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Who’s laughing now — 1986 Suzuki Carry van

29 December 2014

This Suzuki Carry van might once HAVE been the laughing stock oF New Zealand roads, but it now packs a very big punch and is not to be taken lightly

We are going to assume that, like the first time we laid eyes on Nathan (Nate) Wilkie’s wild Suzuki Carry van, the moment you flicked to this page, you couldn’t help but crack a huge smile or have a little chuckle. It’s just one of those vehicles that you can’t take seriously at first glance. In factory form, it’s funny enough, but add a set of big rear feet and you have Adam Sandler on wheels. That’s probably not the most conventional image to help you decide on a project car, but it’s exactly how Nate felt the first time that he spotted the stock van for sale. “I always said to the missus that I was going to do a full-on project when I had some spare coin. I always figured it would be a Fiat or something, but when I saw this, I thought it would be funny-as if done up. I have never owned a rotary and thought why not put a rotor it?” Nate tells NZPC.

A chance find on Trade Me, they were soon on their way to Wanganui to pick up the stock-standard (aren’t they all stock-standard?) 1986 Suzuki Carry van for a very small lump of change. On the drive home, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, the van decided it would overheat in the pouring rain, so a hell-ride rope-tow ensued that included speeds in excess of 100kph, and all with no working wipers on the Suzuki — we can only imagine the level of fear the Suzuki’s driver experienced as Nate blasted down the main highway with the vehicle in tow, unaware its wipers had given up. 

Once home, the heating issue was soon fixed, and, over the next 12 months, the van saw use as Nate’s sister’s daily-driver, a golf-runner for the boys, and the best discipline tool a dad could have, with the threat of the morning school run in it always hanging in the air. 

Nate is the first to admit that his skills are best in the area of working to earn money not in car building, so he entrusted the team at Rocket Speed Shop with the project — although, at first, it wasn’t really an honour the Rocket team seemed that thrilled with, as Nate explains: “They thought the project was a little quirky and tried to get me to build something else. They had an RX-2 for 15 grand, and said I could buy that, spend another 15 and it would be mint. But when you go to shows what do you see? RX-2s etc. I wanted something different.” Nate left Rocket to get the job sorted, and the van became a real talking point for the company’s traditional clientele. “Older guys would come into the shop and snicker at it until they took a closer look at the amount of work going into it, and the level of the craftsmanship,” says the man responsible for the chassis, Bob Tynan.

It’s easy to see why they would be impressed, as most road-going vehicles have not had this level of fabrication go into them. The body shape might make you laugh, but the underpinnings will blow you away. 

From day one, it was decided that the easiest way to package everything and make it actually work would be to have a tube chassis. Bob has built a chassis similar to that of an altered drag car, with a twin rail to house the adjustable four-link, a shortened Ford nine-inch diff, a narrowed Vauxhall Viva front end, and the 13B and all its workings. It was a tight fit to get everything in and able to operate. Things like the radiator sit flat under the floor alongside the secondary radiator for the in-cabin PWR barrel cooler. On the opposite side to the radiator is the turbo and exhaust, which snakes back and forth to include two resonators, before exiting out the side. Everything is so well packed and hidden under the custom tin-work, that it’s no surprise that most people write it off without a second look.

It took two years for the project to go from piston-powered to rotary, and, in that time, the goal posts moved somewhat for Nate. “I had all these high expectations and planned to show it, doing a full panel and paint, full interior, the hood lining, and all these things,” he remembers. “But when I saw the Green Brothers 323 wagon, I thought, why not just leave it as is? All I plan on doing now is re-pinstriping it and just clear-coating the steel so it doesn’t rust. That tin-work it so nice [that] it would almost be a shame to cover it all up, anyway.” 

After the team at Rocket got the project running, Nate brought it home to work on the finishing touches. As luck would have it, his new workshop neighbour was a keen fabricator by the name of David Brennan, and Dave — being a car guy — took a shine to the Carry and got stuck in making a few improvements and working on the details.

The little van got its first real shakedown at Chrome Expression Session. With a stage-two 13B making 240kW in a sub-600kg van with a narrow and short wheelbase, it doesn’t take a chassis genius to work out that it would be a very wild ride. The tube chassis and QA1 coilovers mean it puts the power down great in a straight line, but, speeding around corners and heavy braking into turns create a different animal altogether. There was one point during the weekend when Dave reportedly had the van up on only one wheel. At a track day like Chrome, the best part of owning a 1400-millimetre-wide van is having the option of blasting between gaps bigger vehicles just can’t manage, and watching Nate absolutely blow the doors off big-block Camaros and other American muscle was a laugh — you can bet the snickers from those V8 owners subsided real quick.

With the van now all but finished, the only job left is to get the Low Volume Vehicle Technical Association’s (LVVTA) seal of approval. A certifier has followed the entire process at Rocket, and, with chassis-builder Bob following the NZ Hobby Car Technical Manual to the letter, the van will soon resume golf duties for the boys and school drop-off runs for the kids — although, we bet that the kids won’t see being in there as punishment now. 

It’s one of those projects that doesn’t really have a purpose, and we don’t think Nate gives two shits that it’s neither very practical nor desired by the masses, because his quirky little Suzuki is just plain cool, and that’s all it needs to be.