Caught Short

Originally Published: April 2011 Words: Will Crotchley Pictures: Steve Taylor

If Steve Popple’s Vitara was any shorter, it would no longer be visible to the naked eye. You can certainly hear it coming, though – and going, almost anywhere.

Suzuki made the Vitara in various guises, from three-door to five-door. But Steve Popple’s is barely even a three-door. It would make the perfect vehicle for the Speaker in the House of Commons. Allegedly. Let’s face it, with this one he could be happy.

Suzuki 4x4s make a very satisfying base for a light off-roader, as many people have discovered. This particular vehicle came to Steve from a friend at that bastion of Suzukis, the Pennine Land Rover Club. It appeared without an accompanying MoT, but since Steve got at it, the chances of it ever getting another one seem to have receded.

This is no hack job though. Steve and son Ryan have been not only playing with 4x4s but also building them up for many years. Throughout the build of this Vitara, Ryan was still at school and he’s now an apprentice mechanic at Moorcroft Service Station in York. Seems like he’s already served an apprenticeship before he started his apprenticeship. Steve on the other hand is a self-employed antique restorer. No jokes about how that qualified him to work on this vehicle, thank you.

Before this Suzuki there were two SJ413s, a Lada Niva, a Discovery, a Range Rover V8 and a Shogun. Here’s a man who likes off-roading and clearly doesn’t get his axles in a twist about what badge they wear. And quite right too.

An SJ was the predecessor to this Vitara and that only went once Ryan reached the age of 14 and started to do some driving. At low speed, the steering was a bit heavy for him, so a Vitara with power-steering was the perfect progression. As you see, the finished result of their labours certainly isn’t heavy, giving the power-steering only light work to do.

Rather alarmingly, Steve’s list of future plans for the vehicle is longer than the chassis and includes such minor items as fitting a full roll-cage and a live front axle. But it’s not as if they’ve exactly left it as stock even so.

Since they clearly wanted the whole Hall of Mirrors look of squishing the vehicle shorter and taller, they started with the height issues. They took a thoughtful look at the front driveshafts and decided that a 3” lift would be too much on the front, almost certainly giving rise to problems with the CVs or diff – the latter not exactly being renowned for its unbustable strength on Vitaras.

Accordingly they began with a 2” block spring suspension lift and went out to play for a few months to see how it worked. A smart approach, and one that doubtless led to fewer problems and heartache later, compared to those who throw everything at it at once and then try to work out why this collection of changes isn’t quite all gelling together.

After playtime, it was time to go for 1.5” drop brackets on the independent front diff along with strut top spacers. At the rear they did go for 3”, with a spring lift and Pro-Comp shocks. Steve remains happy he didn’t try for more altitude on the front.

Having gone up, they now wanted to go in, so the next job was to shorten the chassis. At the front it was cut back to the suspension mounts and then braced with 6mm steel plate. At the other end it was shortened to the shock mounts and then braced with 3” square 6mm angle iron.

As the sharper among you will have spotted, this would have made the vehicle look slightly unusual if they’d left the body panels as they were. The front wings were cut twice and shortened in the middle so that they retained their original shape if not dimensions. Similarly, the bonnet was cut in the middle and then reshaped so that, according to Steve, it still has a Vitara shape. If you look at it with your eyes closed, at night.

The rear tailgate, hinged at the top, is now very close behind the seats and is removable so that the aforementioned roll cage can be slotted in at some point.

Under the shortened front end there is just about room for the engine – good job they left enough, because they’d look a bit silly without it. However, the radiator had to go and stay with relatives behind the driver’s seat, forced out through overcrowding. It’s actually originally from a Fiat van (thank you eBay) and came complete with electric fan. The Vitara expansion tank decided to go and share space with the radiator too, while the coil only made it as far as the inside of the car, just behind the glovebox, before it put down roots.

On the outside it’s impossible to miss the honking Safari Snorkel. Usually this is a simple mod, but in this case it was trying to connect with items that were missing. The inner wings had been removed and remodelled and the air filter box had also been removed. The air filter is now the big cone version you see in the photos, and it lives inside a plastic box that originally held hot chocolate. Hope it was properly cleaned before being fitted. This box is in turn fitted to the snorkel, using 3” dust extraction pipe that came from Steve’s workshop.

To mix with the air we need some fuel (call me traditional), and that lives in a plastic tank that originally came from a boat. To get the fuel from the tank to the engine, there’s a Mercedes-Benz fuel filter and a Bosch high-pressure pump. The fuel pipes run inside the vehicle, along the driver’s side of the transmission tunnel before disappearing through the bulkhead. An interesting thought the next time Steve finds himself upside down in the vehicle on a hot day, you might be musing.

So, having mixed our fuel and air with a satisfying result, we now need to get rid of the gases. The exhaust runs on the passenger’s side of the transmission tunnel, under the seat and out through a Suzuki motorcycle exit pipe. At least it’s the other side from the fuel pipes, and there’s a heat shield under the seat to stop the passenger’s posterior from resembling that of an angry baboon.

It must be said, apart from all the hot pipes and fuel lines inside, that the interior of the Vitara is something of an agoraphobic’s dream. It’s snug in there.

However it wasn’t long ago that the interior became an agoraphobic’s nightmare. It was Steve that first noticed it, having hopped into the cabin while the Suzuki was, he thought, safely tucked away in his yard a few days after some off-roading. At first he couldn’t put his finger on it, then he twigged. The roof was missing.

He’d replaced the original with a chequer-plate roof a while before, but it was only held on with some dodgy clips in the front and gravity everywhere else. At some point on the way back, while the vehicle was being trailered, the roof had ripped off completely and gone who knows where. Interesting that he drove it off the trailer, parked it up and left it for several days before noticing.

It’s amazing that anything is standard on this rig now. But so far, the brakes are stock bar extended braided hoses on the rear, so is the steering and even the engine sort of counts as stock. And that’s it. The rear limited-slip diff could be stock as it was standard on some Vitara models, but is actually a retro-fit by Steve in this particular case.

The overall result is a very singular, individual vehicle perfectly suited to both Steve and Ryan when they go trialling with North East 4x4. They built it, they trial it, they enjoy it, they tweak it some more. It’s an ongoing programme that, at some point, will include Calmini super-low gearing which has already been sourced, that full roll-cage and live front axle and much more. Who knows where it will end?

The Suzuki normally lives in his works yard, where Steve and Ryan tinker with it when they’re not playing and losing parts of it. Usually they work in the yard, but when it’s too bad out there they move the whole lot inside – into the antique restoration workshop. Again, please, no jokes; they’ve all been made before.

The Vitara must be an incongruous sight among the shelves of rolled up leather skivers and pots of Button Polish. But at least so far Steve’s resisted the temptation to fit mahogany veneer inlays to the dashboard or an oxblood Chesterfield sofa to replace the bucket seats. In work as well as in leisure, here’s a man who knows exactly which kind of antique he’s dealing with.


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