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How To Buy a Used 4x4--Cheap!

Posted in How To on July 28, 2003
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Photographers: Tori Tellem

If you're a true 4x4 enthusiast with off-roading blood flowing through your veins, there's no turning back once you've decided to buy a used truck. A quick glance at the classified ads can leave you with your heart pounding and your mouth watering. The only cure is the jingle of a new key on your key chain--a key that starts your recently purchased 4x4.

Let's face it, buying a used 4x4 is fun. You get to pore over the ads, kick some tires, and haggle with owners over the proposed price. But before you run out and buy the first cheap truck you find, you need to be aware of what you're getting into. Getting a good deal on a cheap 4x4 isn't easy. Often, the initial price of the truck is affordable, but the subsequent cash required to make it driveable can be astronomical.

In this article we're going to give you a guide to a few of the most important steps to take when buying a cheap, used 4x4. We'll also bring you along on our own quest for the ultimate $2,000 beater so we can give you some specifics to be on the lookout for. Even if you're not in the market for a truck right now, this article will make you a better-prepared shopper.

'77 Chevy Blazer, PS, PB, AT, runs but needs work, $800 obo.

To begin with, the following is a checklist of things you should decide before starting the hunt:

Know what you're looking for. Make sure you're clear on the particular reasons for wanting a 4x4. Do you want a low-buck beater to take on the trail without worrying about dents, or do you want a tow mule to haul your other goodies around? Knowing what you want before you make a purchase gives you a better chance of getting what you want.

Know what you're looking at. This is probably the most important rule when looking at a low-buck truck because chances are it has a few problems. If you're not familiar with the mechanical workings of a 4x4, bring along someone who is. Even if you are mechanically inclined, bring a buddy anyway. An extra pair of eyes may spot something you've missed, and besides, it makes the hunt more fun. l Don't assume "cheap" automatically means "good deal." While there are always some screaming deals to be had, more often than not there's a big reason why a truck is cheap. We've found most people to be honest, but there are some out there looking to unload their junk on you. In other words, buyer beware.

'66 Jeep Wagoneer, Chevy 283, AT, PS, runs perfect, looks good, $1,500 obo.

Be realistic. Whatever your budget, be straight with yourself about what to expect for the amount you're willing to spend. If all the trucks you're looking at have an unacceptable amount of dents or mechanical problems, you may want to hold off on a purchase until you save up some more cash. With our $2,000 budget, we accepted the fact that whatever we purchased probably wouldn't be aesthetically pleasing. Since we were looking for a truck to tackle trails in, mechanical soundness was more important than appearance.

Don't immediately walk away when you see something you don't like. Keep in mind what you plan to do with the truck and compare its problems with the modifications you might perform. Sagging springs and bald tires are no big deal if you plan to lift the truck and put bigger tires on it. A bad motor is fine if you're planning to drop in a new one anyway. Instead, use these problems as bargaining chips to whittle down the price. But also keep in mind that your beater buildup should be within your fixed budget.

PhotosView Slideshow
PhotosView Slideshow

The Trucks On Our Quest

We were looking primarily for a trail truck that could handle some occasional towing duties. We wanted a fullsize big enough to sleep in during camping trips, yet small enough to negotiate tight trails. We didn't want a pickup because we already have one in our collection. Although we focused our hunt on Blazers, we looked at all types of vehicles that could fit our needs. Shown here are the worst and second-best we saw during our search. This $800 Blazer wasn't worth $300. The transfer case was gone (literally), the interior was junk, the steering wheel was about to fall off, and the engine sounded like it had rocks in the oil pan. The Wagoneer was a steal at $1,500. It had a strong Chevy 283, a recently rebuilt TH350, a Dana 44 rear, rare panel sides, and the owner produced all the receipts. It was unique, but didn't quite serve our needs. What did we end up getting? Take another look at the lead photo and you'll see the newest behemoth in the neighborhood bringing down property values. We decided on this $1,200 '72 Blazer for several reasons. We love the fully removable hardtop (which is in perfect condition) and underneath the faded orange paint is an OK 350 with a four-barrel carb, an SM420 four-speed tranny, an NP205 transfer case, a Dana 44 front axle, and a 12-bolt rear. It's a little rough on the outside, but this beast is going to make a killer trail goat--as soon as we can get it to steer straight.

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