As it is finals time at Moorpark College and I have several hundred papers to grade today, it seems like a perfect time to continue my archaeology blog! I thought I would discuss the hotly contested world of archaeological field vehicles. There are many strong opinions on this, as the archaeology field vehicle becomes a beloved part of the crew as the months go by, like a family pet with a personality and a name. For example, the first project I worked on in Belize had two field vehicles: “Big Blue” (A big and burly 1986 Ford F350 pickup) and “The Burb” (A massive 1980s 4WD Chevy Suburban). Both were temperamental but lovable, and each crew member had their preference (I was a Big Blue guy and would defend it mightily, even though it got 9 miles to the gallon and the carburetors caught fire once).
In the field, these vehicles are lifeboats, their primary function being to get you home and not leave you stranded. Good qualities include durability, simplicity, and decent gas milage. With these criteria in mind, I decree that The Best Vehicle Ever Made for Archaeological Purposes is the original Isuzu Trooper. Made from 1984-1991, these are great because they are stone simple, reliable, and can carry lots for their size. Not too big or too small, Troopers were first produced before the SUV craze happened, so their DNA is based on that of a true work vehicle, not on a Soccer Mom’s comfort preferences. They are really “UV’s,” as the “Sport” aspect does not exist with the Trooper, and is not needed.
Popular “runner up” choices include Toyota 4Runners/HiLux (which would probably be my second choice) and even Ford or Chevrolet pickup trucks. The cliche award is obviously shared by Land Rovers and Toyota Landcruisers, but I have not had very good luck with these in practice (too heavy, too old, too unreliable). The Troopers win because of balance. They are utilitarian without being uncomfortable. They have enough modern technology to be comfortable on the freeway, but not so much technology as to be unreliable in extreme circumstances (the jungle is very unkind to electronics).
While bits and pieces may break off or wear down, I have never had a Trooper truly break down and leave me stranded. Troopers have carried me deep into the Maya jungle, crawling up muddy embankments to distant ridge tops and down precarious and narrow gorges. I have also driven them out in the desert, crossing dry creek beds and sandy terrain. Just as importantly, I have used them as daily drivers, cruised the freeway for hours, and picked up the family Christmas Tree by simply shoving it in the back and closing the door.
If you are in the market for an original Trooper, do not buy a 1984 or 1985 model (no overdrive and very small engines makes it brutally slow). Any model between 1986 and 1991 is good. They came in either two or four-door configurations, with manual or automatic transmissions, and with either four cylinder or six cylinder engines. Any combination is fine, even engine size does not matter (both are equally underpowered). Simply buy the best kept, lowest milage example you can find.
Troopers are not perfect. The body panels seem to be made of an alloy of steel and swiss cheese, there are no airbags, and with either engine producing about 120 horsepower, you will enjoy a new definition of slow while merging onto the freeway. Luckily, these negatives are easily offset by the durability and practicality of these fantastically useful vehicles.
Ten years from now, the Isuzu Trooper will no longer be the best field vehicle. They will be too old, and parts will become too hard to find (it is already happening). At that time, as the Trooper enters its rightful place alongside the Land Rover and the Landcruiser in the pantheon of Old Archaeological Vehicle Gods, I will still be extolling its virtues, because I will be old and stubborn (it is already happening) and the Trooper will always be my favorite field vehicle of all time.