Is it possible to buy and build a 4x4 for under $1,500? We sure think so. Suppose you've worked all summer long flipping burgers, you've made a little money, and now you want to go wheeling. Or you've just gotten your tax return back, and you've got to get out in the dirt. What would you buy? How would you build it? Where would it take you? We discussed this at a recent beer night (aka staff meeting) and came up with the Cheap Truck Challenge, where each member of the staff needs to find, buy, and build a 4x4 for under $1,500. Here is what Feature Editor Fred Williams did with his McDonald's tips.
I decided that since I like playing in the rocks, and am fond of the small nimble rockcrawlers I'd seen on the trail, I would look for the smallest, cheapest 4x4 I could find, and that equals a Suzuki Samurai. These little rigs got a bad rap back in the late '80s when some sissy-pants found high speeds and wheel-jerk driving could be dangerous--wow, as if we didn't know that already. However, since the lawsuit-hungry suits shut down the Samurai influx, these little rigs have gained quite a following in the 4x4 crowd. Luckily some folks still think they are junk, so they can be had cheap. I asked around to see what the going price for a used Zuk was in this area, and found everything from $2,000 down to free, so my target $300 seemed reasonable. Building on the cheap requires patience to wait for a deal, and luck to find the deal, and I admit I got lucky in my find, but in the end my luck started to run out (see "Sammy Kills Itself"). I still think that if you're looking for a cheap little wheeler then build a Suzuki; they are a real kick in the pants.
Sammy Kills Itself
I took the Zuk out to our top-secret test facility for an inaugural run and to get some pictures in the dirt, but before I even made it 15 miles down the L.A. freeway, the poor little 1.3L engine was getting way too hot. I pulled over, checked the coolant level, and hosed off the radiator to help cool it down. Then I headed back down the road with the heater on to help cool it, but by the time I made it to the dirt, she was hot again. This time I flushed the radiator, and everything seemed hunky dory. I hit the closest trail for some first-time wheelin'. I was having fun, but before long it was cookin' again. So I headed back to base camp and did a full engine flush. Then before I set out for home I pulled the dipstick. Ugh! Milkshake. There was water in the oil, and with overheating that means blown head gasket; time for another tow home. If I had done a compression test earlier I may have caught it before it was too late, but I really think the problem was there before I ever bought the truck. So now what -- fix the head gasket or swap in another powerplant, and if so, what should I swap in? I know the $1,500 budget is blown, but I'm already planning for the next paycheck, so give me your input. If you have an opinion, e-mail email@example.com and tell me what you want to see done to this little trail machine.