Now is the best time ever to build a cheap truck. In years past you needed flashy paint to be cool, then it took a wacky suspension to be cool and eventually full-blown race truck technology, but not anymore. Ugly is in, and it’s easy to be ugly on a budget. Cheap tricks are cool, and cheap trucks are the coolest. Just scan any social media or trail ride and you will find lots of people with nice new Jeeps all standing around the guy with a ratty old beater and checking it out.
Heck, our web show Roadkill epitomizes the low-buck beater patina look for muscle cars and cheap trucks and their influence is snowballing. Lots of people are excited about cheap beater-looking vehicles packed full of high-dollar parts to give them that ratty look but with good parts hidden underneath. Everyone on staff here has built something like this once or twice. So it’s prime time to build a cool low-buck truck. You’ll actually be in the “in crowd” (as if that matters—it doesn’t really).
Of course, building on a budget isn’t just cool, it’s practical. Most of us don’t have the endless checkbook budget from starting our own dot-com biz. We need to make do on a nickel and dime. That is why we here at 4-Wheel & Off-Road do our annual Cheap Truck Challenge. We want to show how to have fun and build a 4x4 that isn’t a total wallet puncher but still works respectable on the trail.
This year we changed it up again with just two teams, two trucks, but two guys per team to help get the work done. The contenders were the Dirtheads with a Jeep Liberty (purchase price $2,000) and the Dust Dawgs with a K5 Blazer (purchase price $1,300). Both teams had budgets of $2,016 to buy a truck and $2,016 to fix it up. These are amounts that we consider could be earned by the average kid hustling one summer flipping burgers, mowing lawns, chopping firewood, or starting his own dot-com biz.
The two contenders for this year’s Cheap Truck Challenge were a 1986 Chevy K5 Blazer with a 305 V-8, SM465 four-speed manual, and solid axles front and rear going against a 2005 Jeep liberty with a V-6, automatic, solid rear axle, and independent front suspension. These vehicles may not seem cheap in your neighborhood, but in California both need to pass smog, and when trucks don’t pass smog they sell dirt cheap. (Little hint there; come to Cali and buy the cheap stuff that doesn’t pass emissions but is still rust free.)
The Dust Dawgs (Rob and Joe) started their K5 build right out of the gate with a power punch in the form of a nitrous kit. Nitrous oxide when injected into the engine’s intake in effect adds more oxygen to the engine’s fuel/air mixture and allows you to burn an equal ratio of additional fuel. The results mimic increasing your engine size greatly, which makes lots more power. There are a variety of nitrous kits available, but the Dawgs found a simple 100-150hp kit from Summit Racing Equipment for $500.
The wet nitrous system is injected into the tired 305 via an injection plate that mounts under the carburetor. Rob installed the kit while Joe mounted the tank and ran the wiring to a switch in the cab.
The K5’s 10-bolt solid front axle isn’t considered the greatest axle ever, but it’s not junk either. Consider it very similar in strength to the Dana 44. Joe upgraded the front axles with a set of Warn locking hubs. The Warn hubs are superior to the old factory hubs and are a simple upgrade for around $150, including a new set of spindle/hub locking nuts, also from Summit.
The Dust Dawgs wrapped up their build with a new set of tires from Discount Tire. The 35x12.50R15 Cooper Discoverer MTP treads did require some trimming of the fenders since no lift kit was in the budget, so Rob unleashed a saber saw on the clean K5 fenders. Somewhere back east a square-body Chevy fan is crying, but that’s the benefit of west coast sheetmetal—it’s clean and cheap. Budget spent on tires $950, the aluminum wheels were leftovers Rob had lying around.
The Dirtheads (Dave and Fred) didn’t get as lucky to start with a solid-axle 4x4 with tough classic sheetmetal, but they did start with a Jeep (although many purist would argue that the Liberty isn’t a real Jeep). The Jeep’s engine was knocking shortly after it got home. We found the front end had been wrecked at some time prior, but that explains why it was only $2,000. You still got ripped off. —Ed.
The best budget lift kit available for the Liberty is a Daystar 2 1/2-inch polyurethane spacer kit for just $140. The kit requires a spring compressor to install, but otherwise goes on without any special tools and gave us some clearance for bigger tires. However, we wanted to go up to a tall skinny 255/85R16 (roughly 33-inch-tall) BFGoodrich tire ($1,150 for five) so we had to do some additional fender trimming to make them clear.
Traction-adding devices for a Liberty are available, but the Dirtheads went cheap with a welded rear differential. Welding your diff makes it a straight spool and is hard on tires and steering, but it’s cheap. By welding up the spider gears the diff sends power to both tires all the time. Cheap.
Safety is important and shouldn’t be compromised in the interest of going cheap. Your life is priceless. But you can built safe without spending tons if you are smart. Dirthead Dave is a skilled fabricator, and he built a safe rollcage that doesn’t require any tube bends by welding the tube to the body of the Liberty and miter-cutting or coping the corners. This works fine because the Liberty is a Unitbody and the tube is still adding to the structure of the cage, just without bends. Total cost for all steel for the build was $194.
Dave also built a front bumper for bumping slow K5 Blazers out of the way and added thick pipe rock sliders to the lower edges of the Liberty for rock smashing. The Liberty got lighter as we deleted the tailgate rear glass and gutted the back half of the Jeep. It may not be the best winter daily driver, but it will be a fun off-roading Jeep and summer driver. Keeping those parts would have helped normal use, but we were going for optimal fun per nickel.
Sticking to the Liberty theme, Dave laid down a stars-and-bars paint scheme with homemade stencils and spray paint. The Dust Dawgs went for a more 1980s scallops paint theme. Now somebody just needs to make a period-correct serial detective show centered around the truck doing jumps and driving on two wheels.
We headed to a nearby off road area to run the two trucks against each other in a full-fledged Cheap Truck Challenge. This competition started out as a shootout and ended up a full-blown demolition derby. The Blazer was running bad to start with, but simple items like a fuel filter and getting the proper timing set fixed most of the issues. We had two trucks and our giant friend Cooper from Power Products dressed in a much-too-tight referee’s shirt so things started to get crazy.
The first challenge was an obstacle course race with side-by-side driving. We decided later that this should have been saved for the end of the day because it quickly degraded into full-on bumping and racing. The race started with the two co-drivers running up a hill to give the drivers the keys to their cheap truck. The Dust Dawgs took the lead as Dust Dawg Joe was wearing boots while Dirthead Dave was slipping in flip-flops.
The Blazer was in the lead with Dust Dawg Rob behind the wheel, but Dirthead Fred was hot on his tail in the beater Liberty. The cheap trucks did some bumping and grinding and even some two-wheel action.
The Liberty took the race when the Blazer stalled out and got passed. But not before nerfing the rear of the blazer and smashing the Liberty’s grille. But when the Blazer got back up and running there was a little fender bender at the finish line. All parties traded insurance cards and a good laugh.
Then we found that the front lower A-arm on the Liberty was broken from the aggressive driving. So even though the Jeep won the race, it proved once again the strength of a good old solid axle.
Next up was the classic tug o’ war. Without a doubt a V-8 with nitrous is the winning combination compared to a lightweight and half-broken IFS V-6 cute ute. And the next thing you know the competition was tied: one challenge Jeep, one challenge Blazer.
The final challenge was a rockcrawl up and over some concrete pipes. It was still anyone’s game to win. The Dust Dawgs won the cheaper purchase price challenge ($1,300 versus the Dirtheads’ $2,000), the Dirtheads won the cheaper upgrades challenge ($1,599 versus $1,600), and now the off-road challenge was tied up with one win each.
The Liberty attacked the rocks with a vengeance, and the rocks bit back hard. With a broken front suspension and a wheel that was practically falling off, the little Jeep wasn’t going very far. In the end the Blazer drug the Jeep off the rocks after only a third of the course was finished.
And then the big classic American iron K5 Blazer hit the boulders and dominated. Maybe dominated isn’t the best word, but it did go farther up the rock pile than the broken Jeep. And when crawling didn’t work, the nitrous button was punched for a radical burnout on the boulders. In the end the rear 10-bolt axle broke from the abuse and both cheap trucks were dead in the water, but the solid-axle V-8 Chevy was victorious.
To the victor goes the cake!
CTC on DED
Want to see all the Cheap Truck Challenge action in real moving pictures? Tune into the Cheap Truck Challenge episode of Dirt Every Day on youtube.com
debuting September 27, 2016.
Clackamas, OR 97015