QUESTIONS: BRIAN DRIGGS | ANSWERS & IMAGES: TERRY ETHERIDGE
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Any American gearhead older than 30 remembers the commercials. “BEEP, BEEP! HI!” In 1985, the second generation
Suzuki Jimny arrived in the United States with the ironic name Samurai. Strange thought it might have been to name
a Kei-class, micro machine after the quintessential Japanese badass, the plucky little ute was good to go, and we
bought almost 50,000 of them in the first year.
Eventually, however, most of us grew up. We opted for larger,
more powerful trucks. And just look where that’s got us crossovers. Ugh. Some car magazine even voted one of those
car-based, should’ve-just-bought-a-station-wagon softroaders as SUV of the Year. Yet, every gearhead apparently
has a soft spot for these tiny off-road warriors. You might be
surprised how well they’ve held their value. Not accounting
for inflation, some are even worth more today than they were
So when I happened upon a picture of a Samurai on reddit
a couple months back, I asked the poster if he’d be up for an
interview so we could learn more about them. The original
poster never replied, but one excitable redditor put me in
touch with his father, who generously offered to enlighten
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[bd] Introductions: Who are you, where are you, and what do you do
for a living, mate?
[te] My name is Terry Etheridge. I live in Castleberry, Alabama. That’s about
65 miles north-northeast of Pensacola, Florida, where I grew up. I work for
a government contractor on Eglin Air Force Base, where I am an electronic
technician and mechanical designer using Solidworks.
[bd] Introductions: Tell us a little bit about your truck. How long have
you had it, what have you done to it, and what do you do with it?
[te] My toy is an 86 Samurai that I’ve owned for about 10 years. It was also
the first 4x4 vehicle I ever owned. When purchased for $850, it had 31”
all-terrain tires, a 3” body lift, and 4” re-arch springs. After towing it to the
house and replacing the carb and alternator, I had it running.
With the 31” tires, it had no performance in the upper gears. To remedy
this, I installed a set of Calmini 5.13:1 transfer case gears. The gears were
great for restoring top end performance, as well as increasing the crawl
ratio. My only complaint with these gears is that they are noisy.
Still not satisfied with the performance, I installed a 1.6L [engine] from
a GEO Tracker using a Petroworks transmission adapter, then added a
Calmini ceramic coated header and Weber carb. It is now capable of
70mph (120kph) on the highway and crawling slower than I can walk.
I wanted a more substantial bumper. I looked on the internet and located
a design I liked. After I got a MIG welder, I built the bumper I wanted. Just
recently, I retrofitted the bumper to install a 12,000lb (5,400kg) winch
from Harbor Freight. Overkill, I know, but the price was right.
With the lift, it had a lot of bump steer. So I built a track bar for the front
axle. It works well.
I have open differentials and haven’t been able to afford lockers, so I added a second E-brake lever and cable and split the E-brake to work like cutting brakes; not as good as a locker, but its marginally effective and free.
There is a privately owned off road park near my home. It is primarily a
mud bogg with miles of trails. We enjoy riding there.
My other vehicle is an 89 Jeep Wrangler. It is basically stock. We enjoy driving it to the Smokey Mountains and just riding with an open top.
[bd] Why did you decide to get the Samurai? How easy was it to find
and outfit to suit your needs?
[te] The reason I chose a Samurai was because a friend had one and I was
amazed at how capable it was. At the time, they were very inexpensive in
our area. I actually had a Sami that my friend had given me after he had
taken the transfer case out of it. I was looking for a transfer case when I
found the 86 sitting in the weeds. I now have two running Samurais and
two spare parts vehicles. My two grandsons nearby and granddaughter
all love riding in Grampa’s Samurai. It gives me something Ican enjoy together with them and my wife.
[bd] You mentioned being impressed by the abilities of friends’ Samis,
then said “At the time, they were very inexpensive in our area.” Is this
to say they’re no longer inexpensive today? Why is that, do you suppose?
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[te] That’s correct. I guess the increase goes hand in hand with their increase in popularity. In the southeast US, prices today are higher, but occasionally a bargain can still be found. Their popularity with the off road
crowd is well known. With fuel prices through the roof, it makes sense to
drive an economy vehicle. They are ready to take to the trails right out
of the box.
[bd] A lot of us gearheads, once we find a vehicle we really like, tend
to pick up a couple; just like you’ve done with the three you’ve picked
up since. How robust is aftermarket support for these little trucks? Is
it easy to find off-the-shelf bits to build them up or do you really need
parts trucks, “serious tools,” and a devil-may-care attitude to bring
out the best in them?
[te] The Samurai does have good aftermarket support. It can’t compare
to whats available for the Jeep, but there are a half dozen or so suppliers
that do a very good job. The hard parts we need are available on line.
The best thing is that it is a simple vehicle, mechanically, that allows a
person to experiment without risking a large initial investment. That being said one can never have too many spare parts.
[bd] You’ve already told us quite a bit about how your truck got to
where it is today, but could you tell me about a time when something
went wrong or maybe about a particularly frustrating problem you
had to solve with it and how you did so?
[te] The factory carburetor is a pain. It is a 2 barrel with a dual microswitch controlled, vacuum actuated, secondary that only engages in 5th
gear. It just starves the engine. The easy solution is a Weber replacement,
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which I currently have.
I am currently prepping a 1.6L, 8 valve, fuel injected GEO Tracker engine
to install. I took a running engine and transmission, harness, radiator, and
fuel tank, and built a run stand for them. With the engine running on
the stand and no dash fault indicators, I began removing unneeded wiring from the harness. I now have the harness I need for a fuel injected
engine and just need a fuel delivery system and modified speedometer
sensor to integrate into the computer. Then I will have the reliability and
performance of a modern fuel injected engine.
Please understand, I’m not special in this regard. I know many people
who accomplish amazing things with common hand tools. When you
don’t have the money to spend you find a way to innovate. Common
hand tools and a MIG welder are all I have.
[bd] We at Gearbox Magazine would like to respectfully disagree with
part of that last statement, Terry. We think you’re pretty exceptional.
Maybe there are all kinds of Samurai owners out there building custom
wire harnesses after testing experimental engines on run stands in their
garages, but you’re the first we’ve met. And that you’re exposing your
grandchildren to the simple joy of making an old machine perform its
best with common hand tools is certainly among the more noble things
we think anyone can do.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, sir!