How to modify a car for the Mongol Rally
Overlanding is a pastime that involves journeying over land (obviously), typically by car, and typically across vast expanses like deserts or jungles. Usually, you’d choose a base 4×4 and gradually modify the vehicle based on the requirements for general purpose offroading and specific offroading challenges for each trip. Offroading tyres, a winch, roof tent, that sort of thing. As you’d expect, Land Rovers, Toyotas, Mitsubishis are your standard steed for this type of thing… sensible, incredible and traditional. It’s not uncommon to find some magnificent military grade rigs capable of, say, driving to the North Pole as in TopGear:
But if you’re a little looser in terms of your standards, and a little braver perhaps in your appetite for a challenge, then you might opt for something like this:
That’s exactly what Jack, MJ Doyle and Gerard of @Team_3bestspuds did when they signed up to drive almost 20,000 miles from Ireland to Mongolia, and back again. Here’s the story of how they transformed their wildly inappropriate Nissan Micra from Nan’s shopping trolley to terrain chewing monster truck (sort of). Oh and if you think of a name for the car, be sure to hit them up on Instagram. We think “Spudgun” has a terrible but perfect ring to it.
They found the car online, 3 miles from home (handily) with just 48k miles on the clock and a few dings and scrapes- paying just £260. The Nissan Micra is a common choice for the Mongol Rally, as it’s pretty reliable and parts are basically available anywhere on earth. Other popular choices include the Toyota Yaris, but these can be a bit more expensive.
Turning a tiny engined car which you bought from a 92 year old woman into an overlanding expedition vehicle starts naturally at one place… Stickers? Yes, any rally vehicle isn’t complete without livery- most crews use their team name, and the names of any sponsors. You don’t need to do this, but how else will anyone recognise that you’re on the rally? I wonder…
Secondly, it would be kinda wise to give your new whip a mechanical once over for any glaringly obvious signs that it’s about to blow up. These guys found that they probably should keep an eye on the clutch, that the car had had some serious welding done to it, and the central locking was knackered. Other than that, it was a pretty decent place to start.
Straight up swapsies
There may be things on your car that you just need to throw out, and replace with something slightly newer or at least slightly more comfortable. Tyres can be changed for gravel or all weather tyres (sensible, but can bump the cost up a fair bit), If your car has a good amount of tread still then you might want to keep the standard tyres and buy some off road ones while on the trip, if you need them- this is probably the most efficient.
Driving to Mongolia throws up challenges including but not limited to, tyres being ripped off or punctured, wheels buckling, broken axles, shocks, steering rods- but the potential issues don’t stop there. Jack and co were wise here and checked out their cars immobiliser system, which is particularly good on old Nissan Micras. So good in fact, that it can and will malfunction and completely stop the car from working- this actually happened to them one of the first times that drove it. So they chucked that sucker in the bin, and replaced the ECU for a nominal fee. Lesson here- check beyond the physically obvious issues, a quick search for “common faults in X car” should do the trick.
So make sure you’ve thought about potential rally-ending scenarios and sort these first. Remember, you want to make it to the finish, but not so easily- don’t spend months and £000s literally building a super buggy- just cover what must be done.
It is alive!
From this point, it’s all about stylising and customising your ride for added comfort, reliability and capability. And, the good news is you can do it cheap (thanks to China). By the time you’ve completed these modifications, you’ll have a somewhat respectable looking offroader which might surprise you at how good it is at skipping over even the most difficult terrain… only joking, it will still be sh*t, but less so than before.
Nissan Micras, Perodua Nippas, Toyota Yaris and VW Polos were not built with the Ghobi Desert in mind, believe it or not. As such the suspension can be a little, say, unreliable when 20 years old and then loaded with the weight of three Irish lads and 50 litres of low grade petrol. So, many teams elect to replace the shocks before they head out. This can be a very easy job in principle, but could require a little ‘prying’ to get the old ones out. You can generally switch the shocks from another larger car into yours and achieve some added ground clearance (2-4” is a decent lift and will avoid scraping your undercarriage the entire way to Ulaanbaatar). These guys used the shocks from a lexus is200. You can easily pick up new shocks from a scrap yard, for peanuts.
Hopefully it comes as no surprise that this will be a long drive. As such, you might want to spend a decent amount of time on the comfort of your car. Here’s a list of things we’d recommend, and some nice to have additions if you can be bothered:
You can buy these on Ebay for a few pounds and they screw right into the dash, some other alternative hook into the window slip- avoid the super cheap flimsy ones that clip into the air vents, they tend to collapse, snap and fall out- especially when bumping your way over many, many potholes. As an alternative, you could hang a hiking bladder to the back of your seat and run the drinking tube along the roof, which saves unscrewing any pesky bottle lids. Just an idea…
You’re probably thinking two things a) wtf is a kitchenette and b) yes please. Jack built theirs using some plywood, cut to size and assembled into a box which fits in the boot. From there he added a fold out bench to use as a table, on which they can do various cooking things and look reasonably professional. Like Gino Di’Campo… or something…
If you’re not the best with practical things, then you can get away without one of these. We would advise at least taking a decent storage box for all your cooking equipment, otherwise it will clatter about and become broken and/or highly annoying.
Some other comfort related items that are cheap and will make a huge impact are:
- Arm rest
- Steering wheel cover (cloth, avoids hot burny burny hands)
- Lumbar support/pillow (same for neck too…)
- Sun visor sticker for windshield
I’ve just looked on amazon, and you can literally get all these things for less than £50.
One piece of advice when traversing central Asia, where roads are remote and the distance between towns is measured in 100s of kilometres, is to watch out for power lines. Power lines typically run between domestic areas, so theres a sure chance you’re going towards civilisation. However, don’t expect to find any kind of street lamp, they don’t exist. You’ll be navigating these treacherous roads if you decide to drive at night (or have no choice to), completely in the dark, with only the feeble illumination of your standard and frankly terrible 1990s car headlights.
So, a cheap and very easy solution is to buy and fit a light bar or fog lights- traditionally mounted on the front bumper between the headlights, on the roof rack or as 3 Best Spuds did it, on the bonnet. For a nominal fee you can get some pretty incredible, barely (in fact, probably not) legal luminescence which will light up the road very far ahead. Look on eBay, gumtree or amazon and you’ll find something pretty quickly.
To fit a light bar or fog lamps, you’ll typically need to drill some holes in your beloved car, bolt the bracket on and then wire the lights into the main head lights so that you can turn them on with the full beams. This is pretty easy to do, and YouTube will provide all the answers. The hardest part might actually be finding a level surface to bolt it to…
Jack and co also elected for some work lamps which are single fixed lamps mounted to the roof rack for lighting when parked. Note, additional lighting and power sources might call for a second car battery, or at the very least, for you to check that the existing battery actually works…
If you hit a 2 foot pothole at 50mph at night, in the desert, in a 20 year old Micra filled with 40 stones of Irishman, 2 jerry cans and 10 packs of super noodles…Your car is likely to become broken. This is why many ralliers decide to armour their car, by welding sheets of metal to the undercarriage to protect the sump. This is because if you do hit a pothole, a rock might puncture key components, including fuel tank, oil sump or tear engine parts clean out. Rally over, bye bye, see you later. This can be pretty cheap, worth chatting to a local fabricator or metal works and see if they can sort something out for you using some scrap.
If you’ve decided to lift the car using new suspension, some of these calamities can be avoided entirely and a sump guard won’t be needed.
Roof cage or roof boxes are pretty typical. Mostly because tiny city cars aren’t known for their baggage capacity, but secondly because a roof cage makes you look kinda tough.
Roof cages can be bought on eBay relatively cheap- you might also need a set of universal roof bars also, so expect to spend around £100ish to get this done. But, if you’re a little savvy, like our pals here, you could fabricate one yourself. They used an old cage from a chemical container, cut it down to size, mounted it to a sheet of plywood, which was then mounted to a set of universal roof bars. Total cost, £0 +£30 odd for the roof bars.
You may or may not think that a Nissan Micra is capable of swimming, and we can assure that they are most definitely not, but you can give yourself a fighting chance at river crossings by installing a snorkel. Snorkels are essentially a pipe that’s plugged into the air intake on a car, and runs up the side to the roof- this stops the engine sucking in litres of water and exploding. Do not, under any circumstances buy a real snorkel for proper 4x4s, you will pay a fortune and it is unlikely to fit your car. Be smart, make your own:
Get some heat resistant flexi-pipe and some 2” pvc tube. Cut a hole in the side of the car, stick the pipe in. Attach the tube to the flexi-pipe using some metal ties, and the flexi-pipe to the air intake, Seal the hole in the car with some heat resistant rubber, and attach the tubing to the side of the car using cable ties and small brackets. Bobs your uncle- snorkel. Effective, and cheap.
Advice for further modifications
There are literally hundreds of things you can do to better prepare your car for an over landing escapade like the mongol rally. But don’t forget one thing- it’s the Mongol Rally. The entire point is that your car is inappropriate, so try not to get too wrapped up in the bubble. Think TopGear Special (the old ones) and try not to spend more than what you paid for the car in modifications.
Though I do admit, building your car is incredibly fun…
If you’d like to follow Team 3 Best Spuds adventure, and support them in raising money for a noble cause, then head over to www.team3bestspuds.com!
Be sure to checkout our other Mongol rally related articles below: