Living It Large

Originally Published: April 2013 Words: Robbie Ronson Pictures: Vic Peel

You don’t see many modded Isuzu Troopers doing their thing in the UK, and when you do they’re normally covered in bolt-on goodies. But this is a rock-solid off-road workhorse, and these days you can buy them for sweeties – and as James West’s 5-door proves, a bit of ingenuity and hard work is all it takes to turn one into a top toy. A top toy with, if you don’t mind, some top luxuries…

People have certain set ideas about particular vehicles. In the case of the Isuzu Trooper, when you hear about a modified one you’re likely to assume that someone’s built it by waving a chequebook at expensive goodies imported from abroad.

You don’t need to spend much time looking at James West’s Mk2 5-door to work out that that’s not the case here. Dating from the era when the Trooper was so popular that Vauxhall brought it in, too (calling it the Monterey), his 3.1D Citation was a range-topper in its day.

Actually, that’s not fair. Who’s to say that its ‘day’ isn’t now? After all, here’s a Trooper being used for what it’s best at when most of its brethren are crumbling into sheds on suburban streets, which is no way to treat such a worthy old truck.

As evidence of the state so many of these vehicles have got into, the Trooper cost James a mere £600. ‘The whole point was to go and have some fun for minimal cost. I’ve probably spent the same again on bits and it’s done really well at all the places that I’ve taken it.’

Whether by luck or good judgement (we’d guess the latter), James’ £600 Trooper came to him with its chassis in excellent nick. ‘Unusually for a Trooper,’ he points out. Knowing not to look a gift horse in the mouth, he got underneath it with a brush and a huge pot of underseal, and came out afterwards with ‘black measles,’ as he puts it. ‘Easily the worst job I’ve ever done. It wouldn’t come off me for about two days!’

Still, that was a job worth doing and no mistake. The chassis remains otherwise standard, as do the engine, gearbox, transfer case, steering and propshafts, but why exactly would you change any of those things anyway? Diesels of this vintage were way more reliable than those on the later 3.0 Trooper, which ended up subject to a calamitous recall, and all it’s needed so far is routine maintenance.

So, that’s boring, then. What about the good stuff? Underneath, the torsion bars have been wound up and the rear coil springs have been replaced with Land Rover Defender units, gaining a bit of poundage and a couple of inches’ height in the process. That leaves room for a set of 275/75x16 Insa Turbo Special Tracks – so that’s grip in Simex territory, more suspension and still the same trailing links to keep the axle in place. Uh-oh. And guess what? They’re big, they’re strong and they just do it.

James did get rid of the auto-locking freewheeling hubs that were standard on the Trooper at this point, figuring that neither age nor Insa Turbos were going to be on their side. In their place, he’s fitted solid drive flanges from a Mk3. Another kind of protection comes from a full set of extended breathers, but so far he’s stopped short of building a roll cage.

It’s definitely on the drawing board, though. ‘Having “reshaped” the rear quarter whilst out at Piccadilly Wood having a fight with a tree,’ he says, ‘some body protection would certainly be useful!’

Underneath, on the other hand, he reckons Isuzu’s standard bash plates do a pretty good job. The same can’t be said of the bumpers, which he’s fetched off to make way for fabricated steel units (box-section at the back, and a modified tubular unit intended for a Discovery up front), but what this has left him with is a concern over the vehicle’s wheelbase. The original skirts have gone, but you feel that some more steel box would be advisable. ‘The sides and sills are particularly vulnerable,’ he says, ‘due to the long wheelbase when breaking over an obstacle. Standard underbody protection is very good, though, with a large plate all the way down from the bottom of the rad to under the sump. Stilll, it would be good to extend it back to the transfer case crossmember.’

There’s another plan for the future, then, and he’s also thinking about using the factory-fit dual batteries to power a 24-volt winch. That would mean modding the bumper, though, but happily his mate Ben does that kind of thing for a living. ‘I have had a lot of help from my mates Ben and Adam,’ says James, ‘and a lot of stick as well for not having a Land Rover, as they own a Series III and Series II respectively. Ben is a steel fabricator by trade so has been a massive help making the bumpers and on the rest of the metal work. In return I try to put Mr Lucas’ magic smoke back into the wiring on his Series III.’

Want a contrast to the words ‘Series III’? Try this: ‘It’s pretty good to drive on the road, lovely and warm with the ceramic heater and heated seats, does 70mph fine and starts every time.’ Ah yes, he’s talking about the Trooper again. Heated seats, in an off-roader? Believe it. ‘They go down a treat when it’s a cold, wet day off-roading!’

That’s one of the things you get when you’re willing to build something unorthodox, obviously. James has taken the sort of approach you normally associate with old Landies, doing the work on his driveway and cashing in a whole lot of favours with his neighbours in the process, but he’s done it to the sort of truck most people assume you’ve got to spend big to modify. With some strong steelwork, a nifty component swap here and there and a set of remoulds with more meat on them than a joke about horses, he’s got a truck that’ll cruise nicely on the way to playdays and defy everyone’s expectations when he gets to them.

He’s even had a shot at an RTV in the Trooper, having joined the AWDC to do so, and more are in the pipeline. ‘We took part,’ he says. ‘Notice I didn’t say competed!’ And his sense of humour remains intact when you ask him what he would have done differently during the build.

‘I wouldn’t have reversed it into a tree’ is the answer to that one, and we can all sympathise there. He might be driving a radically different vehicle, but he’s just like every other off-roader you’ve ever met. Except he’s got heated seats…


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