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Shackleton returns to Antarctica to make history… in a Hyundai

A modified Hyundai Santa Fe makes history as the first passenger vehicle to cross Antarctica.

A CENTURY SINCE polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s failed Trans-Antartic expedition in 1915-16, Hyundai has teamed up with the legend’s great-grandson Patrick Bergel to cross the continent in a Hyundai Santa Fe.

The Car

The Santa Fe was modified so that it could accommodate increased ride height for large tyres, lower ratio gearing and a modified engine that could run on jet fuel and stay warm in the sub zero conditions.

The car was raised with new sub-frames, rebuilt suspension, links, mounts and axle shaft. Portal axles were fitted to the vehicle to increase the undisclosed ride height and lower the gearing ratio to 1.5:1 which suited the soft snow environment. AT38 snow and ice tyres were fitted and were ran as low as 2.0 psi.

Arctic driving specialist, Gisli Jónsson, from Arctic Trucks, managed the vehicle’s preparation and led the expedition.

“We did have to fit big, low-pressure tyres though. They are important as it’s all about getting the vehicle up on top of the snow rather than ploughing through it.

“We were running on one-tenth of a normal road tyre pressure – it’s so soft you can drive over someone’s hand and it won’t hurt them! The car trod so lightly that all our tyre tracks were gone by the time we came back.

“People who have a lot of experience of Antarctica know what it does to machinery: basically, anything and everything falls apart,” Jónsson said.

The standard 2.2-litre diesel engine was modified with a coolant engine heater to warm the liquid to 79-degrees Celsius for cold-starts, and would kick back in if the coolant reached less than 65-degrees Celcius.

The engine also had to be modified to run on JET1A jet fuel which is the only fuel available on the continent. The tank was also changed to a larger 230-litre unit.

“Even the big machines crack up and break apart. This was the first time this full traverse has ever been attempted, let alone doing it there and back.” Said Jónsson.

“A lot of people thought we would never ever make it and when we returned they couldn’t believe we’d actually done it!”

The Journey

The 5800km return trip started in Union Camp in Ellsworth Land and finished at McMurdo and was completed in 30 days. Temperatures reached as low as -28-degrees Celcius and was slow going, reaching an average speed of 27km/h.

The extra trick for the expedition was that it has to be made over a new path which included floating ice caps. For Shackleton’s great-grandson Bergel, he said the expedition was difficult and provided an insight into the difficulties his great grandfather would have faced: “Sometimes it felt less like driving and more like sailing across the snow,” he said.

“It was a proper expedition with a challenge to accomplish that nobody else had done before. It was about endurance not speed – we only averaged only 27km/h – and success was about how we and the car handled it.

“I’m very reluctant to make direct comparisons between what my great grandfather did and what we’ve done recently. But it is quite something to have been the first to do this in a wheeled vehicle,” he said.

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Alex Rae

Alex Rae