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Buy It and Build It for Cheap

Posted in How To on August 1, 2001
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Photographers: John CappaFour Wheeler Archives
Finding a good beater is like finding hidden treasure. We stumbled upon this CJ-3B for sale in the back of a military surplus store. Finding a good beater is like finding hidden treasure. We stumbled upon this CJ-3B for sale in the back of a military surplus store.
Desperate people are a great way to score a deal on a rig. Chances are if you come across some deranged soul throwing rocks at a 4x4 in the desert he might just cut you a deal. Desperate people are a great way to score a deal on a rig. Chances are if you come across some deranged soul throwing rocks at a 4x4 in the desert he might just cut you a deal.
Half-built project trucks can also be a good way to save some dough. This ’69 Bronco started its life out as a project truck with a swapped-in Dana 60 rear, Dana 44 front, and NP435 transmission. Its owner had just bought a house and needed the cash and sold it for a very good price. Half-built project trucks can also be a good way to save some dough. This ’69 Bronco started its life out as a project truck with a swapped-in Dana 60 rear, Dana 44 front, and NP435 transmission. Its owner had just bought a house and needed the cash and sold it for a very good price.
Rare rigs, such as this ’67 Land Rover, can be tempting as they can often be had for cheap. Another attraction is you wind up with a unique rig. However, those on a budget should shy away from these rarer 4x4s as parts for them often are expensive and hard to find, making building one on a budget a hard, if not impossible, task. Rare rigs, such as this ’67 Land Rover, can be tempting as they can often be had for cheap. Another attraction is you wind up with a unique rig. However, those on a budget should shy away from these rarer 4x4s as parts for them often are expensive and hard to find, making building one on a budget a hard, if not impossible, task.
Used parts can definitely save you some cash. We found these used 35x17.50 Mickey Thompsons for sale for $500. The owner was parting with them because they were simply too wide for his rig. We were tempted to pick them up as a set of sand tires but we passed. Also for sale were a set of driveshafts that looked useless and a set of headers for a 302 Ford V-8 for $50. The headers had a bit of rust but it was only surface rust so we bought them. Used parts can definitely save you some cash. We found these used 35x17.50 Mickey Thompsons for sale for $500. The owner was parting with them because they were simply too wide for his rig. We were tempted to pick them up as a set of sand tires but we passed. Also for sale were a set of driveshafts that looked useless and a set of headers for a 302 Ford V-8 for $50. The headers had a bit of rust but it was only surface rust so we bought them.
While a closed-knuckle, drum-brake Dana 44 front might not be the best setup, it is what this truck came with and so would be the cheapest to run. However, don’t dump any money into repairing an axle like this. Swapping it out would be the better way to go. While a closed-knuckle, drum-brake Dana 44 front might not be the best setup, it is what this truck came with and so would be the cheapest to run. However, don’t dump any money into repairing an axle like this. Swapping it out would be the better way to go.

So you want to buy and build a 4x4? And, even better, you want to do it on the cheap? Like most of us, you are on a budget and don’t want to dump tons of cash into a rig. Yes, you still want to eat, pay the bills, and be able to have some spending money on the side. Is it even possible to buy and build a rig on a budget? Say you have $4,500 to spend on everything. Is it still possible? Yes, there is a way. And we’re going to show you that way.

While most of the stories we publish cover rigs that have had some money spent on them, and deal with tech ideas featuring parts that cost more than the sub-suburban huts we live in, we have not forgotten about the regular guys out there. That’s because we’re part of that bunch of regular guys. There are plenty of us who never could afford the trick equipment that sometimes shows up in these pages, and this story is for all of us. If you don’t want to blow a year’s salary on buying and building a truck, read on.

THE PURCHASE

First thing you have to do is actually get your hands on a vehicle. Getting a rig for minimum coinage is not an easy task but if you approach it as a challenge you might be able to make it fun. There are a few strategies that will help you score an El Cheapo rig. The first one is to start your search for a low-buck rig by looking for a beater. Resign yourself to this. These hidden jewels come in various states of disrepair but the best bet is to look for one with a few banged up panels. While the average driver might care how straight the panels are on a 4x4, you shouldn’t. They are just going to get banged up on the trail anyway. It might not be pretty but a rig with a few smashed panels is usually significantly cheaper than the same vehicle with a straight body. Plus you can always replace the panels if you absolutely must when cash is easier to come by.

Another tactic for acquiring a cheap rig is to find a vehicle that has something mechanically wrong with it. Sit down and think about what you are good at rebuilding, or can have rebuilt on the cheap. For example, if you have a buddy that can rebuild transfer cases, then look for a rig with a blown T-case. Vehicles that have something mechanically wrong with them usually run about half of what the same well-running rig would cost. Sometimes these mechanical problems can be very minor and fixed easily, saving you a good chunk of change. One pal of ours now drives a perfectly serviceable Chevy half-ton 4x4 that he bought for next to nothing. Reason: Its body is a little rough, and it had a blown engine. He bought it, lowered in a rebuilt motor, and the result was a very capable ’wheeler.

A very good way to save money is to buy a rig that is completely built or is semi-built. Often these rigs can be had for dimes on the dollar when all the money wrapped up in aftermarket goodies is taken into account. The best bet is to find an unfinished project truck that has never been completed. Either the owner runs out of time, money, or a wife loses patience. Regardless, the owner now has a semi-built 4x4 that is just taking up space and he is willing to part with it for cheap. If the work on the vehicle has been done right so far, these 4x4s can make for very good buys.

For instance: A quick check of “Chevy,” on Recycler.com revealed the following gems just ripe for one of us to conduct a project upon:

1973 Suburban 4x4, complete with a 396-inch big-block. Asking price was $2,000.

1974 Chevy 4x4 ½-ton long bed pickup, rolling chassis only, $425.

1980 Suburban, needs work [and we’ll just bet it does—ed.], $1,000.

Whatever tactic you pursue you are going to have to deal with people. You might have to be part politician, part used car salesman, and part psychiatrist to get the best deal. While using mind games might help, looking for the right kind of people will probably save you more money.

So what kind of people should you be looking for? On the top of your list should be desperate people. The guy that is moving, needs cash, or has to get rid of his rig quick for one reason or another should be a prime target. Usually these folks are willing to cut you a better deal than somebody that has all the time in the world to sell their 4x4. This might seem like you are taking advantage of the guy. You aren’t. Remember, this guy wants to get rid of his truck. Your job is to buy it from him at the lowest price that both parties can be happy with.

On top of everything you need to have a ton of patience. Do not fall so in love with a vehicle that you desperately think you need it. This will only lead to you spending more than you should to obtain it. There will be other deals and other vehicles to buy. Also, not being in a hurry will make it a lot easier to score a deal. Set the max you want to spend for that vehicle and if the owner is unwilling to accept that price, walk away and wait for the next deal to come your way. The ability to walk away is your strongest weapon in the buying process.

THE BUILDUP

OK, now you know how to score a 4x4 for super cheap and have a bit of money left over to build. But how do you go about building it on a budget? Just as there was in the buying phase, there are a few strategies you can follow to save some greenbacks during the buildup.

The first strategy is actually part of the buying phase but will help save a lot of coin in the buildup phase. When trying to build something on a budget, get a common rig such as a Chevy, Ford, or Jeep. Regardless of manufacturer, you need to find a 4x4 that was produced in large quantities and has a strong aftermarket following. This usually means that parts are dirt-cheap for these rigs and that there are usually plenty of them in junkyards to scrounge parts from. Sometimes rarer rigs, a Nissan Patrol for example, are dirt-cheap and very tempting to buy. The problem with such vehicles is that there are very few aftermarket parts for these rigs and any parts that might be available tend to be very expensive. A good example of a high-volume rig with a strong aftermarket following is the ’73-’87 Chevy. Parts are plentiful and cheap, and there are plenty of them in junkyards.

Another very important step of the buildup is this one: Make a budget for your buildup and stick to it. Figure out how much you can spend on each component of your rig (such as lift, lockers, wheels, tires, etc.) and stick to it. We have all seen the guy with the lifted truck driving around on stock tires because he doesn’t have enough dough to buy his big tires. Most of us also know a guy who got carried away building his engine, spent too much money, and now has a running engine but the rest of his rig is useless. The point is to figure out how much you can spend, investigate how much components cost, make a budget, and then do the buildup so there are no surprises. This methodical approach will save you some headaches and, hopefully, some cash.

Now it is finally time to start getting dirty and have some fun building your 4x4. How can you get what you need for cheap? The first thing you should start doing is looking around for used parts. Tires, wheels, engines, T-cases, and just about anything imaginable can be had for cheap in used condition. However, as with anything used, it’s buyer beware. Every used part needs to be carefully checked over.

The biggest collection of used parts, and a virtual goldmine for a budget builder, is the junkyard. Here you can find a complete collection of many different parts. There are some boneyards that even specialize in trucks or 4x4s. However, finding aftermarket goods in a junkyard, such as a lift, is fairly rare so poking around in the classifieds is probably your best bet for these items. The junkyard is a great source for hard parts but you will have to have some expertise to be able to tell what is utter junk and what is worth buying. Once again, buyer beware.

Perhaps some of the best money- saving advice is to keep the buildup simple. You are not going to be the big dog on the trail because for less than $4,500, you won’t be sporting dual Dana 60s, 38-inch tires, and a built-to-the-hilt engine. Remember, you are going to be the guy who has the simple 4x4 that works. Keep your modifications on the moderate side but focus on enhancing performance and you will save money.

Part of keeping it simple is to run what you got on your rig already. Front drum brakes might not be the hot setup, but if they work don’t bother swapping them for disc brakes. The same goes for anything else on your rig. While we might say a certain transmission is not the hot setup, if it is in your 4x4 already and runs, run it until it blows up. Then upgrade or swap in something better. We have seen too many folks swap perfectly good working parts because they weren’t part of the perfect setup. You’re on a budget, so run what’s already in your rig.

So what is the verdict? Is $4,500 enough to build a decent rig? By following the advice in this article, taking your time, and doing things right, you should have no problems building a rig for that much dough. Just make sure to smile when you are going to the same places and having as much fun as the guys in the high-dollar rigs.

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