Why Don't You...?

Originally Published: December 2013 Words: Paul Looe Pictures: Harry Hamm
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Darrell Craven was watching TV one night when he decided to go and do something more interesting instead. That thing was to build himself an off-roader. There was only one problem – up to then, the closest he’d come to working on a vehicle was changing a set of brake pads…

If you’re a certain age, you might remember a kids’ programme that used to be on TV called Why don’t you…? Its full name was Why don’t you just switch off your television set and go and do something less boring instead? and even if you never saw it, you ought to be able to pretty much guess from the name what it was all about.

Scroll forward about 35 years, to Darrell Craven’s lounge. Darrell, who hadn’t even been born when the show was first aired, is watching A 4x4 is Born. And it’s making him want to just switch off his television and do something less boring instead.

‘I’ve always loved messing around and building things,’ says Darrell. ‘And most of all, for some reason I’ve always wanted to learn how to weld. So after watching A 4x4 is Born, I thought “sod it, I’m going to buy a cheap 4x4 and see what happens…”’

What happens is normally that you become very poor very quickly, turn into a recluse, develop a pasty complexion and start to smell faintly of squirrels. All too often, you do so while creating a vehicle that should never have happened. But Darrell started learning stuff, and that’s just as well because as it turned out, his ambition went a long way beyond what even he had realised.

‘I did start off thinking I would buy a standard car that had not been modified or abused, and just put some off-road tyres on it and leave it at that. Well, two years on and thousands of hours later, I’m still modifying my Vitara!’

That much is not uncommon. Once the bug bites, and all that. But Darrell wasn’t just building a car, here. He was learning how to build a car as he went along. ‘I’m not a mechanic,’ he confesses. ‘I sit in an office all day, not fixing cars for a living – although sometimes I wish I were! I think the biggest job I’d done on a car before I bought my Vitara was changing a set of brake pads.’

So, now you’re expecting this to be one of those articles about someone who’s bolted on a few goodies and thinks he’s modified his vehicle, aren’t you? A bit like the bloke who says he can cook because he knows how to microwave the meals his wife’s left in the fridge for him. Well, we don’t know what Darrell’s like in the kitchen – but if it’s anything like he is in the garage, he’d win Masterchef.

The Vitara you’re looking at was built, not bought. And how. ‘I knew right from the start that I didn’t want to just buy a load of standard aftermarket products and bolt them on,’ says Darrell. ‘That’s what most Vitara owners do, and at the end of the day eBay is full of Vitaras with the same standard lift kits and bumpers slapped on them. I wanted to build everything myself and learn the hard way.’

Respect to this bloke. Big-time. And get ready to respect him more, too. ‘There’s one thing I’d have done differently. I’d have built my garage first, not three years after I bought and started modifying the Vitara. It’s not fun working in the snow, rain, wind and dark!

‘I bought my Vitara in October, in one of the coldest winters we have had for a long time. I got used to running back into the house every 15 minutes to get the feeling back in my fingers, and I’ve lost count of how many nights and early mornings before work I’ve been laid on my back under it with a torch strapped to my head. I’ve even had little fires going to keep me warm. When you have no garage or specialist tools, it’s a long, cold, wet learning curve!’

The extent to which Darrell didn’t know what he was up to early on is illustrated by his first experiences in four-wheel drive. Having started off looking at SJs and deciding that everything on  the market was either too expensive or full of rot, he turned his attention to the Vitara.

‘Yes, I did think it was just a hairdresser’s car,’ he jokes. But when I found a cheap low-mileage Vitara at a local garage, I made up a fake appointment at work and went out Monday morning and bought it, not knowing really what to do with it…

‘The first time I took it out, I didn’t even know it had locking front hubs or what they did! So I drove round in 4wd with the front wheels unlocked! I was hooked, though, and it then became clear to me that I was never going to leave it standard. Even after that first trip out (in 2wd), I was impressed with how good the Vitara was off-road. So I started a two-year love affair modifying my new toy.’

As we’ve already explained, this wasn’t your standard ordinary bolt-on romance, either. Starting from zero knowledge, Darrell has moved quickly on to making what you’d class as advanced mods – modding the chassis to fit twin transfer cases, for example, not to mention building a twin transfer case in the first place, fabricating his own bumpers and converting the rear axle to disc brakes. Having lifted the front suspension, he re-welded the lower mounts on the wishbones to correct the angle of the springs – how many people even think about stuff like that, let alone actually bothering to do it?

That twin tranny, we’re guessing you might want to know more about it. Quite a simple job, really, at least the way Darrell relates it. He kept the Vitara case, chopping off the rear output shaft and mating it to another one from an SJ. The chassis’ centre brace had to make way for the shorter prop, and of course he had a new set of mounts to weld on, but that was all part of the fun.

And now he has twice as many gears to choose from, some of them so low you can barely see the truck moving. Well, you can, and what a treat it is – because boy, does it crawl. Combine the low, low ratios at Darrell’s disposal with the flex in its suspension and a pair of ARB Air-Lockers (yes, even in the independent front end), and what he thought was going to be a standard truck with a set of decent tyres has become a crushingly able off-road machine.

He’s proud enough of it not to want to smash it up, and justifiably so, but show this Suzuki some rough ground (rough, really rough) and it’ll roar with delight.

We’ve featured a lot of Vitaras over the years, and our money would be on Darrell’s to match any of them. If there’s any that could beat it, you’d be looking at the kind with live front axles (‘cheating,’ he jokes), and even some of those would struggle to do the kind of stuff his can. It really is that good.

‘I started this journey not knowing anything about my little hairdresser’s car,’ says Darrell. ‘But now the only job I’ve not done is a full engine swap. I’ve still got plans, and my to-do list is never-ending. Over the last two years, I’ve learned how to weld and strip and rebuild almost every bit on my Vitara.

‘To be honest, it amazes me that I’ve managed to do 99% of the modifications myself. I’ve loved building this motor – I’ve learned so much from the Yorkshire Suzuki forum, and they’re a great bunch of lads to go off-roading with.’

Just as well, then, that Darrell tuned in to A 4x4 is Born way back then – and that rather than sitting getting square eyes, he decided to switch off his television and go and do something less boring instead. It might not have felt much like it when he was lighting fires on his driveway to try and stop his hands from freezing, but building this truck has been the making of him as an off-roader. ‘I can honestly say I’ve loved every minute,’ he concludes. And it shows.

VITARA, ARB AIR-LOCKER, FABRICATED BUMPER, FABRICATED ROCK SLIDERS, VITMODS SUSPENSION, TWIN TRANSFER CASES, T-MAX WINCH

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