"For sale: unfinished project. Best of everything. Ran out of money and time. My loss, your gain. Price: cheap!"
We've seen a ton of ads just like this and you probably have, too. Many of us (the author included) have had the dubious honor of placing such an ad. It's no fun.
Starting a project is easy, but finishing is quite another matter.
What's the best way to finish a project? We'll explore a few different approaches and methods. We'll also talk about the best ways to get in over your head, get discouraged, and quit. Before you turn another wrench or spend another dime, check out the rest of this story. What follows is our best advice about how to get it done.
Choosing a Project
What's the best blank canvas? It's the one that fits your 'wheeling needs, your budget, and most importantly, your life.
What trails do you want to run? What size tires are best for these trails? What other hardware (axles, lockers, etc.) is needed for success? Chances are you already know the answers to these questions.
As for budget, you don't need mile-deep pockets to build a worthy trail rig. Of course, you can't build a project with empty pockets, either. Do you have some parts you can trade with other 'wheelers for the stuff you need? Are there other skills you can offer in exchange for off-road hardware? If you can paint, weld, or turn wrenches, chances are you can do some successful bartering.
A project must fit your life. If you've got a place to work on a long-term project, you can build something that takes longer and is more involved. Having a workspace also lends itself well to buying something on the cheap that needs to be completely re-done. Something else to consider: if you need to carry extra passengers, you'll need to find a rig that's got the required interior space.
There's another factor that comes heavily into play. It's the aftermarket support, or lack of it, that a given vehicle enjoys. Owners of JK Wranglers can go and pluck almost anything they need from the aftermarket vine. Owners of Nissan Pathfinders know the meaning of "slim pickin's."
Our top choices for a budget rig: the Jeep YJ Wrangler, the '79-to-'95 Toyota 4x4 pickup, the '84-to-'89 Toyota 4Runner, and the Suzuki Samurai. These rigs are capable on the trail, benefit from widespread aftermarket support, and can be purchased for relatively low bucks. Older rigs, such as the Scout 800 or Scout II, can be bought for reasonable amounts, but they're not as easy to find. We'd be in remiss not to mention the Jeep CJ-5, which was produced in prodigious numbers over a wide span of years. Do a little hunting and you can come up with an inexpensive CJ-5.
"Go Big or Go Home" Revisited
While the saying sounds cool, it's also a recipe for project completion disaster. Going bigger and better means you'll spend all your time building instead of on the trail. If you can't go big, you don't have to stay home. Instead, go just big enough, and then go everywhere you've been dreaming about.
Building Your Daily Driver
Building and 'wheeling a daily driver means compromise, but that can be a good thing. If you build your daily driver, it means you can't have your rig down for too long. In turn, that forces you to pick upgrades that can be completed in fairly short order so you can get back on the road. Those who build and 'wheel their daily drivers don't always have the biggest, best, or ultimate, but they almost always have something that runs and drives. That's valuable in itself.
Defining Parameters, Avoiding Snowballs
Even if you're doing a deep-reaching, hardcore build, it's easier if you chop up the job into bite-sized pieces. This is especially helpful if you're trying to keep your rig running and usable during the process. Swap in a new front axle, and go play. Upgrade the rear axle, and go play. Build a roll cage, and go play. You get the idea.
If you catch yourself saying, "While I'm doing (insert upgrade here), I might as well do (insert bigger, more expensive upgrade here)," you might be rolling up a giant snowball. Figure out what size snowball you can handle, and keep your project within that scope.
The DIY Method
There's a lot of satisfaction and honor in doing it yourself.
• The best method if you've got more time and skills than cash
• Since you put the rig together, you know how to fix it on the trail
• Kit? Who needs a kit?
• Raw material is cheaper
• Requires lots of time
• If you make a big mess that you can't handle yourself, you'll end up paying a pro big bucks to fix it
• The effort required can be discouraging
• Easy to give up on a large-scale DIY project
• Requires lots of time
The DFM Method
"Do it for me" is easier in some ways.
• Allows you to concentrate on other aspects of life while your rig is being built
• The only choice if you don't have the experience, skills, or tools to tackle the job yourself
• If there's a problem, you usually have some recourse with the shop or manufacturer
• Trade cash for keys and you're on the trail
• Picking a shop can be difficult
• Once the shop has your rig, you'll need to check in to see how things are going
• If it's a busy shop you'll have to make sure your rig doesn't get put on the back burner
• Takes less time, but requires more cash
• You're depending on someone else's skills and passion instead of your own
• If one shop screws things up, you'll have to find a better shop to fix the original shop's mistakes
If you hit a major obstacle on your way to building something great, sometimes the best thing to do is put your rig in storage. Whether that means stashing it in the back yard under a tarp or paying by the month at a storage facility, stowing your project away is a great alternative to getting rid of it.
Take a look at auto insurance rates and DMV registration fees if you've got a lot of down time planned. Often, your insurance agent can adjust your policy for less coverage, saving you a bundle. The same goes with the DMV. In California, you can file for "planned non-operation" and save hundreds in the process.
How To Abandon A Project
"Discouragement" and "distraction" are the two key words here. Discouragement often comes from letting a project snowball until it's too big to handle, or from convincing yourself that only the biggest and best high-dollar hardware will suffice. When you're discouraged, it's easy to get distracted. If you find yourself building model airplanes instead of working on your trail rig, you'll know you're distracted. If a groomed golf course suddenly looks more appealing than a trail, you'll know you're distracted and are fast becoming infected with poor taste.
Few of us are hermits or monks. Almost everyone's got family or friends. Trust us when we say there's no trail rig that's worth sacrificing your family for.
Include your family in the build, if possible. They might enjoy turning a wrench or two. If not, spend enough time with them that they won't feel abandoned when you pick up your tools and crawl under your rig for the evening. With enough compromise and negotiation, you can pull off a successful trail rig build and still have your family and friends around.
Make sure to take them 'wheeling! They're likely to come down with the same "sickness" you acutely suffer from.
The End Game
The end game is fun in the dirt. Most who have been playing on the trails for years look back on the adventures they've had just as much as the vehicles they've driven. Pick a project you can handle, get it done, and get out on the trail. We'll see you there.