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1994 Suzuki Samurai - Project Sierra

Posted in How To on February 1, 2008
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I was recently perusing the Truck Trader (a disease many of you have) and saw a photo of a '94 Samurai that looked very familiar. Calling the number, I told the person who answered that I was interested in his Samurai then immediately asked, "Who is this?"

He came back asking me who I was. When I told him, he said, "Oh, this was your Samurai."

It turns out the person on the phone was Charles Wall, a member of the San Bernardino County (California) Sheriff's Morongo Basin Search & Rescue. I had been a member of the same unit with him when we lived in the California desert and had sold the Sierra (it has Australian "Sierra" badges on it) to Jerry Woodring, another S&R member. He had used it for a few years and then sold it to Charles. The Sierra had lived a fairly pampered life in a garage in the dry Mojave Desert and had only 12,200 original miles on it. I negotiated a price and Eric Maughan and I went to the desert to pick it up.

This was like finding a time capsule. We had built the Sierra using 31-inch Goodyear Wrangler MTs. The Sierra still had the original Wranglers on Center Line HTII alloy wheels! Everything we had done to it back then was still there, including the Uniden CB radio, fold-down windshield, 5.38 Sidekick gears, Lock-Right lockers front and rear, ZUK rear bumper, ARB Bull Bar with Warn 5,000-pound winch, ZUK shackle reversal and spring-over swap, Rock Lobster transfer case, Ready Air 12-volt Thomas air compressor, and so on. The body is still in perfect shape with absolutely no rust. Even the paint still looks fine. Jerry Woodring added a Calmini Sidekick power-steering system that works great.

After getting the Sierra home and off the trailer, we almost immediately took off to the mountains to see how it worked. Oops. As soon as I could find a pile of rocks to climb over, the tranny started spewing gear oil out of the rear seal. On level ground, it didn't happen. As soon as the Sierra was on a climb, though, the gear oil ran out and was flung over the driveshaft, transfer case, framerails, and body. The transmission was also whining, and the shift lever flopped around. A number of other little things needed attention like a broken left motor mount and missing upper seatbelt brackets, screws, and other fasteners.

Some larger things needed attention too. The shocks no longer worked. When inspecting the Rancho 9000s we had installed 12 years ago, I found all four were dented with small holes in the bodies - all of the oil was long gone. I wanted to get the Sierra working quickly (it's almost snow time here in Utah), so I installed a set of Skyjacker shocks I had sitting in the garage. They're not adjustable, but they do the job for now. Another thing that needed attention was the ARB Bull Bar front bumper that had been drilled for a towbar and was a bit worse for wear. The bumper had held up admirably to rocks but couldn't withstand the onslaught of grinders and drills. A new ARB Bull Bar was ordered and, since Warn no longer makes a 5,000-pound winch, a Warn M8000 was installed in the new ARB bumper. The M8000 uses the same case the older 5000 did, so it fits just fine. New 6-inch KC SlimLite foglights were installed on the ARB's light tabs. They improve lighting on the trail at night and in inclement weather tremendously. Kilby Enterprises has a nifty front license-plate bracket that clips to the roller fairlead so we can stay legal on the street.

The Sierra had an interesting tie-rod/drag-link setup that was evidently installed at the same time the Calmini power steering was. The geometry was wrong, and the little Suzuki exhibited some pretty nasty bumpsteer. A call to Petroworks was made, and the company's Z-bar Eliminator steering arm, drag link, and tie rod were on the way. This kit was quick and easy to install and eliminates all the strange happenings due to poor steering geometry. Petroworks also rebuilds transmissions, so the company supplied a fresh five-speed tranny and one of its heavy-duty Samurai clutch kits. From its extensive Samurai parts division (that is, Samurai boneyard), Petroworks was able to supply a left motor mount and every bracket, screw, and fastener needed to restore the Sierra to factory-new. We also received one of the company's excellent aluminum radiators, but that will be detailed in another story.

Spidertrax Off-Road, the Samurai experts who've branched out to offer even more exciting products to the rest of the off-road world, supplied a billet battery-tie-down kit to hold our new Pro Comp Super HDX Off-Road sealed battery. The company also sent us its starter-relay kit that replaces the trouble-prone Samurai starter relay. The Sierra's working fine, but we plan on replacing the relay anyway. It's well known that Samurai transfer-case arms break easily. We had fabricated some dog's-hind-leg bracket back in days of yore, so we're now going to replace our homespun arm with a new, stronger Spidertrax unit.

ZUK had performed a shackle reversal and spring-over swap for our Sierra. We don't like shackle reversals anymore, so we plan on reversing the reversal soon. To help us, Alan Kempton at Suzuki Lightning Conversions, the V6Suzuki expert, sent us shackle and spring mounts cut from an old Samurai frame. Whether we use those or fabricate new spring mounting points, at least we have a factory template now.

The Sierra is now fun to drive again. The transmission is quiet, and the clutch engagement is so smooth we can't believe it! A Bestop Sunport top was installed, so winter wheeling will be tolerable. The Bestop top is superior to any other top available today, so we hope the company doesn't discontinue it (a rumor we heard). The 12-year-old Wrangler MT tires were cracked and hard, so we replaced them with a set of 31-inch Dick Cepek Mud Country tires that are strong and grip well in every environment. We'll continue to build the Sierra into a modernized trail rig. We hope you come along for the ride.

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Broomfield, CO 80038
Dick Cepek Tires & Wheels
Stow, OH 44224
Spidertrax Off-Road
Longmont, CO 80503
Warn Industries
Clackamas, OR 97015
KC Hilites
Williams, AZ 86046
Kilby Enterprises
Burbank, CA 91504
Explorer Pro Comp
Richmond Gear
Chicago, IL
ARB 4x4 Accessories
Suzuki Lightning Conversions
Tampa, FL 33613
Petroworks Products

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