BUILDING WEEKEND WARRIORS THAT CAN BE DRIVEN DAILY
Our editor-in-chief gave a command: Three of us needed to go find cheap trucks or 4x4s and build them for $3,000. But there was a catch. Each vehicle had to be something that would not only be fun in the dirt, but also be able to hold its own on today's busy freeways.
This means building something that is comfortable enough to drive to work, and able to keep up with other off-road toys in the dirt.
He didn't care how we did it, as long as we kept our activities legal (there goes my free truck idea), and kept the vehicles emissions-compliant (or emission exempt if it was a pre-'76 vehicle). Insurance and registration costs didn't have to be included in the $3,000 build cap, but oil changes, bolts, windshield wipers, etc., all had to be included in the cost. Bartering was fair game, but it needed to be documented. Also, it was legal to sell unused parts off the vehicle, and subtract that amount from the total price tag.
Was there a winner? Well, it depends who you're asking. We didn't really start it as a competition, and all three builds ended up differently-but with one theme in common: multi-purpose use for less than $3,000.
In the next couple months, we're going to try to find a day when we can all go out and have a $3K Thrillride adventure day. If you want to join us in Gorman, California, at the Hungary OHV area, email email@example.com and send us pics of your low-cost thrillride!
1974 Chevy K5 Blazer
About six months ago I ran across a Craigslist ad for a '74 Blazer, and what caught my attention was the price: $999. The ad claimed the Blazer had a rebuilt motor and transmission, but didn't say much else.
I figured it probably didn't run yet (someone's project) and the body was probably junk, too. But for $999, it would be worth checking out just for the engine, transmission, and front axle. Even if the body was rotten, I thought, the rebuilt engine and tranny could fit very nicely into a truck or two that I have.
After a short phone conversation, I found out that a son was selling his father's K5 for his father, after his dad's passing a few years prior. He was just trying to get it out of the yard. I decided it was a good prospect and that I'd go take a look if I got up that way within the next week (it was about an hour away).
Around this time, our editor-in-chief proposed the challenge of building a practical project truck for less than $3,000. He said it had to be off-road worthy, but also functional enough to hit the highway. I secretly think his plan was to just make sure I had a second vehicle to get to work in, so I had no excuses if my normal daily driver was broken or ripped apart.
I told him that I thought I might have the perfect vehicle and would get back to him after I checked it out. Just maybe, that K5 might be the ticket. If the body was in half-decent condition, it would make a great cheap-truck platform.
Upon vehicular inspection, I immediately saw moss growing on old white paint, and it was sitting with a bad lean due to a popped tire. This Blazer hadn't moved in years. But besides the poor paint condition, the body didn't look too roughed up. There was a little Bondo in the front fenders, but overall it was fairly straight, and almost completely rust free. I popped the hood to find an '80s GM 350ci V-8 missing a few pieces-a starter, an alternator, a couple sparkplug wires, and who knows what else.
Apparently, the guy's father had put the rebuilt Chevy Small-Block and the fresh transmission in the K5 about five years ago, but he didn't hook up the tranny to the engine correctly...or so the son told me. He looked honest enough, but I could tell that he didn't know the full story (or even half the story) on this K5.
I offered the guy $800-I would have paid more, but why not see if he'd take less first? It was just a lawn ornament, after all. The only way the seller would take the deal was if I also took four used tires he had at his house. I told him I'd take the tires if he knocked off $20 for the tire disposal fee. He accepted, and I towed the Blazer home for $780.
After realizing what I was looking at, purchasing it, and bringing home the '74 Blazer, I had to think about the plan. This thing was really clean, actually, and if I could get it running right, this K5 could be a really fun toy.
I had to figure out what the deal was with the engine and transmission, but everything else seemed intact and in working condition. I would replace the missing parts on the engine, and then fire it up to see what the deal was with the transmission.
But before any of that, I figured I might as well install a suspension lift kit that I had already ordered. Yes, I was putting the cart before the horse, but the second I found out about the $3,000 Thrillrides challenge, I knew I'd be using a '73-to-'87 Chevy half-ton, so I ordered a kit up as quick as could be.
I wanted a mild lift-3 to 4 inches-which would let me run 35-inch tires (with a little fender trimming) and wouldn't require me to make any driveshaft changes yet. I chose a simple 4-inch suspension kit from Skyjacker that replaced the front leaf springs and used small blocks for the rear lift. I could have gone with cheaper leaf springs, as the Skyjacker kit cost me more than $500, but I planned on keeping this K5 the same height and wanted to buy high-quality leaf springs the first time around. By doing so, I'd be saving money in the long run. Rear replacement springs would have been better than the blocks I opted for, but it added cost and I was already getting way too close to my $3,000 budget after buying tires.
Speaking of tires, I chose a very aggressive set of 35-inch Pit Bull Rocker radial mud tires to replace the original tires that appeared to be older than I was. The Rocker radials are just about the most aggressive radial tire made, and I figured these tires could help make up for the stock open differentials since there wouldn't be money left over for lockers. And I wasn't about to Lincoln lock the rear axle by welding the diff together. The new tires were mounted on the wheels that I bought the Blazer with after they had been painted with a spray can.
The 4-inch-taller Skyjacker springs slipped right into the factory spring hangers, after a little hammer massaging was done to get them to accept the slightly larger urethane bushings of the new leaf springs.
Since we were on a budget, we didn't get a suspension kit with new brake lines included. The originals weren't pulled tight with the leaf spring unloaded, but they were getting close to being too short and upgrading to new, longer brake lines is always a good idea.
I'll probably do so in the near future.
Obviously I did things a little out of order. Most people would not lift a truck before even making sure it runs. But I don't think most people are in my boat, with a magazine boss breathing down their necks for a story on a complete running vehicle. I knew this vehicle was going to run one way or another, so it didn't matter where I started.
Upon opening the hood I found that a few important components were missing. The starter, alternator, a few spark plug wires, and some fluid caps had been removed. My plan was to buy the parts as needed to verify the functionality of this "rebuilt" engine. Hopefully it worked well, but if the engine was bad, then it'd be off to the junkyard to find a donor. I couldn't start the truck without a starter, spark plug wires, and a battery, so I bought an alternator and borrowed a battery and some plug wires from other vehicles. After installing these, I removed the fuel line to the carb, because I had no idea what was in the open fuel tank (cap was missing there, too). I didn't want bad fuel stopping my project before it got started.
It was now time for the first moment of truth. After pouring a little fuel into the carb, I turned the engine over. It then backfired and caught on fire. Luckily a friend was there with me and grabbed a hose to put the engine fire out (he's played this game before). The backfire told me that the firing order might be off on the engine so I checked that next. It turned out that all the plug wires were off by one cylinder in the firing order. Could that have been why this project was never completed?
Ten minutes later, after a cell-phone Internet search for firing orders, I had the plug wires installed correctly and was ready to try it again...though I admit I was a bit scared. My friend stood ready with the hose as I put some fuel in the carb and turned the engine over. To my surprise, the engine fired at once and ran for a few seconds until it ran out of fuel. This was a great sign, the engine had spark and compression, so all it needed to run was more fuel.
I had no idea what was in the fuel tank, if it was even gas, or how old it was. I figured I would first see if the fuel pump worked, so I turned the engine over for 15-second intervals and allowed the starter to cool for a minute between them. After doing this about five times, I saw that something was starting to come out of the fuel line into my catch bucket that looked clear enough and smelled like gas. I poured five gallons of fresh fuel into the Blazer's gas tank, installed a fuel filter on the old fuel line, and hooked it up to the carb. Lo and behold, after turning the engine over for another 15 seconds, the thing started and ran quite smoothly. I let it run for a few minutes, admiring my work (or maybe luck). One thing I noticed after it had been running for about 10 minutes was that the engine was still idling really high and that the throttle was sticky in operation. I tried to adjust it, lubricated the linkage, and checked for vacuum leaks, but nothing helped.
Since I grew up in the era of fuel injection, carburetor problems were not something I had much experience with. Considering I wanted a little more power, the fact that the K5 was emissions exempt, and I knew that an off-road carb would handle better angles, I quickly reasoned out how buying a Holley Truck Avenger carb was a necessity. For about $390 from Summit Racing, it was worth it to me. And while I was cruising the Summit 'site, I noticed that the Weiand Street Warriors manifolds were well under $200. How could I resist?
With the engine ready, it was time to see what was up with the transmission. I tried putting it in gear when I first had the engine idling and it jerked slightly, but then nothing. I found that the fluid level didn't even register on the dipstick, so I added a few quarts to the transmission. I checked the torque converter bolts, and everything looked hooked up correctly. I again started the engine, and for the first time in years, this Blazer was moving on its own power - and it took surprisingly little money and time to make it happen! This was a good start and I figured I would have the best $3K Thrillride of our group at this rate.
I didn't do a single thing to the body and the interior except remove things. First, I removed the moss and dirt from the paint with a pressure washer. Then I removed a little bit of steel down at the bottom of the front fenders with the help of a Sawzall. Lastly, I removed about 50 pounds of dirt from the interior. That was all it took for my K5 to be cosmetically up to par with the rest of the group.
|Price of vehicle||$780|
|Mounting one used tire and disposal of three||$22|
|Skyjacker 4-inch lift||$520|
|Pit Bull Rocker radial 35-inch tires||$1,000|
|Wheel spray paint (two cans)||$7|
|Weiand Street Warrior intake manifold||$130|
|Engine oil & oil filter||$25|
|Livewires sparkplug wires||$40|
|Radiator cap & coolant||$13|
|Used K&N air filter||$20|
|Three quarts of tranny fluid||$12|
|TOTAL MONEY SPENT||$2,997|