Building your adventure vehicle 1: So you want a rig?

Among our core skills is mobility. Part of that is having a solid vehicle. So what do you do in an age of disposable rides? Build your own, of course.

December 30, 2019


One of the main skills we discuss is driving, being a good driver, and knowing how to use vehicles tactically and technically.

We cover the basics of many of the necessary skills in our articles on Basic Driving, Road Tactics, and Off-Roading.

Behind the scenes though, we try and turn wrenches as much as possible to better learn our rides, know how to repair them in the field or off-road, or if we were ever to find ourselves in a large-scale emergencies.

As with many things at ISG, there's a combination going down that gives us the opportunity to hang out with our tribe and build skill (learning the mechanical aspects of our vehicles), ply those skills in a way that's enjoyable (getting out and into expeditions), and of course, hardening ourselves against tough times by having the driving and repair skills to keep a highly capable vehicle moving when times get tough.

Americans take our vehicles perilously for granted, and absent competent mechanics, 'repairs' might really mean "changing things and hoping for the best". While we need to preface this article by saying we know not everyone has the time, money, or interest to devote to a project vehicle, if you do, we hope this serves as a useful guide based on some experiential learning.

Part 1: Choosing your Vehicle

There's as many opinions on off-road vehicles as there are on guns, medical kits, the best tools for your backpack, or any other well-beat horse, but beneath the opinion, there are some things you can look for. The ideal vehicle should hit some really basic criteria:

  1. Fits your budget.
  2. Has parts available domestically, and/or has aftermarket options that are high quality/OEM.
  3. Is simple enough to work on without complicated computers.

Often times we hear prepper lore about how an EMP or Solar Flare will kill modern vehicles dead, and as such, we're advised to stay away from them. The truth is that's totally false and the bigger problem is computers taking control of systems when small parts fail.

Nearly every vehicle since 1992 has increasingly complicated electronic systems - many of which are very helpful. Just remember that the ethos of manufacturing long-lasting vehicles ended in the 90's, and the trend is increasingly towards "disposable" vehicles that begin giving problems at the 100,000 mile mark, especially if they're made by the "Big 3".

While some of these still make great vehicles, if the goal is to be working on it yourself, you'll quickly find that there's a lot that a shade-tree mechanic can't do with modern vehicles without a full shop, diagnostic tools, and vehicle specific service tools.

What are you to do, given the choice between older and simpler, or newer and more complex?
Let's break it down.

The Problem with "Old" is "Age"

So while older rigs are generally made with good quality materials and parts, and have fewer computer controlled systems, that comes at a cost:

  1. Parts are harder to find (and will continue to get worse).
  2. Chassis and powerplants in good shape are harder to find.
  3. People tend to hold on to them (even when they don't have the time or resources to fix them up).
  4. The body often has rust. That means costly fixes. The frames/chassis often have rust. That's a big problem.
  5. Old gaskets, hoses, seals, and plastic are going to be cracked and in bad shape, which means even if the engine is in good shape, it may still need an overhaul.

Weigh these pros and cons against how 'hands on' you want to get, how much you're willing to spend, and what you want out of it. If this experience has taught me anything, it's that you're going to have problems no matter if you choose a Jeep, a Land Rover, a Land Cruiser, a 4Runner, or an old Suburban. Everything will require work, and it'll almost always be in excess of what you expect.

If you just expect it and view it as an opportunity to learn more and get more done, it's not so bad. If you're constantly clearing cobwebs from your wallet to do it, you will not enjoy the process or the result. It definitely pays to have a solid daily driver in addition to your project, so you're not under the gun when you find out that the work you'll need to do will be 30 hours, conservatively.

Plan accordingly.

Newer Vehicles

Alex and Jamie's Tacoma; a continually impressive and capable vehicle.

The other option is, of course, get something newer and more complex. While most of the newer vehicles don't have raw off-roading in mind the way that older Jeeps, Land Cruisers, and Land Rovers did, many of the shortcoming are made up by a combination of easy aftermarket parts availability, and the reliability of having something new.

There are more and more trucks entering the field of off-road adventure, expedition, and overland travel, with some really cool options from Toyota, such as the newer Tacomas and 4Runners, while Ram, Chevy, and Ford each have their respective pickups available with off-road packages.

With some light modification, such as a small lift, some trail armor, and a winch, these can be pretty formidable. As always, Jeep's Wranglers are the most common and best selling off-road vehicle on the American Market, and you'll find Jeep people generally enjoy each others company more than the smug Toyota drivers (I'll be honest, if you have a cool Land Cruiser and don't wave at other cool Land Cruiser, you should sell it immediately to someone who will).

Likewise, while arguments persist on subjects like Independent Front Suspension vs Solid Axles, most newer vehicles are predominately vehicles we have to drive daily. That means it doesn't suck having something that's comfortable on road, and can still hold its own doing some trails. For most people, a dedicated "rock crawler" (heavily modified vehicles specifically for off-roading) doesn't make as much sense as having a single, do-all vehicle.

While some people will scoff at IFS or modern technology, there's only one real way to look at it:

If it doesn't put you at a *disadvantage*, who cares? If it puts you at an advantage, it's foolish not to at least give it the respect it deserves.

As "hashtagoverlanding" continues to bloom in popularity, Americans are finding new and different ways to do what Americans do best: Accessorize their toys.

While some of it is kinda ridiculous, newer vehicles with strong aftermarket support actually do benefit from common, easy to add upgrades that make life on the trail more comfortable and organized. Are newer vehicles better than old? 

It's on you to decide for yourself... but what really matters is "do you have the experience to make it work?"

So how do we assess what ride would work best?

The Venn

A Venn diagram showing some reasonable criteria to help in making a decision. Darker areas are more desirable combinations.

You knew it was coming. The Venn is one of the best tools for determining what makes something "ideal" for your circumstances. In this case, we loosely base our decision on our Venn Criteria. Like all things Venn, when we start getting on the fringe of one criteria, we often lose another. So while an economy car might be wildly practical, it loses points in capability.

Cost - Perhaps the only truly subjective and self-assessed criteria, cost is the ultimate arbiter of what we can effectively do. Cost isn't always an indicator of quality, either. As we'll discuss, you can often find projects that were "totaled" for very cheap because the cosmetic or body work is extensive. If you're not afraid of turning wrenches, you can turn $10,000 in repair bills into $2,500 in parts and good stories. On the other end, if you've got too much money, you might find yourself trying to buy a solution... All we'll say is that most of what's marketed to "high net work individuals" is laughably bad.

Characteristics - While this can apply to the vehicle's character, it's more about how it handles, and how it's set up. Height, gross motor vehicle weight, wheelbase, approach and departure angles, AWD vs 4x4, locking differentials... all of these characteristics shape what we expect of our vehicle. So whereas a Land Cruiser with a solid front axle might be a better rock crawling platform than a 4Runner or Surf, the Surf's smaller, more nimble frame makes it a stronger choice for driving around the city. Give some thought to what you want, what you need, and how to balance the two in a vehicle you will enjoy driving.

Capability - Like characteristics, capability is a bit of science, a bit of subjectivity. Having a vehicle that's capable means that it's not only up to the tasks you've identified when looking at characteristics, but also its ability to perform its job without failure, or with failures you can live with. If your idea of capability is costing as little as possible, an economy car makes more sense. If it's about crawling up the gnarliest rocks you can imagine, you're going to need something purpose built for the task. The problem at this point is balancing what's practical. So, think about capability in terms of a few things to help walk it in:
-Fuel Economy
-On road handling
-Off Road ability
-Carrying capacity (in terms of people and cargo)

These should get you close enough that our last two categories will help narrow the decision pool down even further.

One year's VDS from JD Power. Keep in mind that Jeep and Dodge are some of the hardest used vehicles made, as much as we might rib them.

Reliability - As straightforward as it can be, reliability is a measure of how problematic your vehicle is likely to be. Fortunately, there are some pretty strong records associated with reliability, and organizations like Motor Trend and JD Power and Associates rate cars on their reliability. With that said, take them with a grain of salt. For example, Jeeps in 2014 rated towards the bottom end of reliability. If you're considering a Jeep, there's a big difference between a Wrangler and a Liberty... and Wranglers are the preeminent off-road vehicle in the US, which means they're out being used. It's easier to find failure points if you're really putting your vehicle through some tough conditions. So, check for reliability, but do so with a grain of salt. Some vehicles have very well known problems (Land Rover Discovery II overheating issues), and others are too new to tell just yet. For a vehicle you intend to get out and explore, get into adventures, or get out of an emergency in, there's probably no more important thing to assess than "is it reliable?"

Durability - As with reliability, durability checks an important box: can the vehicle hold up to punishment? So where reliability is a measure of how long it will run under normal conditions, durability asks "how much punishment can it take?" Often times, it takes a while to expose material defects, and only after a vehicle has been out for a while is it traced back to a problem with the production process. Sometimes it's a design flaw (the aforementioned heating in Land Rover Discovery II's stems from a poorly mated alloy sleeve within a aluminum block - the differential heating points and old tooling means overheating can cause piston sleeves to slip), but sometimes it's poor material quality, which was an issue with the early 80 Series diesel Land Cruiser Big End Bearings.

Durability isn't so much of a goal as it is about setting a boundary. We want to know that within certain conditions, our vehicles will serve us without problems. Most vehicles can be pretty durable, and addressing known problems is a part of the process no matter what you buy... but do your research and know what you're getting in to.

What comes next?

As simple as possible: Mechanical soundness. Accessories can wait, and no amount of custom cool stuff matters if you're stuck on the side of the road with a blown head gasket. Some solid diagnostics, an assessment of leaks, and a look at the state of the hoses, belts, and gaskets will go a long way in helping you pick something that isn't going to start giving up the moment you drive it. It's asking a lot of most people these days, but a comprehensive service history benefits you as a buyer or seller - so get a little binder or notepad, keep receipts, and track your fixes.

It'll benefit you as a buyer or seller, and it really doesn't take much extra effort. If you're buying from a dealership, request a leak-down test, a compression test, and make sure you have any codes read before you buy something. Often as not, dealerships will clear codes that they know won't come on again until you hit freeway speed or drive it for a while. Make sure you test drive anything you think about buying by getting it up to freeway speeds, and then under normal driving conditions for 15 minutes or so.

An honest shop will tell you up front... but let's face it, if people were more honest, ISG wouldn't need to exist.

If you're mechanically inclined and want to buy a project to rebuild it, do some shopping around to see what the cost and timeframes will look like.

Often enough the old saying "while you're in there..." will creep out of the woodwork and steal money out of your wallet. To be safe, just estimate that any project will cost about 25% more than you expect... so be sure that you have one of two things on the tail end:

  1. A vehicle that has it's value restored, or;
  2. Something you intend to keep forever.

A word on Projects

Mal: And try to see past what she is, and on to what she can be.
Zoe: What’s that, sir?
Mal: Freedom, is what.
Zoe: I meant, what’s that?
Mal: Oh. Yeah, just step around that. I think something must’ve been living in here.

Yards across rural America are littered with project vehicles that at one time were someone's can't miss idea. A lot of them have had some 'custom' work done, or have been left to rot, so be careful. As the supply of solid, older 4x4's dries up, or are increasingly bastardized by well-intended people who are wearing the juice, it's easy to end up over your head with something you really can't fix, finish, or sell.

The crappy reality is that most people can afford a car payment, but can't drop several grand buying a project, and several more having the repairs done... so we know that on this subject, we're coming from a unique position. What we don't mention is that the project we started with were, in most cases, insanely cheap, took a *long* time to find, and there were dozens of rejected candidates.

Since starting the first Land Cruiser, the prices being asked for decent condition 80-series cruisers went from $2500-5000 for a non-locked rig to $5000+ for something in "ok" shape that will probably need a full gasket/hose/belt overhaul, will probably need a timing chain assembly, and may need a head gasket and machining.

That could easily balloon to a $12,000 repair bill, so if your project vehicle ends up being a more modern vehicle that can dual purpose, that's just as good. Like guns or gear, we don't get dogmatic about people doing exactly what we do - we just want to share the benefits of the approaches we've tried.

So, bottom line: If your project isn't fun, you won't likely complete it. If you don't like using your 4x4 because you'll almost certainly end up with parts breakages or trail damage, honestly, take up a different skill set and find someone who doesn't mind. It can be a frustration.

It's also easy to fall into the trap of being over-enthusiastic... grabbing another project before finishing the old one. If you do that, you better have time and money, 'cause it'll cost both.


Like pursuing anything from medicine to martialism, you'll stop many, many times and wonder if you're cut out for what you're doing. You'll wonder if it'll pay off.

We have a saying... "Always do the hard things first."

The reason is that typically if you don't want to do it, it's the smart long run play. The easy thing is just throwing stuff away, quitting, or throwing your hands up in defeat.

If you do end up sinking the time and effort into your project rig, you'll be rewarded with a vehicle you know inside and out.

People used to say "they don't make things like they used to." You don't hear it all that much anymore because things have been made to be thrown away for the last 20 years in the West. Soon, there won't be many people left who remember the days of vehicles that would travel 500,000 miles with basic maintenance, were mechanically simple, and made for customers, not consumers.

This is just one more way to keep that fire alive.



Author's Note:

A few years back during an ISG round table, a bunch of us were talking about our deficiencies and our skill/learning goals for the next few years. Mine was automotive. I'd never changed my own oil before a few years back, and after making some great friends, networking with like minds, and finding people willing to help a novice with a project, I've managed to rebuild an engine, restore another project vehicle, and help swap a few engines.

In keeping with humility, I'm not the expert - but I can tell you after these projects, I'm less useless, and that's not nothing.

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