IF you ever decide to talk to Alan Johnson from Piranha Offroad about Suzuki 4X4s, you’d better have plenty of time on your hands.
This article was first published in 4x4 Australia's July 2013 issue.
He’ll happily spend hours telling you tales about the adventures and fun he’s had over many years in the little Suzis, having a ball, tweaking and modifying them to get the best out of them and often putting larger, considerably more expensive 4X4s to shame when out bush.
Alan’s love affair with these over-grown Tonka toys from Japan goes back to the very first three-cylinder two-stroke variant released in Australia in the mid ’70s. Al’s parents bought one as penance for a family member who lost his licence for speeding in a Ford Escort.
They figured with a 500cc donk – top speed around 80km/h – that person would no longer be capable of incurring the wrath of the law and would also probably be a lot safer.
This proved a genesis for Alan’s love of four-wheel driving, and for what’s now essentially a hobby business based around these very capable fourbies. Based in Boronia, Victoria at Piranha HQ, Seriously Suzuki caters for those who want to modify their Suzukis to, in Alan’s words, “whatever they want them to be”.
During my chat with Alan about all things Suzuki, it’s soon apparent how enthusiastic about the little 4X4s he is. “Whenever I jump into a Suzuki, there’s an immediate smile on my face,” he says, grinning. “I can’t wipe the smile off, it’s just so much fun.”
Testament to Alan’s enthusiasm are several Suzukis on the premises, some in storage waiting for attention, with another (his project Vitara) that looks like it’s copped a high dose of engineering steroids.
This particular rig – Suzaroo (an acknowledgement of its hybrid nature – it is powered by a Holden Jackaroo engine) is proof of what can actually be achieved. It’s yet to see competition, but its debut is not far off.
Although Seriously Suzuki has only been operating for about four years, it’s swiftly grown. It carries a large range of new and used spare parts and offers numerous modifications and accessories that can significantly enhance the performance of almost any Suzuki.
The list of bolt-on items includes suspension, spring-overs, body lift kits, rockhopper gears, bullbars, towbars and rear bars, roll cages and snorkels. Not to mention electrical and battery upgrades and engine fitting, and all alongside the full product range and workshop facilities available at Piranha Offroad.
According to Alan, where there was once several companies providing Suzuki modifications, he is one of the few remaining offering such a wide range of modifications and accessories.
“These days, the early model LJs and Sierras are getting pretty long in the tooth and harder to find in good condition, but still make great inexpensive vehicles to play with. Later models, like the Vitara, are also very capable off-roaders and can be picked up in some cases for under $5k, making them a great choice as a fun and inexpensive 4X4.”
I notice a customer’s V6 Grand Vitara parked in the workshop during my visit to Seriously Suzuki. It looks really slick; it has heaps of aftermarket gear fitted, including ARB bullbar, roof-rack, Safari snorkel and side-mounted roof awning, among other purposeful bling. It would make a great touring rig for a couple.
To fully appreciate Alan’s love of Suzukis, I’m invited to visit the Johnson family farm near Mansfield, about 180km north-east of Melbourne, where he has no less than five examples tucked away in sheds.
Like a proud dad, Al shows me around and introduces me to each of his beloved Suzis. It’s quite a stable too, ranging from an original LJ50 three-cylinder two-stroke – salvaged from a farm shed where it had to be dismantled to be removed, and then reassembled – to his Frankenstein Vitara. Alan’s first attempt at a competition rig built on a low budget, it was thrown together with mostly second-hand components.
It’s been 18 months since the 500cc two-stroke LJ50 has been started but, with a freshly charged battery, it fires straight into life, bellowing a blue smokescreen Batman would be envious of.
We buzz around a few of Alan’s paddocks to blow the cobwebs out and get a feel for the original Suzukis. We have to keep our joyride to a minimum, though, as even the old cross-ply tyres are original and the standard drum brakes almost non-existent; it is a fun blast from the past. We park the old Zook back in the shed before sparking the Frankenstein Vitara into life for a not-quite-as-gentle jaunt.
Keen to show off the Vitara’s capabilities, Alan’s soon spooking the cows as we tear across the property, from one obstacle to the next. He crawls the Vitara up and down gullies, through a rock-filled ravine and launches the front end skyward over a jump, all of which the Vitara gobbles up with ease.
The broad smile on Alan’s dial reveals how much fun he’s having, but there are still three Suzis to play with, so it’s back to the shed to muster up the next.
Bluish smoke belching from the exhaust signals that we’re in another three-cylinder, 500cc two-stroke LJ50. This one is heavily modified: suspension, disc brake front end, free-wheeling hubs and a roll bar. This example was also a hay shed find, but it was badly rusted out, so there’s almost as much aluminium checkerplate around the body as there is original skin.
We’re soon chugging along the river flats, where Alan demonstrates how easily the lightweight off-roader crawls up and down steep terrain and tackles water crossings. Once again, Al’s grin says it all.
The windscreen pillars have rusted away, so this little buggy is strictly farm-use only, and, with its open cockpit and go-anywhere capability, makes a great rig for bunny shooting.
Alan’s 1.3-litre LWB Sierra, still sporting its original canary yellow factory paint, is our next ride. It had been used as a railway line inspection vehicle, complete with drop-down wheels to run on tracks, but these days it’s Alan’s fire truck, and he proudly wears his red plastic CFA hat to ham it up for a few pics.
Not surprisingly, it’s been heavily beefed up to carry almost 500 litres of water and pumps in its tiny tray, but, with Rockhopper gears, a 50mm lift, and bigger wheels and tyres, it does a great job of getting around the property, according to Fire Chief Johnson.
Last of the fab five fourbies is another LWB Sierra, this one clad in apparently radar-reflecting paint Alan managed to pick up at a local clearance auction in various camouflage tones. In fact, only the original LJ50 and fire truck have escaped the army chic paint scheme.
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Of all the Suzis in the shed, this Sierra has proved to be a great vehicle, but in the end, simply not worth the time and grief that went into producing it. It’s fitted with a two-litre EFI engine out of a wrecked Grand Vitara, among other substantial mods to accommodate it, but Alan reckons fitting the larger engine, gearbox and transfer case entailed approximately 80 hours of work.
It’s a work of art, particularly under the bonnet where the donk almost looks factory-fitted – and it was equally impressive driving around – but Alan concedes it will probably only ever be a one-off as it’s simply not viable given the man-hours involved.
If I’ve learned anything while researching this yarn, it’s that Alan Johnson not only knows his way around Suzukis, but he loves them, too. Let’s face it, anyone who drives a 1.0-litre Sierra across the Simpson Desert, as he and wife Barb did back in their younger days, has got to be passionate.
In Alan’s words: “The world looks different through the windscreen of a Suzuki. Driving one is almost like the difference between a boat and a jet-ski, as compared to LandCruisers and the like. They’re just fun with a capital ‘F’.”
I get the sense that Seriously Suzuki is a good excuse for Alan to just keep having fun, as opposed to turning a big quid and making a fortune anytime soon. But if you’re looking to trick up a Suzuki, you can be sure his advice and expertise is as good as it gets, thanks to 40 years of fun and practical experience. Seriously.