Cheap Truck Challenge: Buy a cheap truck and challenge yourself and others on the best bang-for-the-buck price and upgrades. The idea is to think like the 16-year-old kid flipping burgers for a living and wanting to get into wheeling, like many of us started as. Tech Editor Fred Williams dreamed this up and, for the second year of the challenge, came up with rules and regulations that even I had to comply with. Fred’s first rule was that I couldn’t do an open-top Jeep, or any Jeep for that matter. Why? Simply put, he knew that I could probably put together a trail-worthy daily driver cheap truck Jeep out of my own backyard for around $278.43, plus or minus. It’s true that my background and passion is Jeeps, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t built many other rides from scratch and hack, as well as nice custom creations. But this time our challenge is to get the most bang for the buck, so that is what I went for.
I figured that buying a midbudget vehicle would be best, as it would hopefully have everything needed to wheel the first day, and then I would slowly use the budget to build it over the course of a year to be the wheeler my inner child wanted. A few of my parameters were (1) at least 10 years old, (2) competent in factory trim, (3) plenty of aftermarket support, and (4) relatively low cost of repairs and ownership. I also wanted something I could do all the work on myself as a kid would, so a basic vehicle was in mind, like some old pickup. That eliminated any IFS rig so that lifts and such would be both cheap and easy (but most importantly cheap). Since this was my own money we were talking about, I might even have to make payments. Luckily, all those factors came together. I needed and found a beat, old Toyota pickup.
The Real Rules?
Fred’s Cheap Truck Challenge rules for 2012 were pretty simple. You get $2,012 for purchase price and $2,012 for upgrades. Then you go out and compete against the others in the challenge and Fred decides who wins. But that’s where the challenge gets a bit murky. Does that mean a total budget of $4,024? Not really, as they are two separate categories. Whoever has the lowest buy-in wins that category, and the remaining bucks are not transferable to the build. Neither can leftover build money go toward the buy-in. So is it best to buy a built truck for $2,012 and have no upgrades, or buy a beater for next to nothing and put $2,012 into it? Check out next month’s issue for the actual test and Fred’s decision.
Building a Toyota
My base truck for the CTC build was old and basic. A four-cylinder engine, a carb, four-speed manual transmission, solid axles, and leaf springs meant that I could easily run it as-is or spend some coin over the next year to beef it to the best trail toy that I could still commute with. It had bald 31-inch mud tires and a radical brake shake, and idled really odd from crap in the carb—not much different from the first 4x4 a lot of teenagers own! But it was drivable and reliable so the challenge was on.
The first order of business was to get tires, as bald 31s wouldn’t be the best. But 33s meant a lift, which meant more money. The brakes needed rotors to stop the shake, and that meant checking wheel bearings, tie rod ends, and so on. Now the time monster was creeping up on me, so I needed help. The one person and shop I knew who could and would handle any Toyota issue I came up with was Marlin Czajkowski from Marlin Crawler in Fresno, California. Marlin and I go way too far back. He was the originator of the Marlin Crawler transfer case and low gears and is still on the forefront of Toyota product development. Marlin’s son Mike runs the business these days, and he helped me develop a plan of what a 16-year-old broke burger flipper would do to his Toy, while getting the most bang for the buck. He agreed to speed up the process by having his shop help build the truck in a week, instead of what would normally be a year’s worth of paychecks for a kid. All the work could be done ourselves in the driveway though, so we figured our costs accordingly.
Every Town Needs a Harold (a Very Short Story)
A friend of mine named Harold had an automotive shop in my town. Now, Harold was the kind of guy every town needs. He grew up here, got into trouble as a kid here, wheeled, fished, raced, and occasionally had a beer with friends after work at his shop. He even fixed the cop cars in town when they wouldn’t pass smog, and then made them run right later. He knew most things automotive from 1932 Fords to 2012 MR5s. If you needed anything, he knew where to go or who to ask, and he wasn’t afraid to help.
Harold was as honest as the day is long, and he also refused to advertise, only taking on new customers by word of mouth. It was a safety deal—sort of a recommendation to Harold so he didn’t have to deal with the regular whiny riffraff that always complains and blames auto mechanics for the sins of the world and their cars.
His right-hand man, Fernando, learned from Harold the ways of the world and was put in charge when Harold had to visit the hospital. About that time Fernando came up with the truck of my dreams for CTC, a ’79 Toyota 4x4 SR-5 pickup that had been sitting for 15 years. Fernando saved it and got it running and registered, then realized he didn’t need a beater old truck. But I did. Harold said it was a gem, that it looked just beat enough, and it did run and drive and pass smog. For $1,500 I couldn’t go wrong. The deal was struck, and after an electrical fuel pump swap I drove it home.
The bad news was that Harold passed away without ever seeing the phoenixlike resurrection of the truck, but we know he’d be proud. Fernando now runs Coopers Automotive. We all miss Harold every day. Every town needs a Harold.
Parts & Such
We always encourage shoppers to support their local 4x4 shop and auto parts store, but sometimes the items you need can be less expensive by mail order and the Internet. Sticking to our scenario of a kid with his first 4x4 means we have little money but plenty of time (as opposed to the reality of adulthood, when we have neither). I contacted RockAuto (www.rockauto.com) and checked out the prices, parts, brands, and availability, and was pleasantly surprised. If I needed a part now I’d have to pay the price now at the shop around the corner, but if I was willing to wait a day or two RockAuto could ship me nearly anything I needed for basic maintenance items. I knew that some stuff like the clutch needed replacing, and I had to get seals, tune-up parts, and the like just to keep the vehicle rolling for the next imaginary six months. With mouse in hand I ordered tune-up parts, a fuel filter, a pump, wiper blades, a clutch, wheel bearings, seals, brake rotors, and other such stuff for around $500. I figured that all the stuff would have been paid for at a rate of $100 a month on a kid’s fast food salary and he would fix the truck a bit at a time.
Toyota axles are as tough as they come in stock form with little tires but need a little help in the traction department. Simple and easy to work on due to the dropout design, the 8-inch units easily hold up to 33s and a four-cylinder, the axle splines are the same size as a Chevy 12-bolt, and the drum/disc brake combo works well. But the quest for real traction means more than a limited slip—we needed lockers to win. The most effective and least expensive unit for the Toyota is the drop-in style Spartan Locker from Randy’s Ring & Pinion. It simply replaces the stock spider gears inside the differential carrier and gives you positive, automatic locking diffs. Again, the buy-in isn’t cheap, but the bang for the buck is there. In a kid’s scenario, he could do one end a month rather than all at once, and do all the wrenching himself.
Low gears and lockers are a couple of important items for real wheeling, and since our engine was only a 20R now coupled to 33s, we were out of the prime powerband when off-road. While the ’80s axles had 4.10 gears, mine is a ’79 with stock 4.37s. This made the axle gears OK, but we needed lower transfer case gears. While Mariln Crawler basically invented dual transfer cases for Toys, the company also makes lower gears for the stock case. I decided this was a better bet for the kid, as no floorboard, crossmember, or driveshaft changes were needed—it’s a bolt-in with 4.7:1 gears instead of the stock 2.28:1. With a manual transmission, I could still shift up if the ratio was too low for mud or sand. Pricewise, a rebuilt, low-geared Marlin Crawler transfer case, because it is the heart of the performance upgrades, is worth every penny.
The Actual Install
Without a doubt the luxury of having the help of Toyota experts at Marlin Crawler made this build easier than it should have been. As with any build, there are many tips and tricks that only comes from experience, and Marlin has it. Any question or decision was met with a wealth of information and advice.
For sure, the Marlin crew would not have normally done some of the stuff I did in their shop. For instance, they know as well as I do that the differential dropout should have been cleaned and painted while the Spartan lockers were installed. But a 16-year-old boy would have a hot date waiting and wouldn’t take the time or money to clean and paint, so we didn’t either. We looked at this project as a stepping stone. This is how the kid would build it, and he goes back later when his financial situation improves. Finally he graduates high school, gets a job or goes to college, and then can rework and modify his truck more and have more experience to boot.
But on other stuff, Marlin himself put down the law just like a kid’s dad would—safety is everything. Those small changes like front brake lines? Well, yes sir, they were replaced.
We worked for four days to put the truck together with the whole shop, front office, and shipping department pitching in, so if we actually considered the price of labor in the build we would have blown the budget, but for the sake of argument all the labor could have been done at home by any beginner off-roader; I just had to recruit some help to make it happen in a short time for the magazine. Marlin Crawler is like a family (half of the employees literally are), and I personally can’t thank them enough for schooling me in the way of the Toyota.
Cost Breakdown So Far
Vehicle cost $1,500.00
Fuel pump, mechanical 28.26
Fuel filters 16.59
Wiper blades (2) 6.80
Brake rotors (2) 28.88
Brake pads 6.31
Crankshaft seal 2.18
Clutch kit 87.79
Draglink kit 18.45
Carb kit 26.89
Haynes repair manual 16.27
Rebuilt low gear transfer case 899.00
Tranny bushings and parts 37.50
U-bolt flip kit, both axles 118.00
Axle and pinion Eco-Seals 50.00
Randy’s Ring & Pinion
Spartan locker (2) 641.04
Spring bushing kit 50.00
Front and rear shackles 180.00
Pro Comp USA
ES3000 shock absorbers (4) 150.00
Springs and drag link 100.00
Mickey Thompson MTX tires (4) 400.00
Power Steering conversion 200.00
Parts total 3,063.83
Grand Total 4,563.88