Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2005   by Jim Anderton

Deep Woods Off-Road

Sudbury, Ontario-based Terry Witrak knows off-road performance. Here's what sells to deep woods drivers

Compared to the conventional repair aftermarket, the enthusiast segment has a definite appeal. It’s never a grudge purchase for a car nut and pricing is often a much smaller factor in the purchase decision. And for shops not in the nerve centre of the urban sport compact underground, the other extreme, off-road, can be an interesting and profitable addition to the sales mix.

Sudbury, Ontario is the nickel capital of the world and just beyond INCO and Falconbridge, there is some of the best hunting, fishing, canoeing and kayaking available anywhere. Getting there requires four-wheel-drive, but to find the really remote spot takes more than a stock 4X4.

Terry Witrak, owner of Witrak Auto Specialties in Sudbury, sells and installs custom and performance parts for on and off-road vehicles and specializes in 4X4 performance. In business for 38 years, he’s seen many trends come and go. “Right now it’s Jeeps. TJ’s are popular and we still get a lot of YJ’s. This year we’ve seen more Cherokees and Wranglers. We also do a lot of full size Chevy and Ford pickups.”

Japanese vehicles, not traditionally strong in Northern Ontario, have their proponents, too. “It seems that when you sell one (installation), in a couple of weeks everyone comes in. There’s no set pattern. The market is changing all the time.”

Wheels and tires are inevitably the first modification and can add six or seven inches of height over stock. Clearing monster wheel and tire combinations, however, usually means lifting the body, suspension or both.

What’s a typical lift? According to Witrak, “On a Jeep, usually it’s four inches. You can go pretty much anywhere with a four-inch lift.”

The increase is usually split between body and chassis, with taller body mounts and a dedicated kit for the suspension, declares Witrak: “On the chassis, it’s a rubber spacer that goes between the upper spring mount and the coil. A kit goes for roughly 700 dollars. Everything has to coincide. With larger wheels, the tires often stick out, so we install fender flares. The look can be pretty subtle.”

Due to the popularity of off-roading south of the border, kits are sufficiently developed to be a true bolt-on proposition for popular models. “You don’t have to figure anything out. You can get the whole kit in one cardboard box with the right springs, shocks, everything that’s recommended. I have them that can give 12 inches of lift. You could use 42-inch tires which give you 7 inches of lift for a total of 19 inches over stock. We might go as much as 22 inches of total lift, but we don’t sell too many of those,” says Witrak. “It’s really a no-brainer.”

The downside of simplicity is the ability of DIY’ers to handle the installation, but for those without the skill, Witrak typically sells a turn-key job for about $3000.

The result is a chassis that can go almost anywhere, but a drive train that can be severely compromised. The most immediate effect for the owner is the much longer effective overall final drive ratio caused by the bigger tires. “By the time you add the large tire, you lose a lot of power; you need to change gear ratios front and rear,” advises Witrak. “The kits are 600 to 700 dollars per axle and about 300 dollars per axle in labour.”

Witrak notes that when going to severely oversized wheels and tires, the slower rotational speed of the hubs will throw off the speedometer. That’s at best inconvenient, but if the vehicle speed sensor reads off the instrument cluster, it can have definite drivability issues.

“Most people don’t bother to modify the speedometer, but on the newer trucks you have to. They buy a power programmer to adjust it. You just plug it in under the dash. For older models, it’s possible to buy a mechanical calibration kit. A lot of guys don’t buy it, but they should.”

More power is another typical mod for serious 4X4 owners, with engine swaps a common technique for added horsepower and more importantly for this kind of driving, torque. The ubiquitous small-block Chevy is a popular choice. “We’ve done 350 Chevy’s in Jeeps and Toyotas. It’s an easy swap. You can buy bolt-in adapter kits. With an adapter kit and special motor mounts, a 350/Turbo-Hydramatic combination will slip right in.”

Swapping is popular enough that Witrack keeps several adapter kits in stock. And few go to the trouble of squeezing a “Bow Tie” into an SR-5 without at least mild engine preparation. Carbs and manifolds are traditional bolt-ons.

“Holley and Edelbrock make off-road carburetors,” declares Witrack. “They have vent tubes that prevent flooding when going up or down steep hills. They also have spring-loaded needles and seats to keep the floats from shutting off the fuel when you bounce. You can run with stock carburetors, but if you go into the bush and pound it, you’ll have problems.”

Ignitions are also a factor, especially with Chevrolet’s rear-mounted distributor. According to Witrak, “The serious guys are going with MSD or Crane CD units. For the Chevy swaps, the stock HEI distributor is very big. You get more clearance with a unit like an MSD or a Mallory. It’s better for Toyotas. It’s about 240 dollars for a CD box, plus 300 dollars for a distributor. It depends on the buyer’s preference.”

And buyer preference is changing, especially with cable and satellite specialty channels featuring custom auto tech.

“The consumer is more educated these days, so we don’t have to spend as much time as we used to. They’re more aware of what’s out there than they were ten years ago. They’re also more confident. If they see it on TV, it’s like Gospel.”

Witrak notes that Internet parts suppliers allow many do-it-yourselfers to mistakenly buy the wrong parts, as well as parts that are often not cheaper when brokerage, shipping, handling and exchange is factored in: “A lot of people buy stuff and they buy the wrong thing. When I get customers, I know what they want.”

Part of Witrak’s strategy for fighting Internet mail order is fast delivery. “Order on a Monday and I can get it by Wednesday”, he declares, a claim backed up a steady stream of customers picking up parts.

Why does it make sense to consider off-road work? Witrak summarizes: “It’s 95 percent hobby. Occasionally we get a doctor, or someone who needs to get through.”

And as every golf or fishing equipment retailer knows, cost is much less important to a sportsman or woman than the mundane things in life. It’s work in the bay and play for your customers.

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