May The Force Be With You

Originally Published: October 2014 Words: Mike Trott Pictures: Mike Trott
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Dave Knapp's Jeep Grand Cherokee is nicknamed ' Vader' by his friends. Thats because of its slotted steering guard as opposed to any innate evil tendencies, but its a menacing looker nonetheless. With its long-arm suspension, though, it performs off-road with a much agility as the Dark Lord giving Obi Wan Kenobi a going over with his light sabre....

There is something very appealing about the Jeep Grand Cherokee. When we say ‘appealing’, of course, we mean brutal. It might be a school-run cliché, but it’s also a proper American heavyweight. A no-nonsense terrain-muncher with a stonking V8 engine. In its day, it was popular with city dwellers, but don’t be fooled: most of the time, quite frankly, it resembles a grizzly bear. With its big comfy seats, you could argue that its general appearance is a bit soft around the edges. But note that when a grizzly bear comes within 100 metres of you, that is your cue to start panicking. They can run, climb and swim faster than you. Much like Dave Knapp’s Jeep.

Dave hasn’t even bothered to keep it looking cuddly. It has a 4” lift and flared arches covering its wheels, and the steering guard at its front end looks like Darth Vader’s face mask, ‘Vader’ is indeed the Grand’s nickname amomg Dave’s off-roading mates. It was owned by a solicitor before Dave got his hands on it, and rumour has it that if was never taken off-road. Since then, though, Dave has discovered that, as the saying goes, the force is strong with this one.

 ‘I fancied building something different as I got bored of running Mitsubishis and Land Rovers, having gone through several of each brand,’ says Dave, who runs DK Automotive. The list includes two 300Tdis, a bobtailed Range Rover and lifted Mk1 and Mk2 Pajeros, and that’s to name but a few. Dave’s daily driver is currently a Shogun Sport – Vader is used more for green laning or playdays.

 ‘Seeing Nick Albion’s Grand in your mag really got me thinking about them as an off-roader,’ he continues. ‘I’ve always had a thing about Jeeps but had only owned an XJ, which I found too small. Then while chatting with my mate Jules about them, he let slip that one had come up for sale locally at the right sort of money. A few phone calls and a ten-minute drive later, I was the happy new owner!’

Since then, Vader has become a very capable off-roader. And talking to Dave, you can see why he appreciates some of the softer aspects of the brute. Those big seats for example…

‘My first memory of off-roading was going out in my mate’s Landy in my late teens – very bumpy and uncomfortable in a V8-powered Series IIA. Then a couple of us chipped in on a V8 Range Rover Classic for a bit of comfort.’

A lot of vehicles means a lot of off-roading, which in turn means a lot of memories. ‘The best? This is where it gets difficult – I've got so many! Standing on the driver’s side front of my bobtailed Range Rover Classic while hanging over a drop-off at a tagging event – and actually managing to get it down without a roll-over thanks to good work from my spotter. And powering over a crest at a playday in my Mk1 Shogun and landing with a splash in the best part of three feet of water!’

Times change, though, and so do the memories. As you get older, life has a habit of becoming less wet and wild and more warm and cuddly. ‘In the last few years,’ admits Dave, ‘playdays and so on have given way to laning. It’s become a real family affair, with my missus, little'un and dog coming along on a regular basis – giving us all some great memories and experiences. My daughter was so excited about the photoshoot that she couldn't wait, and was adamant that she would be in the truck with me during the drive round!’

Not that off-roading with his family has made Dave forget the old days. ‘Some of the stand-out memories have to be the crazy people that I have met along the way, who have become great friends. To be fair, they would be meaningless to most, but to us lot they are priceless – you all know who you are!’

As you can tell, Dave appreciates the social aspect of off-roading. He still loves getting out on the lanes over a weekend, and like many of us he likes the idea of popping a tent on his roof and turning the Grand into a holiday home. ‘I’d love to do a trip through the Pyrenees and Andorra at some point in the future.’ Shouldn’t be too hard to get his daughter excited about that, we’d think.

It would be a stark contrast to commuting to the office every day, at any rate, which Vader was once all too familiar with. Since Dave has acquired the Jeep though, it’s been a fast transformation from solicitor’s gin palace to green lane giant.

Actually, it was almost a transformation from solicitor’s gin palace to source of parts, because Dave managed to put a rod through the block within two days of buying the poor thing. He was always planning to bolt lots of new stuff to it, but we’re fairly sure he wasn’t expecting the first one to be a new engine…

Since then, though, things have gone more according to plan and the old days of padding up and down the tarmac have been put firmly in the past. It all happened quite quickly, and pretty recently, and in fact it’s still happening now. The bumpers are the latest additions to have gone on to Vader, but there’s still more to be done.

‘I love the way it drives,’ says Dave. ‘On the road, it drives just as well as it did when it was standard. And it’s great off-road too – plenty of travel, capable and really comfortable. The best mod so far has to be the long-arm kit.

‘There are a couple more things to be done though. I’d like to add a snorkel and some extended breathers, also some rock and tree sliders. I’d change the tyres too, for some Cooper ST 285s.’

So, he’s had a lot of Landies and a lot of Mitsubishis, and now he’s got a Jeep. Is this the keeper Dave has always desired then?

‘I'd like to think so, but never say never. I get a good reaction from most people – those that have been in it love it. I'm already getting the urge to build something else, as the build is part of the fun for me, but then strictly speaking this one isn’t finished yet...

It turns out that whether you’re building the Death Star or a Grand Cherokee capable of universal domination, you may never be 100% satisfied. We reckon that’s why they’re never happy on the dark side… but even if Vader does come on with the looks of a grizzly bear, the force is definitely with him. We photographed Dave’s Grand Cherokee at a site arranged by Xtreme Offroad 4x4.

Based in Somerset, the company promises ‘the most challenging off road course in the South West’ for its training and corporate clients. Get in touch with them by visiting xtremeoffroad.co.uk

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