Pickup Truck Repair: Choosing a Used Homestead Vehicle

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Avoid great financial entanglement and still have a rugged, healthy truck by shopping carefully for parts and doing your own maintenance.
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Pricing of old model used pickup trucks.

So you’ve got most of your cash tied up in land and the rest in agricultural developments and now, on top of everything, you realize that you need a pickup or larger truck to keep things moving efficiently.

O.K. You’re probably already committed to a second-hand job, but before you run out and inspect just any old available used truck, try to pare your field down a little so that you spend your time checking out only those models likely to give you the most of what you need for your money.

First off, discount style and age . . . they’re generally of little importance per se. Consider, instead, convenience, sturdiness (degree depends on your needs) and cash outlay (both present and future). In a nutshell, you’re probably after the handiest farm-worthy vehicle you can get for the least possible purchase, maintenance and operation cost.

A fine axiom, but where does it leave you? To begin with, it tends to leave you with a limited number of makes to choose from. Chevrolet, Chevrolet Corvair, Ford, Dodge, Volkswagen, International, GMC and Willys are realistic alternatives. Of course, others are available (older Studebaker, Hudson, Plymouth and such foreigners as Land Rover, Toyota and Datsun), but these are pretty unrealistic choices because of the high cost and/or limited availability of parts.

Initial price will obviously be of first importance, and local papers can provide you with some insight as to what to expect. Our papers–Los Angeles Times and South Bay Daily Breeze–offer the prices listed in the box below (I’ve started with 1968 since I suspect that none of MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers care to participate in the losing end of Detroit’s built-in depreciation system):

Notice the relatively sharp drop in price for trucks of the earlier 1960’s. Pickups of that period are mechanically similar to later models (simpler, if anything) and if you can find one in good condition, you’ll be getting the best value for your money.

By the way, while you’re perusing the papers to get a sense of the going rate for used pickups in your price range, keep an eye out for auctions of city and county-owned trucks. Pickups sold at these sales generally have a lot of miles on them, but they’ve probably also been pretty well-maintained which should save you some headaches later on. Farm auctions often include trucks, too, but check these vehicles carefully for neglect. A truck that’s had regular lubrication and oil changes is worth much more to you than one that brings with it the problems of its previous owner’s inattention (keep this in mind during your own period of ownership).

Once you’ve gotten some idea of the brand and initial cost that suit you, you’ll need to consider the type of engine you want. The lower gas mileage which can be expected of the V-8’s and the GMC V6 (my GMC 6 got six mpg without a camper and 4-6 mpg with) make these suspect in my opinion . . . and when the cost of tune-ups and engine work is added (even if you do the work yourself), they become still more undesirable.

A look at the “out-house Bible”–Sears Catalogue (winter, 1971)–gives a revealing idea of relative costs of engines and parts for the six and V-8 models.

Take 1962 engines, for example. Sears offers a rebuilt six cylinder Ford truck motor for $392 while the V-8 for the same year runs $430. Chevrolet’s six runs $450 while the V-8 is $470. These are small differences, it seems, until you add in such things as the cost of a carburetor (Ford six–$16.49; small V-8 –$29.49; Chevrolet six–$21.49; V-98–$28.49). Other years and parts show similar price differences and the gap gets even greater with the four-barrel gas slurpers.

Lest these figures frighten you, bear in mind that you needn’t get your replacement parts new. J.C. Whitney & Co.’s Catalogue No. 290–“out-house Bible” number two–offers used “run-tested” engines for less than half the cost of new ones.

Used V-8 prices are actually a little lower than those for the six cylinder engines, but the V-8’s are further ruled out by the higher cost of gasket sets ($7.69 for the Chevrolet six versus $10.59 for the V-8) and the need for two extra spark plugs for a tune-up, two extra pistons for an overhaul and so forth.

The GMC V6 shows its “worth” by commanding a price of $300 used. . . enough said about GMC economy. International is in about the same boat with high parts cost and poor mileage. Add to this the fact that replacement parts are seldom available locally for these makes, and both IH and GMC drop out of the running as practical farm trucks.

Another alternative lies with the auto wrecker who can often supply parts for a fraction of either new or rebuilt costs. By and large, these dealers are a mercenary lot, but if you’re able to make a sympathetic contact, they can supply replacements very reasonably.

Or, you can become your own wrecker. Often a junk passenger car, with an engine or other parts that are interchangeable with those in your truck, can be bought cheaply and stripped.

If you do deal with an auto wrecker, check his manual of interchangeable -replacement parts which can be used from one model to another. And remember that he’s going to have junked trucks in proportion to the number that were sold: lots of Chevies, Fords and Dodges (in that order) but far fewer GMCs, Willys’ and Internationals. Replacements for the less popular makes are higher in price and harder to get.

Wherever you get your replacement parts, it still stands to reason that a six (or better yet a four) cylinder engine is your best buy. But how about attaching it to the wheels?

Most people are now used to an automatic transmission and some can’t even drive a stick shift vehicle. Our concern here is not with ease of driving, however, but with operating costs. Here again, the facts are clear . . . manual transmissions are much less expensive than automatics.

For example, the cheapest automatic that Sears sells for the 1962 Ford costs $279 while the manual transmissions for the same year is only $125. Add to this the need for occasional adjustments to the automatic and the fact that you can’t work on it yourself (special tools needed) . . . and the manual transmission seems obviously better. (Incidentally, have you ever tried to “rock” an automatic out of snow? I did in the Ozarks, and it doesn’t really work).

If you can, get a four-speed manual transmission since the added lower gear enables you to haul heavy loads with little strain on your vehicle’s engine and also allows the truck to go extra slow . . . a great advantage when you’re loading produce or throwing off feed on any great amount of land.

The suspension system is another area where you’ve got to beware of modern conveniences. The traditional–and best set up is leaf springs in all four corners. And get overload springs in the rear, if possible . . . they can’t be beat for sheer weight carrying capacity. If you can’t find a truck with overloads, try for air shocks.

Chevrolet and GMC parted from reality in 1960 by installing coil springs front AND rear and trying to make their trucks ride like passenger cars. They succeeded. Since then, Chevrolet trucks have certainly had the mushy ride, the high maintenance costs and the poor handling characteristics typical of the usual Detroit passenger cars. In general, avoid these pseudo-trucks unless you can find one with optional leaf springs in the rear.

Consumer’s Digest recently featured a picture of a 3/4 ton Chevy camper executing a flat turn at 45 mph . . . with the inside wheel off the ground. The danger is obvious and will be shared to some extent by a truck in farm use, even though the center of gravity is lower in the farm vehicle. (Bad shock absorbers are also a problem in these models).

Corvair and Volkswagen trucks also have suspension problems which make them of limited use to the homesteader. Cars of these makes are great–especially the VW–but the trucks simply weren’t built for the rough use that a farm pickup experiences. Best to reserve a Corvair or Volkswagen for your go-to-town car and get a less “sophisticated” type of truck to haul a load of feed or manure.

By now, you’ve narrowed the field down to an older (and popular) four or six cylinder truck with a four-gears-forward manual transmission and leaf springs all around.

In the way of extras, try looking for real dashboard gauges instead of little red lights. Water temperature and oil pressure are of particular importance to a driver who, say, is hauling a heavy load to and from an isolated place. An “amp” gauge which gives a continuous read-out on the electrical system is also a mighty handy thing to have.

Try, too, to get a larger-than-normal radiator. The 3/4 ton models have the advantage of coming so equipped and if you have to replace the radiator in a half-ton pickup, try to do it with corresponding equipment from a 3/4 ton vehicle. The extra cost is worth it, especially in hotter parts of the country, because the added cooling capacity will help to keep the oil pressure up and so insure prolonged engine life.

You’ll pay a slight premium for the newer wide-bed and long-bed trucks, but the hauling capacity of these 6′ X 8′ beds makes them worth the price.

If you plan to handle your own maintenance, do a little research first to see what tool expenses you might be getting into for various models. Get a Motor’s Truck Repair Manual at your local library and compare the simplicity and number of special tools required for working on the pickups that appeal to you.

Personally, I prefer the six cylinder Chevrolets from 1941 to 1959, Dodges from 1940 to the present and Fords from 1946 on, partly because overhead valve models are a little easier to work on.

I’m currently driving a 1953 Chevy 1/2 ton pickup for every day ($225.00 cost plus $50-$75 in miscellaneous repairs) and have just bought a 1950 Dodge one-ton ($250 plus $50 in repairs) since the dual rear wheels of the Dodge are an advantage in hauling heavy building materials to our homestead until we can move there permanently. Once we do, I’m going to sell the Chevy, keep our VW Bus for family transport and use the Dodge for a work vehicle.

I’m having good luck with both trucks . . . they’re simple and cheap to take care of. By shopping carefully for parts and doing my own maintenance, I think I’ll be able to avoid any great financial entanglement with Detroit for a long time . . . and still have a rugged, healthy truck.

By choosing your own pickup wisely, so can you!

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