Rav4 Crawler: Building Front Armor

Oct. 28, 2008 By Justin Fort
Rav4 trucklet project

Let’s do the math. There are about a billion first-generation Rav4s out there (real exact math here at Off-Road.com). They’re being driven up and down dunes in the desert, bonked around on muddy roads, towed behind motorhomes from adventure to adventure, driven in the snow, hauling a month’s worth of groceries back to the cabin, being crawled around trails who knows where, and carrying who and that all over the place because they’re great little tools when the going gets lumpy. This is an international opinion – this trucklet is everywhere. Just type “Rav4” and “off road” into YouTube, you’ll see.

This off-road ubiquity is especially so for the all-wheel drive Rav4s, and that’s close to half of them built. This begs the question: why is it so hard to find some good skid plates? Off-Road.com went out and teamed up with a killer desert & off-road fabricator to build an answer to the trucklet skid-plate question: Armor Craft.

Up-Front Protection for Expensive Parts

Rav4 Trucklet

Rich gauged the drop for each piece of steel to minimize any overhang or excess exposure.

Rich Clarke’s Armor Craft facility in Oceanside (760.908.5521) is a small slice of his old race & prep shop. Nowadays, his focus is split between building race parts and trail-duty bits like a growing line of skid plates, and building homes (there’s still a market in San Diego, apparently), so he shrunk his shop to let it support itself with the groovy little parts like our Rav4 armor.

The basis of any skid plate’s effectiveness is how its framework supports the weight of the vehicle during an impact. Most rock-to-truck is of the scraping variety, so some torsional stability is necessary (think a resistance to folding or lateral shifting) for when the vehicle meets the obstacle with a forward motion, rather than downward. We’ve found a way to plunk ourselves straight down on a rock or two too, so strength in a sense of outright load-bearing capacity when the vehicle comes down on the plate is also critical. Any sort of intrusion to a vehicle’s underside up front jeopardize things like the oil pan, the transmission and inboard ends of the half-shafts, inner suspension points, as well as other sundry importances.

The framework of this Armor Craft skid plate is built with .120-wall steel tubing, welded together and coated in powdered or sprayed fashion (whatever you like). Said structure is bolted (as most all of Armor Craft’s hardware) directly to the frame itself – subframe, in the Rav4’s case – to offer as much strength as possible in case of an impact. Fewer connecting points mean fewer weak points. It even uses the OEM bolts, so you’re about as close as possible to perfect protection for the pricey parts of the powerplant. Clearance up front is reduced less than an inch, and Armor Craft is building one-inch strut spacers to compensate for it if you decide it necessary – we’ll be installing them in future coverage.

Hung across the frame of this skid plate is a beefy slab of plate aluminum, 3/16-inch thick and folded in just on spot. More creases would mean less strength, so the fewer the better. Of course, this thing is not bearing the load of an impact as much as distributing it across the structure of the frame. This thickness, we can assure you, has taken a number of direct hits and not shown more than a superficial gouge, and though it’s bailed out the trucklet more than thrice, it can still be removed without any difficulty via the eight countersunk Allen-headed fasteners keeping the unit together.

Rav4 trucklet project

Rich also eyeballed how well the tubing matches up with the bumper line. A scrap of the tubing allows him to eyeball how the framework will line up.

Turn Off-Road Paranoia Into Armored Fun

Part of the problem is, of course, the relative car-ness of the Rav4, based on a Corolla platform, with an old Camry engine and the all-wheel drivetrain out of the Celica All-Trac. That said, though, these are hardy parts, the indestructible Camry 3S-FE straight-four and the rally-homologated All-Trac all-wheel drive. With the Rav4’s center locker and the optional rear LSD, it actually hangs with seriously trail rigs on 95% of the dirt out there. We know – we’ve done it. Still, people don’t think of building this trucklet in the US too much, and beyond some Old Man Emu suspension parts, it’s a short list for what’s available. That means what? Yuppers, build your own, as we did here. This skid plate will be available by the time you read this story.

Armor Craft fabbed up the Grocery Armor skid plate for us months ago, a prototype that would be production-ready as soon as we shook it out. And we did – to the point of it saving our off-road trucklet’s ass. Once, you’ve read about, when we did a smack-down on a sharp & pointy while running the ridges in the Cleveland National Forest just outside of Orange County. Another, you’ll read about soon, while we chased Jeepers and XJs in Corral Canyon east of San Diego. A third time, we hung the trucklet up on a cement loading ramp while geeking around with some other high-clearance friends on the docks in National City (don’t tell anyone – we weren’t supposed to be there). The skid plate’s structure installs with four bolts to the frame, and the aluminum plate itself is removable for oil changes and undercarriagey stuff with eight bolts. On top of that, we’ve jacked up the whole damn front end from the center of the skid plate without so much as a squeak from the unit. It’s just what you wanted, and now you can get it.

project Rav4 trucklet

Notice the finished profile – less than an inch outside of the OEM spinal support that holds the central motor mount.

project rav4 crawler

Two of four skid plate-to-subframe mounts are visible here, as well as how the rear of the skid plate protects the leading edge of the lower control arm.

project rav4 crawler

Robust and thick, this is how the backside looked after several grade-A impacts – no intrusion, not even a dent.

rav4 trucklet project

Without the plate in place, you get a good idea of how the skid plate structure fits. Oil change access is right here too.


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