Just over a decade ago, I don’t fully recall why exactly, I got it into my head that I wanted to buy a Jeep XJ Cherokee and build it for off road excursions. Considering that up until then, my automotive focus was mainly on slammed cars and not lifted trucks – and the fact I’ve never been on an off road trail, this was an unusual urge indeed. Nonetheless, I began to hit up Craigslist listings for some XJ goodness.
After obsessing over the boxy SUV for over a week, I proceeded over to the web to do some research on used XJs and inadvertently landed on a video that has captivated me ever since. This grainy video, accompanied by cheesy amped up 90s dance music, introduced me to an off road competition called Camel Trophy. Taking place annually over a span of twenty years from 1980 to 2000, Camel Trophy was an off road vehicle-based competition that was held all over the world and always over challenging terrain.
The video displayed a large group of yellow hued Land Rovers taking on some of the most inhospitable lands that the planet has to offer. Camel Trophy featured multiple teams of two, driving their off road rigs through places such as The Amazon, Siberia, Mongolia, Tierra del Fuego and Borneo. The challenge was to make it to the goal while performing certain skills tasks along the way. Teamwork between your partner as well as your competition was of paramount importance and vehicle capability and toughness had a big part to play as well.
While taking in the excitement of Camel Trophy videos, a certain vehicle caught my attention. It was the venerable Land Rover Defender 110. Looking just as boxy as the XJ but even tougher, the Land Rover Defender has come to signify the resilience that it takes to adventure to and back from the most treacherous terrain on the planet. It didn’t take long for me to look up used Defenders online and realize that they were way out of my price range.
What I did discover was Land Rover’s Discovery II. It’s smaller than the Defender but still retained the boxy look that I liked as well as inherent Land Rover and Camel Trophy DNA – and it was much more affordable too. I decided that’s the direction my off road exploits would go and after a lengthy search, I picked one up and haven’t looked back since. The Defender is still a dream of mine, but I’ve had my Discovery II for over ten years now and it has taken me on plenty of off road adventures of my own.
UNDER THE HOOD
A few years ago, I discovered the Traxxas TRX-4 Defender while I was working for an overland and off road adventure magazine. I was enthralled by the RC crawler’s technology, capability, and turnkey ready-to-run (RTR) attributes. Its licensed Defender body really looked the part too. Perhaps that was just the thing I needed to scratch my Defender itch. I quickly ordered one up from Traxxas’ website and impatiently waited for it to arrive.
While I waited, I discovered many impressive RC replicas of Camel Trophy Defenders online and on Instagram. In many cases it was even difficult to tell if I was looking at an RC or the real truck. Those builds are amazingly scale and I wanted in on the action.
As I dove into what I needed to make my TRX-4 look as scale as the RC Defenders I saw online, I realized that just in body parts alone, the build would cost much more than the entire TRX-4 ready to run kit itself. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Instead, I backed down from that idea and ordered a second set of body parts from Traxxas with the intention of simply painting it a Camel Trophy-esque yellow instead. My TRX-4 Defender came with a dark silver body and this was before Traxxas briefly offered a special yellow color version of the kit.
I had the Defender out of its box and running as soon as it was delivered. Out of the box, it was great fun. This was my first RC crawler so I was excited to run over anything that I could find. Stacks of books, tree limbs, rolled up towels, even other RC cars. I learned that it is very capable in its stock form but like all RTRs, it had room to be improved upon.
One thing you learn early on in upgrading your RC crawler is that weight distribution is key. Shifting or even adding weight as low as possible on your crawler will give it more stability over uneven terrain. This can be done several ways, but the most common method is to add weight by replacing plastic parts found on the lower parts of your truck to heavier brass pieces. I focused on adding unsprung weight whenever possible and replaced the stock plastic parts with items such as brass portal covers and RC4WD’s ARB branded aluminum diff covers. I have ARB parts on my real Land Rover so it was fun to stay brand-loyal on my RC too.
I also swapped out some of the plastic suspension pieces for brass ones as well. Brass shock mounts and spring retainers don’t seem like they add much weight, but it all adds up. What made a big weight difference was the addition of a brass front bumper mount. The one I got from Hobby Park also doubles as a servo mount that allows you to relocate your servo more forward on the chassis, as shifting the weight forward on a crawler has performance benefits.
A prudent upgrade to any RTR is the servo. I went with a Reefs RC 422HD v2 servo for its power, smoothness and programmable capability. It has a tough aluminum housing, is equipped with smooth ball bearings, and durable steel gears. The servo makes guiding the truck through rocky terrain effortless for sure. I liked that the servo is much heavier than the factory unit too. I would have mounted it to the aforementioned brass front bumper to shift the weight forward on the chassis but unfortunately the cable that it comes with was about an inch too short.
Another thing you can do to lessen the top heaviness on your rig is to use a smaller, lighter weight battery or even shift the position of the battery so that it sits lower. This helps reduce the top-heavy tendencies of tall vehicles. I discovered a battery tray by BowHouse RC. This low center of gravity battery tray holds the battery lower in the chassis, which markedly helps the overall balance of the truck. I used a Boom Racing battery strap to help secure the Traxxas 2-cell 5,000 mAH LiPo battery. The lightweight battery provides plenty of power for long all-day driving on long trails.
I replaced the silver/grey body that came with my TRX-4 in favor of a clear one that I painted to mimic the look of the Camel Trophy Defenders that I so admired. Veering away from building a complete scale-replica, I wanted to have the overall look without worrying about every little nuance and detail of it. Think of this rig as a tribute to Camel Trophy and not a pure replica build. Sure, the body isn’t totally scale, but basing my build on a Traxxas Defender body also saved me plenty of money too.
I debated painting the clear body in either Tamiya’s Camel Yellow or Mustard Yellow PS paint. It was a hard call. Referencing pictures online of real Camel Trophy Defenders, the shade of Land Rover’s Camel Trophy special “Sandglow” paint could look like either, depending on how old and dirty the truck is and what kind of light it was photographed under. I ultimately went with the darker, more subdued Mustard Yellow since I liked the used look more than the off the factory floor look of the trucks. I also sprayed the outside of the body with a couple of layers of Tamiya’s PS Flat Clear to rid it of showroom floor gloss too.
Traxxas offers a really cool LED light kit that I was happy to install onto the body. The LEDs bring functionality to the front and rear lights and adds an LED light bar to the roof too. The kit also adds rock lights that appear in the fender wells of the truck. I can’t stress how great looks like when driving your RC around.
Looking at the otherwise stock looking yellow-bodied truck, I realized that it needed some scale details to really get it to look right. The first thing I replaced were the oversized factory wheels and tires with a set of steel wheels by Boom Racing and Pro-Line Class 1 BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A KM3 tires. The overall diameter of the smaller, more scale looking Class 1 tires measure about 4.19-inches while the stock Traxxas tires were a beefier 4.64-inches. The smaller wheel and tire package really look great and Pro-Line’s G8 compound and foam inserts are much more pliable and allow the tires to sit just right for the perfect look. I painted the steel wheels with Tamiya’s Mustard Yellow TS paint to fit the Camel Trophy theme.
The front bumper adds so much to the aesthetic of real and RC trucks so it was important to get one with the right look. I opted for RC4WD’s appropriately named Camel Bumper with Winch Mount and IPF Lights. The all steel bumper looks and feels tough and adds even more weight to the front of the rig. I was excited to find that RC4WD also offers WARN winches in 1/10-scale. Since that’s what I have on my real truck, I definitely wanted one for my RC rig as well. I was blown away to learn that the RC4WD winch not only is operable, but it can be controlled via a wireless remote too.
The stock Defender comes with a rear mounted spare, which you do see on some Defenders. More common however, is the spare tire being mounted to the hood of the truck. I decided that a hood mounted spare would be a must for my TRX-4. One problem I encountered with this plan was the rather bulbous bump that protrudes from the hood. This protrusion would push any spare I mounted to it much too high. Luckily for me, as I tried to figure out a way to deal with it, Pro-Line released a Class 0 BFGoodrich Krawler T/A KX tire with a small 3.85-inch diameter and 1.31-inch width. Mounted to a matching Boom Racing steel wheel, it was just the combination I was looking for. The wheel is mounted to a permanently attached wheel spacer that sits on the hood.
I then tacked on CCHand aluminum diamond plates to the front and rear fenders and added small details such as Club 5 door handles, door hinges, and even a more accurate looking snorkel. The steel wires you see that lead from the front fenders to the roof rack are called limb risers. On the real truck, they’re used to deflect tree limbs from cracking the windshield in heavily forested areas. I found a couple of sets made for RC, but wasn’t happy with the way they are meant to be installed. I ended up combining the two sets I had in order to match the look of how they are mounted on my real truck.
You may notice a driver behind the wheel. That’s a Tamiya figure, painted black, mounted to a sheet of plastic that is taped inside the body. I like the realism of having a driver in the truck but didn’t want to get bogged down with detailed painting. The tinted windows display just a subtle hint of a driver, which was the look I wanted.
The roof rack features plenty of Pelican-looking hard cases made by Xtra Speed. The Jerry cans mounted towards the rear of the roof rack are made by Killerbody. Other scale details added include a Club 5 rear mounted ladder and RC4WD’s fuel tank and exhaust. The steel exhaust tip came too clean for this build so I used a butane torch to change its color to more of a burnt bronze. With the Defender looking right, I took it out for a run.
HITTING THE TRAIL
There’s no doubt that the Defender carries unwanted weight up high, but the look of a loaded up roof rack and hood mounted spare tire are irresistible. That said, all the added brass and aluminum parts and relocated battery really help keep the rig surefooted on the trail and rocks. Its capabilities are respectable, but not competition worthy. I noticed that the Pro-Line tires really make a big difference. Thanks to them, the truck felt confident and looked even better traversing the trails. Future improvements will come in the form of power; perhaps a brushless system will allow the truck climb a greater array of areas.
This was undoubtedly a fun build to build and is an even more fun rig to drive. I’m looking forward to taking it out on more adventures and running some of the 1:1 trails I drive in my real Land Rover. Endowed with its capable and reliable Traxxas TRX-4 underpinnings, this Defender 110 can probably conquer similar (albeit scaled-down) Camel Trophy challenges too. Thanks to this build, I can say that I finally have my Camel Trophy Defender, only that it’s 1/10-scale.
Text by Images by Jerry Tsai