Method In The Madness

Originally Published: April 2014 Words: Paul Looe Pictures: Harry Hamm

Richard Fox is known as Vitara Mad on the forums he frequents. The more you see of the latest Suzuki he’s built, however, the more you’ll find yourself thinking that if this is the work of a madman, the line between insanity and genius must be a very fine one indeed… 

All too often, playday trucks which aren’t road-legal can be, not to put too fine a point on it, sheds. There’s nothing wrong with putting a cage and some tyres on a post-MOT corpse and wheeling ‘til you kill it, but that sort of motor tends not to be, shall we say, the last word in engineering finesse.

At first glance, you might lump Richard Fox’s Vitara in with the rest of the not-road-legal brigade. But if you do that, you might as well do it to the top comp safari racers and challenge buggies too. Because this vehicle, unassuming as it may look, is a serious bit of kit.

Live front axle? Check. Properly done body and chassis mods? Check. Rock Lobster transfer case? Check. Oh, Rock Lobster transfer case AND the original one still there too? Check. You can have a lot of fun in a Vitara with a small lift and a slightly bigger set of tyres, but this here’s the good stuff. It might not be pretty, but it’s more than pretty capable.

Richard, whose forum handle is Vitara Mad, started out like many off-roaders on two wheels. But then his mate, who was between vehicles, got a Vitara to run around in – and, lads being lads, they ended up taking it off-road at the Desert in Mansfield.

‘It was so much fun,’ he says, ‘I went out and bought an SJ. Then I bought another, and we used them a couple of times before I bought my first Vitara. I used it a couple of times off-road, totally standard, then started modding it.

‘I did a lot of work on that Vitara, but after a while I broke it up for parts and moved on to another. I’ve had a few since then.’

He’s also had a Jimny and five-door Vitara diesel as daily drivers, as well as ‘four or five’ Nissan Terranos and an Isuzu Trooper, so it’s safe to say that this is a man who likes his 4x4s Japanese. Well, Spanish in the Terrano’s case, but who’s asking?

Anyway, one day a fellow member of Yorkshire Suzuki had a Vitara for sale. ‘It was fairly standard,’ says Richard, ‘apart from some Grand Vitara springs and a rotten body.’ Being a man who likes doing all his own work, that didn’t concern him unduly, so the next (and currently latest) in his long line of Vitaras was on its way home.

‘I started with the mods from the moment I got it,’ he says. ‘I started off by doing three-inch body and suspension lifts, then I cut the body and chassis and did a lot of other mods too. It’s been a bit at a time since then, and I’m still going at it now.’

Makes it sound so simple, doesn’t he? Get underneath the vehicle, though, and you’ll see pretty much straight away that it’s anything but. More than anything else, the Vitara’s original independent front suspension has been axed off and replaced with a live axle – part of a conversion that’s turned the vehicle into a blend of Suzuki and Land Rover.

That’s because the axle, like the one behind it, is from a Discovery. Plenty of strength there for anything weighing as little as a Vitara, especially when it’s still powered by the original 1.6-litre petrol engine, and for much the same reason a set of standard Disco springs provide plenty of extra height. ‘It is lifted quite a lot compared to a standard Vitara’ says Richard, ‘but I’ve not measured how much. It’s been changed a few times now, though.’

The axles are attached by a more or less standard set-up involving a panhard rod up front and an A-frame at the back. Richard fabricated his own front radius arms, though, as well of course as prepping the whole chassis with mounts for all the various items they needed. The back axle needed some welding work, too, to move the spring seats outboard so they’d line up with the upper mounts’ position on the Vitara frame.

Another small job on the chassis (ha ha) was to bobtail it. Not a word you hear very often in relation to the Vitara, but Richard took it town to just behind the spring mounts, then welded on a crossmember with plenty of extra bracing to support a rear winch tray. From the back of the cab, there’s literally space for just this and a custom fuel tank.

Ah yes, the back of the cab. At a glance, you’d never guess how much work has gone into getting this right – which, of course, is the true mark of a job well done.

Richard wasn’t going for a ‘you can’t see the join’ result here, but he wasn’t after lashing it up either and he’s a lot closer to the former than the latter. The join in question is where he cut the body behind the doors, fetching about two feet out of it and welding it back up to create a tidy little extra-cab. The shape of the original back body is retained, making it look a lot nicer than conversions of this nature that finish with a sheer flat sheet.

Elsewhere, the front arches have been cut out to clear a set of 255/100R16 Ziarelli Extreme Forest remoulds (the latest Simex-lookalike on the UK market) which stand 36.5” tall beneath them. Not a problem at the back, obviously, where there’s no bodywork at all, but an additional reshaping involved the footwells – which needed to be cut out and moved back further into the cab to create extra space for those big tyres.

Turning them is the whole set of standard drivetrain bits – engine, gearbox and transfer case, all of which are pretty much just as they were when they left the factory. The latter, however, has been modded to drive a second transfer case, this one an SJ unit with Rock Lobster gearing. The result? Something like a 7.1:1 overall reduction ratio, which means the engine never runs out of revs and Richard never runs out of control. Given the grip, he could drive up a lamp-post.

The second tranny drives the axles through a pair of propshafts made up by mating Toyota and Land Rover components. That’s not something Richard would have needed to bother with, however, if he’s taken the route he now wishes he’d gone down and used 80-Series Land Cruiser axles. Aside from being stronger still, these bring with them the benefit of having built-in diff locks for when articulation alone won’t do.

Given that Richard isn’t scared of getting his spanners out, you wouldn’t put it past him to be back in the workshop fitting a set of Cruiser axles at some point in the future. For now, though, his most immediate plans involve a roll cage, which would probably coincide with a trayback to finish off the truck’s rear end, and a bigger engine. He’s got his eye on Suzuki’s
2.5-litre V6 unit here, and who wouldn’t?

Wherever he takes the build next, Richard’s Vitara is one of the coolest you’ll find anywhere. However short and stubby it looks when you see it parked up, it’s transformed into a picture of elegant movement once it’s covering the most testing of terrain – and beneath that deceptively basic olive drab paint scheme, it’s a truck whose beauty quickly turns out to be so much more than skin deep.

So, did you think this Vitara was just another old beater when you first saw it? Well, how wrong you were. Road-legal, well, no, it’s not.

A top-notch bit of kit – oh, how surely it is.


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