the full array of mirrors lorries have? I thought it was just my MAN but now I see they all have 3 or 4 on the offside at varying angles and curvatures to see all sorts of angles, from the white lane-indicating line right alongside the offside front tyre (nifty in the extreme) to blind spots in all directions. Very gratifying when things get tight.

In town the lack of speed is not such a problem (in fact it isn't anywhere) but besides all the rest, you also suddenly start paying attention to bridge heights, other lorry mirrors, too far out lamp posts and the like, as well as those red roadsigns with max permitted lorry weights. Luckily the 8136 is a 'normal' 7.5 ton size which gets into most streets while bringing with it a certain 'Moses parting the Red Sea' effect on traffic. All very nice while it lasts. And when you get it wrong the shortness is very handy and saves a lot of crushed walls.

And here's some more breaking MAN news just in from the world of rally racing: they finally got round to winning the Dakar Rally after many years of Kamaz victories. As you can see on the right, Dutch lorry bloke Stacey and chums - number 501 - also scooped up the Considerate Truck Driver Award. It makes you proud.

Next: my impressions of the MAN after 10,000km in the Sahara.

You can read my saga of getting a number plate for the MAN right here.