buying an old truck, Toyota Tacoma
Photo by Peter Pryharski
Smaller trucks like this have been around seemingly forever, and have a lot of interchangeability in parts between model classes.

Factories both foreign and domestic continue to crank out vehicles with the latest technologies and creature comforts. But in terms of off-road ability, most modern traction control systems leave a lot to be desired when compared to the dedicated 4 x 4 mechanisms found in older models. Metal has given way to plastic, and emphasis on fast and cheap has replaced a built-to-last ethos. Things, as they say, just aren’t what they used to be. Luckily, when buying an old truck, you can still snag one at a bargain price, giving you a capable vehicle without a monthly payment.

Determine Your Needs

Will you be hauling large trailers up steep mountainsides, or skidding timber through tight forests? If towing is your main concern, a full-size truck is hands-down the way to go. Evaluate your average load, erring on the heavier side. Use that theoretical load as a guide to choose the ideally sized truck for your needs: half, three-quarters or one ton. How much stuff will you be putting in the bed? Select a full-length bed for the most capacity. The amount of people you need to take with you is another concern. Crew cab models increase passenger seating, but can add to the cost of the truck significantly; a standard-cab is often the most cost-effective design. Plus, you’ll keep the length more realistic—a four-door truck with a full-size bed is not easiest thing to maneuver around town.

If off-road driving is your main concern, look to a vehicle with a shorter wheelbase. A smaller distance between the front and rear axles makes turning easier. This is particularly useful if you use your SUV as an occasional log skidder as mentioned above, or need to traverse any dry stream beds on the way out to mend the back fence. If your primary concern is moving people, a four-door SUV should be your first choice. There are plenty of models to choose from, but a domestic model will usually be easiest on the pocket.

Where To Look

The internet reigns supreme when it comes to buying an old truck. That doesn’t mean you won’t find a worthy mode of transportation at a dealership, but you’ll pay a significant premium over the same model from a private seller. is the obvious first choice, but there are others out there. EBay Motors can be good, provided the vehicle is close enough for an in-person examination. Don’t discount print, though. Special interest magazines and local circulars can sometimes have some great deals, so make sure you check those as well.

Be particularly careful with any vehicle listed by a small seller or corner lot-type operation. While many of these resellers are hard-working mechanics looking to make a few extra dollars on the side by fixing up an older make, some are as honest as, well, used car salesmen. Luckily, you can now know the history of the car, as reported to the DMV, with sites such as CarFax. You can overlook fender-benders, but anything larger is reason to turn away. And, you should run if there’s ever been a salvage title on the truck, unless you can trust that the seller performed all the necessary repairs. Never buy a vehicle that’s been in a flood; it can take years for all of the demons from such an event to pop up. To make sure the vehicle price is in line with its worth, check out Kelley Blue Book.

Buying an Old Truck

Carefully inspect the vehicle’s body panels, looking for signs of rust. Do all the panels line up? Ill-fitting doors, body panels, or trim indicate a repair, and a poor one at that. A discount paint job can also be a warning sign, possibly indicating severe corrosion issues. As mentioned above, damage from a minor accident is OK, and may lead to a great discount on a mechanically sound vehicle.

Bring a creeper with you, or at least a few pieces of cardboard, and get underneath. Once again, you are on the lookout for corrosion, especially if you live in an area where the roads get salted heavily. A little surface rust is fine, but you want to make certain there isn’t enough to cause any structural harm. Look for cracks or fractures in the frame. Keep your eyes peeled for leaks while you’re under there. Odds are there will be some oil residue where it shouldn’t be; just make sure that the source of it has been repaired.

The Examination

All four corners are also worth a look, with the tires offering a lot of useful intel. Uneven wear is a sign of bad alignment, or worn shocks. To check their condition, push down on the truck directly over the tire. If it bounces more than once before returning to its usual attitude, the shocks are shot. And speaking of stance, a rearward lean could mean the truck has been habitually overloaded over the course of its life, wearing out the back springs.

The most important and one of the most expensive items is the engine. Take a good look at the hoses, belts, and any other rubber goods under the hood, ensuring that they’re not leaking or haven’t dry-rotted. Start the engine and head to the tailpipe: Is there any smoke present? Excessive smoke can mean a number of things, including burning oil or coolant leaks. Signs of a sooty discharge on the tailpipe can mean the engine is burning oil or running a bit too rich. If you’re not terribly mechanically inclined, set up a once-over at a trusted shop. It could save you a lot of money in the long run.

The Ride

If everything has gone well up to this point, it’s time for a test drive. This is one of the most reliable ways to check the transmission, which is one of the other most expensive parts of the auto. It’s also a good way to check the 4 x 4 system. If the truck is an automatic, place your foot on the brake and put it in gear; it should engage instantly. Repeat this with reverse. On a manual, make sure the clutch has about an inch of free play at the top and engages well before that point. Shift into high- and low-range four-wheel drive. It should go in—and out—smoothly, without any unusual noises. Make sure everything tracks straight and true, and acceleration is smooth, without any undue vibrations.

Good Older Makes

The following vehicles have proved themselves over the years. Their longevity is a testament to their usefulness, and means there are plenty in the junkyards if you need a part.

Ford F-150

The Ford F-series has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. since 1981, and best-selling pickup since 1977. Simply put, the F-series rules the road in sheer volume, with plenty of aftermarket support, so you can get a good truck at a good price. If you don’t need a full-size, but still have use for a bed, check out the Ranger. Considered “mid-size,” these trucks can still accomplish plenty in the woods or on the farm.

Ford Powerstroke

The 7.3 liter Powerstroke is perhaps the most coveted of all, producing big torque from the large mill. If you need to move mountains, this is the truck to do it with. Overbuilt, these were tailor-made for farm work. As a bonus, these motors can be converted to run on biodiesel, allowing you to obtain fuel for little to no cost from local restaurants in the form of waste cooking oil. Conversion kits are readily available.

Toyota Tacoma

The Taco is well loved by everyone from high-plains cattlemen to the surfers of SoCal. These smaller trucks have been around seemingly forever, and have a lot of interchangeability in parts between model classes. If the motor ever does go, or you need more power for hauling or towing, these trucks will accept small block Chevy motors with some modifications. This has been a popular swap for quite some time; in fact, there are a few companies out there that put kits together with all the components you need to make it work.

Jeep Cherokee

The ubiquitous Jeep Cherokee XJ, the precursor to the Grand Cherokee, represented a big moment in the development of the American Sport Utility Vehicle. It was the first SUV to be built with unibody construction, meaning the frame was constructed as a part of the body. Because they were produced in such great numbers, parts for this capable vehicle are inexpensive and available everywhere.

Suzuki Samurai

The diminutive size of this SUV precludes it from performing any hauling duties, but it is the closest thing to an ATV you can legally take on the highway. Though the engine only puts out 63 horsepower, the gearing on this little rig really gets it done in the rough stuff.

An Ounce Of Prevention

Bear in mind that these vehicles will lack a bank note, but they will require the occasional payment to the local mechanic or the auto parts supplier. Years of use inevitably lead to wear and tear, which will rear its ugly head in the form of needed repairs. That said, if you only pay out $1,000 a year you are way ahead of the curve compared to a truck payment. After buying an old truck, take care of it and it will take care of you. Hopefully the glove box was stocked with the owner’s manual. If so, refer to the “Severe Duty” section for maintenance intervals. Any time spent off-pavement is rough on a vehicle, even if it’s just seasonal fire roads or gravel thoroughfares.

This article is from the spring 2018 issue of The New Pioneer Magazine. Grab your copy at

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