“Expedition Unknown” Host Josh Gates on Driving Beaters and Off-Roaders Around the World
Every Wednesday evening, Josh Gates takes his fans around the world to investigate the greatest legends and mysteries in the history of his show. Unknown shipment. But digging into lost sites, graves and cities is not like taking a vacation. Commercial flight is only the first step, followed by a lot of driving in many cool vehicles.
While the show may just jump straight into legend, much of its charm is the journey. Traveling deep into deserts, forests, swamps and mountains requires cars, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles, ATVs, helicopters, boats, snowmobiles and even military vehicles, and it’s all part of the story. No matter what Josh is driving, driving or piloting, you will hear how good, bad or just plain strange.
We got Josh on a video call directly from the shooting of his new show, Josh Gates tonight, also known as his guest bedroom. Read or watch to hear his best car stories, the car he learned to drive and his position in the big Land Rover Defender vs. Toyota Land Cruiser debate. Then check out an interview we did with Josh a few years ago with more information on his personal vehicles.
MotorTrend: You travel all over the world, you explore all these great legends, from El Dorado to Atlantis via the Bermuda Triangle, but to get there, you drive a lot of pretty cool vehicles: snowmobiles, cars, trucks, planes, boats – everything. Is it fair to say that you are a very big reducer?
Josh Gates: Well, you know, it’s funny. I am not like a reducer in the sense that I am not at all useful under the hood, but I am, I would say, a hardware enthusiast. I love to drive anything; I love driving cars, I’m not good at driving with crazy controllers. I’m passionate about equal opportunities in cars, but, you know, my New Year’s resolution every year is that I’m going to take a real car class because I spend a lot of time on the roadside. But so far I still need help, unless he changes a tire.
MT: How was this segment of the series born? In each episode, you start in your office, then you are elsewhere in the world and you drive some neat car or drive a motorcycle. Do you choose them yourself? Do the producers choose them for you?
JG: It’s really a combination. First of all, every show we do really requires, generally, a great trip, right? We tend to go to these distant and distant places, and getting there is often a big part of the adventure. Vehicles are kind of a necessity first, you know?
Regarding what we drive, sometimes if we go somewhere that is not at the ends of the earth, we can somehow choose what we want to drive. We usually try to find something capable and interesting. If we go somewhere that has a certain theme, you know, we could try to find a vehicle that matches that theme. If we do a pirate show, we could say: what would a pirate drive? What would Captain Kidd have driven? What would Captain Morgan have driven?
The other part is that we sometimes get what’s there. If we are going to make a great expedition in the desert through the Kalahari or if we are going to cross Africa elsewhere, we use the vehicles available to make these expeditions and make these trips. So sometimes it’s a surprise, and sometimes we have control over it.
MT: Was it part of the original plan to present the trip, or did you just focus on entering legend at the start of the show?
JG: No, it’s always been part of all the shows I’ve done. I’m a big fan of this part of the experience, you know? If you’re talking about someone’s trip, just personally, a lot of what they tell you about any trip is the mechanics of the trip. How the flight went, what went wrong, what went well, how they got stuck in this station.
One of the things that always seemed odd to me about travel-themed TV is how brilliant everything is, you know, which really doesn’t match our experiences. It’s good if you do something aspiring, you know, “the biggest swimming pools in the world” or something, but you know for us, travel is expedition, right?
It’s called Unknown shipment, and a large part of this creates this context of: Where is this archaeological excavation going? Where do these people work in the world? And I think that by showing not only the vehicles, but the difficult and difficult food, the breakdowns, the flat tires, the challenges, it really brings the spectator to the expedition, you know? Suddenly, they go up to the shotgun. They are not just at home watching this; they’re part of it, and I think the more real you can be about what’s going on there, the better.
MT: Even when you have the choice between several vehicles, there must be good and bad. You talk about breakdowns and punctures; what are the best and worst vehicles you have driven for the show?
JG: It’s a long list, and I used to do a series before that where we almost chose horrible vehicles like a gag, so I drove pretty much every weird car you can name. To me, cars are, as you know, they are very personal, right? There are certain models and brands and lines on a car that speak to us.
I love the Land Rover Defenders. I love them. I love the old 90 Defender; it’s my favorite car. I only see one, even 110, but if I just see one of these parked things, I stop every time. Uh, these aren’t the most comfortable cars for long distance expeditions. There is of course this great rivalry between the people with the old Defenders and the old Land Cruisers, right, and the Land Cruiser is, hands down – and I know I’m going to get hate mail for that – it’s a more comfortable car. This is! But the Defender is so sexy. It’s undeniable. It’s just amazing. So my favorite experience is every time I get behind the wheel of a Defender. You know, old school, stick Defender, and I’m in an exotic place, I never feel more free or excited than that, so it’s at the top of my list. It’s the upper echelon.
The bottom is probably, like, those cars that you ride and you say, “I’ve never seen that before.” A Russian vehicle, a little like, Bulgarian of the 60s which has, like, a crazy change of stick. I’ve spent long days in some of these old Citroens, these old Meharis, you know, with the crazy shifter sticking out of the way and the whole car feels like – I mean, the car is plastic , actually, right? It was in the late 60’s, 68’s, something like that, and they decided, “We should make a car that is mostly plastic and fabric,” you know? And driving in these things is like, you just feel like it’s rolling on puffs of smoke. It looks like a Jules Verne vehicle. It doesn’t seem real.
MT: After 175 episodes of Unknown shipment, do you have any idea how many vehicles you have driven at this point?
JG: No idea. No idea, but I mean, I’ve been to 108 countries, you think we’ve driven multiple vehicles in each, and we’ve done, like you said, well over 100 shows, so … I would be more interested in knowing the mileage, you know, how many miles I have under my belt in these cars. Some of the shows we do, rarely are we a bit in a city or something. Most of the time, there are big road trips on these shows, or really long distance flights. So we spend a lot of time, a lot of time in cars.
MT: You recently drove an old military truck in Siberia which was complicated to say the least. What was the most difficult vehicle to drive?
JG: The most difficult are those that are simply not made for consumers. This vehicle, I couldn’t even tell you the model, but a big old Soviet truck which was a military truck, and the joysticks are behind the seat. And when you turn around and look at them, there are like four joysticks. And you know, I’m sure it’s beyond speeds, it’s like high and low gearboxes, and stuff like that. I mean, it’s crazy, so without some sort of tutorial, you’re just doomed.
I have driven tanks several times; same thing, like someone really has to give you a primer on it, or you’re just going to smoke it within 20 feet.
MT: With all these crazy vehicles in all these exotic places, what is your most memorable driving experience, good or bad?
JG: I love to drive. It’s a funny thing: every time we hire new producers in the series or new people working on the series, they say, “Well, we have to get X amount of pilots in the country we’re in.” , and I always say, “No, you don’t need that much. I will drive one of the cars. “And they’re a little stunned, like,” You’re actually going … we’re driving 5 pm through this desert. Do you want to drive? “And I always say,” Yeah, I want to drive. “Because some of these experiences, you know, I have a real appreciation for the chance that you can’t replicate some of these experiences. You know, it’s difficult in some of these places as a tourist to buy a car. There are countries where they don’t really want you to rent cars, or certainly the types of cars we use are not accessible.
One of the most memorable is that years ago we did a show in Mongolia, and we carpooled about three or four Land Cruisers in this case, through, I don’t know, a thousand miles or more of the deserts in Mongolia, and there were no roads, you know? They let me drive one of the vehicles on the train, and they had GPS units stuck to the steering wheel. And that was it. And you just drive these dunes, and sometimes you see tracks, old faded tracks going in different directions that linked other cities and other cities. Sure, without some sort of guide car at the head of this, I would still be in the Gobi Desert, but for me it was just amazing, because it’s just … you know, sometimes c is like, OK, we’re gonna go to these dunes, and you can drive around a bit. It drove thousands of miles without roads. It was just, for me, I had never had this kind of experience, and it was really so liberating but it made you feel so small, you know? I mean, those little lifeboats in the desert, and you sort of imagine a camera moving away from it in space, and it would be nothingness, but these four little cars. So for me it was a big highlight.
MT: People are sure to ask, then, “What is Josh Gates driving home?”
JG: Oh, interesting question. I drive a current Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk model.
My very first car when I was a child was a 1986 Cherokee from my mom and dad. It was the first car I had driven. It was crazy to beat when I got it, and this car – also very iconic, you know, a square car (ahem) like the Defender – man, I stuck this thing in the ground. I mean, it was, when it was done, it was not worth 50 dollars. And you know, the specs for those old Cherokees ’86 weren’t really written down to begin with. And so, I now have the current edition of Cherokee Trailhawk, which is great. Really powerful, beautiful car.
I almost bought a used Defender 90 probably a hundred times. I was on eBay Motors, watched it, and flickered over the button. You know, these cars are like choosing to buy a sailboat. You know that you will spend a lot of time working the mahogany on the plates and the fixing motors.
So you know, I never pulled the trigger, and now I’m looking at the new Defenders with caution. Obviously, I am a purist, so there is a period of mourning here that we all go through. But they are pretty cool. They are speculated; they are impressive. You know, I’m thinking of my old Cherokee – I think this thing had, I don’t know, a 180-horsepower four-cylinder in-line, it wasn’t much – and, uh, this new Defender is almost 400 horsepower. I mean, a truly legitimate vehicle. And true legitimate specifications for all-terrain vehicles. So maybe in my future there may be a new Defender. But for now, I’m really happy with my Jeep, actually.
MT: Well, if you decide you want to learn how to tear yourself away and put yourself under the hood, you’ll be spending a lot of time under the hood of an old Defender.
JG: Exactly! No better way to learn, right? And that’s the thing with these cars. Like, yes, they need a lot of work and this and that, but it’s also because they suffered a lot, you know? I’m amazed, I think the Defender – maybe the Jeep Wrangler and Willys, but the Defender even more – you see more old Defenders still operating around the world in these really harsh environments. I mean, it’s a car that, if you – you know, it’s so simple under the hood, in many ways. None of this is computerized, none of it, so it’s one of those cars that if you can keep them alive, man, they’ll work forever.
MT: What is the white whale? Which cars are you still looking for in the coming seasons?
JG: Well, you know, it’s funny. I kind of like a Top Gear itching that I would scratch. You know, my show is sturdy and rough, so I don’t often find myself driving luxury vehicles. But there is a part of me that thinks, why not? Even an adventurer can take a shower from time to time and clean up, so maybe I would like to take a test on high-end luxury cars. They will never let me do this.
But it’s my dream, and then, I really want to drive the new Defender. I haven’t seen it in person yet. I haven’t seen it in the wild. I’d love to get behind the wheel of this and check it out. I had the chance a few years ago to do something with Land Rover on the new Discovery, and I’m just fighting to get behind the wheel of this Defender.
MT: Automobile legends, perhaps, that require investigation?
JG: You know, we’ve talked about it over the years. There’s a story about – I don’t know if it’s James Dean’s car, I’m trying to remember now. There are a few famous cars missing over the years that we’ve been talking about, but these are such specific stories, and a lot of them are a bit of a dead end, you know? But hello! Always open for a new adventure. If you have a good automotive mystery story for me, I’d love to hear it.
I would love to go to Fordlandia, in the Amazon, and see the remains of Ford’s crazy rubber factory there. It’s a nice destination I’ve never been to. I am open to all automotive mysteries. Send them to me.
MT: We will send you a list for next season. At the moment, however, people can only watch Unknown shipment in reruns, but you have a new live show on the Discovery Channel.
JG: It is true! We started a few weeks ago to make a real little edition of this talk show Josh Gates tonight. We started making small 10-minute versions, then we did a full hour version for Earth Day, which was great, and now it goes to 9 a.m. on Wednesday evening, which is a little my old Unknown shipment time slot. And I’m going to be here in my head office away from the head office here in my home office. And we have a lot of fun. Look, I think it’s really important in this time when we are all confined at home to remember that the spirit of adventure is still alive and that there is this big, wide world waiting for us. And we have a lot of fun talking to explorers and adventurers and we really try to connect with the viewers, and the best we can take them on a little adventure with us every week behind this desk.
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