"For sale: unfinished project. Best of everything. Ran out of money and time. My loss, your gain. Price: cheap!"
We've seen a ton of ads just like this and you probably have, too. Many of us (the author included) have had the dubious honor of placing such an ad. It's no fun.
Starting a project is easy, but finishing is quite another matter.
What's the best way to finish a project? We'll explore a few different approaches and methods. We'll also talk about the best ways to get in over your head, get discouraged, and quit. Before you turn another wrench or spend another dime, check out the rest of this story. What follows is our best advice about how to get it done.
Choosing a Project
What's the best blank canvas? It's the one that fits your 'wheeling needs, your budget, and most importantly, your life.
What trails do you want to run? What size tires are best for these trails? What other hardware (axles, lockers, etc.) is needed for success? Chances are you already know the answers to these questions.
As for budget, you don't need mile-deep pockets to build a worthy trail rig. Of course, you can't build a project with empty pockets, either. Do you have some parts you can trade with other 'wheelers for the stuff you need? Are there other skills you can offer in exchange for off-road hardware? If you can paint, weld, or turn wrenches, chances are you can do some successful bartering.
Daily driver or dedicated...
Daily driver or dedicated 'wheeler? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. The green '81 Toyota on the left (the Phoenix Project) was a daily driver when this photo was taken. The '71 Blazer on the right is used as a dedicated 'wheeler. We'd stopped at a pullout on the way up to Big Bear because the Phoenix was overheating and needed to cool off.
A project must fit your life. If you've got a place to work on a long-term project, you can build something that takes longer and is more involved. Having a workspace also lends itself well to buying something on the cheap that needs to be completely re-done. Something else to consider: if you need to carry extra passengers, you'll need to find a rig that's got the required interior space.
There's another factor that comes heavily into play. It's the aftermarket support, or lack of it, that a given vehicle enjoys. Owners of JK Wranglers can go and pluck almost anything they need from the aftermarket vine. Owners of Nissan Pathfinders know the meaning of "slim pickin's."
Our top choices for a budget rig: the Jeep YJ Wrangler, the '79-to-'95 Toyota 4x4 pickup, the '84-to-'89 Toyota 4Runner, and the Suzuki Samurai. These rigs are capable on the trail, benefit from widespread aftermarket support, and can be purchased for relatively low bucks. Older rigs, such as the Scout 800 or Scout II, can be bought for reasonable amounts, but they're not as easy to find. We'd be in remiss not to mention the Jeep CJ-5, which was produced in prodigious numbers over a wide span of years. Do a little hunting and you can come up with an inexpensive CJ-5.
"Go Big or Go Home" Revisited
While the saying sounds cool, it's also a recipe for project completion disaster. Going bigger and better means you'll spend all your time building instead of on the trail. If you can't go big, you don't have to stay home. Instead, go just big enough, and then go everywhere you've been dreaming about.
The Phoenix was loud, bouncy,...
The Phoenix was loud, bouncy, cramped, and gutless. Just the same, I had a lot of fun with it. This is the John Bull trail in Big Bear, California. I still have contact with the Phoenix's new owner, and plan to run a story about the truck after it's back in action.
Here's the Phoenix sans engine,...
Here's the Phoenix sans engine, freshly relieved of its fenderwells. The plan was to build an engine cage and attach the fenders to the cage. Eventually, a busybody called the city to complain about the non-running vehicle and I had to hide the Phoenix or pay a fine.
My '92 Ranger is the main...
My '92 Ranger is the main reason I got rid of the Phoenix. Two major projects at once turned out to be too much.
Friar Engineering's JK Unlimited...
Friar Engineering's JK Unlimited shows what's possible, but not what's required. You can have a lot of fun on the trail with a much more basic vehicle. That said, this JK is nothing short of amazing. We've got a full feature planned for a later issue.
The Friar JK boasts an Atlas...
The Friar JK boasts an Atlas II transfer case. Hardcore hardware really does make a difference in off-road capability. If you're not quite there yet don't let the lack of high-zoot parts keep you on the pavement.
A Spider 9 leads the way under...
A Spider 9 leads the way under the Friar JK. Baja-style suspension lets this Jeep work at high speeds as well as it crawls. A Howe power-steering system easily muscles the BFG-shod Walker Evans wheels. If your goal is to own and drive a rig like this, building in stages is usually easier and more practical than the one-shot method.
Even though Friar has a full...
Even though Friar has a full fab shop, bolt-on Poison Spyder Rocker Knockers were used in order to save time and effort during the build.
I've set a few rules that...
I've set a few rules that dictate how I drive this thing. Scratches are OK, but dents and breakage are to be avoided. Avoiding breakage is especially important if you travel solo as I often do.
Here's a daily driver that...
Here's a daily driver that does trails, too. There's a lot to be said for a rig that does a little bit of everything.
Building Your Daily Driver
Building and 'wheeling a daily driver means compromise, but that can be a good thing. If you build your daily driver, it means you can't have your rig down for too long. In turn, that forces you to pick upgrades that can be completed in fairly short order so you can get back on the road. Those who build and 'wheel their daily drivers don't always have the biggest, best, or ultimate, but they almost always have something that runs and drives. That's valuable in itself.
Defining Parameters, Avoiding Snowballs
Even if you're doing a deep-reaching, hardcore build, it's easier if you chop up the job into bite-sized pieces. This is especially helpful if you're trying to keep your rig running and usable during the process. Swap in a new front axle, and go play. Upgrade the rear axle, and go play. Build a roll cage, and go play. You get the idea.
If you catch yourself saying, "While I'm doing (insert upgrade here), I might as well do (insert bigger, more expensive upgrade here)," you might be rolling up a giant snowball. Figure out what size snowball you can handle, and keep your project within that scope.
The DIY Method
There's a lot of satisfaction and honor in doing it yourself.
• The best method if you've got more time and skills than cash
• Since you put the rig together, you know how to fix it on the trail
• Kit? Who needs a kit?
• Raw material is cheaper
• Requires lots of time
• If you make a big mess that you can't handle yourself, you'll end up paying a pro big bucks to fix it
• The effort required can be discouraging
• Easy to give up on a large-scale DIY project
• Requires lots of time
The DFM Method
"Do it for me" is easier in some ways.
• Allows you to concentrate on other aspects of life while your rig is being built
• The only choice if you don't have the experience, skills, or tools to tackle the job yourself
• If there's a problem, you usually have some recourse with the shop or manufacturer
• Trade cash for keys and you're on the trail
• Picking a shop can be difficult
• Once the shop has your rig, you'll need to check in to see how things are going
• If it's a busy shop you'll have to make sure your rig doesn't get put on the back burner
• Takes less time, but requires more cash
• You're depending on someone else's skills and passion instead of your own
• If one shop screws things up, you'll have to find a better shop to fix the original shop's mistakes
Early Bronco's came with OK...
Early Bronco's came with OK engines, but they're a far cry from what's under the BAB (Bought Already Built) Bronco. How cool is a fuel-injected, supercharged Ford small-block? Also note that this engine bay is clean enough to eat off of.
Long-travel suspension kits...
Long-travel suspension kits like this one from Total Choas can transform a vehicle's capability. Even if you can fabricate your own suspension parts, purchasing a ready-made kit can save you lots of trial-and-error time.
We've touched on the DIY and...
We've touched on the DIY and DFM methods. Here's another: the BAB, or Bought Already Built. Greg Childers knew what he wanted, so when this Bronco appeared on eBay he was quick to bid. Like the Friar JK, we've got a feature story in the works.
Aftermarket support for a...
Aftermarket support for a given vehicle makes a huge difference in ease of building. Even with its legendary blind spots, the FJ Cruiser has captured the imaginations of enthusiasts and parts builders alike. This photo of American Racing's FJ Cruiser was taken in the Hungry Valley OHV area.
Upgrading your air filter...
Upgrading your air filter or intake system is a bite-sized project that can be done during a lazy afternoon, provided you choose a high-quality part like this AEM BruteForce intake.
Engine swaps are cool, but...
Engine swaps are cool, but we'd also advise considering a rig that comes with a good engine from the factory. A good factory engine means you don't have to mess with mounting, plumbing, wiring, or the DMV.
Fabtech's 6-inch lift system...
Fabtech's 6-inch lift system can be purchased with a pair of Dirt Logic coilovers. This lift system rides smoothly and makes room for 35-inch tires. While we're fans of larger fender flares and aftermarket fenders with larger openings, sometimes it's nice to be able to fit oversized rolling stock without messing with the body.
We've already run a full feature...
We've already run a full feature on Dan Barcroft's '71 Blazer, but it fits well with this story, too. Dan scoured the classified ads, paid cash, and has built it a step at a time on a tight budget.
After the stock steering box...
After the stock steering box died, Dan replaced it with an AGR-built unit. The AGR box is plumbed for a ram assist, which Dan plans to add down the road a bit. Since the Blazer isn't a daily driver, longer down time is feasible during upgrades.
If you hit a major obstacle on your way to building something great, sometimes the best thing to do is put your rig in storage. Whether that means stashing it in the back yard under a tarp or paying by the month at a storage facility, stowing your project away is a great alternative to getting rid of it.
Take a look at auto insurance rates and DMV registration fees if you've got a lot of down time planned. Often, your insurance agent can adjust your policy for less coverage, saving you a bundle. The same goes with the DMV. In California, you can file for "planned non-operation" and save hundreds in the process.
How To Abandon A Project
"Discouragement" and "distraction" are the two key words here. Discouragement often comes from letting a project snowball until it's too big to handle, or from convincing yourself that only the biggest and best high-dollar hardware will suffice. When you're discouraged, it's easy to get distracted. If you find yourself building model airplanes instead of working on your trail rig, you'll know you're distracted. If a groomed golf course suddenly looks more appealing than a trail, you'll know you're distracted and are fast becoming infected with poor taste.
Few of us are hermits or monks. Almost everyone's got family or friends. Trust us when we say there's no trail rig that's worth sacrificing your family for.
Include your family in the build, if possible. They might enjoy turning a wrench or two. If not, spend enough time with them that they won't feel abandoned when you pick up your tools and crawl under your rig for the evening. With enough compromise and negotiation, you can pull off a successful trail rig build and still have your family and friends around.
Make sure to take them 'wheeling! They're likely to come down with the same "sickness" you acutely suffer from.
The End Game
The end game is fun in the dirt. Most who have been playing on the trails for years look back on the adventures they've had just as much as the vehicles they've driven. Pick a project you can handle, get it done, and get out on the trail. We'll see you there.
Dan found a used Dana 60 front...
Dan found a used Dana 60 front axle. It even came with the 4.56 gears he needed to match the rear. He got lucky because this axle's innards were in good shape. If you buy a used axle that's got thrashed guts, you'll pour considerable money and time into it before it's usable. Custom axles come with all-new parts that save you time and headaches.
After he killed the factory...
After he killed the factory 12-bolt rear axle, Dan found an AAM 14-bolt to replace it. The seller was a few hundred miles from home, and it took a full day's drive to make the round trip.
Time can never be replaced,...
Time can never be replaced, so it's best to decide how much time a given project is worth. In the case of this '03 4Runner, it was best not to spend too much time because it was on loan from Toyota and had to eventually be returned.
A bolt-in suspension kit from...
A bolt-in suspension kit from Sway-A-Way was easy to install and transformed this truck into an off-road worthy rig. A custom bolt-on front bumper from Desolate Motorsports, Downey Off-Road front wheel spacers, and Mickey Thompson tires and wheels rounded out the mods.
It was a mild build that yielded...
It was a mild build that yielded great results for the time invested.
Here's where you want to be:...
Here's where you want to be: in the dirt!