Stop Me and Buy One

Originally Published: January 2007 Words: Alan Kidd Pictures: Alan Kidd
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John Hickling was driving along one day when he saw a ‘nice little thing’ parked outside someone’s house. Next thing he knew, he was taking it home… and on the verge of discovery a whole new way of life.

People get into off-roading for all sorts of reasons. Many are involved with 4x4s for work and end up discovering how much fun can be as a result. Others are introduced to it by friends. Still others just stumble upon it one way or another and get bitter by the bug.

John Hickling is definitely one of the latter breed. The owner of a much-lifted SJ413, he took a circuitous route towards the fine pleasures of off-roading – but even when he’d got there, it was a chance combination of circumstances that finally put him behind the wheel of his first 4x4.

Actually, that’s only partly true. He runs a Mitsubishi Shogun as his everyday car, but the closest it ever gets to off-roading is towing the proverbial horse box across a field. Fun with internal combustion engines has long been in his life, however – even if it took a while to reach this stage.

‘I used to do trackdays on motorbikes,’ he says. ‘I had an accident and ended up in hospital with broken legs, metal plates, internal injuries. I came off at 120mph – I nearly killed myself. I had about four months off bikes, then I got back on for another year and had a few close encounters, and thought it was time to pack it in.

‘When I was younger I used to ride motocross, and I got back doing that a little bit. And then I got my son a quad, and I got one as well so we could go out quadding together.’ You can see where this is going, right?

‘Then by accident we met this bloke. We happened to be going past his house, and I thought “that looks like a nice little thing”.’ This isn’t a reference to the house itself, you understand, but to the Suzuki parked outside.

‘I got speaking to him, he was telling me all he does and that it was such a good laugh… and I ended up coming away with it! I haven’t done anything with the Shogun, so I thought I’d give it a go. The guy said “come with us and see what it’s all about,” so I did… and that was it then!’

That was about eight or nine months ago, and since that day John’s become a confirmed off-road fanatic. ‘Every Sunday now we go somewhere. And if somewhere isn’t open, we go green laning round where we live.’ Not bad for a first off-road toy… and, you can bet your bottom dollar, the start of something that’s going to run and run.

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Power train

  • Ported, gas-flowed SJ413 engine
  • SU carb conversion
  • SJ410 transfer box

The SU carb is a very popular mod among SJ owners, as it allows much more reliable fuel delivery at extreme angles – a real achilles heel on original-spec models. It was on the engine when John got it, though the engine itself wasn’t in his SJ – it came out of a donor vehicle, complete with its gearbox and SJ410 transfer case, and the whole lot went in together to upgrade his own truck.

That’s why he’s not sure exactly what the engine has had done to it. He does know it’s a 55,000-miler, however, and believes it’s been ported and gas-flowed for more efficient power and torque production. You can, he reports, definitely feel the difference: ‘I don’t really know what he’s done to the engine, but it runs alright!’

The SJ410 transfer case, meanwhile, is another popular modification with Suzuki owners as it provides lower overall gearing. This is a major bonus off-road on a vehicle not famed for the depth of its low range, allowing the driver to stay in control while tackling much more extreme obstacles.

Snorkel

John’s distinctively shiny snorkel was a custom one-off made by a local steel specialist for £150. As such, it’s a nice halfway house between more expensive off-the-peg units and the sort of DIY rigs you see on many budget off-roaders – whose quality ranges from beyond professional to beyond a joke.

Axles

  • Rear disc brake conversion
  • 235/85R16 BFGoodrich MT’s on Vitara steels
  • Renewed halfshafts from KAP Suzuki. These are standard units, but John checked them after several months of hard use and saw no signs of twisting or fatigue
  • Extended breathers to top of windscreen
  • Hub oil seals renewed and augmented with extra sealant

With a dramatic sense of bad timing, a rear diff bearing collapsed right in the middle of our photo shoot, cutting things short somewhat. ‘With all the mud and water,’ says John, ‘every time we go out we drop oil, and I change it every time. You get most of it out, but obviously over a period of time it dissolves everything.’ Even with the axle breathers in place, a warm axle suddenly being dunked in cold, muddy water will always respond by contracting, and this can be enough to bypass the seals at the hubs. Regularly flushing it out by changing the oil is the best way to stop the build-up of abrasive crud inside the axle case.

Suspension 

  • Approx 5” lift
  • Spring-over-axle conversion
  • Polybushes
  • Polyurethane bump stops
  • Renewed shocks

The majority of the suspension mods, including a spring-over conversion and repositioning of the bump stops, was carried out before John bought the vehicle. Since then, he’s replaced the shock absorbers using non-branded units from a car accessory shop. ‘I measured them, and they fitted just right! I don’t know how much standard ones move by, but these do have better travel.’

Propshafts

A five-inch suspension lift is only ever going to mean one thing for your propshafts, and John’s SJ is an object lesson in how to mix and match standard Suzuki parts to get the extra length you need. Unfortunately, he can’t remember what that lesson is: ‘Everybody had bits and pieces lying around their garages, and we swapped them about until we had the extra length to suit the lift.’ But I can’t remember which bits we used in the end!’

The lesson, then, might be that you should keep notes. Though what’s most important here is that this technique can be made to work – meaning that so long as you’ve got access to plenty of parts and you haven’t given your vehicle too much of a crazy suspension job, it’s possible to make the props yourself by a simple process of trial and error.

Recovery 

  • Electric winch from a car transporter
  • SU carb conversion
  • Standard 12-volt electrics

The SU carb is a very popular mod among SJ owners, as it allows much more reliable fuel delivery at extreme angles – a real achilles heel on original-spec models. It was on the engine when John got it, though the engine itself wasn’t in his SJ – it came out of a donor vehicle, complete with its gearbox and SJ410 transfer case, and the whole lot went in together to upgrade his own truck.

Protection 

  • Aluminium front winch bumper
  • Expedition roof rack
  • No underbody protection
  • Custom exhaust
  • Chequer plate body armour
  • Tubular rear bumper

It’s quite unusual to see a modified off-roader with no bash plates for its steering and axles, but aside from its winch bumper John’s SJ remains standard underneath. ‘To be honest,’ he says, ‘it’s alright that way. I don’t go on rocks.’

The vehicle also lacks any internal rollover protection, though he does have an expedition roof rack which wasn’t fitted when we met him. ‘It doubles up as a roll cage!’ The exhaust, meanwhile, is a home-brewed unit using a stainless section grafted to a motorbike tailpipe. This is routed over the chassis and exits from just below the rear crossmember, keeping it well out of harm’s way.

DIY BUMPER, SJ, SU CARB, SPRING-OVER SUSPENSION, BF GOODRICH MTS, KAP HALFSHAFTS, SJ410 TRANSFER BOX

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