Why the Isuzu Trooper is the Best Archaeology Field Vehicle Ever

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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.

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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.

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About kinkellasarchaeology

I am a full-time professor of archaeology at Moorpark College in Southern California, with specialties in the ancient Maya, local Chumash cultures, and underwater archaeology. I began this blog in order to answer common questions my students have about the world of archaeology, while also having some fun relating stories from my current and past experiences as an archaeologist in the Mayan jungle.
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7 Responses to Why the Isuzu Trooper is the Best Archaeology Field Vehicle Ever

  1. new says:

    Thanks for sharing, I love isuzu.

  2. Angela Phenicie says:

    Big Blue was a great vehicle for sure. I do remember it handled better under my guidance though. I seem to recall almost losing some folks out the back when you drove.

    • Angela – sorry I am so tardy with my response! The driving incident you refer to was actually a complex stunt done by trained professionals, designed to warn others about the real risks of driving too fast on a crappy jungle road. My “weak driving skills” and “lack of good sense” were just part of the show.

    • Hey MB – I checked out your Trooper – very impressive (I especially like the choice of wheels)! Mine is a 1991 manual S model as well, but with the 2.8. My purchase price was a paltry 2250 (back in 2006), but it had 168K miles on it at the time (otherwise flawless, well maintained, and one of my best automotive buys of all time). I agree with your vote of the 2.6 over the 2.8, but in my experience the 2.8 is possibly a tiny bit more durable over time. If I was buying new, the 2.6 is the better choice, but 25 years on I think it’s pretty much a dead heat. I have 202K on it now, and beyond regular maintenance items and tune-ups, in that time it’s needed a new window crank, a new negative ground wire, a radiator flush, and the oil cooler needed to be deleted because it leaked (you can NOT get them anymore, but no big deal). What a great vehicle.

      This is my second Trooper. My first was a 1986 two door (bought in 2000 and also a fantastic choice – I replaced it only because I was in an accident). My father also owned a 1985 (no overdrive = slow!), and I have rented several of them over the years in Belize while working as an archaeologist. I think I have tried every combination of gen 1 Trooper there is!

      Keep up the excellent work – your Trooper is a work of art!

  3. Sam S says:

    Dear Prof. Kinkella,

    I am in the market for a used 4×4 to go camping in the Eastern Oregon desert. My 10 yo son is an avid budding biologist/geologist (when asked who his favorite people are, his answers are Sir David Attenborough, Stephen Jay Gould and Charles Darwin! :)) and I would like to take him exploring. Have been considering the Trooper as a potential vehicle and your site wasa very useful. Do you have opinions on the post-89 models, say 1995/6, etc.?

    Thanks!

    Sam

    • In your case, the 92-97 model might be even better. They are also very reliable (I would get a later one, like 96-97, because they have some nice upgrades). I used a 94 once in Belize, and it was also very good. They are more comfortable than the eary models as well. The early models are getting a bit hard to find, especially in decent shape, so you and your son might be a little more comfortable in the later Trooper (you just won’t look quite as cool!). Thanks for posting – I hope your trip works out!

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