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4xFoward: Buying a Project Vehicle for Week to Wheelin’

Posted in Features on September 20, 2018
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I’ve never been a shiny-paint type of guy. It’s partially because I view patina not as something to be covered up with hand-rubbed coats of lacquer paint, but as something that proudly bears witness to that vehicle’s storied history. To wipe away the grit, dings, and wonderfully faded exterior is to erase its journey from creation to present day. And if you can’t live with that, in my opinion you may as well go buy a reproduction if all you care about are straight panels and sheen.

But when it comes to less-than-historic vehicles—say, stuff that’s only 10 or 20 years old—I find it much harder to get on board with peeling clearcoat and rust-bubbled panels. Dings and small dents hold little to no charm, and nonfunctioning air-conditioning and dirty, ripped seating are suddenly a deal breaker.

So it is with increasing frustration that I find myself searching online ads for a used 4x4 to build for the upcoming Week to Wheelin’ show we will be shooting in December 2018 for Motor Trend and our website. On the one hand, the vintage purist in me will always gravitate towards old Jeeps and mid-1960s Dodge Power Wagons and Stepside Chevy pickups and Bumpside Fords. I can find any number of these vehicles for sale in my price range with beautifully ratty paint and immense quantities of potential. However, for a project like this, we should ideally use a brand new vehicle, something like a new JL Wrangler or an F-150 Raptor or even a Ram 2500 with a Cummins. But none of those are even remotely in the budget, so instead I am compromising and trying to find a mid-1990s to mid-2000s 4x4. But a fullsize 4x4, not a Toyota or Nissan or anything easy to pin down. Because apparently I’m a masochist.

Here I am on the last day of a two-week window in which I need to purchase the vehicle for the show. I’ve been viewing scores of 1994-2001 4x4s for sale for $3,000 or less and suddenly I’m feeling dirty. Like I should be meeting the owners of these vehicles in a dark alley behind an adult bookstore and handing the money off in a brown paper bag. Headliners that are falling down, check engine lights that won’t turn off, transmissions that won’t shift, and rod bearings that sound like they are about to prematurely evacuate through the side of the oil pan. All this and the dreaded “won’t pass smog” is mostly what I’m finding within my paltry budget.

I want to buy the awesome 1963 Power Wagon with a poly-head 318 and rusted panels I’m sure are much, much worse in person than in the blurry photos that’s been tempting me for weeks. Or a roached early 1980s Bronco with a factory 9-inch rear and TTB Dana 44 front or that bitchin’ 1986 big-block F-250. Hey, look, there’s a straight-six square-body Chevy 1/2-ton with a manual transmission! Or a big-block 2WD Suburban that would be oh-so-easy to convert to 4x4 with an eight-lug front axle and Doubler T-case setup.

And while all those might be good, I think I finally found a model that perfectly blends old with new, affordability with amenities, and civility with off-road capability. It’s got a supple suspension design, solid axles, an injected V-8 with good power, is simple to work on, and still enjoys a decent amount of available aftermarket components. Now I just gotta figure out if I want red or blue. Tune in to Week to Wheelin’ on December 10-14, 2018, at fourwheeler.com to see which it’ll be!

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