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Low-Buck Contest

Posted in Features on February 21, 2003
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A few months back, we announced that we would give away a set of Superlift Superide shocks to the most, we don't know, what's the word--pathetic maybe?--low-buck tale of low-buck-vehicle ownership. We're not sure if it's good or bad news that we were inundated with novella-length submissions featuring one head-shaker after another, but what you'll find here is the winning entry as well as a handful of runners-up, photos from a few of our participants, and potent quotables by a bunch of our players.

It appears that you have set an all-time low for low-buck.

Way to go, people!


PhotosView Slideshow

Low-Buck Winner

Dear Fellow Cheap Truck Builders,

Finally, a contest my pile of crap can win!

It ain't no general Lee, but it is orange, and my name is Lee. Anyway I only paid $100 for this beaut of an '83 Ramcharger with just 186K on the ticker. It ran mint with a factory 318 four-barrel and NP435 tranny. It even had a few inches of lift and Rancho shocks. A few weeks after I bought it, I was scrounging through the local junkyards and scored a full Flowmaster exhaust for free. The dude who ran the place said "If you crawl under that pile of Dodge and cut it off, it's yours."

The next day I skipped out of school early and cut it off with a hacksaw. A couple months later I scored some 295/75R16 BFGoodrich All-Terrains for $100. The 31s that it came with it were getting pretty slick from the occasional smoke show. The only problem was that I couldn't find any 16-inch rims for five-lug axles in my price range of little to nothing. Then a little bit of good luck struck when I tripped over something and fell on my head in my friend's backyard. It was a set of 1-ton Dodge axles, complete with steel 16-inch wheels buried in the grass. Joking around I said, "I'll give you 100 bucks for those axles if you let me install them in your garage." He said, "Sure, I'll even give you a hand."

The next weekend I was flying high on my new axles and tires for a little over $200. Then disaster struck: I had hydrolocked the engine a few times and the smoke from the exhaust kept getting worse and worse. I guess these things weren't designed to be mired in the mud up to the headlights. My girlfriend agreed after I dropped her knee deep in the stuff while rescuing her from the sinking truck. However, one good thing about its oil consumption problem was that it kept the 'skeeters away when we were trying to get it unstuck.

Finally, on the way to school one day, the lower end decided it had stayed together long enough and blew a few essential components through the side of the block. It still made it home which was mostly downhill. When I got to school, my Spanish teacher bitched me out for being late again. I told him the dilemma and showed him some pictures of my floating truck. He told me he had an '82 Ramcharger, and his ex-wife wanted it out of her yard. He couldn't find the keys, but he gave me the title for $1 and told me to get it out of her yard. We hot-wired it the next day, but the fuel lines were too rotted to get gas to the carb. It had been sitting for years and smelled like a dead mouse. We drove it on carb cleaner to the end of her driveway, slapped my plate on it, then called AAA. The tow-truck driver looked at us kind of funny when the brake pedal went through the rotted floor, but he towed it home for me for free anyway.

A few days later, we ripped out the drivetrain, traded the 727 for a low-mile NP435, and threw it all in my truck. I even got a plow setup and spare driveshafts out of the deal, not to mention a pet mouse. (There were eight of them living in the hood alone!) I've got to admit that I did spend 20 or 30 bucks on new gaskets for the motor. I got a swap meet Edelbrock intake for $20 and a set of Mopar Performance headers from a friend for nothing.

The thing ran great when we got finished with it. Did I mention that it is my daily driver, so it went together quick? I've been driving it for about a year now the way it is. Except for the addition of some Warn hubs which I traded my spare transfer case for, and my newest addition, 315/75R16 Wild Spirit Mud Terrains which I took off a Super Duty at work because they rubbed the fenders. It's a lot more smashed, and somewhat primered now, but still runs fine for a little over 500 bucks. The price of U-joints and axleshafts really add up!

From A Cheap Truck Builder,
Lee Beaudry
South Grafton, MA


Low buck doesn't even qualify as a description of my bush buggy--try no buck. This is the story of the Bummer, because it's not quite a Hummer.

I decided to drive the Bummer down the highway from the camp (in Ontario, Canada) to where my tow rig was. It was only 3 miles. No problem. As I am pulling into the gas station, where my rig was parked, I see three police cruisers at the pump. The buggy I am driving has no doors, seatbelts, plates.... I quickly tore around to the back of the gas station hoping none of them saw. I gingerly appraoched the front of the store to see if there were going to be any comments. All the cops were wearing sweatpants! It was the Houston police relay team returning from a track event. I almost fell down in the parking lot as I laughed so hard at myself for worrying about the potential court date I would have received if it had been the Ontario Provincial Police.

The '85 S-10 Blazer 2.8L motor was purchased for a song, as it had been rolled over the train tracks by a drunk driver, which left the entire roof as tall as the hood. It ran though! Out came the gas saw and off came the pancaked roof. Next, off came the doors. The roof was then constructed out of scrap angle iron (all measurements done by eye) and tin was rivited to the top to provide a rainproof lid. A 3x6-foot flip-back sunroof was built in. The winshield (most expensive item on truck) is a $80 piece of 1-inch plexiglass, which squeaks to no end. Foot-all sides were welded into the door frames to keep the water out (and in). A giant hoodscoop was cut into the hood. This allowed mass quantities of mud and water into the motor. An uncut donor hood was quickly retrieved off of a wreck.

Fenders were hacked mercilessly and the torsion bar cranked as tightly as it would go to fit a set of 31-inch no-name, retreaded mud tires. A 10,000lb electric winch (from a previously owned Suburban) with no brakes was mounted on a custom 4-inch square tube steel bumper. The bumper also has a permanently mounted towbar to flat-tow this rig from site to site (as if its road legal!).

Performance mods are none. The motor is completely gutless and the factory catylitic converter is still in place. I already told you--it runs.

Eric Robertson
Ontario, Canada


For many years my friend had a '76 Blazer sitting in his field. I started asking him about the truck and we even trekked through the field--20 acres just to go look at it. Most of the tires held air and only a few mice inhabited the vehicle, but he still wasn't sure what he wanted to do with it. A few more years passed by and finally I talked my dad into trading a double-barrel shotgun for the truck. We put air in the tires and pulled her home.

We changed the oil and poured some gas in the carb and it fired right up. Besides missing a front bumper and having a bullet hole in the windshield it was borderline street legal. After that summer my dad was fed up with the truck--his quote was "I don't want this damn piece of junk anymore." He couldn't reach the pedal because the seat was busted, and when pressing the clutch in, it lifted the body of the Blazer since the mounts were slightly old. The seat got busted from pulling tree stumps and from jumping it a few too many times. To rectify the seat issue we used a 2x6 that I found in the shop and braced it from the back of the seat to the rear bench to keep the back upright.

About a year later I bought new axles for my GMC and to my surprise it even came with 38.5 Hawgs. Two of them were salvageable, and I had two old 38-inch Swampers from my GMC so I decided to put them on the Blazer. The suspension was all original, but mother nature took care of the front and rear fenders. With a little coaxing from a sledgehammer, I was able to fit the 38s under the truck (the tires did the rest of the trimming). I did have to replace the flywheel and pressure plate because I let the bearings go too long and then finally some other parts wore out while racing.

I happened to find an old stop sign out in the woods, so that got donated to fixing the floorboards. I had some replacement doors from a previous project and put them in place of the old ones. The passenger side one had some old damage from a fight with a tree. The wife will not set foot in the truck because it smells like exhaust, and some mysterious debris keeps falling from the ceiling area onto the passengers. I did put some spray paint on the truck to get in one color and put some chains in the front for a tow point. The engine is orginal, along with the drivetrain, and it has never failed to start yet. The best part about the truck is that if it gets wrecked I don't care too much since I have less than $200 into it.

Edward Warren
Valparaiso, IN


A man who goes to my church said that he had a "truck" I might be interested in. Two days later my father and I go up to this man's house and he takes us on a short hike through the woods. We come up on this dilapidated heap that might have once been a vehicle. You could see more blue sky through the body of this '71 Jeepster Commando than you could by looking out the window.

I paid the man from my church $100 for the Jeep which luckily ran. Upon closer inspection I found that some of the sheetmetal was pretty crumpled. It then came out that my "new" Jeep had been rolled once and probably another time as well.

Taking all of this to heart my father and I set to work rebuilding the non-existant brake system. Two of the wheel cylinders were completely gone and we were able to rig up some used Wagoneer cylinders to replace them. The emergency-brake cable came out of an older Ford pickup.

We didn't have a welder and this was our first attempt at rescuing a classic vehicle so our knowledge of bodywork was very limited. The one thing we did know about was bondo, and we used lots of it. Both of the rocker panels on the Jeep are completely made of bondo using old pieces of screen as a form. We were able to patch all of the holes in the rear quarter panels with the magical body filler. We were short a taillight lens so my dad and I made a trip to Home Depot and picked a small square of plexiglass, and using a bench grinder we were able to machine it down to just the right shape and size. We put some red lens tape on that and called it finished.

Now comes my completely free paint job. My neighbor had just bought out a hardware store and he had a trailer full of Rustoleum in gallon cans. I picked out a nice shade of blue to use and my neighbor graciously agreed to spray my Jeep with his spray gun and compressor. I am a member of the local volunteer fire department and I was able to get full use of one of the bays in the fire house to use as a paint booth.

The rollbar in the bed of my Jeep came from Lloyd's Junkyard in Polk County, NC, and he charged me only $20 for the bar and $10 for a set of seatbelts and just to be nice he threw in the rearview mirrors for free.

I lined the floor of the cab with spray-in liner, only this liner came in a rattle can from Advance Auto Parts for $7.99 a can (I used two cans). The wheels are steel wagon wheels off of a Junked Ford truck that my neighbor had in his yard I got the wheels for free. My tires are 31-10.50-R15 Mud Terrain Re-Caps that I bought from the local tire shop for $50 apiece. My Jeep's windshield was cracked when I bought it so I had it replaced with just a flat piece of safety glass that I had cut down to size and installed with a used gasket that I got from a man on the Jeepster Club Web site.

The exhaust "system" is a $20 Thrush Glass pack muffler and an 18-inch piece of tailpipe that we cut up and had a friend weld together. The front fenders we had to buy because the original fenders were mangled from the crash; these are from an M38-A1 that my dad and I found in the junkyard for $50. We hacked on them with a borrowed sawz-all to get just enough space to clear the tires and get good suspension travel.

All in all I would say that I have less than $2,000 in my Jeep including the original purchase price.

Joel Sherwood
Gerton, NC


Well, since you want to hear about cheap trucks, I'll tell you about "Betty." "Betty" is an '84 Dodge W-150. Mostly. I've identified at least three separate trucks that make up the cab alone.

I didn't pay much for the old truck a few years back as the rear end was going out of it. Everybody needs an old beater truck and I don't have to worry about the finish on the body or any dents. A couple of years ago, I did change the engine out--I didn't mind people asking what kind of mileage I got with a diesel (it's a gas engine), but I did mind having to use starter fluid after a couple of hours of it sitting.

The paint job cost me $40 but I still have two rollers and half a gallon of paint left for a second coat. Rust-O-Leum flat black enamel will cover a multitude of sins. Besides, I sold most of the trim off the truck for $50. Not bad when the truck gets a paint job and you make money off it. Next time though, I'll probably use a wider roller as the little ones will wear you out. One problem with the truck now is that it disappears at night. I've come in behind it and all I could see was two tail lights and a license plate floating in the air.

One place I didn't cheap out was on the brakes and tires. The tires were pretty thin so I got some blemished tires for a good price. I also put on new brakes. The wheels I got off a co-worker for $20 and sprayed them with flat black paint from spray bombs. I didn't have enough of one brand to paint all four wheels, so two are a slightly different shades from the other two. They are usually so dirty and muddy you can't tell anyway. Why wash it? That costs money and the truck will just get dirty again.

Other cheap fixes on the truck include a front seat held together with duct tape and covered with a seat cover that my neighbor was going to throw away since the tie straps were broken. I had a wiring problem with a bad ground, and when I fixed it I didn't have any electrical tape handy. A friend had asked me to haul off an old truck cab to the scrap yard and I glommed a piece of wire out of it for a ground and heated the tape up with a hair dryer. It was still sticky and it seems to be holding on the repair. The speakers for the radio are a mix of things I had from previous projects. A volt/ohmmeter pays for itself when you're cheap. The plug wires were a mixed set from six different engines. I just kept checking until I found some that had about the same resitance and used them.

I did spring some bucks to make a few changes to make it more usable for me. After falling off the bumper and ending up astride the radiator support, I had the bumper moved out 6 inches to give me a place to stand while working on the truck.

The truck, rear end and engine ran me about $400. I probably have almost $500 in it though after about 4 or 5 years. Yes, it has dents, the tail gate will fall off if you open it wrong, the wiring is a snake's nest from the previous owner's attempts at modifications. However, it runs and sounds good, drives decent, gets fair gas mileage and is paid for. What else do you want?

Oh, I don't worry about where I go off road either. Roll-on paint is easy to touch up.

Paul Markham
Evansville, IN


Five years ago I bought a '76 Ford F-250 from a guy for $100. This guy didn't know what was wrong with it. He told me he was driving to work and it died. I bought the truck towed it home and started to check the motor. It had good comp. was getting gas but no spark. I replaced the ignition module with one from junkyard (cost me $5) and the truck fired up.

So, for $105 I got a F-250 that has a 460, a four-speed with a NP205 transfer case, Dana 60 front and Dana 60 rear, both with 4.88 gears and Ford Tracloc diffs. The truck also came with a set of 35x12.5x16.5 BFGoodrich M/Ts that had 70-percent tread.

I still drive this truck today as my daily driver and the only thing that I have done to it is brakes, oil changes, and a set of used tires I had to pay $200 for (16x38x16.5 Super Swamper TSLs).

Cheap and fun.

Darrick Huntington
Ludlow, IL


I went to an auto auction with a friend just as an observer, only to have him coerce me into shelling out $650 for an '82 Toyota longbed (sight unseen).

As far as cheap mods, the previous owner had done a great job saving money with his own junkyard restoration. It took me quite a while to reverse-engineer his project so that I could make it my own, but in time, I had replaced just about every moving part (and some that weren't quite so willing).

A buddy from work gave me some 31s for helping him move with my beater. Then another friend got me to buy his bald 35s for $20 each. After mounting the 35s on the only rims I had, I found out that they weren't made to fit on a bone-stock Toy, so then the real mods started: a 3-inch body lift off a wrecked Toy in a junkyard ($5), worn-through bucket seats from the same wreck ($20), a 3-inch aluminum block lift from Pep Boys ($30 and they lasted about four months before shattering), a lightbar off a fullsize Chevy at a garage sale ($10 and made to fit with a chop saw and a wire welder), and a pair of used third members from a newer V-6 ($50 for the pair and I'm still unsure of the gearing but the rear had a locker). Top it off with a $20 spray-can paint job and a bobbed tail (Sawzall and sheetmetal screws), I have about $1,700 invested. The inline-four could use more beef but what it does have works really well for rockcrawling. The ride is lousy, bumpy, and you can forget about driving on pavement with the hubs locked, but get out in the rocks or mud and this P.O.S really shines.

Scott Morrison
Colorado Springs, CO

Potent Quotables:

"It is a five-speed with no tach. A loud squeal from the fanbelt tells you when to shift, and when the whole truck starts to shake violently, you know when to downshift."
Eric Ridder
Grayslake, IL

"Bobbing the bed costs less than the $20 for bondo and paint."
Erik Gammon
Chico, CA

"All the hoses and tubes were scrounged from the GM section of a wrecking yard. Not sure where the radiator came from; it was alongside the house when I moved here."
Max Wood

"I talked my neighbor into letting me pull a bench seat out of her trash pile. I had to run over it to straighten it."
Orlin Harris
Hesperus, CO

"I drove 250 miles to pay $100 for a '70 International Travelall because I was told that it once ran.... Never underestimate the power of a nedneck with a torch, welder, and duct tape."
Kayle Doggett
Laurel, MS

"The value of my truck doubles when I fill it with gas...since the starter died, I've always had to park on a hill to bump-start the engine...."
Mike Mason
Golden, BC

"At one time, the truck had four different fluid leaks.... For a while, I had a problem with overheating, so I simply installed a non-electronic temperature gauge that would tell me when it was safe to drive again."
Alex Culp
Rock Hill, SC

"This thing has an exhaust system that's held up by six stratigically placed clothes hangers. As far as a lift goes, it has a 3-inch body lift that is visible through any of the Terrain Viewing Ports (rust holes) in the floorboards.... The speedometer sways up and down so much, I never know how fast I'm going. If I am ever pulled over for speeding and the officer asks if I know how fast I was going, I would move my index finger quickly in a left-to-right motion and say "About this fast, officer."
Andrew DeForest
Tampa, FL

"I have more zip-ties than hose clamps under my hood."
Jason English
San Antonio, TX

"I often thought about cleaning the moss from the cab, but then the windows would fall out."
Bryan Lovell
North Bend, OR

"So far I have put 10,000 miles on [my Toyota 4Runner] and have a bumper sticker that says "Honk if parts fall off," which, of course, when my tailpipe did they did not do."
Name withheld

"Mashing on the gas and doing burnouts didn't really help, and racking through the gears blew the transmission. I lost all gears except for Park and Reverse. So, until the next payday, I drove around in Reverse. I drove to work in Reverse, to school in Reverse, to friend's get the point."
Mike Hillringhouse
Oak Creek, WI

"So that my wife would ride inside, I have a set of free '99 Lincoln Town Car buckets. They are both right-hand seats...."
Robert Formaz
Caro, MI

"To enter the vehicle, you must crawl through the back opening (there is no back glass) and climb into the pilot seat.... If you're cold, then crank up the heater. It does not work but makes an annoying noise that distracts from the cold."
David Stults
Muldrow, OK

"The top is homemade and didn't have windows until a trip to the hardware store turned up some cheap plexiglass. The doors are made from the same stuff as the windows, with the exception of some used plastic from a dirt racecar and zip-ties."
Tim Nixon
Talladega, AL

"No top. I bolted a piece of 2x3 plywood to the rollbar with $5 U-bolts. Key ignition stopped working. Bought a $2 horn button and used the factory foglight to get it started."
Chad Ainsworth
Liberty, TX

"A a 2x8 wood back bumper (gotta be legal) and a used $5 radio and some hand-me-down stereo speakers, and I was ready for the mudhole."
James Paramore
Elgin, OK

"I've got a new fender but it was free because I traded a cassette player that came out of a '99 Ford. Most of the dents in the truck I got out with a crow bar."
Rick Hull

"I had to buy a used January '03 issue of Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road because I just bought my '77 CJ-5 with my last roll of quarters."
Jonthan Langford

"My front bumper is a pole cut to length and bolted to my frame and the rear is an I-beam cut and bolted to the frame."
David McDonald
Aurora, CO

"The Bronco was to rusty to street-drive so I made a sand rail."
Max Wood
Gresham, OR

"The dipstick is the tricky part. I couldn't get it to fit under the hood so it is in the cab."
James Sullivan
Waterford, MI

"After a long look at the shock book in an auto-parts store, I found shocks that were the right size, fitment, and most importantly, they were only $7 each. So what if they were made for a '79 Corona station wagon! I needed a paint job, and after much research, I found that eight cans of $.98 Wal-Mart spray paint would cover my rig. No reason to prep--just paint. Later I had to paint it again after some of the painted mud fell off, showing my old paint color."
Justin Fender
Williamston, NC

"I was lucky enough to find an '82 Toyota pickup in the back of a trailer park. Talking to the owner, I discovered that he would let me have this near-new truck for $200. In five minutes, I had him down to 50 bucks and asking how soon I could get it gone."
Werner Henke
Dundas, Ontario, Canada

"My neighbor just happened to have an '85 GMC with a 305 that he couldn't get to run. He gave the truck to me for a case of beer."
Corey Van Oss
Kimberly, WI

"I bought my '69 International Scout 800 for $400 worth of hay I produced on the farm. Modifications are aluminum beer-keg gas tank...."
Matt Campbell
Edmonton, AB, Canada

"My dad told me that if I bought him a six-pack of beer with my lawn-mowing money, then I could have the ol' Suburban. So I bought it for about $5.50."
Corbett Smith
Middlebrook, VA

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