Some of our best ideas are the result of bench-racing with our buddies, and also some of our worst. If you’re like us, you probably spend far too much time pondering the next cool thing to build out of the pile of parts you’ve gathered, or mentally assembling some crazy new 4x4 that would dominate the trails around you. Many ideas get tossed aside, some get shelved for later, but occasionally the bank account balance and parking space availability combine to make a new project feasible. Now which direction do you turn? Craigslist and OfferUp always have plenty of tempting new projects, but which one is best for you?
We purposely used a variety of different criteria when we came up with the opinions below. For some of us, parts availability and aftermarket support is most important when searching for a new project. For others, uniqueness is the overriding factor, while still others think starting with a clean, solid, running example of a project is more important than the emblem on the grille. There are no wrong answers here, but there are some good tips and ideas to consider the next time you stumble across a great deal on your next project.
Before you can decide on the best vehicle to start with, you need to have a realistic idea of what your end goal is and the budget you have. Are you looking for something you can drive every day? Something you can beat on without spending a ton of money? Do you want something that can hang with rock buggies on the trail?
There is no arguing that the Jeep Wrangler JK platform is super capable while remaining comfortable, and they have a ton of aftermarket support. They aren’t cheap though.
For most people who want a vehicle that they wheel one weekend a month when they aren’t working overtime or going to little league games, a Jeep Cherokee XJ is hard to beat. They come with four doors to fit the entire family, use solid axles front and rear, and are extremely inexpensive to buy. Of course, XJs don’t have frames, so if you want to swap in a V-8 and 1-ton axles there are better options. But if your goal is to get out on the trail without breaking the bank, an XJ is tough to beat. Get one with a Dana 44 or Chrysler 8.25 rear (or swap in a Ford 8.8), add lockers, install a small lift and cut the fenders to fit 33s, and you will be amazed and where you can go.
Verne SimonsTechnical Editor
I suppose I should wax poetic on the benefits of starting a project with a new vehicle versus an old vehicle, but since I am who I am, I pretty much only have built old vehicles. Sure, it would be fun to take a brand new Jeep JL, Jeep Renegade (yeah, I want to build one), Nissan Frontier, Ford Ranger, Diesel Chevy Colorado, or Mahindra Roxor and have my way with it, but unless one of those companies wants to give me a heck of a deal on one, I’d rather spend money on cutting up something that is well used. Decision made.
So instead I’ll talk about starting with a basket case versus a running driving rig. I’ve built projects with both as starting points. Sometimes, when a vehicle needs lots of heavy repairs on its body or frame, I’d just as soon start with a project that is in bits or has already been blown apart. Generally speaking, in my experience it’s always best to start with a clean, relatively original, rust-free version of whatever you want to start with. Then you can enjoy the vehicle and get a baseline before digging in your heals for weeks (if not months or years) of cursing, busting knuckles, and spending money to make it what it can be. Right now far too many of my projects are basket cases. I want something to take wheeling!
Trent McGeeNuts and Bolts author
Since Harry Wagner stole my go-to first 4x4 suggestion, I’m going to steal what I figured would be his: It’s hard to go wrong with just about anything Toyota from the 1980s clear through until now. The XJ is a great platform for all of the reasons that Harry states—it’s cheap, well supported by the aftermarket, simple, and reliable as a hammer. Toyota trucks (pre- and post-Tacoma), 4-Runners, and even Land Cruisers are all viable candidates that check every box except one: cheap. Because Toyotas are so legendarily reliable, the secret is out and they often command a premium over contemporary examples from other brands. Sure, there are certain years to avoid and certain equipment to stay away from (anything IRS), but overall, Toyotas are hard to beat for a first 4x4. They’ll get you to work and school without issue, and you can modify as you go thanks to the nearly unlimited amount of stuff available for them.
A runner-up for me would be another Harry natural, a Suzuki Sidekick/Geo Tracker. You can’t hardly kill them, they can be bought for a song, and they have a small but surprisingly diverse following in the aftermarket. Samurais are also viable, but like the early Toyota trucks, it’s getting hard to find examples that aren’t beat into oblivion.
Lastly, don’t pass up the right deal on whatever 4x4 is close by. Shy away from anything really weird or British (cough, Verne, cough), and be aware that the further away you get from the mainstream, the harder it’s going to be to build with off-the-shelf stuff. But variety is the spice of life, and it’s always refreshing to see something outside the norm on the trails.
I’m not a brand-loyal guy, so I’ll build anything. Before, it didn’t matter if I was starting with a busted frame and only part of a body tub. All I required for a project was a clear title that matched the VIN and no registration back-fees to deal with. I’d haul it all into my garage, shut the door, and emerge 12 months later with a completely new build that had never seen the light of day.
Nowadays I mostly prefer to start with a running and driving vehicle that I can make piecemeal modifications to over time. An axle swap here, a fuel-injection conversion there, a new suspension when it suits me. It’s more fun to me to make changes with some comparative foundation than to just blow a whole vehicle apart and then deal with the physical and mental obstacles I must overcome to get it out of the way. As you get older and have more life responsibilities, it’s just easier to have a running project than to continually walk sideways past an ornamental pile of garage art you thought you’d have more time to work on.