Question: What’s yellow and has ten wheels?
Answer: A toy truck.
Question: What’s BIG and yellow and has ten wheels?
That’s the voices in my head jabbering away, and they haven’t been this active in quite a while. Not less than a couple of hours ago, though, I wasn’t feeling such a level of smugness. I was, in fact, thoroughly nervous, slightly excited, and my hands had gotten to that uncomfortable stage. You know, when your palms get cold and clammy and in desperate need of a hand towel, but your fingers are trembling so much you wouldn’t be able to grip one in any case. Aneesh and I are waiting by the side of the road for the vehicle we are about to shoot to come by. When it finally trundles up to meet us, it dwarfs the SUV we are travelling in. ‘Truck or treat?’ shriek the voices in my head.
‘I can tell just by the sight of someone whether or not they’ll be able to drive a truck,’ says Subhanrao Shinde to me, peering over his glasses. Given the fact that I’ve just clambered into the driver’s seat of the AMW 4923 TR, like a happy six-year old scrambling onto the monkey bars in the neighbourhood park, I’m slightly taken aback. ‘Shall I go ahead, then?’ I ask, somewhat afraid that this professor-like man, whose day job is driver-trainer at AMW, will throw me out of his truck at once. ‘Go right ahead and drive – it’s a lot of fun,’ he says instead. And let me tell you, Shinde certainly does know what he’s talking about.
I look out of the windscreen for a bit, marvelling at the wonderful vantage point the seat, nay, throne, seems to be at, adjust it as much forward as it will go (one has to reach the pedals, after all) and then turn the engine on. With a grave rumbling sound, this avalanche on wheels starts up, everything vibrating all at once. Engage first in low range, let out the clutch slowly, give the extra large accelerator pedal some gas and the truck lurches forward with a grunt. It almost feels like you’re commandeering an eight-legged beetle, with the head lunging forward and the many appendages behind following suit.
As we trundle along, I turn my attention to Shinde. He’s mild mannered and soft spoken, and it’s rather hard to imagine him turning the steering wheel of this mammoth in anger. But that’s precisely what he’s done. You see, the truck that I’m driving (yes, trucky me!) is one of four AMWs that had been prepared for the 2012 Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm. And this 4923 TR won the truck/monster/behemoth category, ably piloted by Shinde. ‘You just need a calm approach to everything, if you have to drive a truck like this in a rally,’ he tells me. ‘That and courage,’ he adds with a somewhat faraway look in his eyes, immediately making me think up images of an AMW flying across the sands. It’s all the encouragement I need, since it’s time to shift into a higher gear.
And therein lies the great challenge (for me at least) of piloting this motorised mansion. I press down on the clutch and shift into second, despite the fact that the gear lever has been trying to do just enough to evade my grasp. No shift-with-one-finger-transmission, this! You need to put your shoulder into it and wrestle the gear lever into its slot. Once we’re up to fourth, we continue in that gear for a while longer, my shoulder needs some recovery time after all, while Shinde tells me about the many challenges of rallying the truck in the sands.
One of these is stopping the damn thing! The treacherous terrain of the Rann of Kutch is not to be taken lightly, especially since only the top layer is hard, packed sand. If you break the surface by doing something like slamming on the brakes, the ten tyres that connect the truck to the ground will begin to bog down and sink deeper and deeper, until there’s nothing left to do but abandon ship. After all, how on earth would a man like Shinde, weighing no more than 86 kg, extricate his steed from the sands, given that the steed weighs 8,000 kg?! The trick to stopping effectively, he tells me, is to let go of the accelerator gently, gradually reducing speed until the truck comes to a complete halt.
Then it’s time to shift into high range. Shift into neutral, and force the gear lever up ahead into fifth. Then whack it back into sixth and, if you’ve got any energy left, heave it into seventh and eighth. There’s no chance of it bogging down here, though, given the fact that BSM’s top secret stink flats have a concrete surface. And so, once we’re just a little shy of the truck’s top speed of a sprightly 80 kph, with everything rumbling and shaking, he encourages me to hit the brakes. And I do, pressing down on them, a little more, and then all the way. Finally, like it’s slammed into a concrete wall, the AMW comes to a halt with a ‘whoooooooosh’ from the air brakes. Shinde looks at me and smiles. ‘All you need is a gentle touch,’ he declares, while I think we got trucky that it stopped at all!
There are more tales he has to share with us about rallying a truck in the desert. And given the fact that he went from being a driver trainer at AMW to its ace rallyist, the learning curve for him was huge. He recalls him and his co-driver Anil Singh wandering around in the sands of the Rann all night, because their navigation system had failed. And it was only when the sun rose, and they knew which way east was, that they were able to get on with it. It’s also evident that Shinde is a man of great courage, for he tells me, much in the tone of a soldier being called up to duty, that he’d happily go rally this beast at the Raid de Himalaya if he had to!
I think there’s more to it though. You see, it’s like this. When you’re little, everything seems so large – motorcycles, cars, trucks. Then you grow up a bit, and trucks are still these massive machines that you need to climb into and jump out of. They make you feel ridiculously happy, and slightly afraid at the same time. And once you’re in that seat, you just don’t want to get off. Once you turn that steering wheel and discover, thanks to power steering, the beast isn’t as hard to manoeuvre as you thought it would be, you can’t stop yourself from going round and round in circles, marvelling at the thought that you’re a trucky sonofagun to be driving it at all! And getting yourself to slam on those brakes, come to a halt, and turn the engine off, is the hardest thing ever. No wonder, then, that Shinde is ready to go off and rally the AMW 4923 TR again. Good truck and god speed!
What the truck!
The 4923 TR comes powered by a 5.9-litre six-cylinder turbo-charged engine that puts out 235 bhp of power and 81 kgm of torque. This is mated to an eight-speed forward gearbox with one reverse gear. Weighing in at 8 tonnes, the truck can be loaded to 14 tonnes, taking the fully-loaded weight to 22 tonnes. The truck has a reinforced bogie and chassis suspension that lets it keep at it for heavy duty applications. When AMW decided to enter the Desert Storm though, it realised that the truck needed very little modification! So it was stickered and sent rallying. However, for next year they’re planning significant modifications. Be sure you let us have a go at it, then!