To Begin At The Beginning

Originally Published: October 2013 Words: Dan Fenn Pictures: Dan Fenn

When Chris Savage bought a Suzuki Jimny that had already been modified, he knew he was taking a risk. He’s moved the project on to the next level and turned it into the truck he wanted – but to make that leap forward, first he had to take a step back and start again from scratch.

When you’re building a modified vehicle, is it better to start with a standard example or adapt one that someone else has already had a go at? Most people normally go with the former approach – though when you see the sort of trucks that change hands for tiny money, it’s tempting to take a punt on sorting out another man’s mods.

The plus points in doing so? There are several. For starters, those low prices: modded motors don’t command strong money, so you save big on the sort of cash you’d pay for the same truck in standard form. Then there’s the kit you get that someone else has already shelled out on. And of course the guy selling it has already done all the work to fit that kit, too.

The downsides? There are several of those, too. That guy may have done the work to fit
the kit, but that doesn’t mean he did it well.

You don’t know how wisely he bought it, either. The branded kit you’re getting might have come from a dodgy online dealer who doesn’t care if the stuff he sells is fake, and if there’s been any welding in the project you’re putting your life in the hands of what could be no better than a tack-up job disguised with filler. On a slightly less sinister level, a vehicle that’s been built for off-roading has presumably been off-roaded, too, so you’re buying something that’s already been pasted the way a standard car almost can’t be.

As with everything in life, there’s good ‘uns and bad ‘uns in the market for previously modified trucks. If Chris Savage was to sell his Jimny, for example, it would definitely be one
of the former. But if you ask him what he would do differently if he could start over again, he’ll tell you one thing.

‘I would have started with a standard car,’ he says. ‘When I got the Jimny, it was nearly as you see it now – but it was a wreck. So I was rebuilding and modifying at the same time, which worked out quite expensive.’

Not the most promising start to a story there, then. But at least there’s an instant silver lining. ‘At least when it was done it was done right,’ he reflects. ‘And the big jobs were all done at the same time.’ It’s almost a story about restification, then, but rather than suffering the ravages of time his Suzuki had simply been beaten to death in its life as an off-road toy. Chris was no newcomer to off-roading when he bought the Jimny. Quite the opposite, in fact. ‘I first got into off-roading when I was 13,’ he says. ‘Me and my dad were on our way to a motorbike show at Kent County Showground when we saw a sign saying “4x4.” So not really being into bikes and more into cars, we went to find out what it was all about instead.

The site was Penny Spring Farm, which is no longer there, but we had a lift round with someone and caught the bug. The next month we had an SJ410 – which we towed on a dolly behind a 1.6 Austin Maestro!’

Since then, Chris has done the usual mixture of green laning, playdays and RTV, as well as marshalling at the old Woodlands site (another one that’s no longer running). But the list of trucks he’s owned is anything but run of the mill.

‘It all started with the SJ410,’ he says, ‘which was later fitted with a 1.6 Escort crossflow engine. Then I had a Lada Cossack 1.6 – everybody takes the mick, but it was a tank and went wherever you pointed it. Then there was a Daihatsu Fourtrak 2.8 TDS, Land Rover Series III 2.25 D, Suzuki Vitara LWB 1.6, Land Rover 110 200 Tdi, Discovery 300 Tdi and even a Daihatsu Terios. And yes, I off-roaded all of them!’

And now there’s the Jimny. It’s the most evolved off-roader he’s had, but it’s also his everyday car, so it was doubly important that when he rebuilt it, he did it right.

It’s blindingly obvious to say so, but when you buy an already-modded vehicle it’s going to have a history behind it. Chris was keen to find out where his Jimny had come from but the dealer he got it from didn’t really know anything useful, which didn’t help much.

Then, though, he got a stroke of luck. The truck had a roof-mounted spare wheel, which made for a pretty gruesome centre of gravity, so his first move was to fetch it down. ‘I noticed that there was a KAP Suzuki sticker under the strap,’ he says. ‘So I thought I’d get hold of them to see if I could find out any history on the vehicle. I sent them an email with some pictures, and their main guy Darren replied about a week later saying to ring him.

‘At this point, I’m expecting bad news. But I called and he told me he’d built it around 7-8 years ago (9 now). He said the car came from Leeds and was bought brand new by one of his loyal customers. The guy sent it to KAP for them to build a “pose machine,” so they put on a +3” lift, full CDS cage and snorkel, plus spacers and offset Grand Vitara rims plus tyres. They also did one of their van conversions on it.

‘He had it for four years or so then sold it on eBay, and that’s as much as Darren at KAP knew. After that it turned up in Kent, in the hands of a fencing company. Coincidentally, they put an old-style KAP bumper on it, but next thing I know it was for sale and I bought it.’

As we mentioned, it had been reduced to a wreck over the course of all this time. Chris is honest about the fact that it would have been better to start with a sound standard one – but as he says, at least this way he was able to get it the way he wanted all at once.

Bearing in mind that it’s got to be a reliable everyday motor as well as a capable off-road toy, Chris decided to keep the engine and drivetrain standard. Suzuki’s G13B unit is fitted with a heavy-duty clutch, and the props have 30mm spacers, but that apart it’s as you were all the way to those wheels.

This means the axles are as they left the factory, but the way they move certainly isn’t. This, and protecting his investment from off-road damage, is where much of Chris’ budget for the build was spent.

Here, the system beneath the vehicle blends parts from KAP and Off Road Armoury into one very nicely sorted set-up. The truck’s original builder is behind the lift itself, using +2” springs and +1” spacers, and these are paired up with Rough Country shocks adding +2-3” up front and +3-4.5” at the back – where KAP mounts prevent their lower bushes from binding as the axle droops. KAP’s radius arms are used (castor-corrected at the front), in heavy-duty Armuory mounts at the chassis and rear axle, and when you put it all together it flexes very nicely indeed.

Those ORA mounts are among the things that needed to be welded as the truck went together, and this is one of the few areas where he called in help from outside. ‘I do all my own work apart from cam belts and welding,’ he says. ‘I’ve had many a laugh building my truck – even laying out in the freezing cold, rain and snow! So thanks to all my friends who helped me make this happen – but mostly to my fiancée Samantha, for being so understanding of all the late nights, blood, sweat and tears.’

There might still be more of these things to come, because future plans include a diesel engine conversion, rear disc brakes, three-link suspension, lowered overall gearing and a swing-away spare wheel carrier. Not a whole lot in the way of of small jobs there. Chris is just as happy to be getting the details right, though: ‘I’m very proud of my home-made LED conversion for the rear lights,’ he says. ‘Took lots of brain power!’

So, it’s going to keep getting more and more highly developed, it would seem, this truck that started out as a pre-modified wreck and was pretty much pulled back from the brink. But you know what? Chris has a disarming piece of wisdom for would-be Jimny builders on which to close.

Which modifications have worked best, we ask. And are there any you’ve had to rethink?
‘A lift and tyres will make any Jimny great off-road,’ comes the response. ‘A mate of mine has one on a +2” lift with 195/80x15s. And that goes wherever mine does.’

However well sorted the truck now is, no wonder he still wants more. The difference is that this time, when he moves on with the project he’ll be modifying a Suzuki that’s already his own work. No more starting from scratch…


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