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Nuts & Bolts: Budget Wheeler Revisited

Posted in How To: Tech Qa on May 3, 2017
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Photographers: Trenton McGee

Budget Wheeler Revisited

I read your Nuts & Bolts answer to “Budget Wheeler” (Aug. 2017) and did some thinking about that question myself. I thought throwing 1988-1998 GMs in there might be viable. You open up body choices to include a lot more four-door platforms (or at least a bigger population of all of the four-door platforms), and after dealing with multiple car seats at one time myself, the back doors would be pretty high on my priority list. Budgeting $2,500-$3,000 for a solid axle swap up front leaves room of about $4,000 for a base truck, which may not be that hard to do. It also gives you a better chance of this being a truck you would use more often for regular family duty since it may be easier to deal with the seats and it’s probably a nicer vehicle overall.

The 1996 and newer Chevy trucks even have Vortec engines and pick up some power. There were also a lot more crew-cab trucks built in those years, but they hold value to the point they may not work in the budget right away. A 3/4- or 1-ton truck would be a great drivetrain package and may have use as a family truck, though trail use is limited until you make it a shortbed or trailbed.

Lastly, I’d consider a staged approach to the build. Maybe a bit nicer truck to start and run it for a while with a rear locker, 32- to 33-inch tires that don’t require a lift, and do a winch and bumper right away. The second stage in a year or two could be the SAS and lift for some bigger tires, then the third stage, etc. There are about a million variations available, but I thought I’d throw out that next-generation Chevy as a solid third choice alongside what you wrote.

Stephen Watson
Offroad Design

You bring up some excellent points. The original question was centered around a budget-friendly, family-friendly wheeler that could serve as daily driver and also be reasonably easy to get through California emissions. You are absolutely correct that 1988-1998 Chevys are an excellent option for all of the reasons you specify. My only hesitation in suggesting them was because the reader wanted a solid front axle, while those Chevy trucks are all IFS. Companies like yours (offroaddesign.com) make it pretty easy to install a solid front axle under 1988-1998 Chevy trucks, but that conversion is still right at the ragged edge of what a weekend do-it-yourselfer can handle. There’s a lot of cutting involved. There are significant steering changes and generally a whole lot of details to get right in order for a solid axle swap to be successful. While installing a lift kit can be complicated, lifting a truck that’s already a solid axle is going to be far easier than converting an IFS truck to a solid axle. Sourcing a donor axle can be tricky, especially if a 1/2-ton, six-lug pattern is retained, and no matter how you look at it, the swap is a pretty big job.

But at the end of the day, you are correct that it would be hard to go wrong with a 1988-1998 Chevy since they are newer, more reliable, offer more room, and age better than a Cherokee or most square-body Chevys.

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