Lessons Learned from My First Bug Out Truck – Part 1, by H.J.

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.

Engine Replacement

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.)




26 Comments

  1. Love your article! One Second After was the book that really woke me up also.
    We have been talking about getting an ‘emp proof’ vehicle, so can’t wait to show your article to my husband and can’t wait to read part two!

  2. H.J., I have been researching online for a used truck. Your story is extremely helpful and timely for me, as I don’t know anything about truck engines. I am excited to read the rest of your story, and bummed I have to wait!
    Blessings to you and yours, Krissy

  3. I love trucks! In 2001, my husband inherited his dad’s 1992 Chevy Silverado 4×4. It has an extended cab, towing package with air brakes and a full size bed that easily carries 1200 pds while towing a trailer. Both FIL and DH are gone now, but I still have the truck; it is sentimental to me. I keep it well maintained, my mechanic babies it for me and I’ve had it painted and detailed once over the years. It is a work horse; I’m attached to it; when it dies I will probably make hillbilly art of it.

  4. I still have the 95 F 150 that I bought new. It’s not road worthy any longer bit it still serves as our plow truck and yard/woods truck.
    No major repairs at 180K. Got my moneys worth on it for sure.

  5. This is interesting with alot of detail and data which most folks will need. Alas, I’m too old and not enough $ available to do anything like this.

    But the approach you have taken in terms of research and detail could be applied to any issue.

    I am looking forward to our next section.

    God Bless and take care!

  6. Why did you buy a Fix-Or-Repair-Daily vehicle? The old 302 V-8s were just O.K., while the 351 Cleveland/Windsor engines were superior, to the point where they put them in the 8,000 pound Winnebagos. However, the 351s were overtorqued with the auto transmissions and would chew them up in 115 – 125,000 miles (as per my experience and a discussion with a Ford engineer).

    1. I thought about a Chevy but couldn’t find one that didn’t have the hood stuck in the open position (joking).

      The 351 Cleveland went out of US production in the mid ‘70s and were designed for higher RPM due to the canted and enlarged valves. Sorta Ford’s version of a half baked Hemi. Not ideal for a low RPM, high torque application such as a truck but a lot of fun in a lighter Mustang. The 351 Windsor is basically a taller 302 but in a EFI application requires a different computer.

      The Frito/UPS/bread delivery truck/vans were originally built w/ Ford 302 or
      351W engines, 350 Chevy engines were also used. They were later replaced w/ the Cummins 4BT due to engine failures, dismal fuel mileage, and poor performance. This is why Cummins made the bell housing adaptor to fit a Ford or Chevy small block transmission.

      1. Had a 351 in my ’90 Crown Vic Police Interceptor. Fastest thing on the road — except for a BMW 315i — and blew away all others, including Corvettes. Only problem was the hybrid carb/fuel injector Ford in their lack of wisdom lut on those cars to boost performance.

  7. Interesting article. being in my mid 70’s, I don’t really care to get into the mechanics anymore, but still wanted a diesel powered vehicle. I had looked into the 3.9 cummins , but jobs wise didn’t work out. then, about two yrs, I purchased a 2018 chevy colorado with the 4 cyl dura max. crew cab, 4×4, long box ( at least what they call a long box ). I like it. And if things do go south, I’ll just have to make do, one way or another. Mileage runs about 10 mpg better than my 4.7 L dodge dakota, city and highway. My 4.7L dakota would only get in the mid teens in town and high teens on the highway. A quite a few people have told me that I’m wasting my money by having a diesel, that it needs a job and my answer is ” it does have a job, hauling my fat rear end around ” and yes I have been doing a quite a bit of towing with it. Pulling a loaded 6×12 dump trailer, I’m getting in the mid to high teens at 60 to 65 mph.And yes I’m happy with it.

  8. Excuse me, if I’m making this comment too soon. … A lot of working contractors have a trailer for hauling the heavy loads. The cost of a trailer is less than a transmission replacement or repair. (+other things needing fixin’ like springs and shocks too). … [The truck doesn’t rock along down the road either.]
    ……. Some contractors don’t want to be inconvenienced with a ~work trailer attached to their work truck. ……… [Skipping Church on Sundays, and hauling a trailer with a big boat on it, down to the lake, is another kettle of fish.]
    …….. The adjustable air shocks on a lot of trucks are for hauling the trailer & boat down to the lake.

    1. At the time (college student) I didn’t have the funds to buy a truck and trailer or a secure place to park it in a college town. It would have also been a challenge to get into some of the apartment parking lots. Having moved past the college stage of life, a trailer would be a very practical option.

  9. Old Pick up trucks are great. I drive an 89 Chevy Cheyenne (4wd,4.3 V6 and 5 speed) Paid 1100.00 for it 3 years ago, other than routine maintenance it has been reliable. Mileage is mid teens and it hauls 1000 lbs fairly easily. When SHTF parts will be easy to find and it’s not hard to work on. EMP may or may not be an issue, but I have an aircooled points/carburetor street legal buggy as a back up. If you are not mechanically inclined, you probably need something newer or have someone in your close circle who can make repairs. I’ve thought about diesels, but I’ve been working on gas motors for 40 years and the benefits of a diesel do not outweigh the learning curve for me. I only drive a few thousand miles a year at most.

  10. Hi H.J, excellent article.

    I don’t have a single useful comment to make but thanks for the stroll down memory lane this morning with my coffee. People who buy new vehicles miss out on all the great stories those of us who consider a 100K vehicle new have to tell. My first vehicle was a 60’s vintage F-100 which my dad bought new and handed it off to me after it had 123K miles on the odometer. We had a great bonding experience while we spent two months rebuilding the engine together. It was a straight-six 240, three on the tree. The seat was also a straight six, and held 6 of us in a row while sharing the three seat belts. That old pickup, no 4WD, went anywhere I ever asked it to go. One steep washed-out forest service dirt road I traveled a lot up into the mountains had a sign at the beginning “4WD Only” which I laughed at every time I drove past it. Once at the 10-mile point on that road, I found a couple who had been stranded there for two days with a dead battery. We found an old fence the forest service had torn out, all except the three corner posts and their twisted barbed wire reinforcements. I cut two out with a pair of vice grips, and using gloves to hold them, made jumper cables and got them underway.

    When you popped the hood on my old truck, there were only about 10 wires under there, one of those wonderful old things they used to call a carburetor, and the non-electric fuel pump was right there on the side of the block and took 15 minutes to change out, not three hours like today. I could fix most things and get her running again just with the tools in the toolbox I carried. In college, I couldn’t afford a new starter once but I could push start that baby all by myself in an almost-flat parking lot. I just had to be careful where and how I parked.

    Driving home in a blizzard one night, the engine stopped dead. I was right at an exit so I coasted up the ramp, over the railroad tracks with just enough momentum to coast down the other side into a gas station. When I got out and saw the track of oil in the snow, I knew it was all over. The engine had thrown a rod and I knew I’d never be able to get it fixed since we were short on funds and needed to upgrade to a minivan. I cried like a baby while caressing the seat and patting the dashboard as I waited for the tow truck and get emotional now just thinking about that wonderful old truck.

    Boy what I’d give to have that old pickup again. Thanks again for the trip down memory lane. 🙂

  11. Good article. I enjoyed the detail you provided.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that any well maintained vehicle that shows up in consumer reports as a highly reliable car or truck qualifies as a good starting point for a bugout vehicle. Obviously trucks and SUVs with towing and off road capability are preferable but I’ve seen FWD cars do some pretty remarkable things in bad conditions.

    I had a 1996 F-250 4WD with the 7.5 L V8 and in mint condition. I agree it rode like a brick when it was unloaded. Also had a restored 1978 Ford F-250 with a 351M and there isn’t a day I don’t miss that truck.

    On diesel – I work in the fueling industry and am responsible for fixing gas station equipment for hundreds of stations across the midwest. Diesel fuel isn’t what it used to be. After seeing some of the problems associated with storage and biological contamination I am not so sure I want a diesel truck for preparedness purposes as much as I used to.

    I like your approach of building your own. I have driven many newer “trucks” and while sturdier than a typical passenger vehicle, they are grossly overpriced in my opinion. I prefer our older F-150s which we bought for very low prices and keep well maintained.

  12. Noticed H.J. made the comment to install a Cummins 4BT as a replacement engine. My beef over the years (30) has been no manufacture produced a medium size vehicle with a four or six cylinder mechanical diesel inline engine. There are several now for sure but the cost is prohibitive for the average middle class working guy and they are computer controlled. In my view the modern diesels being computer controlled are now no more reliable than gasoline engines. Over the years I have completed four diesel conversions into light trucks. They were all used for commuting and light trailer pulling. It was a good option for me but a word of caution. Spend a lot of time planning the process and take great care in selecting the type of vehicle and engine to make sure both are capable of delivering what you are looking for. Any miscalculations can be costly and in some cases make it a lost cause. I have seen several conversions that never were completed effectively ruining the vehicle etc. The other factors to consider are the engine must be turbocharged and the transmission must be equipped with an overdrive gear due to lower diesel engine rpm. It also helps to be able to fabricate the steel parts such as accessory mounting brackets and engine mounts. Also plan to use all the original accessories from your vehicle if at all possible. It just really simplifies wiring and plumbing issues. But take your time and have fun.

  13. Ford has been doing F-150’s for decades so they know what they are doing. Thats what I like about them. they arent starting from ground zero and trying to figure it out.. I have a 2010 F-150 4×4 with the optional 36 gallon gas tank AND a posi rear end, much to my surprise.I can go 600 miles on a tank if I dont drive it like a hotrod. it has 140K miles on the 4.6L and it still puurrs like a kitten. I just make sure I keep the oil changed regularly and the fluids topped off.. regular maintenance is key to keep these rigs reliable and on the road..

  14. Man, it’s great to read about pickups and their utility. I have owned two trucks over a span of 35 years-(wow its been that long).
    Anyway my current unit was bought in 2002 and it is just a most useful vehicle. Not on issue with it and it’s never let me down.

  15. I learned to drive stick on Hiluxes and L200s overseas. It’s a pity we can’t import them easily…after seeing those trucks shrug off everything Iraqi and Afghan drivers put them through, I’d love to have one in the garage.

  16. I have a 1993 Dodge F350 extended cab with Cummins Diesel and Getrag 5 speed trans. 2nd trans. just went out at 256k. I hope to convert to a later model New Dimensions 6 Spd. Anyone know if this is possible or if its ridiculous to try because of electronics in the Tranny? Dodge truck bodies are junk and the front ends aren’t much better. I’ve rebuilt the front suspension twice and welded and gusseted the frame at the rt. front wheel area where it cracked. I really like the leg room and cab size so don’t plan to get rid of this truck until it just plain dies.

  17. Enjoyed your article-very pleased someone hit the nail on the head so to speak-I got really tired of reading articles on BOV’s which included later model computer controlled efi 4wd vehicles- Jeeps, 4Runners even Subarus have been discussed. We took the plunge a couple years ago and put a ’94 12valve and the matching 5speed in my ’78 F250 4wd. Very pleased with the way it turned out. Another consideration for me (I also have a ’77 non computer anything F250 4wd gas truck which I have a spare distributor and duraspark module in a Fcage), was the fact I have a 500 gallon diesel tank on the place for my tractors. Much easier to store diesel than gasoline. Looking forward to part 2.

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