Many moons ago, as a semi-broke college student, I purchased a used 1995 Ford F-150 for my first all-weather, practical vehicle. Being a young man, this selection was driven completely by brand loyalty and cosmetic appeal rather than any careful consideration of vehicle capabilities. By the grace of God, my selection would prove to be an excellent base from which to build my first Bug Out Truck (BOT) after I entered the prepping world.
The truck in stock form delivered reliable service for many years with the original manual transmission and 5.0L gas engine. While dependable, there were several outstanding qualities and several shortcomings that become glaringly obvious very quickly.
- As a full-size single cab, it provided plenty of room for my brother and myself on the four-hour trips from home to college. However, I had not put any thought into how a third passenger would affect everyone’s comfort. This was especially true for the person riding in the middle seat, as the gear shift sat between his/her knees. Having a manual transfer case, the four-wheel drive lever was under that person’s left foot. I had also not considered how to transport luggage in bad weather. A used, across-the-bed style toolbox was quickly found and Glad trash bags become a major part of the truck’s emergency kit.
- While being a full-size vehicle, the short-bed wheelbase made the truck very maneuverable, quick to steer, and tight turning. This allowed me to easily navigate the parking lots, garages, and street stalls of an over-crowded college town.
- A college student with a truck is always the most popular and in-demand person around, even to complete strangers. I later learned this applies equally well in the recently-married stage of life as friends and family bought new furniture and/or embarked on their first Do-It-Yourself home improvement projects.
- The 5.0L V8 gas engine was a terrible choice. As a young man, I was instantly sold on the idea of a V8 engine and thought the truck would have plenty of power. Instead, I found it to be grossly underpowered and required high RPMs to deliver adequate performance when merging with interstate traffic or passing on two-lane roads. Fuel mileage was also dismal, typically averaging 13-14 MPG. Combined with the 18-gallon gas tank, I passed up very few gas stations.
- Bad weather performance was much poorer than I thought it would be. I mistakenly thought that having four-wheel drive would allow the truck to go anywhere I wanted no matter what the weather conditions were.
- You can and will quickly exceed the comfortable weight carrying capacity of a truck. I learned this very early on when I started making Lowe’s and Home Depot trips for friends and family. Just because you can fit a pallet of bagged concrete in the bed does not mean you should.
A few years after college, several life events occurred over several years that would change how I looked at life and especially how I considered vehicles.
First, I purchased One Second After by William R. Forstchen and immediately proceeded to read it three times in a week. This opened my eyes and plunged me headfirst into the world of prepping.
Second, I had been introduced to diesel-powered equipment and vehicles at work and had developed an appreciation for the performance and fuel efficiency these simple motors could deliver, especially the older mechanical units.
Third, the gas engine reached the end of its life and needed replacing.
Fourth, I had been steadily employed for several years and was financially secure enough to have some disposable savings available for “projects.”
Three Plans, and then Four
Plan A was to purchase a Dodge pickup truck with a Generation One or Two 5.9 Cummins 6BT “12 Valve” engine. The Gen One and Two trucks have what I came to think of us the ultimate prepping engine as the 6BT is an all-mechanical engine, are 500,000-mile service life capable with proper maintenance, and are widely used in Dodge trucks, generator stations and mobile equipment across the world. Generation One trucks were made from 1988 to ’93 using engines with the rotary style VE injector pump. Generation Two trucks were made from 1994 to the middle of ’98 with the more powerful P-Pump fuel injection pump.
1998-1/2 and later trucks with the Generation Three “24 Valve” engine were not considered due to the introduction of computer control to the engines. Also, some engine blocks used for these motors have been reported being prone to cracking due to manufacturing flaws. This is referred to as the “53” block problem.
I was unable to proceed with Plan A due to the lack of rust- and hole-free trucks in my area and was uncomfortable purchasing one sight unseen from eBay Motors. Extended and crew cab options proved to be very rare and commanded a premium, no matter the condition. By this time, I was made aware of the poor reliability reputation that the transmissions used by Dodge in these trucks.
Plan B was to purchase a relatively new used Ford pickup in extended or crew cab form and to either harden the electronics or have spare electronics on hand to replace any parts that could be destroyed by an EMP. Several problems sabotaged this plan, specifically the terrible reputation for reliability and durability that 2002-1/2 and newer Ford trucks with the International-built 6.0L and 6.4L engine quickly developed. This reputation inflated the prices for the more desirable pre-2002-1/2 trucks with the International-built 7.3L. Also, an evaluation of parts that would potentially have to be replaced post-EMP was beyond my mechanical abilities.
Plan C was to purchase a pre-electronic controlled Ford diesel pickup from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. Problems arose with this plan after research showed that these trucks were unpowered compared to Dodges of the same era and had limited aftermarket support for parts and performance. I was also able to test drive one of these trucks with a gasoline engine and discovered that the ride quality was much rough and the turning radius even in single cab/long bed form was much, much larger than my smaller F150.
By this point, I was thoroughly irritated with being unable to locate or afford a suitable factory-produced truck. In a fit of anger, I decided :“Well, if no one makes what I want, I’ll build it myself and figure it out!” Hence, Plan D was formed, to re-power my existing truck with a mechanical diesel engine, to fix its’ shortcomings, and to turn into the best SHTF, Bug Out Truck possible.
I decided to tackle to biggest and most challenging hurdle first, replacing the worn-out gasoline engine with a suitable diesel engine. The Ford/International 7.3L was considered first because of the commonality of parts between the lighter 1/2 ton F150 model and the heavier 3/4 and 1-ton models. This idea was quickly abandoned when I found out the scope of work required to replace the engine wiring harnesses, computer, and supporting equipment. The weight of the engine was also a problem without upgrading the front suspension to 3/4 ton specifications which would have been an incredibly involved modification.
The 5.9 6BT Cummins was then considered since its’ all mechanical design would eliminate the need for transferring wiring harness and computer. This selection turned out to be just as daunting since the Cummins weighs nearly the same as the Ford/International engine. The physical length of the Cummins straight-six design would also have required an extensive rework of the firewall, interior dash, and transmission tunnel.
While researching the 5.9 6BT conversion, I came upon what became the path forward: the four-cylinder Cummins 3.9 4BT engine. This engine is a member of the Cummins B-series engine family and is simply the shortened, four-cylinder version of the larger 6BT. As such there is a large amount of part interchangeability between the two engines. As a four-cylinder, the engine’s length is nearly the same as most V8 gasoline engines and is “lightweight” enough to be supported by lighter-duty 1/2 ton suspensions. Some smaller vehicles such as Jeep Wranglers have been used for these conversions with significant suspension upgrades. Diving further into the project, the 4BT Swaps web site and The Conversion Shop site became huge resources of information and guidance.
When sourcing a used 4BT, it is important to find one that was used in a highway vehicle and not as a generator. Generator units have the throttle set to run at a single RPM and will require new springs being installed in the injection pump. On-highway engines can found in delivery box vans such as those used by UPS, FedEx, and various bread and chip companies. Be sure that engine includes the downpipe coming off of the turbocharger, as this will make connecting the exhaust system much easier. Also include the flywheel and transmission adaptor. It is also very important to know what type of transmission that the engine was originally paired with, as both Ford and Chevy small-block gasoline engine transmissions were used in the delivery vans and use different adaptors.
The engine that I purchased was a Generation One VE-Pump unit rated at 105 horsepower and was pulled from a Frito-Lays van with a Ford transmission and an undetermined number of miles on it. 125,000 miles later, it still pulls hard and uses no oil.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)