Done Like A Pro

Originally Published: February 2018 Words: Paul Looe Pictures: Harry Hamm
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Since getting into off-roading, Tom Henman has only ever had one vehicle. Like most people, he’s bought some bits and fitted them himself – but he’s also very willing to make stuff from scratch. And when you can make it this well, why wouldn’t you?

Normally, modifying a 4x4 involves a mixture of doing stuff, making stuff and buying stuff. The balance depends on another balance – of how much time, skill and money you’ve got in your life.

We’re pretty used to seeing people doing their own spannering. Many will do their own welding, too, maybe handing it over to a pro or trusted friend when it comes to safety-critical stuff like chassis repairs, suspension brackets or roll protection.

Fewer will take on major-league sparky work. And most will only take on the big, heavy, complex or dangerous jobs if they’ve got mates around who can share the load (or blame).

Anyway, the point is that if you’re okay with the gas, making your own bumpers is quite an everyday job. So too is something like installing a lift kit or rebushing your suspension.

But when Tom Henman told us he’d made his own extended brake lines, we figured this was a guy who really likes doing it himself. It’s not as if these are particularly expensive to buy, after all – and elsewhere around his, Tom hasn’t been shy of spending money where the job’s been worth it.

Paddle clutches aren’t famed for their cheapness, for example, and neither are Rock Lobster transfer boxes. But elsewhere, almost anything you can do yourself, he’s done himself ‘with a little help from friends.’

It was his friends who got him into off-roading in the first place, too. Turned out he didn’t need much encouragement, and since the bug bit there’s not many playdays or lane runs the guys from Trans Pennine Off Road Events have put on that he hasn’t been part of.

And it’s all been aboard this Jimny. A JLX hard-top from the year 2000, he bought it three years ago. ‘It only had two owners from new,’ he says. ‘Before myself, it had a careful lady owner. Oops!’

Of course, that’s exactly the sort of vehicle you want to start with. And Tom wasted no time it getting down to business on the Jimny – which has the advantage of just being a toy, meaning he doesn’t have to work around needing to use it for getting about.

As always, it’s progressed in stages, and as always it’s not finished yet. Tom plans to turn it into a pick-up and fit it with a full cage at some stage in the future, as well as swapping out the Suzuki axles for Land Rover units.

As it is, the Jimny axles remain more or less standard. Their casings are trussed for strength, but their internals are as they were – which is acceptable on a standard 1.3-litre engine and relatively sensible 31” tyres.

There are two possible routes to take when modding a Jimny, of course. One is to pull everything out and replace it with, for example, the engine, drivetrain and axles from something like a Defender or Land Cruiser. What you end up with in this case, obviously, is a vehicle that’s as heavy as a Defender or Land Cruiser.

The other option is to try and keep the weight down, making the most of what is one of the Suzuki’s greatest strengths. And this is what Tom’s done. That’s one reason why the engine is still standard – and one reason why the standard engine is still enough.

As it is, the engine runs a four-branch manifold and straight-through exhaust to help it breathe more easily. That allows it to develop a little more power – and between this and the Rock Lobster, pulling a 31” tyre is no problem at all.

The tyres are Fedima Siroccos, which fit thanks to a combination of real and virtual lifts. The suspension has been hiked by 4.5” total, and there’s also a 1.5” body lift using extended mounts made by a machinist friend, then the arches have been trimmed, trimmed and trimmed some more. The wings have been remade using riveted-on panels, which gives the vehicle a nice old-skool boy racer look.

Not that boy racers tended to carry home-made roof racks fabricated from 1” box, but never mind. This is home to the Jimny’s spare, which won’t fit on the back door any more, and to a full-width light bar that does a very good job of turning night into day.

The good thing about LEDs is that they give you a lot of light for a little electricity, but nonetheless the Jimny’s battery has been upgraded using one from a 2.8-litre Ford Sierra. That’s to cope with the demand from the winch, a 12,500lb Champion unit running 11mm synthetic rope which Tom rates as one of the two best mods he’s done.

The other one? Same as ever. We ask a lot of Suzuki owners to rate the best mods they’ve made to their trucks, and if they’ve done a Rock Lobster it’s basically the first thing they mention. SJs and Jimnys are a lot of things, but low-geared isn’t one of them, and you don’t need many experiences of burning your clutch while trying to get across axle twisters, spinning out because you need first to get up hills or turning into a passenger when cadence braking fails on the way back down to convince you that a proper set of transfer gears is what you need most in your life. Upgrade to bigger tyres – even just the sensibly sized 31s on Tom’s truck, let alone the 33s and even 35s you see on Jimnys – and you can add being able to get around at all to the list. Oh, and not needing a new clutch every 25 minutes.

So, Tom’s top two mods are things you buy, not build. He didn’t make the +4.5” springs and shocks that transform his Jimny from a bottom-scraper to a high-rider, either, and the radius arms holding the axles to the chassis came from Off-Road Armoury. But if you see the truck coming towards you, or you catch up with it on the road, the first thing you’ll notice about it will be his own handiwork.

Home-made bumpers can look a bit hit-and-miss – the designs you’ll see have been known to feature a length of wide-bore tube ground off roughly at the ends or just a random length of whatever was in the scrap, welded on with optimism and looking like something to be driven during a zombie apocalypse. By zombies.

At the other end of the scale, you’ll see structures that would more than pass muster alongside the professionally made units people shell out for to the tune of a grand and more. And Tom’s are definitely tending towards that sort of territory.

At the back, the bumper’s design follows the shape of the bodywork very tightly to mimic the original Suzuki item in heavy-duty form. The number of different designs you see is almost as great as the number of people doing the designing, but a common theme among too many of them is laziness. Tom’s has its ends swept up beneath the light clusters to provide as much protection as possible all the way round the back of the vehicle – and, no small matter, not to leave the ugly gap some off-roaders very obviously don’t care about.

That means extra planning, grinding and welding, of course. But the result is a bumper that looks bought-not-built even though it’s the other way round.

Same deal up front. Tom extended the chassis to make brackets for a winch bumper that’s expertly shaped around the nose of the vehicle – and, no small thing, rounded off at the corners where many are sharply angled. The winch tray doesn’t project out further than it needs to, either, and topping it all off is a stinger – still more of a rarity in the UK than they ought to be, considering the life-saving difference they can make to what your vehicle will do in an endo.

This too is beautifully made, and the whole thing provides a mounting point for Tom’s own home-made steering guard. The level of finish might not be quite up to the powder-coated prettiness you see on loadsamoney bumpers coming out of factories in Australia and the US – but there are plenty of fabricators earning a living by building these things to order, and on this evidence if Tom decided to join their ranks he’d be able to stand in line alongside most of them.

As it is, he’ll be honing his skills yet further when turning his Suzuki into a cage pick-up on Landy axles. What size tyres will it be on after that? Watch this space – but if the Jimny belonging to fellow TPORE member Johnathan Taylor is  anything to go by, don’t make any assumptions about this being as high as Tom’s going to go. The only thing that’s safe to assume about this vehicle is that if a thing on it can be made at home, it probably will be.

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