Three Letters Re: Questions on the Pickup Truck as a Multi-Purpose Retreat Vehicle

Dear Jim and Survival Blog:
I’m sure the question of the best truck for a survival retreat will generate a large response. By trade, I am an engineer; however, I currently am working as a maintenance person for a large camping facility in upstate New York. In my experience with equipment and vehicles, I would have to say anything with a Cummins 6B or 4B diesel power plant will earn the owners respect for the amount of work it will do and the long life you can expect from the unit. I live next to a medium size farm operation and they have several tractors powered by a Cummins engine and they regularly get 15,000 hours before any major work needs to be done to the motor. In my estimates, this is the same as driving 1,500,000 miles (yes, that’s 1.5 million) on the highways and by-ways. Anything built to last that long should be looked into. Most people know that Dodge is the main supplier of Cummins powered vehicles to the masses; however, the Cummins engine can also be found in Ford medium and heavy duty trucks and buses. If you are mechanically inclined, buy an early Cummins powered Dodge with less than 300,000 miles, replace the transmission with a later NV5500 or NV6500, or even an Eaton-Fuller 5-speed. Four-wheel drive is a personal choice. A lot of people get good performance from a differential locker on a two wheel drive truck, and there is less rolling weight to boot. Even a two-wheel drive truck can be set up to plow with the right equipment and weight over the rear axle. I do not have the experience with plow vehicles, so I will bow out for now. Thanks to you Jim for al the work you do. – AJR


I’ve also been researching diesel pickups, though my objective is to convert one of them to Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO). With that in mind, I contacted the good folks at for recommendations. They have a page with comments about the reliability and strengths/weaknesses of different engines and fuel systems. IMHO, the best bang for the buck is going to be the Ford diesel pickups made before 1994 (pre-Powerstroke). There is no computer (as best I can determine), they have dual fuel tanks (better for WVO conversions), and they have reliable fuel pumps that are not expensive to rebuild if the need arises. Dodge trucks equipped with Cummins engines appear to have a stellar reputation, but the used truck prices are commensurate with that reputation; and the fuel pumps are far more costly to rebuild. Both Ford and Dodge only put diesels in the 250 & 350 series trucks, not in the half-ton 150s. Judging by the trucks I see advertised for sale, longevity on these units runs well over 200K miles, with several of them over 300K and still commanding a healthy price. – Dave S. in Missouri


Hi James,
In response to David J.’s questions I offer the following:
1) I would suggest attempting to find a truck that is already equipped with a plow, perhaps a used municipal truck. This makes for a better “package deal”. Equipping an older truck sans plow equipment with plow equipment could prove to be a challenge, not to mention expensive. While some older aftermarket equipment exists, it is harder to get from a stocking dealer because the demand has waned – most of their stock is for the latest vehicles. If you buy the equipment used, how do you know you have every part you need and that some components aren’t missing? Mind you, the equipment for older trucks can be found, but it will take some effort. While a municipal vehicle likely has high mileage, having the engine/transmission components rebuilt will give the vehicle a known date/mileage of the start of a new service life and most likely some form of brief warranty. Since the engines are used in a number of different truck/van models and not just snow plows, rebuilding the original diesel engine and transmission will likely be more economical than finding new or used plow equipment for an older truck as the engine and transmission service parts will be commonly available than model specific snow plow components.

2) My own preference is Ford, but I prefer to avoid the 1995 model year and later Powerstroke diesel models for a endurance/survival application, leaning toward the 1994 and older normally aspirated 7.3L diesels. The Powerstroke engines are indeed more powerful but do have engine management systems – computers (EMP vulnerable) – one failed sensor can cause some problems. The older 7.3L Ford diesel is mechanical except for the starter, glow plug circuit and injection pump solenoid – as memory serves. The injection pump solenoid is used to turn the engine fuel supply off when you turn off the key – thus the engine stops. Another strike against Powerstrokes is while Powerstrokes are more powerful than standard 7.3L diesels since they are equipped with a turbocharger (and in theory more efficient), that same turbocharger can be a hindrance if its seals fail at an inopportune time. A friend who’s a mechanic that specializes in Ford Powerstrokes drove his 1996 F350 supercab from SE Texas to Colorado on an Elk hunting trip. The seals on the turbo failed along the way and the engine ended up pumping its lubricating oil (the turbo is lubricated by an engine oil line) into the engines intake tract because of the failed turbo seal. At least my friend knew what to do – purchase a sizable quantity of engine oil and continue adding it until he could get to area where he could order/replace the turbo! He was not happy with the experience. In a non-turbo diesel this won’t happen, thus it is one less concern. The older Ford diesels often have Ford C6 automatic transmissions, which are excellent and have no electronic controls on them other than perhaps a neutral safety switch. The drawback with the C6 is it doesn’t have overdrive. You can add a very tough Gear Vendors overdrive unit ($3,000 but you get what you pay for) to the C6 if you want overdrive on an older model. I would trust a C6/Gear Vendors overdrive equipped diesel over one of the later Powerstrokes that has a computer controlling the transmission shift points. With a manual transmission the only significant concern is clutch wear and lubricant level. I would go with either an F250 or F350 model. F350 will carry the most at the sacrifice of ride quality.

3) I won’t claim to know what the “best” diesel made is or was, rather, I think it is more of an issue what one’s preferences/intended uses are. I am admittedly Ford biased as that’s where my experience is. GM and Dodge have very fine engines as well. All of them have their benefits and their quirks like any man-made creation (kind of like discussing the best .308 battle rifle). This to me is what’s more important. If a diesel is properly maintained it should have a service life that can approach/surpass 300,000 miles. Change the fuel filter more frequently than the manufacturer recommends. Clean fuel is life to an injector pump and injectors. When changing fuel filters I fill the fuel filter with automatic transmission fluid (ATF). ATF can be safely burned as a fuel in diesel engines and has the added benefit of being a detergent that will clean the injection pump and injectors. I like to add STP Diesel fuel treatment and also one quart of ATF to the fuel tank every third fill up. Change the oil and filter regularly, preferably every 3,000 miles. I prefer Shell Rotella diesel oil as it has a very high zinc content. Zinc is an anti-wear additive that is being reduced/removed from engine oil specified for automobile engines (can you say EPA?). In fact, I recommend Shell Rotella diesel oil (note to self – stock up on Rotella) for older gasoline engines with flat tappet camshafts, as do many aftermarket camshaft manufacturers. The flat tappets benefit from the zinc additive. I prefer to change the coolant and thermostat annually, as I’m convinced this makes the water pump and other cooling system parts last longer.

4) When looking at a used diesel vehicle, if possible, start the engine from a cold start. When the rings and or valve seals begin to wear, visible exhaust smoke manifest when the engine is cold and lessens/subsides as the engine warms up. A seller who wishes to hide the fact that the vehicle smokes excessively may try to warm it up before you arrive. (He may also do this innocently). Also check for fuel leaks. Diesel fuel will turn coolant hoses into useless goo. The diesel fuel contaminated hoses will “swell up like a toady-frog”, then burst. Resist the urge to drive a diesel with a fuel leak – have the leak repaired. The first thing I do to a diesel with an unverifiable service history is replace the fuel filter, then coolant and coolant hoses. Once you acquire the vehicle of your choice, keep a spare starter, glow plug relay and alternator in “the recently mentioned on the blog” homemade Faraday cage – a used/discarded microwave oven(!) – and keep it in the back of the truck in a Rubbermaid Action Packer.

Hope this helps. When writing this I had a BFO about another diesel vehicle that might be ideal – an ’89 Ford E350 diesel 17″ box (moving) van I saw for sale recently. Perfect for that trip to the big box store (or that ultimate trip out of Dodge)! Kind Regards, – M. Artixerxes