Whether you've just started off-roading or you're looking for your next project Jeep, there's a lot of really good stuff available for under $4,000. You can get a good running and driving Jeep for less than the down payment of a new pickup with manual windows and a rubber carpet and still have enough money left to fill the tank a couple of times.
Here are some ideas we came up with for Jeeps that will get you out on the trail without breaking the bank. Some offer more reliability, others offer more cargo room, and a few offer the sense of adventure that can only come with the marriage of significant off-road capability coupled with mechanical uncertainty. So whether you want to take the wife and kids camping, hit the trails of Moab, or just plain wander into the great unknown and break down, there's a Jeep out there with your name on it.
'74-'79 J-truck/Wagoneer - Rednecks Come-a-Courtin'Let's face it. If you're looking for an affordable fullsize Jeep, your selection is severely limited. While J-trucks and Wagoneers were made throughout the '60s, the '74-'79 models had better drivetrain parts and a few more creature comforts. They're easier to modify with aftermarket parts, they're easier to find replacement parts for at the local auto store, and they command a slightly lower price than the earlier stuff.
Look For: Both the AMC 360 and 401 V-8s were optional from '74-'78. All front axles were open-knuckle Dana 44s, but disc brakes were optional on the '74-'76 pickups, so look for that. The T-18 tranny was available with or without a granny low. Power steering is a plus, as is the Model 20 T-case.
Avoid: We'd rather not have the TH400 with the Quadra-Trac full-time T-case and offset rear axle. While the inline-six may be adequate, why bother when V-8s are plentiful?
Ideal Candidate: We'd nab a pre-smog (in California at least) '74 or '75 model with a 401 four-barrel, a T-18 tranny, disc brakes, and air conditioning. We'd also like the bed full of gold bars and a supermodel who would chauffeur it for us.
Expect to Pay: Anywhere from $1,700 to $3,999 for a solid runner in reliable condition.
'41-'53 Flatfender - Wheel a LegendFlatties are still the king of cool in the dirt. With a nimble 80-inch wheelbase, they offer great maneuverability, although they do have very limited cargo capacity. A stock flattie will go places you'd never dream possible, and a built one will astound you. Unless you're extremely patient, plan on eventually ditching the stock 60hp flathead four-banger.
Look For: The '49-'53 CJ-3A and '50-'52 M-38 have a Dana 44 rear that's easy to upgrade, unlike earlier models' Spicer 25 or Spicer 41. Early 225 Buick V-6 conversions were popular, as were Chevy and Ford V-8 conversions. Swapped-in granny trannies like the SM420 are abundant.
Avoid: Stock drivetrain parts are marginal for all but the original L-head four-cylinder, which there aren't many of still around. Just avoid hacked, poorly executed engine, transmission, steering, and suspension work.
Ideal Candidate: A largely unmolested CJ-3A or M-38 with the original drivetrain in running condition is ideal. Minor mods like swapped seats, rollbars, or even a suspension lift are good. A vehicle like this would be a killer weekend fun rig and the beginning of a great, serious trail buildup.
Expect to Pay: Anywhere from $1,500 to $3,999 for a running, driving example.
'55-'86 CJ-5 or CJ-7 - Glutton For PunishmentSure, we're covering a wide array of CJs here and there were lots of changes over this 31-year span, but for the most part, the early ('55-'71), intermediate ('72-'75), and later ('76-'86) CJs can offer something for everyone. For changes, '72 was the first year of the long-nose CJs to accommodate AMC's 4.2L six-cylinder or 304 V-8. Earlier '55-'71 Jeeps came with a 72hp F-head four-cylinder, with '66-'71 models available with a 225 Buick V-6. The first year of the CJ-7 was '76 and the last year of the CJ-5 was '81. In '73 the Dana 30 front replaced the Dana 27, disc brakes became standard in '77, and the axle width was increased in '82.
Look For: With CJ-5s and '7s it's not so much what to look for as what to look out for. Watch out for cracked frames around the front and rear framehorns, steering-box mounts, and suspension mounts. Also, watch out for cracked or missing body mounts, worn steering and clutch components, and spun rear axleshafts in '55-'69 Dana 44 and '76-'86 Model 20 rears. Look for a '70-'71 V-6 model with one-piece Dana 44 rear shafts or a late '86 CJ-7 with a T-18 tranny, a Dana 300 T-case, and a Dana 44 rear.
Avoid: If you have smog laws in your state, avoid the late '70s and early '80s models with their miles of vacuum lines and emission trinkets.
Ideal Candidate: You can find CJs of all years that have had clean power-steering conversions, bolt-on-suspension lifts, and upgraded rear axleshafts. We'd look for a '70-'71 V-6 model or a modified '86 with a swapped-in V-8.
Expect to Pay: Upward of $3,999 for a reliable runner. Four-cylinder models will be slightly less.
'91-'99 Cherokee XJ - Mr. VersatileWhen Jeep came out with the XJ Cherokee in '84, it broke a lot of molds. Without going too deeply into Jeep history, the "little" Cherokee has served duty ranging from daily driver to insane rockcrawler to competitive prerunner to a number of things in between. With a wheelbase of 101.4 inches, a great power-to-weight ratio (for the H.O. 4.0L models), and durable drivetrain components, the XJ offers something for just about everyone.
Look For: In '91 Jeep introduced the upgraded High Output 4.0L that upped power to 190 hp and 225 lb-ft and began introducing the stronger Chrysler 8.25 axle in place of the weaker Dana 35. The '91-'96 models are the older body style introduced in '84, while the '97-'99 models have a more rounded shape and updated interior. Later Dana 30 front axles are high pinion, with some '99s either high or low pinion. Look for larger Spicer 297/760 U-joints in the front axle (the smaller 260X joints are easily converted with new shafts) and the NV231 T-case, although the NV242 Selec-Trac is good too.
Avoid: Four-cylinder models are largely dogs. The Dana 35 axle is weak and will need to be swapped out unless you plan on nothing but street driving. Even then we'd be careful.
Ideal Candidate: While the '97-and-up models are nicer, the $3,999 versions will have insanely high miles or lots of problems. For the money, we'd look for a '91-'93 version (it has an easily modified OBD-I emissions system) with the 4.0L, Chrysler 8.25 axle, and NP231 T-case.
Expect to Pay: Anywhere from $1,900 to $3,999 for a nice driver.
'93-'98 Grand Cherokee ZJ - Civil LibertiesThe Grand Cherokee ZJ was the family truckster/soccer-mom-mobile back in the day. However, now that those vehicles are looking a little long in the tooth, the prices have dropped dramatically. When you consider what you'd pay for a V-8-powered Jeep with front and rear coil suspension and room for five, if you had to have someone build it for you, the Grand Cherokee ZJ begins to look criminally inexpensive.
Look For: The '93-'98 models were available with an optional 220hp/245-lb-ft Magnum 318 engine, with '98s offering the 300hp/335-lb-ft Magnum 360 in the Limited models. Look for the full-time NV249 T-case behind the V-8s, with '96-and-up versions offering a center diff lock in the T-case.
Avoid: For reasons of fun only, the 4.0L six-cylinder-equipped versions.
Ideal Candidate: While a '98 5.9L Limited would be nice, for under $4,000 its condition would be hammered. We'd keep our eyes peeled for a more affordable '96 5.2L Laredo version with the lockable NV249 T-case.
Expect to Pay: About $3,500-$3,999 for a 120K-mile V-8-powered Limited or Laredo ZJ.
'87-'00 Wrangler YJ/TJ - The new LegendFor some reason, we think the YJ sort of got passed over in the overall scheme of things. Everyone and their brother were building CJs, then overnight the trend shifted to building TJs. We don't know why because the leaf-sprung YJ makes one heck of a trail machine and daily driver when built properly. Although we can see why people like the coil-sprung TJs for comfort and capability, their cost is still pretty high. We'll include them here just because we're starting to see some four-cylinder models in poor condition going for just under $4,000.
Look For: The '87-'90 four-cylinder engines have a throttle-body injection system that's OK, while the later versions have a multipoint injection system that's better. Either one is good off-road. The pricier '91-and-up 4.0L engines make great power for use with bigger tires. There aren't many options, in that manual vehicles will have either the AX-4 ('87-'90) or AX-5 ('91-and-up) behind the four-cylinder engine or the AX-15 behind the '89-and-up 4.0Ls.
Avoid: The '87-'90 4.2L six engines have a troublesome electronic carburetor that doesn't like to be taken off-road and an equally crappy Peugeot BA-10 tranny. All '87 Jeeps came with the obscure and forgettable NP207 T-case with 2.6:1 low. Don't bother. The 999 auto tranny is a good unit, but you shouldn't even consider running one behind a four-cylinder.
Ideal Candidate: The four-cylinder models are more affordable, but they're maddeningly underpowered. We'd look for a '91-'94 4.0L Wrangler with a manual tranny and power steering.
Expect to Pay: Most decent 4.0Ls hover right at the $3,999 mark, with very good 2.5L four-cylinder models anywhere from $2,500 to $3,999.
And Now A Word AboutBuying Someone's Unfinished Project:While it may seem like you can get a screaming deal picking up the shattered pieces of someone else's dream, getting into a half-baked project will usually just suck up more time and money than if you started your own project from scratch. We look at it this way: Although there are always exceptions, most of the time you'll wind up changing half the stuff the previous owner did and spend frustrating hours trying to figure out how to unscrew what they screwed up. Also, don't be lured by seemingly expensive trinkets and widgets that aren't all there. There's usually a reason that you're just getting a shortened front housing with no shafts, no steering components, and knuckles welded on all crooked and goofy.
Ideally, we'd rather get a running and driving vehicle, have fun with it stock, then build it up as our time, budget, and skills allow. Otherwise, you could be looking at a garage ornament that won't move for over a year.
Buying A Totaled-Parts Vehicle For Your Project:Buying a totaled-parts vehicle can be a good way of getting a bunch of parts for less than the sum of their costs. Plus, you'll have a source for all those little items that may be worn or missing from your rig. Just be careful when inspecting the parts donor. If it's been rolled or hit really hard, there could be bent stuff like axlehousings, suspension links, or springs, and damaged steering components. Using parts from the rear of a vehicle that's been hit in the front or vice versa can be a good idea, but if the vehicle you're considering buying for its axles and suspension system looks like the one in the photo, you may be better off walking away.