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Cheap 4x4 Truck Building -The Budget-Built Truck

A Fool's Progress

Fred WilliamsPhotographer, Writer

Fast, Good, or Cheap-Pick Two." You've probably seen this sign in 4x4 shops. You have to make a choice about your 4x4 project. This month we're going to concentrate on cheap. You can build a good 4x4 on a budget, but not usually overnight, and it almost always requires having enough storage space to hold parts as you collect them. That's the thing about a budget build; it takes time to find the deals, and it pays to be flexible. You may have your heart set on a big-block, but when the ultimate small-block bargain deal shows up, you just might want to jump on it. As they say, beggars can't be choosers. When trying to keep the budget low, it makes sense to start with something really common since there's usually a ton of parts for the more readily available trucks. I can't always stick to that rule because I like oddball junk, but it does make sense.

This month I had a goal and some money burning a hole in my pocket. The plan was to find a 4x4 for less than $2,000 and spend no more than $2,400 total to go wheeling. This might seem ludicrous coming from a guy who already has four project trucks floundering in his shop, but the fact is that sometimes a new project or toy gets the juices flowing. At least that sounds like a good excuse, doesn't it?

Unfortunately I didn't find exactly what I wanted. I had to spend some money on an airplane ticket for a family event, and the next thing I know my budget was cut and the boss still wanted this story ASAP. Basically I was going through what most of you go through-I was slowly bleeding money out to other daily life stuff, and work was getting in the way of having fun.

But I resigned myself to giving you guys a story about wheeling on the cheap even if I couldn't show you how to do it step by step. As this story's deadline was looming I found myself on a flight to Canada for the 10th annual Fall 4x4 Mud Fest at Gopher Dunes. If you want to learn how to wheel on the cheap, then go to a Mud Fest. This is where old trucks go for one last shot at glory. Most Mud Fest trucks were bought for next to nothing, modified with a hammer and torch, and sent out for one good weekend of abuse and fun. I wouldn't be surprised if 50 percent of the trucks ended the weekend with a trip to the scrapyard, but nonetheless, these guys found a way to have way too much fun for little to no money.

It's true that a good 4x4 can be built on a budget over time, or you can find a bad 4x4, weld up the differentials, cut out the fenders, slap on some tractor tires, and go have some fun in no time flat.

Breathe In
When it comes to deep mud or water, you need to keep your truck running to get out alive, so you need a snorkel. This Mud Fest had more low-budget snorkels than you could shake a PVC pipe at. There were snorkels made from plastic pipe, dryer hose, exhaust tubing, and any combination of the three with duct tape thrown in for good measure.

Breathe Out
Not only do you want fresh air in, but you want easy-flowing exhaust out. This means one of two things: either stacks or zoomies cut through the bed or hood, or some sort of exhaust snorkel so water and mud don't clog your pipe and shut down your junkyard jewel.

Aesthetic Apathy
The best part about wheeling a cheap rig is that abuse and body damage are no longer a concern. This guy, who we'll call Kyle the Crazy Canadian, drove his GMC truck until the frame bent, and then kept driving it all over the mud fest. When we left the driveshaft was rubbing the rear crossmember and he couldn't see over the hood, but it was still moving under its own power.

I Think My Tractor's Sexy
Another expensive upgrade for any off-roader is tires. Using tractor tires for more aggressive tread isn't new but also isn't a bad idea. To fit really big tractor tires, you'll need some big axles, but many tractors are available in four-wheel drive these days and that means their small front tires can be had with a deep chevron tread pattern. The 15- and 16-inch wheels are a common crossover between tractor and truck tires, and the bobcat or skid-steer tires were also very popular.

Hammer Time
Stuffing bigger tires under your 4x4 is all it takes to make it your own little monster truck, but sometimes a lift kit is out of the budget, not to mention one of those expensive torches or grinders to trim your fenders. But just about everyone has access to a hammer, so take that hammer and beat on your fender until your new muddies fit better. It's cheap and fun.

Poor Man's Rhino
In the world of cheap wheelers there is one nameplate that keeps rising to the top, the Geo Tracker/Suzuki Sidekick. These little rigs are cheap, plentiful, and show up whenever someone is looking for a budget beater. We've christened them the poor man's Rhino because they are small like the many UTVs people are driving these days, but usually come in way cheaper than the $10,000 a side-by-side costs. If you put on an aggressive tire, trim or beat the fenders out of the way, and drive it like you stole it, they can be a blast.