Tails of the Unexpected

Originally Published: February 2010 Words: Dan Sherwood Pictures: Steve Taylor
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Most people agree that the Nissan Patrol is a vehicle whose potential as an off-roader has never been realised in the UK. But when Ashley Stimpson took his into the garage one night, no-one could have predicted what was about to happen…

The veins in his sinewy arms bulge as off-road fan Ashley Stimpson tightens his grip to stay in control. He’s plunging down a terrifyingly steep descent; it’s a route he’s done countless times before, but this time he wants it to be perfect – because it could be the difference between winning and losing. The tyres are working perfectly, providing faultless grip while showering the frame with deep brown mud-splats, while the long-travel suspension works overtime to soak up the treacherous terrain. But Ashley can’t relax yet, because at this kind of speed it only takes a slight miscalculation for a foot to slip from its pedal, sending him crashing head-first into a tangle of twisted limbs and broken bones.

This is the reality of off-roading for Ashley Stimpson. Because when he’s not up to his Nissan Patrol’s door handles in mud, he can be found risking life and limb in the altogether more perilous pursuit of downhill mountain bike racing.

‘Unfortunately, in downhill mountain bike racing, you don’t have a ton of steel around you when you crash,’ laughs 28-year old Ashley when we meet him and his other mud-plugging steed, a bobtailed Patrol GQ, at a quarry in Buxton. ‘I’ve been into off-roading ever since I was a kid. My dad would take me out in his 4x4s, and that’s when I caught the mud bug.’

To say that off-roading is in his veins would be an understatement, in fact. Because 4x4s are all Ashley has ever known, with his first car after passing his test being a Suzuki Samurai.

‘For a long time, I stuck with Samurais,’ he explains. ‘I really liked them and parts were cheap. But after owning my third, and finding that as my off-roading progressed I was spending more time fixing it than driving it, I decided it was time for a change.’

That change came in the form of the then silver and grey Nissan Patrol. ‘I bought the Patrol about a year ago,’ says Ashley, who also has a host of ex-military vehicles including a tracked APC, a Gama Goat and a 6x6 troop carrier. ‘I’d decided that I wanted to have a go at some of the Scorpion winch events, but the Suzuki would’ve needed a hell of a lot of work and money to get it up to competition standard. I’d seen Patrols at various events and thought that they looked like a good base for a project, as it’s much nearer the spec I wanted straight from the factory. They’re so much sturdier and better built than the Suzuki, but they’re also much bigger and wider, which I think puts some people off using them in competition.’

Despite having seen Patrols around and about, Ashley felt that no-one had yet exploited the car’s full potential. ‘Out in places like Australia and Dubai, people go crazy for the Patrol,’ explains the Didsbury-based modifier. ‘It’s not uncommon to see cars with four-figure power-outputs, especially the Arabian dune racers. And if the Nissan can take that kind of stick, then I thought it’d be perfect for what I wanted to do.’

Ashley went looking specifically for the big 4.2-litre diesel variant, whose low-tech, naturally aspirated engine is much torquier than the 2.8-litre turbo unit which replaced it. Like all Patrols since, it was fitted with a rear diff-lock as standard.

‘I paid £1700 for the Nissan, which I got through a private sale up in Tong near Leeds,’ says Ashley, who works as pushbike mechanic by day. ‘It was a bit ropey, with some rust around the arches and a less than perfect paint job, but as I planned to modify it anyway, it wasn’t an issue.’

Patrol parts can be a lot more costly than those for an SJ, and this was a consideration for Ashley when choosing his new purchase. Figuring that the Patrol shouldn’t break as often, however, he decided that it was a financial risk worth taking.

Out in our quarry location, the Patrol looks menacing. The body is finished in a DIY matt black paint job, which Ashley did himself with a couple of aerosol cans of black spray paint, while the axles and diffs casings are finished in contrasting bright orange. With one of its matching matt black 10x15” DWF alloys, complete with 37” Mudzilla rubber, perched upon a four-foot high boulder, the look is a mixture of utilitarian robustness and gangster chic.

‘I really like this location, as it’s got a good mix of varied terrain with some steep climbs,’ says Ashley. ‘It’s just a shame it’s not wetter. The Patrol is pretty heavy and works really well in the mud.’

The Nissan owes much of its off-road ability to the handiwork of Ashley and his Dad, as all the modifications to the Patrol have been carried out by their own oil-stained hands. ‘My Dad is a car mechanic by trade,’ Ashley says, ‘He helped me out a lot with the project. We carried out most of the modifications in his work’s garage on evenings and weekends.’

The first modification Ashley and his spanner-wielding Dad performed was to add a two-inch Ironman suspension lift and swap the stock 31-inch tyres for a set of 35” Mudzillas. ‘Even with the suspension lift, the larger tyres were still catching on the arches,’ he says. ‘To get more height, we then added a body lift, which raised the chassis by an inch and a half. I also cut out the inner arches to allow yet more clearance.’

With the larger rubber now free to do its thing, Ashley was happy with the Patrol and set about using it for local playdays in Cowm and at Silverdale in Stoke. However, it was on an event at Tong that Ashley once again reached the vehicle’s limits and started pondering a suitable solution.

‘I found that I was catching the Patrol’s back end and fuel tank on some of the more extreme climbs and descents,’ he explains. ‘I needed to do something to improve its approach and departure angles.’

The answer came in the form of an impromptu 12-inch bobtail conversion. ‘I’d never seen anyone bobtail a Patrol before, and I think mine could be the first in the UK,’ reckons Ashley. Done without any form of reference, or even any research into what is involved, he simply threw caution to the wind, fired up a five-inch cutting disc in his angle grinder and lopped off the Nissan’s rear end.

‘I just decided to do it one night,’ he laughs. ‘I didn’t think it would be that hard. I just cut it off, removed twelve inches from the middle and welded it back on again. It’s not rocket science!’

To cover up the metallic scar tissue from the Patrol’s latest stint under the knife, Ashley painted the body in the matt black colour scheme you see today. ‘It was more to do with the fact that the matt black was the cheapest and easiest thing to do, rather than much of a fashion statement,’ he comments. ‘But as it happens, I really like the stealth bomber look!’

But even with such an extreme style, don’t be fooled into thinking that the Patrol is just a plaything for Ashley, as it also serves as his daily driver. ‘I’ve fitted a pair of low-ratio diffs from the 2.8-litre model, and a set of freewheeling hubs, which really do make it much nicer to drive on the road,’ he explains. ‘The diffs drop the gearing a lot, and even with the 37-inch tyres it will still easily pull 80-85mph on the motorway. However, if you push it much faster, the fuel economy really starts to suffer.’

After the bobtail conversion was complete, Ashley decided that more altitude was needed. That’s when the 37-inchers came along, as did a set of coil spacers lifting the suspension by another inch and a quarter. A pair of front radius arm-spacers was also fitted, to allow the tyres to clear the suspension arms and also to correct the large amounts of positive camber that had been built in as the chassis went skywards.

With the Patrol now an extremely capable machine, Ashley began attempting increasingly difficult terrain.  ‘I was getting braver and trying out ever more extreme routes,’ he says. ‘However, occasionally I’d push too far, get stuck and need pulling out.’

Unfortunately, his Dad’s Samurai wasn’t really the best vehicle for hauling out the much-heavier Patrol. So Ashley looked to a more self-sufficient solution. ‘I fitted a 10,000lb Champion winch, with an uprated 15,000lb motor and Plasma rope. I’ve also got a ground anchor, a high-lift jack and some swamp mats in the back, just in case. It also means I can now compete in local winch events.’

Of course, winch events wouldn’t be winch events if you didn’t get stuck, hence the recent addition of a home-made snorkel. This is plumbed in to the stock air box and runs up the passenger’s-side A-pillar. ‘I’d started doing more deep-water wading and the snorkel became a necessity,’ Ashley explains. ‘I made it from a section of three-inch exhaust pipe, with some gauze mesh in the tip, and grafted it on to the factory air box. It works brilliantly.

That brings the story up to date, but Ashley’s plans don’t stop here. ‘I want to add a full exo-cage,’ he says, ‘and maybe even convert the rear end to a pick-up bed. I don’t think it’ll ever be finished, as there’s always the next level to go to.’

Ashley clearly is a 4x4 owner who already has plenty of experience when it comes to going to the next level. Which is why this Nissan is such an unusual example of its breed. Whether it eclipses the rest of Britain’s Patrols is another matter, but there’s no denying that this is indeed a truck whose full potential is constantly being explored. There are lots of cheap, sound and very capable Patrols out there – and as Ashley’s demonstrates, they’re just waiting to be turned into off-roaders that’ll make people sit up and take notice.

PATROL, BOBTAIL, IRONMAN SPRINGS, DIY BUMPER, CHAMPION WINCH, MAXXIS MUDZILLAS, DIY STEERING GUARD, DIY SNORKEL

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