Chevy 1500 Fullsize Pickup
The ’88-’98 Chevy 1500 pickups may seem like relics next to today’s high-horse and fancy Bow Ties, but this generation has proved to be one of the most easily modifiable of the bunch. We wouldn’t waste our time or money on the IFS but rather would cut it out and use one of the many solid-axle kits on the market. This means this pickup is definitely for wheelers with more advance skills, but some of the bolt-on straight-axle conversions are designed to be easy driveway installs.
Don’t be afraid of high mileage, because the 5.7L engines are a dime a dozen and easily rebuilt. The most costly portion of your build will likely be the high-pinion driver-side drop front axle that you will need for the solid-axle conversion. A junkyard axle can set you back close to a grand, while a custom-built unit can come in closer to $7,000.
Ford Super Duty
The ’99-current Ford F-250 and F-350 Super Duty trucks have tremendous aftermarket support. As trail trucks go they are a touch large, but that’s not always a bad thing. We’re big fans of the 7.3L diesel engine, and when it’s fitted with Ford’s factory high-pinion Dana 60 front axle and Sterling 101⁄4 rear axle, you have the makings of a mega off-roader.
Don’t be afraid of the 6.0L diesel engines. The major downfalls of the 6.0L are the head bolts and EGR system, both of which have fixes/upgrades on the market. We envision a regular-cab longbed fitted with 40-inch tires as a good starting point. ’03 is a strong model year for these trucks, and many of the well-used workhorse versions can be picked up on the cheap.
Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ
If a multilink V-8–powered SUV doesn’t get you excited, then we don’t know what will. Available with the 4.0L I-6, 5.2L V-8, or 5.9L V-8 (’98 only), the Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ merges luxury and off-road performance in one trail-ready platform. As a recipient of multiple 4-Wheel & Off-Road 4x4 of the Year awards, the unibody Grand Cherokee gives you Wranglerlike off-road performance with more comfort, cargo space, and doors. The only drawbacks are the Dana 44A and 35 rear axles. Both can be problematic and are not worth putting a lot of money into, so a rear axle swap will be on the horizon.
The V-8 ZJs were equipped with a fulltime NP249 transfer case, but that can be swapped out with an NP231 pretty easily. The V-8s might sound like the way to go, but the inline-six actually boasts a stronger performance aftermarket and is thought to be more reliable and fuel efficient. Suspension kits, bumpers, performance upgrades, and a large enthusiast community make the Grand one of our favorites.
Chevy S-10 Pickup and Blazer
Since the early ’80s the Chevy S-10 pickup/Blazer has made a great name for itself as an inexpensive and reliable 4x4. For our money we’d look for a ’93 or newer one equipped with the 4.3L V-6 engine. The factory automatic transmissions and NP231C transfer cases are pretty solid. The main drawbacks are the weak IFS housing and 71⁄2-inch rear axles. If you’re looking to take the S-10 on more serious adventures plan on swapping out the stock axle set.
Like the S-10’s older brother the 1500, the S-10 platforms have a fairly strong aftermarket, especially for solid-axle conversions. While a solid-axle swap is a bit more advanced, it’s practically all these body-on-frame platforms need to be a credible wheeling machine.
The Ford Bronco is an iconic part of the Blue Oval 4x4 line. It’s hard to beat a rig that has plenty of room for gear, a big V-8 to get you there fast, and a gracious amount of aftermarket attention.
The final years of the Bronco platform proved to be some of the best. With a removable rear shell, an available 302ci or 351ci engine, and a Dana 44 TTB front and 8.8-inch rear, the ’92-’96 Bronco has plenty of good parts to get you off on the right foot. The one negative that haunts the Bronco platform is the temperamental E4OD automatic transmission. Set aside some cash for a transmission rebuild, and don’t let a bad trans keep you from this sweet ride.
Buying a rig already built or halfway there can sometimes save you serious coin. Many guys stand by the slogan “Real trucks are built, not bought.” Well, the reality is that real trucks are often bought then built by someone else, not built correctly, or almost built—and in some extreme cases they act as parts collectors.
Don’t be afraid to buy a rig already modified. There are plenty of good and bad deals to be had, and you have to know how to spot a good one. This means doing your research, asking lots of questions, and making sure that what the owner put on or under the vehicle was worth doing. You might not be able to find the perfect rig already built, but oftentimes it will be cheaper to revamp or finish someone else’s project than to start fresh.