Early Starter

Originally Published: May 2013 Words: Alan Kidd Pictures: Alan Kidd

Mike Harris knew what he wanted: a red truck. It took him three and a half years to get there, but as it turns out it looks like he knew a lot more as well…

We get accused of a lot at Total Off Road. In most cases, it’s encouraging people to get into modifying vehicles, for which we’re 100% guilty as charged. Obviously, it’s not our fault if you get so into it that you neglect to eat, sleep and wash, forget who your wife is and develop the ability to tell DOT4 from EP90 by taste alone, but you know, perils of the game and all that.

Anyway, Mike Harris. He saw a truck in TOR a few years ago (July 2007, to be exact) and thought it looked the business. By which we mean he liked the colour of it.

Nothing wrong with that. It’s what colour’s there for. And it’s not like the truck that caught his eye was exactly lacking in the brass tacks department, either. You can make your own mind up, anyway because it was Steve Green’s deeply brilliant Land Rover 90.

So let’s get the colour thing out of the way first. Mike decided that one day, wanted a truck that looked like that, and years later he had a bare shell sat in his garage being sprayed up by a mate who did that sort of thing.

A day or so after that, he was rubbing it all back down again, presumably while grinding his teeth and swearing a lot. Turns out the paint hadn’t been mixed right, so instead of going offto a nice finish it cracked as it dried and ended up looking like a bloodbath in a vinyl roof factory.

We’ll gloss over (boom boom) quite what happened next, as it involved a health and safety infringement so outrageous the UN almost had to get involved, but let’s just say Mike’s truck now has a nice, deep two-pack finish and so far he’s still alive, and leave it at that.

And the truck itself? A Suzuki Samurai Commercial, mixed with many, many other bits from Suzuki and beyond. At least, it is now.

When the tale started, the truck was just a Suzuki Samurai Commercial plain and simple. Well, almost. It was a Suzuki Samurai Commercial with a dark secret. ‘It looked perfect when I bought it,’ Mike recalls. ‘People kept saying how nice and clean and rust-free it was. But then I started doing a lot of trials and playdays, and I was finding that every time I took it off-road I was leaving bits of it behind!’

As it turns out, there was a reason why the Sammy was so rust-free. To get rust, first you need metal. ‘Basically, my Suzuki was made of filler. And someone had had a go at welding it who really couldn’t.’

Mike carried on modifying the truck for a while, admitting now that this probably wasn’t the smartest thing he’s ever done, before finally deciding to face facts and meet the rust problem head-on. ‘I collected all the bits I was going to need, like front wings, bonnet, windscreen panel and rear quarters. Then I stripped it and had it blasted with iron shot. My mate who did it said lumps were coming out all over the place!’

What he got back looked pretty hair-raising. But however crinkly, hole-shot or just plain not there it was, at least it was made of metal, not filler. And so, two years after he first bought the Suzuki, the project could really begin.

Obviously, it started with welding. Lots and lots and lots of endless, soul-destroying welding of the sort that would make a grown man cry. Mike was barely out of school at this point, so you’ve got to hand it to him for not jacking it in. ‘Fortunately, I hadn’t discovered beer, kebabs and women by that point!’ he says now…

Mike buys and sells bits from old Suzukis as a sideline, but even then it took a while to come by everything he needed. Still, the end result was a vehicle that combines the shell, chassis and rear door of the original van with the front end, doors, bonnet, fuel tank, wheelarches, grille and dashboard from a 1995 Samurai. Sorted. All he had to do now was, er, paint it.

It won’t have escaped your notice that when it came to building it back up, he had a plan. A plan involving some real lift, stacks of travel and axles that weren’t going to put up the white flag at the first sign of a ruck. Again, not unlike Steve Green’s red and black Defender, which itself rode on 36” Simexes and was built to take the rough with the even rougher.

Talking of Simexes, that’s what Mike had. We’re jumping ahead here, but one day he found a chap on eBay who was desperate to shift a set of Boggers. Not the way to be if you want to get a good price for the stuff you’re flogging, and Mike made absolutely sure that he didn’t.

That left him packing a set each of two of the most iconic 4x4 tyres of our time. But he couldn’t justify keeping both, and truth to tell he wasn’t sure which was going to be better. Only one way to find out, so on went the Boggers and out he went to play. And they haven’t moved since.

As I say, we’re jumping ahead there. But if we went through the build step by step, this would be a book, not a magazine – that’s what happens when a project is three and a half years in the making. The pictures tell most of the story about the spec, but of course there were all the usual moments of doubt, triumph, disaster and despair along the way. Oh, and poverty – it may have been done at home in Mike’s spare time, but this was by no means a cheap build.

You don’t stuff your axles with Lock-Rights and 26-spline Rock Assault chromoly halfshafts and CVs without putting your hand in your pocket, for example, and nor do you come back from Rob Storr’s with a high-steer kit and fully floating back end conversion.

Further extreme shopping yielded axle trusses, diff guards and SPOA saddles from Off Road Armoury, a Muddy Zook adaptor plate for the 16-valve Vitara engine Mike was using, a Rockwatt Rock Bucket, Trail Gear Bone Shackles and Missing Links for the front suspension and a Granite Bashers DIY front bumper kit.

Mike went through various phases of trying to decide how he wanted the bumper to look, before cutting off a lot of metal in the upper part of it and trying to line it up visually with the roll cage. He went through a lot of cable ties during this part of his life, but finally got it the way he wanted and was able to move on to details like getting the engine to run.

This is normally the bit where the words ‘wiring loom’ show up to ruin the fun like an unwanted in-law at Christmas, but the Vitara kit went together fine and, juiced by a battery donated by Bob at RJB Autokraft, the MPI unit fired up nicely.

Some time later, in the charming way fuel injection has of making its own mind up about things, it decided to stop doing that. Well, it would fire up, but then after a few seconds it would die again. Just what you need when you’re trying to crack on with a build – endless hours of painstaking and seemingly futile fault tracing. Mike found himself getting the raging hump and the whole project at this stage – he did manage to cure it, eventually, but his faith in multi-point systems was pretty much shot. ‘Far too complicated! Give me something simple any day…’

Another teeth-gnashing moment came courtesy of the Toyota Land Cruiser props he was modifying to work with the Suzuki transmission and axles. ‘I’ve got SJ axles, so of course I had some SJ diff flanges machined up to fit the props. But then I remembered that I’m running Vitara diffs! The thread pitch on the splines is different, so the whole job had to get done again.’

This counts as nothing more than one of those ‘doh!’ moments that happen to us all from time to time, but it does point up an important truth about projects like this.

‘Everything you work on is different,’ explains Mike. ‘That’s what happens when you modify everything, of course. All the silly little things that would take a few minutes if it was all standard take hours instead. Mounting the power steering reservoir, for example – that ended up taking me an hour and a half!’

This perhaps begins to illustrate why the build took so long, but in truth that was really because Mike was only ever able to do it in his spare time while things like going to university and earning the money to pay for it got in the way (they do that). There was an element of finding his way as he went along, too – not in terms of workshop skills, though he does say that when you’re faced with what he had to take on in the early days of the project, ‘you learn to weld pretty quick,’ but with the details of the way the truck came together.

Even once it was up and running, he found himself thinking about the changes he’d like to make – the angle of the back shocks in our photos, for example, was already on the list, as he intended to scallop the chassis rails and fit upright towers similar to the ones on the front.

Then there’s the inevitable breakages that come with shaking down a vehicle that’s been built for hardcore action. Obviously, after all those years in the workshop you can’t help but hope that it’ll all work exactly as you wanted, but realistically the whole point of your first half-dozen outings is to break stuff so you can redo it better. A perfect example was the rear halfshaft that let go even as the fully floating axle kit was on order from Rob Storr – had that been in place already, you wouldn’t mind betting the shaft would have lived.

Both diffs needed rebuilding too, as the backlash they’d been set up with was all wrong once the flanges had been modded to suit the Land Cruiser props, and then one of them blew up in a big way on an early off-road outing. A crack in the cylinder head didn’t improve his mood, either, and three events was enough to have him replacing the hub bearings all round.

Next came a meeting with some deep, silty water that crucified his fans and alternator, left his engine running with a horrible rattling noise and broke his winch in two. Then both front calipers seized and one of the rear ones went off like a grenade, and finally the rear axle breather snapped, allowing the case to fill up with yet more silty water.

That last incident brings the story up to date, because it happened at the photoshoot where the pictures you’re looking at here were taken. But the good news is that though Mike’s enthusiasm definitely went through a few low points on the way, he was making plans for a stronger axle and better suspension even as he set off for home.

So, if you see a distinctive red and black Samurai while you’re out and about off-roading, give it some respect. This truck has been a long-term labour of love, and while the last few sentences may make it sound fragile, the breakages it’s had are just the teething pains of a built that’s still shaking down into what is clearly one of the best leafers in the country.

Mike’s been through a lot to create this truck. He’s owned it for about a quarter of his life, after all, and most of that time has been spent fighting with it in the workshop. We reckon it was worth every moment. It’s the stuff of legend, this truck – a heart-and-soul off-roader that covers ground with style and was built right from the word go. It’s getting more and more sorted all the time, too. And most of all, it’s a great colour.


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