Ford Bronco II ('84-'88)
The little brother to the classic fullsize Bronco enjoyed significant popularity throughout the mid-80s. The Bronco II was built in Louisville, Kentucky and shared architecture with the Ford Ranger pickup. A 2.8L V-6 engine was carbureted on the '84 and '85 model years, though in '86 the mill was replaced with a fuel-injected 2.9L with an additional 25 horsepower on tap, bringing the grand total to 140. Today, Bronco IIs are not considered particularly good builder rigs. However, virtually any suspension system made for the same vintage Ford Ranger will work under a Bronco II, and a 4.0L swap is common and relatively easy to complete on these rigs. We think of it as a nimble little SUV that can take a beating right out of the box. For $1,000 you get more than what you pay for in terms of trail prowess. The best version to look for is the somewhat-rare 1990 model built after November of that year. Prior to killing production, Ford installed a tougher Dana 35 front axle assembly in place of the Dana 28.
Geo Tracker/Suzuki Sidekick ('89-'95)
This Jeep-like SUV made its debut in 1988 as a joint venture between Suzuki and General Motors. A robust chassis features formed framerails integrated into a unitized body structure. A solid rear axle with coil springs and link suspension gave the compact 'ute a pickup-like ride quality. With an overall length of 142 inches and a track width of nearly 65 inches, the Tracker feels stable at highway speeds-unlike Suzuki Samurais. The 1.6L I-4 engine features fuel injection and puts out a whopping 80 horsepower. Despite seeming underpowered on paper, the mill does a decent job at motivating the 2,619-pound vehicle. We like the fact that Trackers come with manual locking hubs and traditional U-joint-style front drive axles. The aftermarket offers a handful of upgrades that can make the Tracker quite capable in the rough. We've seen these lightweight rigs do some pretty amazing things with a confident driver behind the wheel. A $1,000 Geo tracker will likely burn engine oil, leak from around the bellhousing (typically a sign of a faulty rear main seal) and will usually need a new soft top.
Ford Ranger ('83-'97)
While we typically do not see the coveted '93-'97 model years for sale at $1,000 or less, the earlier '89-'92 (second) generation is abundant at such a bargain. Of the three engines offered in the Ranger, the one to look for is the 4.0L OHV V-6, making 160 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque. Four wheeler-friendly attributes include a Dana 35 front differential with Dana 44-style outers and a 28-spline Ford 8.8-inch axle out back. Typically, these trucks came with 3.73:1 gearing. Unfortunately, the Ranger's transmission is often a weak link, especially in the case of the M5OD manual. Aftermarket support is easy to find, thanks to a plethora of companies that specialize in Ranger-specific lift kits, body parts and drivetrain upgrades. We see built Rangers patrolling all terrain types from desert two-tracks to even the most extreme of jeep trails. We attributed the Ranger's popularity amongst the 4x4 community to its nimble size, and the sheer abundance of well-running trucks still on the road today.
Toyota Pickup ('79-'86)
Right from the very start, Toyota pickups are rock-solid machines designed to take a beating. We like the fact that they have stout boxed frames, extremely reliable rear axles, and plenty of available aftermarket upgrades. Prior to '85, these trucks were carbureted and put out 96 horsepower. Then the 22R was upgraded with fuel injection, adding the "E" to the end of the engines nametag. The 22R-E was optional on '85 and up trucks, and pushed output levels to 112 horesepower, and a rare turbocharged version (22R-TE) made 135 horsepower in the '86 model year. In '88 the Toyota pickup got an optional 3VZE 3.0L V-6 that made decent power (150 horsepower). The Toyota aftermarket is literally drenched with options for just about every budget level. All Toyota pickups feature a dropout-style 8.8-inch axle with heavy-duty axleshafts, though the front of all pre-'86 pickups featured a fragile Birfield CV-type axle joint that can easily snap when used with larger-than-stock tires.