The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. When those plans are done by a 16-year-old kid on a budget, they can get sideways fast. And when those plans are done by a magazine editor trying to think like a 16-year-old kid on a budget, you can bet those plans will end up a fiery wreck in a ditch.
I was on the hunt for a cheap truck contender. I already knew what the other guys were bringing, and I was running out of time to get a truck. I wanted a newer American pickup, and I found it on Ironplanet.com. IronPlanet is an online auction site for heavy equipment, trucks, and military surplus stuff. I was perusing the site and came across a sweet 1993 Ford F-350 crew cab long-bed pickup with a 351ci fuel-injected gas V-8 and C6 three-speed automatic transmission. It was perfect for a cheap truck.
It may seem like a lot of truck for a teenage driver, but here were my thoughts. It's big, and big is safe. It has lots of seating. The kid can haul all his friends to football, soccer, basketball, wrestling, band, rifle club, kung fu practice, whatever instead of making Mom and Dad do that. It has a big bed, so he can haul a lawnmower or firewood and thus start his own summer landscaping business, in turn learning about business and self-reliance. It has a camper shell, so it's good for camping! (Ignore the missing tailgate and rear hatch to the camper). It has 1-ton axles so it's perfect for future upgrades to giant tires, and everyone knows giant tires are awesome. Alternatively, it can be set up to plow snow and the kid could again make himself some spare cash. It's blue, and blue is a good color for a Ford truck. It has a V-8 but not a big-block V-8, so it shouldn't be super-fast (no speeding tickets), it shouldn't get terrible mileage (more money left over), but it won't get great mileage either (not enough money left over to get into trouble). And it already has few dents so no need to worry if some grandma pushes her grocery cart into the truck at the store where the kid's bagging groceries to pay for the truck.
It was basically a foolproof plan (feel free to use any of these excuses to convince your parents to let you buy a big crew cab Ford). And that's why it didn't work.
Buying a truck online is a gamble. This truck wasn't in my home state, so I was buying it based on the website description. Every truck IronPlanet sells goes through an inspection to verify the vehicles status, but the inspections are not always done at highway speeds, which, come to find out, meant that my new F-350 had a hidden issue. I bought the truck and got it delivered only to find it wasn't running quite right. The V-8 idled just fine and drove around the barnyard OK, but when you dropped the hammer to get on the local roads it fell on its face. The transmission wouldn't shift into Third gear and sometimes started in Second. The speedometer seemed to be reading twice the actual speed?! For some reason the Ford had no power and couldn't get out of its own way and would quickly overheat. Talk about no speeding tickets! This big blue Ferd (rhymes with turd) was going to get a ticket as a slow-moving road obstruction if I didn't figure something out fast. Oh, and did I mention the exhaust leak and broken exhaust manifold bolt in the passenger-side head?
With time running out to just get to Cheap Truck Challenge, I had to make an executive decision: Stay home with my broken truck (like a normal 16-year-old would) or drag something else out of the barn to fix up and take? I cheated and fixed up an old Jeep I had languishing in the corner, deciding the big Ferd problem will get addressed after I returned from CTC.
I bought this Ford F-350 off IronPlanet.com for $1,500! The front high-pinion Dana 60 is almost worth that much alone, so I was getting a great deal. However, I bought it sight-unseen, and sometimes online auctions can be a gamble. IronPlanet.com has an IronClad Assurance Policy that covers key systems and components; however, on-road performance of the vehicle is not always noted. Upon the Ford's arrival I found that it wouldn't run down the road at speed. It would cruise around the front field easily, but had no power when tasked with road speeds. IronPlanet was more than willing to work with me about the truck after I told them the issues, but I opted to keep the truck and figure out what the drivability issue is. Sometimes a good deal on purchase price means you may need to do some repairs just to get your new 4x4 running and driving safely.
Before the truck arrived I knew I wanted to add some rock sliders. On prior CTC adventures I had come home with banged-up rocker panels, and this truck has 11 feet of body between the wheelwells! I ordered up a few sticks of 2x2 tubing with a 1/4-inch wall thickness with plans to weld them to the frame. I opted for square tube because it can be easier to use than round for a beginner fabricator, and rock sliders are a good beginner project because they are not a safety device like a rollbar or rollcage.
I planned on using my trusty Millermatic 210 MIG welder to do the install on the Ford. Paying someone to cut, grind, and weld your new rockers in place is possible, but you can also try bartering with a neighbor or a farmer who has a chop saw and welder. Also look into metal shop class at your school or a local tech college; you may even be able to bring your project truck there to work on with school equipment. MIG welding is the easiest welding possible—picture hot-glue-gunning metal together—but it still takes practice. You'll also want proper safety gear because welding involves UV radiation, sparks, and heat. Miller has you covered (literally) with auto-darkening helmets, protective gloves, and welding jackets. Welding isn't an inexpensive upgrade, but there are ways around buying a welder and safety gear right out of the gate. For instance, you could borrow someone else's gear. So we'll cheat a little and keep this off the budget for now, otherwise expect a big chunk of dollars going to these tools, but also realize they are tools and can pay themselves off if you get good and start charging other people for welding jobs.
Upon the arrival of the Ford, I took my four new General Grabbers and swapped them onto the factory steel 16-inch wheels. The 265/75R16 tires are just an inch taller than the mismatched and well-worn tires the truck came with, but I didn't need to get new wheels, suspension, or regear the axles to make them work.
Traction-aiding devices are important for off-roading, and not much compares to the dirt-simple reliability of a Detroit locker. I found a Detroit for my Sterling 10 1/4 rearend at 4Wheel Parts for $679.99 and was planning on getting it installed for an additional $350. And this would have just put me over the budget with total upgrade expense at $2,060.99. However, because the truck wouldn't run the locker only got installed on the passenger seat until I can sort out the lack-of-power issue.
The big 1990s Ford is a pretty simple truck with solid front and rear 1-ton axles and leaf-sprung suspension. However, Ford complicated matters with two massive sway bars and a front track bar. I removed all these parts to allow the suspension to move more freely, and wheeling around the front yard proved it more compliant. I have yet to test any body-roll issues until I can get it going fast enough on a weaving mountain road, but this does show that sometimes upgrades are as simple as removing unwanted components.
|Where the Money Went|
|Steel for rock slider||$225|
|General Grabber tires, mounted||$806|
|Detroit locker installed at 4Wheel Parts (but never installed)||$1,029|
So Now What?
If I were a kid on a budget I'd be bummed my new Ferd is a turd, but cheap trucks are not always diamonds in the rough. Sometimes they're cheap for a reason. Once I get the dollars I'll dive into the engine bay and transmission and see what I can find. The engine needs a compression check, the fuel pressure needs to be checked, and I'll look at a basic tune-up with new plugs and wires. The C6 may need a new vacuum modulator to help it shift better, and this truck is strapped with hoses galore as part of its smog system, which could be the culprit. I also want to get the Detroit installed, but will consider a gear change at the same time since I found the axles only have 3.54 gears listed—but even that may be wrong since the rear axle has an integrated speed sensor, which might be messing with the speedometer. And did I mention I want to upgrade all my body and spring bushings with new polyurethane parts from Daystar? The short story is my big Ford has many issues to address (and a nasty exhaust leak) so I'll have to keep riding my bike to the grocery store for a few more months, but at least I'll save money by not getting that gym membership!