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There is something to be said about having a defendable retreat far from society with multiple routes to reach it and the preparations that go along with it. But all of those preparations are for naught if you haven’t considered the best way to get from Point A to Point B.
With the ever rising fuel prices that we all are experiencing nowadays, it’s very likely that your Bug Out Vehicle (BOV) will also be your main means of transportation. Unless you are really squared away and have the finances to allow it, many of us simply can not afford a dedicated BOV in addition to our regular daily-use vehicle. That is compounded by the spouse’s need for a vehicle and Lord help you if you have teenage kids. If you feel like you fit into this category, I’m going to give you some advice on what vehicles to purchase and what to look for when you purchase them.
The first aspect of the vehicle purchase should be what type of power plant you want, i.e. whether you want a gas or diesel. There are advantage to both that have been talked about and debated for years. In my opinion, the best power plant for a BOV and regular use is a diesel engine. Longevity, fuel economy, parts availability, and the monstrous amount of torque available are only some of the reasons that diesel wins in my mind. There are two types of injection systems that have been offered by the "Big 3" [American light truck] manufacturers. Indirect injection systems spray the fuel into a prechamber where the combustion process begins. This prechamber is also the location of the glow-plugs for help starting the truck in cold climates. This is a very inefficient but durable design. Direct injection systems spray the fuel directly into the cylinder where combustion occurs. This is a much more reliable and efficient system. All diesels offered by the Big 3 today are direct injection.
Once you determine what type of motor you’re interested in, you must then determine whether you want a pickup truck, SUV, or car. Since we’re talking about a vehicle that will need to get us into a remote area across potentially hazardous terrain, a car is not a good choice for BOVs, and whatever you choose should be a four wheel drive. That leaves us with a SUV or pickup truck. Both have advantages and disadvantages and it’s up to the individual to determine which route they follow in this aspect. The good news is that the diesel SUVs and diesel trucks share most of the same drive trains and parts.
For those of us who have decided on a diesel powered vehicle, you’re now faced with choosing from three different manufacturers. GM, Ford, and Dodge. It is recommended that when purchasing a BOV, you want to buy one that has the fewest amount of electronics controlling the vehicle. Electronics are a huge pain in the nether region to diagnose and repair so the fewer potential problems the better.
For the bow tie [company logo] fans, you’re looking for a pre-1993 pickup truck, Suburban, or full size Blazer. GM began using the 6.2L naturally aspirated (non-turbocharged) mechanically injected 6.2L back in 1982 and in 1993 they began changing over to the 6.5L electronically controlled engine. The 6.2L and some 6.5L motors use an indirect mechanically injected system in a V8 design. GM, for a brief time, installed diesel engines in their half ton trucks, but they are rare and hard to find. More common is the _ ton and 1-ton trucks and Suburban’s with diesels. You will have to check the individual trucks to see if they are laden with electronic controls in the 1993 model year vehicles as this was the time when GM switched over form the mechanical to electronic injection systems. This was also the period when they were switching from the 6.2L engine to the 6.5L motor. Some had turbo chargers and some did not. A turbo will give you more power and better mileage so if you can find a turbo charged motor that’s the route to go. There are also aftermarket turbo systems out there that will work even better if you want to spend the extra money for them. These trucks came with a heavy duty 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission and various trim levels. The older mid-80’s trucks will likely have a 4-speed manual or 3-speed automatic, none of which have an overdrive gear to save on fuel consumption. A 4×4 3/4 ton 7.3L turbocharged truck will likely get around 15 mpg average and go 200k miles between overhauls. All of these trucks were available in regular cab, extended cab, or crew cab (4-door) versions. The GM trucks and Suburban’s also had one additional limiting factor, the front independent suspension, which improved ride quality and handling substantially, but the tradeoff is off-road capability and the ease with which you can install a lift kit on the vehicle.
For the blue-oval [company logo] fans out there, you are limited to F250 and 350 trucks. Beginning in 1985, Ford installed 6.9L non-turbocharged indirect mechanical injection V8 diesels originally developed by International-Harvester for some of their machinery. Starting in 1989 you could get a 7.3L indirect mechanical injection V8 diesel and in 1991 a turbocharger was optional. By 1994, the last year for the old I-H diesels, a turbo was standard. In 1994 Ford phased-out the old mechanical indirect injection motor for the new electronically controlled direct injected turbocharged 7.3L Powerstroke motor. The early diesels were equipped with a 4-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission and by 1994 a 5-speed manual was standard and a 4-speed automatic was optional. These trucks are pretty bulletproof and maintenance friendly and get marginal fuel mileage. A 4×4 3/4 ton 7.3L turbocharged truck will likely get around 15 mpg average and go 200k miles between overhauls. All of these trucks were available in regular cab, super cab (extended cab,) or crew cab (4-door) versions. The major problem area for these trucks is the common failure of the glow plug controller and glow plugs, which makes starting these trucks extremely difficult especially on a cold morning.
The last choice is the Dodge Ram 1/2 ton and 1-ton trucks. Beginning in 1989 Dodge began installing a 12-valve 5.9L I6 diesel produced by Cummins with mechanical direct injection. In 1991, Dodge added a turbo charger and intercooler as standard equipment. The intercooler was an industry first and offered a significant increase in performance and economy. These “first generation” Cummins trucks used a Bosch rotary injection pump (called a VE pump) and came with a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission in a regular cab or club-cab version. Also, the Cummins trucks do not use glow plus. Instead they utilize a heater grid placed in front of the air intake for the engine which heats up when temperatures fall below 40 degrees to aid in the combustion process. In 1994 Dodge completely redesigned their pickup truck lines and the Cummins got an upgrade as well, commonly called “second generation” Cummins trucks. The VE injection pump was replaced with a new inline P7100 injection pump capable of higher fuel pressures and greater fuel delivery, as well as an upgraded turbocharger. The drive trains were also beefed up with heavier duty 5-speed manual transmissions, transfer cases, and axles. Half way through the 1998 model year, the engine was redesigned with a 24-valve cylinder head and the mechanical injection systems were replaced by electronics to meet emission standards. Also in 1998 the interior of the cab was redesigned and a 4-door Quad Cab version was made available to make it easier to get into the back seats of the extended cab trucks. The 1994 to 1998 trucks are probably the most sought after trucks. A typical 1/2 ton 4×4 truck with 5-speed transmission and 3.55 axle ratio will get 20-22 mpg and these trucks regularly go 300k miles before major work needs to be done. There is one potential problem associated with these trucks. The timing gear cover on the front of the motor uses dowel pins to line up the cover when being installed. Unfortunately, in some cases this dowel pin can vibrate and back out of their spot falling down through the timing gear case causing lots of damage before ending up in the oil pan. There are common and inexpensive fixes available for this problem. One advantage to these trucks is the ease with which you can increase the power output of the engine. Replacement parts are readily available for these trucks as well and for those who like more power, performance parts are easy to come by to let you make well over the power levels reached by the newer electronically controlled trucks.
Once you’ve made your decisions between all of the above options and have found a potential match, there are a few common areas that you need to inspect before making an offer.
First, check the oil. Because of the amount of detergents in diesel engine oil, it’s common for it to be pitch black after only a few hours of operation. When you check the oil, look to see if there is any discoloration or a scent of burnt radiator fluid which will indicate a leak of coolant from the head gaskets. Check the radiator hoses to make sure they are firm, but still pliable. The engine coolant should be a greenish color and free of rust. Brake fluid should also be free of contaminants. Walk to the passenger side of the truck and have someone start the vehicle while you observe the tailpipe. Most older diesels will puff out some blue and/or black smoke on startup and that’s normal. You’re looking for a large cloud of smoke that takes several minutes to go away. This is an indication of a faulty glow plug controller, glow plugs (Ford & GM) or grid heater (Dodge), or internal problems. With the engine running check the transmission fluid level if it’s an automatic. It should be full, have a pinkish color and not smell burnt. Ask the owner if the engine has ever been “turned up.” Some owners add power without the required upgrades of intake and exhaust and there could be potential damage. Turn the vehicle off and craw under the truck. You’re looking for any large amounts of oil leaking out of the engine or transmission. Ask the owner when the last time the transmission fluid and rear axle fluid was changed and if they have the maintenance records fro the vehicle. Most of the time you can tell a vehicle that has been well maintained early off. If it’s been abused, buyer beware. That’s not to say don’t buy the vehicle, just don’t pay a lot for it as there will be lots of things that will need to be inspected and/or replaced. Also check the sheet metal in the fender wells and under the cab to make sure the floor is not rusting away.
Next, take the vehicle for a test drive. Make numerous stops and starts and turns in both directions. Listen for any noises that are out of the ordinary. Allow the engine to warm up and drive it hard to see if a problem presents itself. Find an empty dirt lot somewhere where you can test the 4×4 system. Ensure that the 4×4 system will engage and disengage properly. With the truck in 4-high drive around in a figure 8 to make sure there are no problems with the front drive train. Put the transfer case in 4-low and floor the truck to make sure that the transfer case will not pop out of gear, an indication that the transfer case is shot.
Once you purchase a vehicle, then you’re going to have to make it into a truck BOV. If you’re in an especially remote area with a lot of off-road driving required, the suspension will need to be modified for off-road use. No, you do not need a 14” lift kit and 44” paddle-wheel tires. 33” to 35” tires will get you anywhere you need to go. Wetter climates may require a more aggressive tread so use your judgment. A well built steel bumper for the front and rear is a must. This may be necessary for pushing things out of the way, such as a Prius or a fallen tree. Aftermarket fuel tanks that rest in the bed are a common addition. These tanks will allow you to carry anywhere from 50 to 150 gallons of additional fuel (which needs to be treated if it’s sitting up for a long time.) Other additions that would be useful is an onboard air compressor system, an onboard suspension systems if you’re planning on hauling a bug-out trailer with you, GPS receivers in the cab, high-powered driving lights, etc. Your local conditions will warrant a different combination of modifications than other areas. Local 4×4 shops in your area can probably give you the best advice on what you will need to do to your particular vehicle.
It is up to the individual to determine what works best for him. It’s also worth stating that in different areas of the country, one vehicle manufacturer may be more common and another one may be non-existent. If that’s the case, it may not be wise to have a Dodge truck where everyone drives Chevrolets. Conversely, if you need a truck for your personal use and you have a wife and three kids to move about, it may be a wise move to have a Chevrolet/GMC pickup truck and a Suburban with identical drive trains. The point is, decide what works best for you, plan accordingly, and work the plan. My next installment will cover what you should check and look for when inspecting a potential BOV.