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2014 Cheap Truck Challenge

We Make Up The Rules As We Go

Harry WagnerPhotographer, Writer

Three trucks enter, but only one shall leave. Or maybe none. That is how it goes at the Cheap Truck Challenge, where we come up with a bunch of crazy challenges and thrash on dirt-cheap wheeling rigs with dubious reliability, often to the point of failure. As you can read about elsewhere in this issue, the competitors this year consisted of Fred Williams in a Chevy S-10, Verne Simons with his big International pickup, and Rob Peterson driving a ZJ Grand Cherokee.

These vehicles represent a wide cross-section of the 4x4 market, with Peterson piloting a nearly stock late-model SUV at one end of the spectrum and Simons putting enough time and energy into his IH that he might have been better off building a space shuttle for his efforts. Williams’ S-10 fell somewhere in the middle, with smaller dimensions and fuel injection like the Jeep, but body-on-frame construction and a bed like Simons’ truck.

Which would fare the best on our series of challenges? That is what we aimed to find out. The competitors arrived in Reno in August to…rain? Yes, it rained the entire time, in the desert, in the middle of summer. Before we get ahead of ourselves though, it is worth pointing out of that Peterson was the only one to drive his Cheap Truck to the event and drive it home afterwards (to the tune of 450 miles one way). Both Williams and Simons trailered their vehicles, and what kid has a diesel tow rig and trailer?

The first challenge was a steep hillclimb full of holes dug by previous vehicles that were not up to the task. Williams went first in his S10 but didn’t get very far before he realized that his 4WD was not engaged, so he went to the back of the line. Peterson was up next. The coil suspension on his ZJ allowed him to keep all four tires on the ground, with the Falkens clawing for traction. Next up was Simons, who had to pick a gear and stick with it since shifting halfway through the hill was not an option. He beat Peterson’s time by only a few seconds, but his radiator came loose in the process. Fortunately it did not contact the fan and the IH continued on, but lifting the hood on the International would become a theme throughout the event. After crawling out from underneath the front of his S-10 with a hammer in hand, Williams was still without 4WD and had to be dragged up the hill on the end of a Voodoo Rope.

Flex Education
Next, each competitor had to drive up a gulley, cross over a berm, and drive down another gulley as quickly as possible. This tested suspension articulation and could leave vehicles with open differentials spinning their tires, but the challengers all made it through unscathed. Even in 2WD, Williams beat his S-10 through the course quickly without a care in the world. Peterson was more cautious, losing time at the top of the gully where he worried about bottoming out on his transfer case at the breakover between the two gullies. Simons should have been concerned about this as well, since his IH has the longest wheelbase of the bunch. Instead, he chose the Williams method and bashed through with no regard for his truck. This resulted in the quickest time, with the prize consisting of a set of bent transfer case mounts.

In the past we have been criticized for using timed events in CTC, which favor mashing the gas over finesse and a greater understanding of your vehicle. With this in mind we played a game of follow-the-leader on Day 2, where each competitor had the opportunity to pick an obstacle or task that he felt was better suited to his vehicle and driving style than it was to the other challengers. Simons had fixed his transfer case mounts with help from a winch and a BFH the night before and was on his sixth fuel filter for the trip by this point. Williams had less grease under his nails than Simons, deciding that 2WD would have to do.

Donuts: Trying to make the most out of 2WD, Williams made the other competitors spin donuts in the dirt. None could match the S-10 in this regard, which could spin so tightly that the inside front tire stayed completely still as he spun around in circles. Given the premise of the CTC, which is to ask, “What would a high school kid do?” Williams might have won the whole event with his donuts alone. He was certainly having fun in spite of his broken truck. It is also worth noting that this was the only event where Simons did not have to change a fuel filter on his International.

Tight rocks: Peterson was up next, looking for a spot that would require the traction that only his coil-sprung Grand Cherokee would provide, with its ample articulation and front locker. What Peterson was not counting on though was that he cared more about his vehicle than his competitors did about theirs. They may have lacked his grace and finesse but made up for it with throttle and momentum. We learned that when you have to drive your Cheap Truck home at the end of the day it makes for a very different driving style.

Steep climb: The International pickup had the longest wheelbase and largest tires in the group, so Simons found a steep climb up a rock slab that played perfectly to his truck’s strengths. Despite dragging the rear bumper through the dirt, Simons made it to the top of the climb with no drama. Williams couldn’t even get his front tires up on the rocks, but he did manage a big smoky burnout and seemed to be having fun doing it. Peterson was last up and he also needed a strap to get to the top of the hill. The Grand Cherokee kept sliding sideways on the wet rocks, getting tippy in the process.

Drag Race
What Cheap Truck Challenge would be complete without a drag race? There was no burnout box or timing lights; we just lined up the three trucks and sent them down a dirt road. The Grand Cherokee was by far the fastest of the three thanks to its V-8 engine and a relatively low curb weight. The small-block in the IH pickup got points for sounding cool, but the manual transmission slowed Simons way down in the race. It also makes it harder to do donuts and burnouts, if those are important factors to you when purchasing a truck.

Never in the history of Cheap Truck Challenge have we had such a diverse group of vehicles. Simons big Interthrashional looks cool, uses a simple suspension and drivetrain, and is easy to work on. But honestly, what kid wants to spend every free moment rolling around on the ground changing fuel filters in the school parking lot? This would be a better choice for father-son project rather than a daily driver.

Peterson proved that his Grand Cherokee was reliable and comfortable while still being quite fun and capable off-road. As prices come down, ZJs might replace XJs as the go-to cheap wheeler with their V-8 engines and coil-sprung suspension at all four corners. If a cheap truck is just the first step to a dedicated wheeling rig though, starting with something with body-on-frame construction and less electronics might make sense.

That brings us to Williams’ S-10, which has the most potential in the group yet performed the worst. The dimensions of the truck are great for the trail, particularly with the bobbed bed. The frame is solid and the engine and transmission are great. Add some half ton axles and this truck would make an awesome wheeling rig. Who won all depends on what factors are most important to you when looking for your next cheap truck.

How Did They Stack Up?

Peterson’s Jeep Grand Cherokee Simons’ IH Pickup Williams’ Chevy S-10
Hillclimb 2 1* 3
Flex Education 2 1** 3
Donuts 2 3 1
Tight Rocks 1 2 3
Steep Climb 2 1 3
Drag Race 1 3 2
Strengths Coil suspension; V-8 engine; solid axles. Wheelbase; solid axles; simple suspension. Excellent engine; small size; strong frame.
Weaknesses Unitbody construction; lots of glass and sheetmetal; questionable electronics. Size; weight; visibility. Front axle won’t engage in 4WD; weak front suspension.

* Broke radiator mounts ** Bent transfer case mount