BUY­ERS’ GUIDE TO CUS­TOM CANOPIES

WHICH CUS­TOM CANOPY WILL BEST SUIT YOUR OFF-ROAD RIG? 4X4 AUS­TRALIA’S ONE-STOP GUIDE HAS THE AN­SWER.

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THE BAT­TLE be­tween wag­ons and utes has been rag­ing since the first ute rolled off the pro­duc­tion line. One camp loves the ver­sa­til­ity of a wagon; the other loves the ver­sa­til­ity of a ute. Wagon own­ers will rant and rave about their stor­age op­tions, while those with utes will do the same. It’s a ri­valry of epic pro­por­tions, where even man­u­fac­tur­ers hedge their bets by pro­duc­ing what are es­sen­tially the same ve­hi­cles in both con­fig­u­ra­tions.

The harsh re­al­ity is: If you’re se­ri­ous about re­mote-area tour­ing a ute is the hands-down win­ner, and that comes from some­one who owns a wagon. You only need to look at the pop­u­lar trends in wag­ons lately to see what I mean. We’re hell-bent on caging off the back to give us two sep­a­rate com­part­ments. The real ad­ven­tur­ous even cut the quar­ter pan­els to re­place vul­ner­a­ble sheet­metal with tougher plate and tube steel.

If you didn’t know bet­ter you’d be for­given for think­ing we were try­ing to repli­cate all the pos­i­tives of a ute, while still main­tain­ing the com­fort lev­els of a wagon. How­ever, with the re­fine­ment and power lev­els of mod­ern-day utes be­ing toe-to-toe with their wagon coun­ter­parts, things start slant­ing pretty heav­ily in favour of utes.

It’s no sur­prise utes are con­tin­u­ally grow­ing in the Aus­tralian mar­ket and are quickly re­plac­ing the wagon as the fam­ily bus, and the over­whelm­ing rea­son is the sheer ver­sa­til­ity and stor­age space the plat­form of­fers.

Over the years we’ve gone from the sim­ple ton­neau cover (or rudi­men­tary canopies) through to to­day’s high-gloss and weath­er­proof of­fer­ings. But it’s the cur­rent trend of bolt-on, cus­tom-built canopies and campers that has grabbed our at­ten­tion. They’ve taken the mar­ket by storm, of­fer­ing all the strength of a Sher­man tank while mak­ing your 4x4 more com­fort­able off-road. You only need to scan through these pages to see any num­ber of tour­ing set-ups – with vary­ing lev­els of re­fine­ment – ready to take on this vast con­ti­nent.

We have wran­gled some of the big­gest names in the in­dus­try to give us their un­bi­ased ad­vice on what your op­tions in­clude. From sim­ple canopies with steel con­struc­tion right through to pop-top campers and Tig-welded alu­minium, this guide will help you turn your four-wheel drive into a red-dirt-eat­ing tourer.

UN­DER­STAND­ING YOUR NEEDS

CHOOS­ING a canopy or camper for your four-wheel drive can be com­pli­cated as there are thou­sands of op­tions to choose from, and for the price of some of the higher-end mod­els you could pick up a near-new 70 Se­ries Land Cruiser. So there’s plenty of in­cen­tive to buy the right set-up for your needs.

It’s easy to find some­thing that looks great on an­other per­son’s rig and want the same, but what works in one sit­u­a­tion won’t nec­es­sar­ily work in yours.

“When we have a new cus­tomer come through the door for a canopy the first ques­tions we will ask are: What are you mostly go­ing to use it for, how of­ten and where?” Kelvyn Kruger from Me­talink said. “Only then can we start to de­sign a unit to suit their spe­cific needs.”

The first step be­fore wor­ry­ing about in­te­grated head­boards and slide-out kitchens is to come up with a list of what you want to do with the tray. Does the tray need to come off? If so, how of­ten? Do you want to camp in the tray, out of it, or just use it for stor­age? Will it stay

Without doubt the cheap­est and light­est op­tion is can­vas over a steel frame

loaded with camp­ing gear, or will it need to do dou­ble-duty for work? What sort of ter­rain will you be spend­ing the ma­jor­ity of your time in? This af­fects the re­quired dust­proof­ing or wa­ter re­sis­tance, as well as the cor­ro­sion re­quire­ments of the set-up.

How­ever, the ele­phant in the room is weight. You’re ef­fec­tively redesign­ing half of your ve­hi­cle, which can have dras­tic ef­fects on GVM, tow­ing abil­ity, han­dling, off-road abil­ity and steer­ing feel. In ve­hi­cles that are al­ready close to their GVM, or do a lot of tow­ing, the ex­tra weight can make the ve­hi­cle es­sen­tially un­us­able. On the other hand, nose-heavy ve­hi­cles which are rarely loaded can per­form bet­ter with some ex­tra weight over the rear axle.

When you know which gen­eral di­rec­tion you want to head, it’s im­por­tant to then find the right per­son for the job.

“No mat­ter what, al­ways ask for pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence and pho­tos to give you a clear idea of what is avail­able and what the fab­ri­ca­tor can de­liver,” Isaac Ed­mis­ton from Nor­weld Engi­neer­ing told us. “Re­gard­less of the scope of work in­volved, it’s im­por­tant to know that they can de­liver on what was quoted or what work you re­quire. If the price is too good to be true, there is usu­ally a rea­son.”

GET THE RIGHT MA­TE­RI­ALS

EV­ERY sin­gle shop will tell you what­ever con­struc­tion method and ma­te­ri­als they use are the best. There are pros and cons for just about ev­ery style avail­able, so you need an in­formed idea of what you’re af­ter be­fore pick­ing up the phone.

Without doubt the cheap­est and light­est op­tion is can­vas over a steel frame. This of­fers ex­cel­lent value for the bud­get-con­scious and, with vary­ing lev­els of strength from the in­ter­nal frames, can hold up to some abuse. These can be picked up from as lit­tle as $3000 for a ba­sic set-up through to around $8000 if you’re chas­ing roof-car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity and se­cure sides. Their big­gest down­falls in­clude a lack of pro­tec­tion from the el­e­ments and low re­fine­ment lev­els.

Next up the price lad­der, at around $3000-$8000 for a ba­sic set-up, are mild steel en­closed canopies. The lower price is re­flec­tive of the in­creased weight, and they are sus­cep­ti­ble to cor­ro­sion de­pend­ing on their lev­els of pro­tec­tion. A stan­dard paintjob will quickly age with use, while light scrapes can rust. Hot- dipped gal­vanised trays rec­tify some of these is­sues with much higher re­sis­tance to wear and tear, al­though fu­ture mod­i­fi­ca­tions will da­m­age the gal­vanised sur­face, open­ing the po­ten­tial for rust.

The cur­rent mar­ket is largely dom­i­nated by cus­tom-built alu­minium set-ups, so ex­pect to pay in the vicin­ity of $5000-$12,000 de­pend­ing on qual­ity and op­tions. De­spite the higher pric­etag, the pros of­ten out­weigh the cons.

“Alu­minium trays are great for weight sav­ing and cor­ro­sion re­sis­tance,” Isaac said, “but re­quire care­ful thought put into the de­sign and weld­ing process to en­sure a long-last­ing and great-look­ing tray.” The gen­er­ally thicker con­struc­tion means you don’t give any­thing away to steel canopies in terms of strength.

Some of the more elab­o­rate set-ups on the mar­ket are of­ten built from fi­bre­glass or a com­pos­ite of ma­te­ri­als. While heav­ier than com­pa­ra­ble alu­minium trays, fi­bre­glass set-ups are of­ten more in­volved, mak­ing it hard to com­pare ap­ples to ap­ples. Much like alu­minium, re­pairs aren’t com­pli­cated but re­quire knowl­edge­able re­pair­ers.

“We use a com­pos­ite lay-up and this keeps weight down but pro­duces a high-

A tray-mounted canopy leaps ahead with re­gards to ver­sa­til­ity

grade strength,” Dar­ren Hoger from Trav­e­lander added. De­pend­ing on the camper, these can come in any­where be­tween the low $20,000 mark to more than $50,000. How­ever, as they’re es­sen­tially a ute-mounted car­a­van they shouldn’t be com­pared on price alone.

WHAT STYLE WORKS FOR YOU

NEXT in the se­lec­tion process is de­cid­ing which ba­sic de­sign and con­struc­tion meth­ods to use. There are two pop­u­lar styles of tray you’re likely to come across, with mul­ti­ple vari­a­tions within both. The mar­ket is 50/50 split be­tween tray- and chas­sis-mounted canopies, with both hav­ing pos­i­tive traits.

A canopy bolted di­rectly to the chas­sis has a few main ben­e­fits. “You need to ask: ‘Do I re­ally need to take the tray off?’” Kelvyn Kruger stated. “If the an­swer is no, you’re bet­ter to go for a canopy bolted straight to the chas­sis as it is a lighter op­tion with a lower floor height.”

The ad­di­tional ben­e­fit of a chas­sis­mounted canopy is sig­nif­i­cant cost sav­ings, without the need for a sep­a­rate tray. “Chas­sis-mounted canopies negate the need to pur­chase both a tray and a canopy,” Caitlin Bre­sette from Ute­boss Util­ity Canopies added. “We sim­ply re­move the tub, fit the canopy, wire the lights and away you go. If you don’t plan on chang­ing ve­hi­cles fre­quently or tak­ing

off the canopy, a chas­sis-mounted model is a great op­tion.”

While a tray-mounted canopy falls be­hind in terms of price and weight, they leap ahead with re­gards to ver­sa­til­ity. All tray-mounted canopies are able to be re­moved and re-fit­ted to an­other ve­hi­cle if you up­grade or need to clear the tray for work du­ties. “Our canopies are able to be lifted off in six min­utes,” Dar­ren Hodges com­mented. “You’re not stuck in one spot, the ve­hi­cle is freed up to go out and see the sur­round­ings.”

Be­fore sign­ing on the dot­ted line there are a few key de­sign el­e­ments left to dou­ble-check. If you’re plan­ning on fit­ting roof-top tents, boat load­ers or roof racks on top of the canopy you’ll need to en­sure the roof is suf­fi­ciently re­in­forced.

For steel and al­loy trays this can be as sim­ple as im­ple­ment­ing a fab­ri­cated struc­ture in­side; fi­bre­glass canopies can achieve sim­i­lar re­sults with an in­ter­nal frame or rib­bing on the roof it­self. Check for qual­ity weld­ing on pre­vi­ous ex­am­ples, as well as strength­ened in­side doors and (large) pan­els.

Cor­ro­sion re­sis­tance can be en­hanced by the use of stain­less-steel fix­ings, as well as chem­i­cally bonded pan­els and welded frame­work. Some canopies and trays are bolted to­gether to al­low twist­ing and re­duce fa­tigue; al­though, if you come across pan­els warped from weld­ing or held down with screws or mild steel bolts, turn tail and run!

SMOOTH AROUND THE EDGES

WHAT can you get fit­ted in­side your shiny new camper set-up? Do you want the canopy to in­clude sleep­ing op­tions, or is it sim­ply for stor­age? A sin­gle per­son can get by with a swag rolled out in­side, but if you’re chas­ing a nicer set-up you’ll want to be look­ing at ei­ther a pop-top set-up with a queen bed or a hard-floor

If chas­ing a nicer set-up, opt for a pop-up tent or a hard-floor camper

camper for more floor space.

If you’re plan­ning on us­ing the canopy as a camper set-up you’ll also want a stand­alone elec­tri­cal sys­tem, prefer­ably with light­weight lithium bat­ter­ies. Wa­ter stor­age and camp kitchens are more-or-less stan­dard now, so look for in­te­grated plumb­ing for both wa­ter and gas.

A com­pre­hen­sive stor­age sys­tem can also mean you’re ready to go at a mo­ment’s no­tice. “For short trips, time is pre­cious,” Caitlin Be­sette added. “You don’t want to spend half the week­end pack­ing the ute with every­thing you need. We can make a des­ig­nated spot for all the es­sen­tials to stay in the canopy for when you need them.”

You’ll need to keep the con­tents se­cure from the el­e­ments and pry­ing hands, so en­sure ex­ter­nal ac­cess is key-lock­able and ca­pa­ble of pre­vent­ing dust ingress. Some com­pa­nies of­fer auto locks synced to the car’s lock­ing.

By now your list of wants (and don’t wants) is un­doubt­edly get­ting longer, but these last few re­quire­ments are the most im­por­tant.

Firstly, is the de­sign smart? Weight po­si­tion­ing can dras­ti­cally af­fect the per­for­mance of a 4x4, so check that most weight is as for­ward as pos­si­ble – wa­ter stor­age, elec­tri­cal sys­tems and kitchens should ideally be in front of the rear axle, with camp­ing gear up the back. Also pay ex­tra at­ten­tion to the lit­tle de­tails of­ten over­looked. If the set-up needs to be mod­i­fied later on, is it pos­si­ble? Are there suf­fi­cient tie-down points in­ter­nally? Is the fuel filler ac­counted for in the de­sign, or will it be ca­ble-tied un­der­neath?

HEAVY HAULER

79 Se­ries Land Cruiser be­comes a lot more func­tional with a canopy on the back.

Cheap and easy

Keep things sim­ple with a can­vas set-up over a steel frame. It’ll save you plenty of coin.

The clever use of space is a key fea­ture of a good camper or canopy. Slide-out sinks, draw­ers, kitchens and fridge mounts can be tai­lored to your spe­cific needs.

Trav­e­lander’s sin­gle cab slide-on camper: the Evron SC4.

Pre­mium out­door fab­ric is Dy­naproofed to pre­vent sun da­m­age.

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