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“Expedition Unknown” Host Josh Gates on Driving Beaters and Off-Roaders Around the World

“Expedition Unknown” Host Josh Gates on Driving Beaters and Off-Roaders Around the World

Every Wednesday night, Josh Gates takes his fans around the world to investigate the greatest legends and mysteries in history on his show Expedition Unknown. Getting to dig sites, tombs, and lost cities isn’t like taking a vacation, though. Flying commercial is just the first step, followed by a lot of driving in a lot of cool vehicles.

Although the show could just jump straight into the legend, a big part of its charm is the journey. Traveling deep into the deserts, forests, swamps, and mountains requires cars, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles, ATVs, helicopters, boats, snowmobiles, and even military vehicles, and that’s all part of the story. Whatever Josh is driving, riding, or piloting, you’ll hear about how good, bad, or just plain odd it is.

We got Josh on a video call direct from the set of his new show, Josh Gates Tonight, also known as his spare bedroom. Read or watch to hear his best car stories, the car he learned to drive with, and his position in the great Land Rover Defender versus Toyota Land Cruiser debate. Then check out an interview we did with Josh a few years ago with more on his personal vehicles.

MotorTrend: You travel all over the world, you investigate all these great legends, from El Dorado to Atlantis to the Bermuda Triangle, but getting there, you drive a lot of pretty cool vehicles: snowmobiles, cars, trucks, planes, boats—everything. Fair to say you’re a pretty big gearhead?

Josh Gates: Well, you know, it’s funny. I’m not like a gearhead in the sense that I’m not all that useful under the hood, but I am a, I would say, a gear enthusiast. I love to drive anything; I love to drive cars I’m not good at driving with crazy shifters. I’m an equal-opportunity enthusiast for automobiles, but, you know, my New Year’s Resolution every year is that I’m gonna take a real automotive class because I spend a lot of time broken down by the side of the road. But so far, I usually still need help unless it’s changing a tire.

MT: How did this segment of the show come around? In each episode, you start off in your office, then you’re somewhere else in the world and you’re driving some kind of neat car or riding a motorcycle. Do you pick them out yourself? Do the producers pick them out for you?

JG: It’s a combination, really. First of all, each show that we do really necessitates, usually, a big journey, right? We tend to go to these remote, far-flung places, and often getting there is a big part of the adventure. So the vehicles are kind of a necessity first, you know?

In terms of what we drive, sometimes, if we’re going someplace that’s not at the ends of the earth, we can kinda choose what we want to drive. We usually try to find something capable and interesting. If we’re going somewhere that has a certain theme, you know, we might try to find a vehicle that fits that theme. If we’re doing a pirate show, we might say: What would a pirate drive? What would Captain Kidd have driven? What would Captain Morgan have driven?

The other part of it is, we sometimes get what’s there. If we’re gonna go on some big desert expedition across the Kalahari or we’re gonna go across Africa somewhere else, we use the vehicles that are available that make those expeditions and make those trips. So sometimes it’s a surprise, and sometimes we have control over it.

MT: Was it part of the original plan to feature the journey, or did you just focus on getting into the legend when the show first started?

JG: No, that’s always been part of all the shows that I’ve done. I’m a big believer in that part of the experience, you know? If you talk to anybody about travel, just personally, so much of what they’ll tell you about any trip is the mechanics of the trip. How the flight was, what went wrong, what went right, how they got stranded at that train station.

One of the things that always struck me as kind of strange about travel-themed TV is how glossy it all is, ya know, which really doesn’t match our experiences. That’s fine if you’re doing an aspirational, you know, “world’s greatest pools” kind of thing or something, but you know for us, the journey is the expedition, right?

It’s called Expedition Unknown, and a big part of it is creating that context of: Where is this archeological dig happening? Where are these people working in the world? And I think that by showing not just the vehicles, but difficult, challenging foods, the breakdowns, the flat tires, the challenges, it really brings the viewer onto the expedition, you know? Suddenly, they’re riding shotgun. They’re not just at home watching this; they’re a part of it, and I think the more that you can be real about what’s going on out there, the better it is.

MT: Even when you have a choice of vehicles, there’s got to have been some good ones and some bad ones. You talk about breakdowns and flat tires; what are the best and worst vehicles you’ve driven for the show?

JG: It’s a long list, and I used to do a series before this where we would almost pick horrible vehicles as a gag, so I’ve driven just about every weird car you can name. For me, cars are, as you know, they’re a very personal thing, right? There are certain models and makes and lines on a car that just speak to us.

I love Land Rover Defenders. I love ’em. I love the old 90 Defender; it’s my favorite car. I just see one—even the 110—but if I just see one of those things parked, I just stop in my tracks every time. Uh, they are not the most comfortable cars for long-distance expeditions. There’s of course this great rivalry between people with the old Defenders and the old Land Cruisers, right, and the Land Cruiser is, hands down—and I know I’m gonna get hate mail for this—it’s a more comfortable car. It is! But the Defender is so sexy. It’s undeniable. It’s just amazing. So my favorite experience is anytime I get behind the wheel of a Defender. You know, old school, stick Defender, and I’m out in some exotic place, I just never feel more free or more excited than that, so that’s the top of my list. That’s the upper echelon.

The bottom is probably, like, those cars that you walk up to and you go, “I’ve never seen this before.” Some Russian, some like, Bulgarian vehicle from the ’60s that has, like, a crazy stick shift. I’ve had some long days in some of those old Citroëns, those old Meharis, you know, with the crazy shifter that comes out sideways and the whole car feels like—I mean, the car’s made of plastic, effectively, right? It was like, late ’60s, ’68, something like that, and they decided, “We should make a car that’s primarily plastic and fabric,” ya know? And driving around in those things is like, you just feel like it’s running on wisps of smoke. It feels like some Jules Verne vehicle. It doesn’t feel real.

MT: After 175 episodes of Expedition Unknown, do you have any idea how many vehicles you’ve driven at this point?

JG: No idea. No idea, but I mean, I’ve been to 108 countries, you figure we’ve driven multiple vehicles in each one, and we’ve made, as you said, well over 100 shows, so … I’d 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 we’re kinda in a city or something. Most of the time, there are some 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 that was complicated to operate, to say the least. What was the most difficult vehicle you’ve had to drive?

JG: The difficult ones are the ones that are just not made for consumers. That vehicle, that is—I couldn’t even tell you the model, but a big old Soviet truck that was a military truck, and the shifters are behind the seat. And when you turn around and look at them, there’s like four shifters. And you know, I’m sure it’s beyond the gears, it’s like high-gear and low-gear boxes, and stuff like that. I mean, it’s insane, so without a kind of tutorial, you’re just doomed.

I’ve driven tanks a few times; same thing, like somebody really has to give you a primer on this, or you’re just gonna smoke it within 20 feet.

MT: With all these crazy vehicles in all these exotic locations, what’s your most memorable experience behind the wheel, good or bad?

JG: I love driving. It’s a funny thing: Whenever we hire new producers on the show or new folks who work on the series, they say, “Well, we need to get X amount of drivers in the country we’re in,” and I always say, “No, you don’t need that many. I’ll be driving one of the cars.” And they’re kind of gobsmacked, like, “You’re gonna actually … we’re driving 17 hours across this desert. You wanna drive?” And I always say, “Yeah, I wanna drive.” Because some of these experiences, you know, I have a real appreciation for the good fortune that—you can’t replicate some of these experiences. You know, it’s hard in some of these places as a tourist to get 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 that case, across, I don’t know, a thousand or more miles of the deserts in Mongolia, and there were no roads, ya know? They let me drive one of the vehicles in the train, and they had GPS units duct-taped to the steering wheel. And that was it. And you would just drive these dunes, and sometimes you’d see tracks, old, faded tracks going in different directions that linked other towns and other cities. Of course, without a kind of guide car at the head of this, I’d still be out in the Gobi desert, but that to me was just incredible, because it just … you know, sometimes it’s like, OK, we’re going to go to these dunes, and you can drive around a little bit. This was driving a thousand miles with no roads. It was just, to me, I’d never had that kind of experience, and it really was just so liberating but also made you feel so small, you know? I mean, these little lifeboats out in the desert, and you sort of imagine a camera zooming away from it up to space, and it would just be nothingness but these four little cars. So that, to me, was a huge highlight.

MT: People are sure to ask, then: “What does Josh Gates drive at home?”

JG: Oh, interesting question. I drive a current model Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.

My very first car when I was a kid was a 1986 hand-me-down Cherokee from my mom and dad. It was the first car I ever drove. It was beat to heck by the time I got it, and that car—also very iconic, you know, boxy car (ahem) like the Defender—man, I drove that thing into the ground. I mean, it was, by the time it was done, it wasn’t worth 50 bucks. And you know, the specs on those old ’86 Cherokees weren’t anything to write home about to begin with, really. And so, I now have the current Cherokee Trailhawk edition, which is great. Real powerful, nice car.

I have almost bought a used Defender 90 probably a hundred times. I’ve been on eBay Motors and looked at it and hovered over the button, shaking. You know, those cars are like choosing to buy a sailboat. You know you’re going to spend a lotta time working on the mahogany on the decks and fixing motors.

So you know, I’ve never pulled the trigger on it, and now I’m kind of cautiously looking at the new Defenders. Obviously, I’m a purist, so there’s a period of mourning here that we’re all going through. But they’re pretty cool. They’re specced out; they’re impressive. You know, I think about my old Cherokee—I think that thing had, I don’t know, an 180-something-horsepower inline-four, it wasn’t much—and, uh, that new Defender is almost 400 horsepower. I mean, really legit vehicle. And real, legit off-road vehicle specs. So maybe in my future, there may be a new Defender. But for now, I’m real happy with my Jeep, actually.

MT: Well, if you do decide that you wanna learn how to wrench and get under the hood, you will spend a lot of time under the hood of an old Defender.

JG: Exactly! No better way to learn, right? And that’s the thing about those cars. Like, yeah, they need a lot of work and this and that, but it’s also because they’re put through a lot, you know? I’m amazed, I think the Defender—maybe the Jeep Wrangler and Willys, but the Defender even more so—you see more old Defenders still operating around the world in these really harsh environments. I mean, that is a car that, if you—you know, it’s so simple under the hood, in a lot of ways. None of it’s computerized, any of that, so it’s one of these cars that if you can keep ’em alive, man, they’ll run forever.

MT: What’s the white whale? What cars are you still looking for in future seasons?

JG: Well, you know, it’s funny. I have a little bit of like a Top Gear itch that I’d like to scratch. You know, my show’s rugged and rough, so I don’t often end up behind the wheel of luxury vehicles. But there’s a part of me that thinks, why not? Even an adventure guy gets to take a shower once in a while and clean up, so I’d like to maybe take a test on some high-end luxury cars. They’ll never let me do that.

But that’s my dream, and then, I really do want to drive the new Defender. I haven’t seen one in person yet. I haven’t seen one out in the wild. I’d love to get behind the wheel of that and check it out. I was really fortunate a couple years ago to do a thing with Land Rover on the new Discovery, and I am just champing at the bit to get behind the wheel of that Defender.

MT: Any automotive legends, maybe, that need investigating?

JG: You know, we’ve talked about a few over the years. There’s a story about—I’m not sure if it’s James Dean’s car, I’m trying to remember now. There’s a couple of famous missing cars over the years that we’ve talked about doing, but they’re such specific stories, and a lot of them are kinda dead ends, you know? But hey! Always open for a new adventure. If you’ve got a good automotive mystery story for me, I’d love to hear it.

I’d love to go to Fordlandia, down in the Amazon, and see the remains of Ford’s insane rubber plant down there. That’s a cool destination I’ve never been to. I’m open to any and all automotive mysteries. Send ’em my way.

MT: We’ll send you a list for next season. At the moment, though, people can only watch Expedition Unknown in reruns, but you have a new live show on Discovery Channel.

JG: That’s right! We started a few weeks ago making a real short edition of this talk show—it’s called Josh Gates Tonight. We started doing little 10-minute versions of it, and then we did a full-hour version for Earth Day, which was great, and now it’s moving to 9 o’clock on Wednesday nights, which is kinda my old Expedition Unknown timeslot. And I’m gonna be here in my headquarters away from headquarters here in my home office. And we’re having a lot of fun. Look, I think it’s really important in this time when we are all sequestered at home to remember that the spirit of adventure is still alive and that there is this big, wide world out there that is waiting for us. And we’re having a lot of fun talking to explorers and adventurers and really just trying to connect with viewers, and as best we can take them on a little adventure with us every week from behind this desk.

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