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Grant Spolanders road to ruin: 4x4 mods out of control

Road to ruin: When 4×4 modifications cross the line


Yeah, I spent about 1.5 million rand on my Jeep before I sold it. Of course, I never got the money back, but hey….”

Where it started with an unmodified Cherokee

Where it started: With an unmodified Cherokee

His voice trailed off as if losing a million bucks was the most ordinary thing in the world, barely worth elaborating on. My co-driver (we’ll call him Bill) was test-driving my Jeep Cherokee at the time; I was looking to sell and he was the first buyer on the scene.

Bill’s remark got me thinking back to my very own Jeep journey, back when I swore that I’d never need anything bigger than a 30-inch tyre. Looking back, my naivety was laughable; I clearly didn’t know myself. A trip to Dr Phil would’ve been a cheaper move.

Bigger tyres, suspension altered. The dream takes shape.

Bigger tyres, suspension altered. The dream takes shape.

My Jeep was stock standard when I bought it – that was my first mistake – but I was young, dumb and full of dreams. First came the mud-terrain tyres, then the suspension, then bigger tyres, then more suspension upgrades, then bigger tyres, then gear ratios, then diff -locks, then a roof rack with accessories, then a bull-bar, then a winch, then custom pipe doors, and then and then and then…

I used to wonder at what point I had crossed the line. When did logic and sense bow out to the barrage of emotional wants and crazed credit-card swipes?

Cherokee the full trail spec madness - front

Cherokee the full trail spec madness – front

The question kept swirling around in my head. Half the problem was that I was so far past the line that it now looked like a dot to me. The other problem is that there are no guidelines or rule books that indicate where the 4×4- modifi cation tipping point lies: when does the financial input drastically exceed any possible return? When can you no longer get your money back because you’ve radically over-capitalised your 4×4?

Then it hit me. I was attending the Overland Expo in Arizona (USA) and making my way through the parking area when a silver Jeep Cherokee caught my eye. The Jeep looked so simple, so clean, and so unbelievably appealing that I couldn’t walk away. Its modifications were limited to a 4.5-inch suspension lift and a set of 31-inch all-terrains on deepdish rims. That’s it.

The full trail-spec madness, front and rear. Immensely capable in the bush, a different story on the road.

The full trail-spec madness, front and rear. Immensely capable in the bush, a different story on the road.

I was enchanted, and it was at that point that I remembered my own Jeep had once looked that way: simple, clean, affordable.

The problem with heavily modifying a 4×4 is that there’s no end to that road; only harder roads to conqueror. A diff -lock, for example, will make your vehicle more capable on a Grade 3 trail, but it will also make the trail overly easy and boring to drive, which is why you start looking for Grade 4 trails. Then you realise that while traction is no longer the problem, clearance is, so you turn to the next upgrade: bigger tyres and more suspension travel. Then Grade 4 trails suddenly become boring, and the horizonless journey continues.

Before you know it, you’re driving a vehicle that can scarcely handle a flat tar road; like a socially inept pitbull that mindlessly froths at the mouth, it’s not a pet anymore − it’s a single-minded bloodlust machine.

So, where does the obsession end? Or rather, does it ever end? Of course it does: but the finality doesn’t lie within your Frankenstein creation. The limitation is in your head.

An artist can add only so much paint to canvas before things get messy and senseless. This is usually the point where your mates start to talk about you behind your back; they stand huddled around a fire (that you weren’t invited to) and make comments…

“Maybe we should say something to him − that last modification looks flippin’ weird.”

“He’s lost the plot.”

“I heard his wife found his last receipt, and he’s now sleeping in the driveway in his rooftop tent.”

A couple of items removed or toned down, a scrap of sanity clawed back. Fresh out of ideas and ready to sell.

A couple of items removed or toned down, a scrap of sanity clawed back. Fresh out of ideas and ready to sell.

The problem isn’t with the vehicle: it’s your vision for the vehicle that’s drawn to a close. In the beginning stages of a build, you know exactly what you want. You have a mental picture of how the vehicle will look one day, and when you finally get there, you realise that you’ve run out of dreams to dream. At this point, only two options exist: sell the vehicle, or strip it down and start over again with a new vision. The answer is NOT to just keep bolting stuff on.

And so, much to my surprise, I started the strip-down process. I was going to rebuild the Jeep from the ground up, but there was just one thing missing… a dream.

I didn’t know where to start, but even more so, I felt no drive to get it going. It was at that point that I realised my journey with the Jeep was over. I’m not going to lie: it was an emotional feeling.

I replaced the Jeep with a Nissan Patrol 4.8-litre, a vehicle I’ve loved for many years. However, this time I was a little wiser with my purchase and bought someone else’s overcapitalised project. The vehicle was fully kitted, but despite its long list of accessories, I immediately found myself planning a new look. However, this time will be different… this time I’ll keep things simple… as soon as I get back from the shrink.

The Patrol. Just what I needed – someone else’s overcapitalised dream.

The Patrol. Just what I needed – someone else’s overcapitalised dream.


I learnt many lessons on my Jeep journey, but that’s not to say that I would necessarily do things any differently. For example, a large-capacity petrol guzzler is never a wise purchase decision, but what can I say? I went from a 4.0-litre Jeep to a 4.8-litre Patrol… I’ve got displacement issues.

If you’re looking to buy and radically-customise a second-hand 4×4, here are seven completely worthless tips to consider. (I say they’re worthless because we both know you’re going to ignore them and do what your heart tells you, anyway.)

1. As mentioned above, big-capacity engines tend to scare people off, which means that when the times comes to sell your built-up vehicle, you’ll be appealing to a much smaller target market. A turbo-diesel is generally a safe bet in terms of selling quickly and not losing as much money on the resale.

2. Building a stock-standard vehicle from the ground up is hellishly expensive; if possible, look for something that comes with an entry-level degree of modifications – things like aftermarket suspension and a front bumper. These items will save you big, but what’s even more important, they serve as a foundation for many more accessories and upgrades.

3. If possible, don’t kid yourself that a marginal tyre-size increase will suffice. If you think you’re going to go big one day, do it from the start. In other words, if you really want a set of 35s on your 4×4, don’t go through the process of fitting 33s first. Work towards fitting the 35s right from the start, as it’ll save you a lot of money in the long run.

4. Stick to the dream and see it through. If you change direction halfway, you may as well open a commercial Gumtree account, because that’s where you’ll be spending your evenings selling the remnants of your unfulfilled quest.

5. Okay, here’s a controversial one: Don’t buy a Jeep! Nah, I’m just kidding; what I meant to say was: Don’t buy a Jeep Cherokee… or anything else that was built in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Fact is, that was an awkward age for vehicles – the dawn of a new era that included electronic gadgetry and more sensors than any mechanic knows what to do with. Even the sensors have sensors. And the trouble is that because a lot of this technology was new at the time, the teething problems weren’t really smoothed out. Lastly, vehicles of this age have no vintage status, so that even when they’re in good condition, no-one really wants to pay for them. If you want to be really clever, buy (and build) a vehicle that’s climbing the classic-car ladder − things like a Land Cruiser FJ45 or Willys Jeep. These vehicles will continue to climb in value, which means that you’ll still lose money on the accessories, but at least the value of the vehicle will have gone up.

6. Accept the fact that you will ALWAYS lose money on accessories, and don’t be the guy that advertises his ’01 Defender TD5 for R400k because it’s “fully kitted”.

7. Don’t lie to yourself. Bending the truth (when talking to your spouse) is bad enough, but the moment you start lying to yourself that’s a whole new level of darkness… far beyond the reach of any light bar.