Go With The Pro

Originally Published: August 2018 Words: Paul Looe Pictures: Harry Hamm
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First Appeared in 4x4 Magazine, July 2017

When Chris Simpson decided his taste in extreme terrain warranted a specialised off-road machine, he knew the best way to build one. Which was to hand it straight over to one of the most renowned custom vehicle builders in the business.

I’ve always been info off-roading,’ says Chris Simpson. ‘As far back as I can remember.’ Depending on his memory, that could be anything from several decades to about five minutes, but we’re guessing it’s been a while. He’s already moved from the gentle art of green laning to searching out the most challenging terrain he can find, for example – and he’s also done the classic thing of having a Land Rover then deciding to have something else instead.

‘I soon realised they’re more of a farm vehicle,’ is Chris’ somewhat less than charitable view of Solihull’s finest. ‘I got sick of breaking it all the time.’

If you want a 4x4 that doesn’t break all the time, it won’t be long before you start wondering if you might be able to help that Toyota Land Cruiser over there find its way home. Before even that, however, you’ll almost certainly have noticed how temptingly lightweight Suzuki Jimnys are – and done some logic-based thinking about how people who own one almost never wander off to switch to anything else instead.

Chris clearly thought about both these things. At the same time. Because what he’s ended up with is a truck that blends Suzuki and Toyota into one winning hybrid that very much comprises the best of both worlds.

It’s still a Suzuki see. Chassis, bulkhead, body… you know, the stuff that makes a car what it is. But it’s also a Toyota… well, the axles are. You know, the stuff that makes a 4x4 what it is.

So it’s both. Both a Suzuki Jimny and a Toyota FJ70 Land Cruiser. It’s also a Suzuki Liana (that’s what donated the 1.6-litre engine) and a Toyota Hi-Lux Surf (propshafts). And then it’s an original. In fact, it’s an original through and through.

The work was done by James Sunderland, of JS Customs, who chopped the ends off the Jimny’s chassis, replaced them with winch trays and then rebuilt the body using a full exo cage, tubular wings and a rear tray. He also fetched off the Suzuki axles and all their mounts, replacing them with the aforementioned Land Cruiser units running a full custom suspension set-up.

This uses fabricated mounts for the springs, shocks and all links alike. The front axle has a three-link set-up, with a panhard rod locating it laterally, while the rear has a four-link arrangement using separate inner arms arranged in the shape of an A-frame but able to move independently of each other. In every case, Johnny Joints have been used wherever possible.

So that’s an engine and a couple of axles, and the normal way of doing it is to put some stuff in between. Stuff like a completely original Jimny manual box, which isn’t very interesting, and a 6.5:1 Rock Lobster transfer case, which most certainly is. This turns the pair of Hi-Lux Surf propshafts we mentioned a moment ago, which in turn have suitable flanges to mate up with the LJ70 axles.

This all adds up to a pretty serious project, and it takes a brave person to rip into a perfectly innocent little Jimny and do a such a life-changing load of work. Chris is not that person, however – in fact, he’s braver still. ‘It was built as an off-roader before I got it,’ he explains. ‘But it was very badly built. So it’s had a full strip-down and complete rebuild.’ And a bit more besides, you might suggest.

Often, projects make progress through a series of slow and faltering steps, but this one wasn’t like that. ‘It just got dropped off at JS Customs and James stripped it back to the bare chassis and did his thing,’ says Chris, who’s happy to do his own maintenance but wanted to get a pro in for something as fundamental as this. And he doesn’t regret doing so, either: ‘I’m so glad it was built where it was, because of James’ knowledge. It doesn’t want for much now.’

What it does want for is ARB Air-Lockers and Maxxis Trepadors. Actually, it’s Chris who wants for those on its behalf, but you get the idea. The lockers are definitely on the agenda – the rear axle contains a limited-slip diff at present, but as we all know those are about as much use as a concrete parachute in the sort of terrain where only the good stuff will do. 

As for the Treps, he’s already rolling on Fedima Siroccos so that’s just being greedy. Premium over remould, maybe… but one way or the other, we don’t have much doubt that when he puts his ronnies up for sale, he’ll have punters breaking his door down for them.

He’s also going to fit air freespools for his winches, which will happen at the same time as the ARBs on account of then he’ll have some air on board to work them. But that apart, it’s all pretty much exactly as he pictured it. 

So what works best? Normally when we ask that question of Suzuki owners, they immediately start talking about the gearing in their transfer box (or boxes, in some pioneering cases), but step forward James Sunderland. ‘I would say the suspension, and the way it’s set up. It seems to be spot on, with loads of flex but still stable.’ The holy grail, then.

This isn’t the first ‘super Jimny’ to have emerged from the workshops of Britain’s off-road enthusiasts. But while many have been outstanding, not a lot can touch it for its blend of simplicity, build quality and good, sound engineering. Plenty of builds have tripped themselves up by being too ambitious, but this one was all about getting the basics right – keep on top of the weight, use trusted bits and don’t let your head get turned by V8 engines, portal axles or any of that fancy stuff.

The result? Not a look-at-me spec sheet, but a truck that’s more than the sum of its parts. And it does have some great parts.

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