More than 20 years of off-road wheeling around the Pacific Northwest has brought James and Molly Tester to their 2001 Isuzu Vehicross. Parents to four daughters who decided to kick the fun into 4WD when their children were young, they are now empty nesters who spend their free time exploring the unknown through the PNW and beyond.
Built over the last two years from stock to the off-road adventurer you see here, the Vehicross has slowly transformed into the Testers’ ideal overlanding build. It’s their dedicated overland rig, and they’ve added on just about anything a camper could want.
“We’ve owned [it] for about two years. It was stock when we purchased [it], but the build constantly evolves,” James shared. We know all too well that the process of building a rig never truly ends once it’s started. From a bevy of exterior add-ons to custom suspension upgrades and an interior and camp setup that works perfectly for them, the Testers have put in the work to make their dream rig a reality.
“Built over the last two years from stock to the off-road adventurer you see here, the Vehicross has slowly transformed into the Testers’ ideal overlanding build.”
Over the years, the Testers have been driven by a desire not only to get outdoors, but to bring the family along for the ride. James and Molly decided, “the best way to explore with little ones was with a 4WD.” It was around that time that Isuzu introduced the Vehicross to the market. James recalls, “I thought they were the weirdest, coolest, most oddball thing ever,” noting, “I dig weird and cool.”
With help from lifelong best friend Jamie Davis, who offered rig-building knowledge as well as experience overlanding with little ones, the Testers got started. It was 1997 and the Vehicross had just been released. However, it wasn’t quite the vehicle on James’ mind… yet.
“When we started out,” James explains, “I couldn’t afford an FJ60 like I wanted, so we bought an Isuzu Trooper… Fast forward 20 years and 20+ Isuzus later, and I found [the Vehicross] locally for a great price from a fellow Isuzu enthusiast.”
That first Trooper that got the ball rolling sparked an interest and love for the whole Isuzu family. Over the past 20 years, they’ve spent tons of time exploring the PNW with kids in tow, but now that their daughters are all grown up, James and Molly have taken the adventure plans into their own hands.
There’s almost nothing that the Testers can’t conquer in their Vehicross. Their overland adventures take them all around the country, including Moab (their go-to spot), the Mojave Desert, and more. Up next, they’re planning on heading to Mexico this fall, and, at some point, the Alcan 500, too.
“Over the past 20 years, they’ve spent tons of time exploring the PNW with kids in tow, but now that their daughters are all grown up, James and Molly have taken the adventure plans into their own hands.”
Accompanied by miniature schnauzer pup Annie, the Testers are always ready to explore. While Moab has long been a go-to spot, “Anywhere there’s an adventure waiting” is good for them.
James refers to their Vehicross as the “Dungbeetle.” It’s his hope that he and Molly will, “Be able to do anything in it. We’re empty nesters now, so it’s all about the adventure!”
You don’t see a rig that looks like this one out on the street every day – in fact, we hardly see any of these out there, even in the off-road world. But that’s what James and Molly especially like about it. They’ve gone above and beyond modifying the vehicle to suit their needs, from a 1.5-inch BFR body lift to a custom suspension to a rear seat delete.
Here’s a fun fact about the Vehicross: a 1997 model was the first production Isuzu to run on external reservoir shocks. The model was a Paris-Dakar rally vehicle, and it won. Keeping that tradition, the Testers employ a set of Old Man Emu KYB Reservoir shocks in both the front and rear of their 2001 model. In addition, the suspension features fabricated 1.5-inch diff drop brackets in the front as well as Independent4x HD rear links. Old Man Emu 929 coils and coil keepers round out the setup on both ends.
“I believe you don’t mess with the heart of the vehicle too much to retain as much dependability as possible,” James explains. To that end, the only change they’ve made to the Vehicross’ engine is a reusable air cleaner. A Haynes HD transmission cooler inline with the factory has a similar goal, keeping the rig’s 4l30e transmission running at its best as well.
“They’ve gone above and beyond modifying the vehicle to suit their needs, from a 1.5-inch BFR body lift to a custom suspension to a rear seat delete.”
They’ve re-geared the diffs from 4.30 to 4.56 from a Trooper, with Isuzu Corporate 12-Bolt in the rear and 10-Bolt in the front. “The differential drop was a key piece for the vehicle in terms of reliability. It allows us to run 35-inch tires but keeps the CV angles close to neutral, thus reducing stress and fatigue on the weakest point of the drivetrain.” That modification, combined with a Lokka locker in the front, and a soon-to-be-added ARB rear locker make all the difference in the rig’s off-road performance.
Other modifications include HD tie rods in their steering column, made from off-the-shelf Ford and Dodge parts, as well as welded-on rock sliders adopted from a Jeep TJ.
The Vehicross rolls on MB Wheels TKOs, which James has painted to better match the look of the rig. Wrapped in bulky Falken Wildpeak MTs, no challenge is too much, not even a steep obstacle that once had them rolling on just one wheel.
Under the hood is a vinyl-wrapped carbon fiber insert that matches the door cards; above the hood is a serious wattage-producing setup of lights. It includes Sylvania Automotive zXE gold Halogen headlights, but they’ve also done a full LED conversion on all the rest of the rig’s exterior lights. Two 4WheelParts HID round lights adorn the front bumper, whereas their tracer lights are what James refers to as “Amazon specials.” Hey, what works, works.
“Wrapped in bulky Falken Wildpeak MTs, no challenge is too much, not even a steep obstacle that once had them rolling on just one wheel.”
A Tailgater Tile table, Voodoo Offroad Recovery Gear kit, Silverwing Roof Top Tent, Roam Adventure Co. Awning, and All-Top 4×4 Spare Tire Trash bag form the base for their camp setup wherever they go.
In place of the rear seat, the Vehicross has a custom storage box that keeps all of the Testers’ gear organized.
Up on the dash, James runs the OnX Offroad app through Android Auto on his Boss audio system. Additionally, they use Midland Radio MXT 575 GMRS as well as bringing along Baofeng handhelds, “for backup.” An Optima Red Cell battery and GoalZero power stations round out their interior setup.
One last sneaky addition is a Kartisen car ceiling cargo net, “for snacks,” of course, and other easy-to-access small items.
One major change on the docket for the Dungbeetle Vehicross is a swap to a manual transmission. According to James, “The 4l30e transmission that Isuzu used from GM was never designed to be on a heavy 4×4 vehicle.” And the Vehicross is certainly one heavy vehicle – about 4,200 lbs. stock, the Testers’ rig weighs in closer to 5,000 lbs. thanks to add-ons like a rooftop tent and hefty rubber.
“By adding the AR5 transmission, we will take out the undersized transmission and replace it with a robust manual upgrade,” he explains. “This will enable us to really push the limits of the vehicle and ourselves for even longer, tougher adventures!”
Plus, if you’ve kept an eye on their Instagram, you’ll see that the family just welcomed the Dungbeetle’s baby sister, another Vehicross that’s undergoing a transformation in their garage. Keep up with James and Molly Tester’s adventures in their Vehicross on Instagram with #DUNGBEETLE_VX and all their auto fun @dungbeetle_vx.
Engine: Factory Isuzu 3.5L v6
Suspension: Isuzu custom front suspension with 1.5-inch differential drop brackets and Old Man Emu KYB reservoir shocks; Isuzu 3-Link rear suspension with Old Man Emu KYB reservoir shocks; Independent4x HD rear links; Old Man Emu 929 coils, coil keepers
Wheels & Tires: 16×8 MB Wheels, 3-inch backspacing; Falken Wildpeak MT size 315/70/16
Interior Accessories: Midland Radio MXT 575 GMRS and Baofeng handheld radios; Optima Red Cell; GoalZero power station; Kartisen Car Ceiling Cargo Net
Exterior Accessories: Hood insert vinyl-wrapped carbon fiber to match door cards; Sylvania zXE Gold Halogens; 4WheelParts HID round light bar; Amazon tracer lights; Rock sliders donated from Jeep TJ;tailgater tire table; Voodoo Offroad Recovery Gear; Silverwing Roof Top Tent, Roam Adventure Co. Awning; All-Top 4×4 Spare Tire Trash bag
Additional Modifications: Full exterior LED light conversion; 1.5-inch BRF body lift; Rear crossmember with receiver hitch
The post James and Molly Tester’s Overlanding Journey with a Transformed 2001 Isuzu Vehicross appeared first on TREAD Magazine.