Every once in a while a truly left field project passes through the Retropower doors, the kind of build that’s utterly distinct from the kind of cars we’ve become known for producing. It should be noted before going any further that we relish projects of this kind, largely as it’s a means of testing our respective skills while also trying our collective hand at something truly unique.
Case in point, the Suzuki SJ413 ‘GTI’ build. What began as a brief chat with the owner about the prospects of restoring his trusty SJ, a vehicle he’d actually driven to said meeting, soon snowballed into a complete, ground-up restoration. What made this so refreshing was that the SJ in question was about as far away from the classic sports cars and mid ’80s homologation specials we tend to build, rather it was a trusty hack, a dependable old workhorse – and all the better for it.
Dependable they might have been, but there’s a good reason why Suzuki SJs are a rare spot on British roads nowadays, and that’s their propensity to rot and rot with gusto. This example was no different, a long, hard life spent earning its keep in the UK’s inclement climate having served to riddle both its body and (separate) chassis with liberal quantities of ferrous oxide. We wasted little time in breaking the baby jeep down into its constituent parts, then sending all worth saving to be media-blasted.
Certain aspects of the SJ required more comprehensive changes to rectify, including the roof. The original SJ was a sun-roof model, a feature the owner wanted rid off, hence why we spent several months scouring the UK for a suitable Suzuki of the same type (no easy task in this day and age), one destined to be a roof donor.
One aspect of the original SJ we were all rather taken with was its widened steel arches, a feature which lent it an appearance not too dissimilar from the Mercedes G-Wagon, albeit a micro sized one. It was an allusion both the owner and everyone at Retropower was keen to maintain which is why we dedicated a considerable span of time to re-making said arches in fresh steel. The shell (with arches) and chassis were then given a fresh coat of Opel Anthracite Grey before being reunited with the freshly rebuilt and painted gearbox ands axles.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Retropower project if it didn’t also involve an interesting engine swap, and the diminutive SJ certainly delivers in this respect. Many SJ owners upgrade to the 1600 engine found in the Vitara, and while there’s no doubting that this is a worthwhile undertaking and a proven route to greater power, we couldn’t help but feel it a tad conventional. We instead convinced the owner of the value of instead plumping for the G13B, the DOHC 16v normally found in the Suzuki Swift GTi and good for a heady 100bhp.
Not that we ever had any intention of the engine going into the SJ in its factory form, no chance. It was therefore stripped down, media blasted and built up once more, this time with the addition of Omex 600 management and Individual Throttle Bodies. The result is among the most entertaining ‘cars’ to have ever passed through our doors; a manic, 1300 screamer with more than a touch of early ’90s hot hatch about its engine note. Not bad for an 125bhp (ish) off-roader from the mid ’80s.
That’s a fair amount of power to entrust to a chassis designed when Ronal Reagan was in the White House, so it’s probably just as well that we also fitted the SJ with Avo dampers and a full complement of polybushes.
Finally, the interior, an area where we thought it high time to add some comfort. The seats now in there are actually Ford RS Turbo Recaro ‘buckets,’ albeit re-trimmmed in a mix of black leather and black cloth with red stitching, a treatment carried over to the door cards. There’s also a welded in half-cage bracing the rear, just in case the allure of that high-revving 1300 becomes too much to resist, and also a raised ‘mini’ bulkhead separating the seats from the cargo bay, just in case.
There have been many, many more powerful and dynamically polished Retropower creations over the years but this humble, utterly hilarious SJ trumps them all in terms of smiles per hour!