Ringing The Changes

Originally Published: November 2007 Words: Tim Gibson Pictures: Steve Taylor
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John Sales’s 100-inch special has undergone a number of transformations in the last decade or so. It might be the same vehicle beneath the surface, but few would doubt the impact of John’s handiwork on this dramatic challenge project.

John Sales has been interested in off-roading for about 15 years, and he’s owned the same vehicle for the past 12 of those. While at first sight this may look like a heroic act of faithful devotion to a single truck, the briefest conversation with John reveals that the constancy of his affections is somewhat illusory.

The vehicle of which John took delivery back in the 1990s was a Range Rover-based Bowler lookalike. The chassis had been cut down to improve its off-road performance, and the bodywork was a custom-made homage to what came to be known as the Wildcat. Describing the car as a Range Rover-based 100-inch special with custom bodywork makes it look as if things haven’t really moved on for John in the intervening years. Such a description still pertains, in fact, and John is the first to remind us that, in essence, this is the same vehicle he bought all that time ago.

But once you get into the details of the specification, it soon becomes clear that this is the archetypal project vehicle: in every respect apart from its bare essentials, this vehicle has changed dramatically under John’s ownership. ‘I guess it has undergone two major transformations,’ John explains. ‘The first involved relocation of the engine from the front to the rear, and the second involved changing the bodywork and revising some other key components.’ The first rebuild happened quite soon after John acquired the vehicle, and he performed the bulk of the work himself. Clearly an able mechanic, John was unfazed by the idea of removing the engine, re-installing it in the rear of the car and setting up the running gear so that it continued to function effectively.

‘I flipped the axles upside down,’ he explains, ‘so that the diffs were on the opposite side to where they should be.’ This deceptively simple-sounding procedure means the axles continue to turn in the right direction without the need for a reverse-rotation trasfer case. A further modification involved drilling and tapping new drain holes in the underside of the diffs – the originals were now on the top, of course, which you may well find can make draining the axle a much slower business.

John’s main reason for repositioning the power plant was because he wanted to reduce the weight of the vehicle’s front end. He thought the front axle was under extreme pressure with the engine mounted conventionally, and decided that the vehicle’s weight would be distributed more evenly if the lump were shifted to the rear. ‘I’m certainly happy with the result,’ he confirms. ‘I haven’t broken a single halfshaft since performing the mod.’

The next rebuild happened more recently, and was in part prompted by John’s decision to fit a Qt Services roll cage, which functions as a de facto spaceframe for the car. He ordered an 88-inch frame from the Liskeard-based firm and requested some extra bars in order to extend the length for the 100-inch wheelbase of his special. Again performing all the work himself, John soon found that he’d replaced the original custom body panels with his own home-brewed components and was staring down the barrel of a much more involved overhaul.

First up was installation of a hydro-steer system in place of a conventional power-steering set-up. This uses hydraulic power assistance in order to offset the heavy steering that comes from fitting oversized tyres to an off-roader. Some regard a further benefit of the set-up as being enhanced reliability, therefore lessening the risk of failure during the rigours of a competition.

As you’d expect, John wasn’t happy to simply buy a hydro-steer kit off the shelf. Instead, he sourced a pair of single-acting hydraulic rams (used in conjunction with a standard tie-rod in the axle) and fitted a home-built A-frame to the front axle, in place of the usual ‘hockey-stick’ radius arms. This means that both front and rear axles are located by a single bush, bolted in the middle, rather than by two separate mountings at either end, as would normally be the case at the front end. John asked Staffordshire-based motorsport engineers Rakeway to make some adaptors for the ends of the rams, purchased some hydraulic hoses and other relevant sundries like bolts and brackets, and assembled the set-up in his workshop at home. ‘The benefit of the A-frame set-up is that you have improved articulation at slow speeds, because the axle pivots,’ John reports, ‘as for the hydraulic steering, I’d recommend it to anyone!’

While his enthusiasm for hydraulic power was flourishing, John also decided to replace the front and rear electric winches that were installed on the vehicle with MileMarkers, which he sourced from www.4x4winches.com. These hydraulic winches have a deserved reputation for durability, but the biggest appeal for John was their increased pulling power in comparison to electric units. He had first hand experience of this when he teamed up with Alan Kemp at the Argyll Forest Challenge, where they achieved 3rd place.

‘The best electric winch is probably a Warn 8274,’ remarks John. ‘But that can only pull 8000lb at a maximum of about thirty feet per minute when under load. The hydraulic winches are capable of pulling a much heavier load, at up to 200-feet per minute if you have them in high gear [1:1 ratio, as opposed to 6:1, which is the low gear]. What’s more, they don’t need to stop for breath every five minutes or so.’

The danger of a hydraulic winch is that it will fail if you stall your engine, but the chances of that happening during a winching operation in a competition environment ought to be reasonably faint. Owners of overland vehicles often cite this as a reason for using electric winches, on grounds that if they suffer engine failure in the wilderness they don’t lose their means of self-recovery. It’s a somewhat curious thought, though, because they’ll probably be pretty well stuffed in such a scenario whether their winch works or not.

John isn’t plagued by such concerns, because his hydraulic winches are supplemented by a centrally-mounted electric Come-Up 9000lb unit. Moreover, as he states, ‘this is an out-and-out competition vehicle. That’s the purpose that I keep in mind when I’m modifying it. In that respect, it makes sense to have hydraulic winches as my primary units.’

One of the first things you notice about John’s vehicle is the unusual manner in which the coil-over shock absorbers are mounted. These massive components protrude well above the level of the bodywork, and are attached to brackets which John welded to the roll cage. This increases the articulation available (John reckons each corner has around 17 inches of travel), as well as ensuring a relatively low centre of gravity.

As the suspension mounts demonstrate, John has been single-minded in his pursuit of off-road excellence. The consequence is a highly capable challenge competition vehicle. That his results in the early rounds of the AWDC Scorpion Trophy haven’t been as impressive as the vehicle deserves is an understandable source of disappointment for John. He’s struggled to find a regular co-driver, however, and believes that this is an essential element in achieving good results. ‘Once I can get that nut cracked,’ he says, ‘I reckon I’ll be in with a good shot at the top honours.’ He achieved a credible fourth place in the latest round of the series, but John’s co-driver for that event is now committed to navigating for his father in the same contest.

Sadly for John, the lack of a navigator is one problem that he can’t solve by spending a few extra hours in his workshop. What time spent in this way does achieve, however, is further enhancement of his already impressive truck. With dedication like this, it’s only a matter of time before John’s efforts to make a mark on the challenge scene come to fruition. And we don’t think there’ll be any shortage of people willing to work the winches on a machine that’s clearly capable of putting them in with such a strong chance of becoming winners.

Suspension/Axle Mods

  • 17-inch coil-over shock absorbers
  • Custom mounting on spaceframe, protrudes through bodywork
  • A-frame at front and rear
  • Modified rear propshaft
  • McNamara diff lock in front axle, and usually also in rear
  • ARB locker temporarily used in rear axle while McNamara unit undergoes repair!
  • Rakeway strengthened halfshafts to cope with increased traction
  • Ashcroft CV joints

Cooling

  • Ford Mondeo turbo diesel radiator
  • Electric fan with manual override for wading
  • Temperature detector is an engineering component which John fitted into the radiator pipe

Weight-watchers

  • Vehicle’s current weight is 1780kg, fully laden
  • John would like to get this beneath 1500kg, which was his original intention

A key task for the coming close season is to find areas of the car where weight can be reduced. ‘I’ve got a few ideas about how I can save some weight, so I’ll give it a go. It’s already extremely light for a fully tricked-up challenge vehicle, of course.’

Key Mods

  • Hydro-steer hydraulic steering conversion (see main text)
  • Rear-mounted engine
  • MileMarker hydraulic winches front and rear, from www.4x4winches.com
  • Hydraulic pump for winches, mounted inline with the crank to reduce lateral stress
  • Come-Up centre-mounted electric winch
  • Plasma winch cable all round
  • X-Brake handbrake, by X-Eng
  • Land Rover headlights, other lights from a trailer
  • Home-made snorkel
  • 35x14.50R15 Pit Bull tyres on steel modular rims
  • Home-made rock sliders

Interior

  • Chequer-plate interior
  • Small dash in between front seats
  • Sparco bucket seats with racing harnesses
  • CB radio, no GPS

X-ENG X-BRAKE, QT CAGE, MCNAMERA DIFF LOCKS, HYDRO-STEER, MILEMARKER WINCH, PIT BULL TYRES, DIY ROCK SLIDERS

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