If you’ve got to have a major accident, you’d probably choose to have it in a 4x4. That’s what happened to John Lee when he rolled a Vitara: it was bad but, had he not been in a proper vehicle, it would probably have been worse. So when the time came to replace his Suzuki, he didn’t turn his back on o -roaders – he just made sure his next one would be the nearest possible thing to indestructible
A 4x4 is generally a robust kind of vehicle. Old ones don’t have the same sort of clever design as newer cars but they’re made of metal, and lots of it, and that’s only ever a good thing.
It’s often said that the feeling of security you get when driving a 4x4 is one of the reasons why they’ve become so popular as road cars. It helps to feel safe and sound when you’re o -road too, mind – though the sheer capability of a good truck can be enough to make you forget about the danger lurking around ever corner.
Inevitably, there are moments when we are reminded that neither our vehicles nor ourselves are indestructible. John Lee, owner of this hugely modi ed Mk1 Discovery, has had a moment or two in the past – which is why he built it like a Grade A wrecking ball.
John used to own a Suzuki Vitara, which he modded here and there and used at playdays. It did the job very well, as Vitaras tend to, but this was the vehicle John was driving when he learned the hard way how non-indestructible the human body can be.
‘I had bought this Vitara, which was a great little truck and I’d built it up a bit, but I had an accident in it a few years ago,’ he reminisces.
‘I rolled it four times and went through the windscreen in the process. My back was broken in three places and I had a punctured lung. It was a bit of a moment, I won’t lie.’
After an ordeal of such a scale, you could forgive a person for not wanting to step inside a 4x4 again, let alone taking any sort of detour from the tarmac. John, on the other hand, saw it as a wake-up call of another kind. He needed to build a stronger truck.
And here it is. His trayback Discovery is a bit like a bouncer outside a nightclub (AKA a ‘disco,’ obviously); quite tall, and a bit rough-looking around the edges, but more than anything else as solid as a bison would look if it was making prompt progress towards your position.
Not that this Disco merely looks strong. If you poke your head underneath it, you’ll see that pretty much everything that can be reinforced has been reinforced. And it’s all been done with one final aim in mind – to create an unbreakable off-roader.
‘The accident made me realise I needed something stronger,’ reflects John. ‘A friend of mine had been running this Discovery for a couple of years, but decided to sell it. I knew exactly what to do with it and it was the perfect opportunity.’
The Disco was originally a 3-door Commercial. But come February 2013, John started to take chunks out of his 4x4 (rather than the other way round). From start to finish, the project took around four months – though that was with ‘plenty of midnight oil burnt!’
With the help of his friend Adam Farnham from Sure Steel, John has put together what he considers to be a ‘completed’ project. It all sounds rather harmonious, really. But it was never that straightforward in truth.
Let’s go back to when John first bought the Discovery. Did he take it straight into the workshop to prep it the way he wanted? Oh, no. He took it on a wrecker of an off-road session. Just to find out what needed doing, you understand.
Unsurprisingly, his very first outing saw him take out the alpine windows with some nice work from the local vegetation. And it didn’t get any better as time went on. ‘The Disco was never going to last long the way I drive them,’ he admits. Its back body’s days were numbered when he finally took it into the workshop, too.
Applying the same brutality to the vehicle as the aforementioned Bison, John cut the Disco up just behind the front seats. Most of us know the first Discovery was a bit ‘flaky’ at the back, so playing the role of surgeon made perfect sense. "All the problems with the floor and rear body went away with the cutting up procedure – there is simply no rear floor now!’ laughs John. Thus what started off as a Discovery 1 with ragged holes where its alpine windows were eventually turned into a tighter, tidier and more compact kind of machine – and its owner is very pleased with the outcome.
It’s quite a change from the guy who initially didn’t want to have a go in his friend Tony Wooderson’s 4x4 a few years back. But once persuaded, John got the bug very quickly.
‘I tend to stick to pay and play days,’ he says. ‘They seem more fun as you can go everywhere – and it’s a good social event with your mates. I’m part of a few clubs, including the All Wheel Drive Club and Thames Valley 4x4.’
Despite this, the Disco is built a lot more like a challenge vehicle than your everyday playday warrior. Indestructible, remember? ‘I was constantly breaking front axles, CVs or halfshafts,’ John says. ‘I went and saw KAM and I’ve had no problems since. They have some really good stuff and won’t let you down.
‘The axles are the best mod I’ve done. They are unbelievable. The 4.75:1 diff ratio really helps, too, making it much more drivable on the bigger tyres.
‘I was on the KAM test and development team; they saw my truck on YouTube and asked if it was mine. They asked if I fancied “breaking a diff.” I obviously said yes and now I have this one of a kind LSD and electric locker in one – it’s great.’
It’s not just big and strong, then, this Disco. It’s big, strong and clever, too. Some tough-nut 4x4s come on like nightclub bouncers: this one, by contrast, is more like James Bond.
In more way than one, too. Because with John at the helm, it put on a lavish display of heroism when duty called last winter. ‘When the floods came, I was out helping where I could with evacuating people from their houses. That is probably my most rewarding memory. I remember the Sky News helicopter filming above us – it felt like a hero car to me!’ As our picture shows (below), it didn’t stop there either – when other heroes needed a hero of their own to turn to, John was there with a strong tow rope to get them out of trouble.
So, having taught himself a painful lesson with his first off-roader, this Disco’s owner has turned it into an ultra-strong machine that can really, really take the knocks – and won’t flinch at being asked to pull a fire engine out of a ditch, either. Its strength is at the heart of its capability – and it has plenty of both.
No wonder he’s happy. In fact, he’s so happy with it that he… wants rid. Wait a minute…
‘It’s a complete truck with nothing left for me to do on it,’ he explains. ‘I want to make a road-legal spaceframer with the same running gear, but build it from the chassis up, a bit like an American rock hopper.’ That sounds like one hell of a machine, but the Discovery has to go to make way for it.
So, like Mr Incredible trying to sell insurance after retiring as a superhero, this mighty Discovery is being moved on to a new life. Also like Mr Incredible, though, deep down it’ll still have those same instincts to save the world at every opportunity. And whoever its new owner may turn out to be, they’re going to do their off-roading with a very formidable minder looking after them.
We photographed John’s Discovery at Slindon Safari, run by off-road legend John Morgan, which is just off the A27 in West Sussex. It’s open every month for 4x4s and quads, and is one of the best playday sites anywhere in the UK. Check it out at www.4x4driving.co.uk or call 01903 812195.