An old saying heard quite frequently on the trail goes, If you wanna play, you gotta pay. While this may be true in many instances, it is definitely not a rule for having fun off-road. Let's face it, everyone has his or her own idea of what's fun, and there are many different levels of fun and capability. Some people are perfectly happy just to get off the pavement with their family SUV, even if it's just a gravel road, but if you are reading this, you have probably tried the basic stuff and are looking for something a bit more engaging. This is where the pay part of that old saying comes into play.
Obviously, a stock family SUV will not make it on the same trails and obstacles as a well-built rig, and if more challenging terrain is the goal, some modifications must be made. These modifications often carry a hefty price tag, especially when the value of the base vehicle is considered. If you're looking at building up a brand-new vehicle, the dealer's sticker price alone can be pretty overwhelming. Add in a lift kit, tires, wheels, a traction-aiding device, bumpers, sliders, a winch, and other accessories, and the price tag for a capable off-road machine can easily grow out of reach for most folks. This type of vehicle is perfectly suited for anyone who can afford it, combining the reliability and amenities of a brand-new vehicle with the ability to drive comfortably to almost any trail around, handle the trail, and then drive home. Some people, however, simply cannot afford such a thing and must settle for something much less expensive.
Building a capable rig on a budget requires a lot more work, ingenuity, and resourcefulness than simply throwing money at a project, but it can also be more rewarding in the end if it's built right. The first step toward a successful budget buildup is choosing an affordable vehicle platform. For our buildup, we chose one of the most common low-budget platforms: the Suzuki Samurai. Although the supply of these microwheelers is dwindling and their price is consequently rising, they can still be had for a bargain if you look hard enough. Out-of-the-box, the Samurai can surprise even the most seasoned wheeler, making it one of the most capable stock vehicles ever produced. Its small size and light weight allow the Samurai to fit into tighter spots than larger vehicles, and its solid-front-axle design is well suited for light rockcrawling. There are a number of vehicles out there that work equally well (or even better for that matter), so choosing a vehicle is all a matter of preference and budget.
Finding an inexpensive base vehicle is the secret ingredient to our budget recipe, but there are a few things to look for. Choosing and locating the vehicle will require your own knowledge, skill, and resourcefulness. The ideal vehicle will have all of the parts you need still intact, and will possibly even start up and run, but when you're shopping for rock-bottom prices, you can't expect much. Knowing what you're looking at will help tremendously at this stage. Oftentimes, vehicles sit for years in someone's backyard, nonoperational, only because the owner/mechanic doesn't know enough to fix a simple problem and get it back on its feet. This was the particular scenario for our '88 Suzuki Samurai, and if you ask people on the trail where they found their rig, you'll probably find similar experiences.
While the half-dead Sami didn't exactly make the best first impression, we were confident that it had potential. First, we tackled the basics to make it start up and run. After a bit of frustration, tracking down problems and correcting them, we were able to begin the fun part of making it more capable. To stretch our dollar even further, we began scouring classified ads online and in local papers, rummaging through yard sales, and searching online auctions for all of the parts we would need. Within a couple of months, we were able to find some great deals on a set of wheels, a Calmini lift kit, and a couple of other things. To make it all come together, however, we did have to break down and purchase several new items like tires, spark plugs, and some other parts to take care of the basics.
After only a few months of rebuilding and upgrading, our Sami was ready for the trail. We headed out to Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA), just north of Los Angeles, for some testing. For less than $2,000, our budget wheeler performed very impressively, handling the black-diamond-rated Miller Jeep Trail with the best of them. Not to say it was perfect, but it was evident that this Sami could definitely outperform most stock vehicles and still cost less than a brand-new stock rig.
After putting the little Sami through its paces on everything that Hungry Valley had to offer, we found a few things that still needed attention but nothing too serious. Shortly after our first trip out, the brakes were replaced, wheel bearings tightened, and the fluids were changed one more time to ensure it was running clean. Like all other rigs, this one is never actually done, but we have a capable wheeler for now and anything else we add will be gravy.