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Top 10 Project Vehicle Mistakes - You Can Learn the Easy Way or the Hard Way

Posted in How To: Tech Qa on June 15, 2016
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We have built a lot of project vehicles here at Petersen’s 4-Wheel & Off-Road. We aren’t talking about installing a winch bumper or a lift kit here. We are talking about start-with-a-bare-frame sorts of projects. In fact, we knock out a new rig each year for our Ultimate Adventure with the help of some very talented shops. While that might make the process look easy, nothing could be further from the truth. Building a rig from the ground up in a matter of months becomes a fulltime job for a team of engineers and fabricators. So unless your name is Trump, you are better off taking our advice rather than throwing money at your rig to make it great again. Trust us, it will save a lot of headaches over the course of your project.

Despite what you may see on reality television shows (or on websites), frame-up builds can take years to complete. The timeline is largely dependent on whether you are using off-the-shelf parts for a common vehicle like a Wrangler or one-off parts on something more unique. Do you want to be different or do you want to be wheeling?

Unrealistic Timeline
This is the biggest mistake we see, particularly for guys who are working alone in their garage. Working more hours helps to fund projects, but the flipside is that it does not leave much time to work on your rig. Add house chores and family obligations and there isn’t much time left to spin wrenches. Don’t expect to pull a stock vehicle into the garage in winter and be out wheeling your built rig in the spring. If you only want to have your rig down for short time (and we consider a few months a short time!) stick to one major project, such as a new suspension or engine swap. Doing one piece at a time will also make it easier to troubleshoot any issues.

You will get to spend a lot more time in the garage if you are building a rig that fits the whole family. That is what Lance Morgan did when he sold his Toyota pickup and built this S-10 Blazer. It helps that his wife Ashley and their daughter Kennady enjoy wheeling too. If you can get your family in the garage to help you it is even better, since they will feel a sense of ownership in the project.

Include Your Family
Getting family and friends involved, even if it is just painting parts or tightening beadlock bolts, is a great way to spend time with the people who are important in your life and to get some work done on your project. If you want to get out and use your rig (and that is the point, right?) make sure it fits the entire family. Sure, a Samurai buggy might be capable of going anywhere, but you won’t be going anywhere unless you can take your wife and kids with you on a regular basis.

In the business world they call it scope creep. You set out to mow the lawn and the next thing you know the entire yard is getting landscaped. Have a plan and a budget and stick to it. It is all too easy to get excited about making more modifications but then running out of money down the road before your rig is back on the trail.

Know Your Budget
After an unrealistic timeline, the next most common issue we encounter is an unrealistic budget—or no idea of a budget at all. Come up with numbers for axles, tires, wheels, shocks, steering, and everything else you can think of. Then double that number to account for all of the little odds and ends you don’t anticipate. We once got a great deal on a set of axles and then proceeded to spend $200 on lug studs and nuts so they would all match. This is just one example of an expense we did not anticipate. Every project includes those multiple trips to the parts store for three radiator hoses that you cut up to create one hose.

Richard Dunavant is a diehard Jeep lover. He readily admits that it would have cost less money to build a big-block Chevy for his mud drag Jeep, but he gets a sense of satisfaction from beating rat-powered trucks with his AMC engine. It’s very cool, but understand that there are additional costs associated with it. He was willing to pay that cost. Are you?

Just Because You Have That Engine . . .
Or axle or frame or whatever does not mean that it is a good choice for your project. Ford 4.6L engines are cool, but you will have a hard time fitting one in the engine bay of your YJ. Sometimes you are better off selling the part you have and using that money to purchase something more appropriate. That said, you might want to run a stroked 401 in your J truck because it is cool to keep an AMC powerplant; just know that you will pay twice as much per horsepower compared to an LS engine. Having something cool and unique almost always costs more than following a formula. Is the cool factor worth that much to you?

Huge 6-inch-diameter pipe bumpers and a denim bench seat would be out of place on a new Super Duty, but they look perfectly at home on our ranch-themed 1977 F-150. We left all of the steel bare but powdercoated the Trail-Ready wheels so they wouldn’t be too shiny. Having a vision like this will help your project come together into a cohesive package.

Have a Vision
Speaking of cool factor, it is wise to have a vision before you start your project. Are you building an expedition vehicle where comfort and reliability are priorities, or a hose-it-out mud dominator that runs on race fuel? Be realistic about your intended use for the vehicle. Rooftop tents are neat, but if you plan to pull your rig behind your diesel pusher motorhome you probably don’t really need one. We see vehicles that seem to have an identity crisis. Is it a desert racer? A rockcrawler? Oftentimes this happens when the timeline gets stretched out and the owner comes up with a new idea to try and incorporate into the project after the fact. Rarely is that a good idea.

Keeping an entire donor vehicle around can be space prohibitive, but we like to keep as many parts as we can until the very end and beyond, until we know we don’t need them. The flipside is that having a bunch of parts lying around can be confusing and overwhelming, so we store them on the shelf in plastic totes with a label to identify which vehicle they came off.

Keep Everything Until the End
If there is one thing we hate it is spending money twice. Never throw anything away during the course of your project, even the little things like brake fittings, hardware, and hose clamps. Keep it all. This goes for both the vehicle you are working on and the donor vehicle if you are doing an engine swap or other major work. There is nothing worse than having to go out and hunt for a part you tossed in the trash or overlooked when you wear tearing things down. This even goes for belts and broken parts, which can be valuable when you’re trying to find the proper replacement parts from the parts store without “year, make, model.”

Sometimes you need to get out and hit the trail to recharge your batteries or let your wallet recover. Riding along with a friend is a great way to bench race, see what you like and dislike about another vehicle, and maybe even convince some of your buddies to come lend you a hand on your project.

Avoid Burnout
At some point during your project you will be over working on it. This is natural. It might be after assembling the entire drivetrain only to find out that you forgot to install the throwout bearing (done that before) or after test-fitting a bracket for the tenth time. When this happens we recommend you get out of the garage for a weekend and hit the trails with your friends. This is the best way we have found to recharge our batteries, plus you don’t have to worry about breaking any parts. Bring plenty of beverages so you can bribe your friends to come lend you a hand.

You have to be realistic about what you are good at and what you are not. Even beyond that, a project should be fun, so if you can do a decent job of exhaust work but it drives you nuts, your time and money might be better spent farming that out. Nate Jensen made an exhaust for our project truck that turned out far better than we could ever do. He routed the 3-inch tubing over the frame and out a hole in the side of the bed to maximize ground clearance.

Know When to Hire a Pro
Wiring comes natural to some guys but gives others fits. The same goes for welding or gear setup. Know what you are good at and can handle yourself, and be realistic about what you should farm out. Sometimes it is something you cannot do, but maybe it is just something you don’t want to do yourself. A project should be fun above all else. If it makes more sense for you to work overtime to earn the money to pay someone else to build your transmission, do it. Additionally, if you have a really strong skill (say, you love to build rollcages), consider swapping work with other guys who have different skillsets. Many 4WD clubs are great for meeting people with similar interests but different skills.

You added new gauges and LED lights and then connected them with butt connectors and Scotchlocks? Bad move. Wiring is one of the places we see people cut corners as they are rushing toward the light at the end of the tunnel, but it inevitably comes back to haunt them. Take the time to do it right. Don’t skip the time-consuming details.

Don’t Skip the Details
This is typically an issue toward the end of a project. Perhaps you are burnt out, over budget, or pushing to get done for a big trip. In our case it is often all three at the same time. Details like wiring or routing steering hoses get rushed. We often tell ourselves, “I will do it right later,” but in our experience, later never comes. If you have time to do it, you have time to do it right. Details make the difference between something that is a pleasure to drive and something that is a burden. We have projects where we have spent as much time and nearly as much money on details like comfortable seats, a rollcage that we don’t hit our knee on every time we get out of the rig, and room to fit all of our gear as we have spent on lockers and transfer cases.

You don’t want to end up like this on your first trail ride. Make sure to budget time to go someplace close to home where you can test your new rig out before dragging it across the country for a big event. There will be issues, and it is better to find them when you are close to home.

Shakedown Run
You have worked all night and are finally ready to load your pride and joy on the trailer and head to that big event you have been anticipating. Hopefully you made a list of things that needed to get done as your project neared completion and crossed them all off as you did them. The list is particularly important if multiple people are working on the same vehicle. Equally important, though, is a shakedown run, preferably close to your garage full of tools. Even if you just run down the street to ensure that nothing leaks and flex the suspension to check for clearance, it is better to identify issues close to home than when you are blocking the trail for a bunch of people who were also looking forward to that big event.

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