Monday, April 05, 2010

The Double Truck Shuffle

So, we're moved up to Idaho (again I say, long post about that forthcoming. The pneumonia has kept me from getting the pics I want to accompany the post); and among the MANY other changes, projects, acquisitions, and everything else we're going to be doing over the next... Oh two or three years let's say... I promised my wife we'd build her a truck when we got up here.

The Truck of Doom (Diesel Edition), is an awesome truck, and an incredible tow/haul vehicle. It's also 21 feet long (not including the hitch stinger), 8 feet wide to the mirrors, and over 7 feet tall (now that it's got 35" tires on).

Frankly, it just doesn't fit some places; and she's terrified of trying to park it in tight spaces. She absolutely will not even attempt to parallel park the damn thing at all (really, it's not THAT hard. It's got good mirrors, and a decent turning radius).

All that said, 4x4 is definitely a necessity up here (three months of the year, my car is going to live in the garage and not come out... because it won't be able to get out of our driveway, never mind be able to deal with the roads); and she still wants a truck, both as a fun vehicle, and for the school run/grocery getter.

This is complicated by the fact that the nearby town, is one of those stupid "walking cities" that deliberately make driving and parking in town difficult; with one ways and traffic diversions through the whole damn town.

During summer tourist season the town and the parking are damn near impossible, and a bigass pickup truck just aint gonna do it; but anything short of a big 4 wheel drive station wagon isn't going to cut it for our practical need either. If we're going to do that, we might as well get a small SUV, for the extra off road capability, toughness, and cargo capacity (especially tow capacity).

Then there's the fact that I'm planning on seriously kitting out the Dodge over the next couple years (I'm keeping the thing til it dies, or 'til I do; whichever happens first. I'm going to make it into exactly what I want); and she wants a vehicle of her own, done HER way.

Finally, there's an additional complication that pushes this purchase up the line so to speak:

We seem to have fried the tranny in our truck.

It's not 100% dead, yet, but it's on its way rapidly. The thing is slipping badly, and flapping gears in certain RPM and load ranges. It needs a full rebuild or replacement very soon (along with the torque converter).

This wasn't particularly unexpected. With a Chrysler automatic, it's generally a question of WHEN it's going to die, not if. I was hoping to get another 20k miles out of it, but I wasn't surprised it died at 60k, given the heavy towing we were doing.

It IS happening at an inconvenient time, but that's life.

I really don't feel like paying somebody $3k to swap out with just a rebuilt stock tranny (that was the LOWEST quote by the way); which is just going to lunch itself in another 60,000-80,000 miles (thats about average for this tranny when you're doing a lot of heavy towing, or offroading, or anything particularly strenuous).

So we're looking into replacing the stock trans with a super heavy duty manual (a tow truck tranny), or a highly upgraded super heavy duty automatic from one of the various specialty tranny makers/rebuilders.

ATS and B&M are both selling upgraded versions of the stock auto. I can't find any source for third party manuals, but there are enough junked Cummins medium duty trucks out there (I found four under $2500 within 100 miles of me, in 5 minutes of searching) I shouldn't have a problem finding a manual if I want to go that way.

The real problem there is the cost and complexity of a conversion. It would really be best just to find a junked 2500 of similar vintage, and strip the clutch, pedal assembly, tranny, brackets, lines etc.. out of it; otherwise you're talking about more than $6k in parts easy.

A lot easier, is to just replace the standard TorqueFlite 48RE-HD; with either a super heavy duty upgraded model (from ATS or B&M or others), or possibly dropping in the next model years heavy duty six speed 68rfe (ATS builds a version of that tranny for the same price as the 48RE).

Just for comparison, the stock 48RE trans is rated for 400hp and 650ftlbs of torque (the 68rfe is rated a bit higher, for 450hp and 750ftlbs max) with a 13,700lb max towing capacity; the ATS is rated for 750hp and 2000ftlbs, with a 20,000lbs max tow.

With the ATS trans, clutches, valvebody, pump, I/O shafts, torque converter, trans/TC controller, and exhaust brake (you can buy the whole thing as a package for about $5.5k); you've got most of the advantages of a manual right there; including the ability to force manual shift and hold on every gear, and to lock and unlock the torque converter either manually, or at preprogrammed points.

That, and it'll be cheaper over all; less work, and less modification to the truck. I'd really prefer a manual, but the hassle of it... Plus, I'm partially disabled, and I'm not likely to get much better; sticking with the auto might be the better choice given my knees.

At any rate, whatever we decide to do I'm going to do the work (I've done tranny swaps before, though not on a Cummins, and it's going to save me at least a grand, maybe two), and buy the parts myself.

It's going to be several months before we can do it; and in the mean time, we need to have a usable vehicle, big enoguh for us, the kids, the dogs, and costco runs, and with at least some towing and hauling capability; on the road. Say enough to haul a small utility trailer, a couple of quads, a small boat etc...

So, the question then becomes, "what to buy as a project truck"?

That really comes down to a question of, what does she like, what do we want, and what do we need.

The desired properties are fairly simple, though unfortunately, not particularly easy to find all in one platform:

  1. Smaller and more maneuverable than our big truck, but still big enough for us, kids, dogs, stuff etc...

  2. REAL 4x4 is an absolute must, with serious upgradability. Part time or full time are both OK, but if full time, it must still have a multirange transfer case and properly locking hubs; and locking diffs must be available for it

  3. Must be available, in decent condition, at low cost (say under $2500 for a base vehicle, under $4k for one in great shape with a bunch of extras), with EXCELLENT parts availability at a reasonable price.

  4. The availability, or easy retrofit, of a manual transmission, is a BIG plus

  5. The availability, or easy retrofit, of a diesel engine, is a plus

  6. General upgradeability; especially serious power, reliability, suspension, and driveline upgradeability.

  7. The ability to put in a nice, but TOUGH (kidproof, dogproof, weather proof) interior, at a relatively reasonable cost

  8. The ability to lose the top in back is a small plus

  9. There should be no "fatal flaws" in the vehicle that can't be easily corrected (i.e. bad suspension that's hard to replace, bad driveline, body rusts away to nothing etc..).

  10. The thing has to be FUN

To meet all these requirements, we looked at a lot of different possibilities:
  1. 1st through 3rd generation Chevy Blazer/GMC Jimmy

  2. 1st and 2nd generation Dodge Ramcharger

  3. 2nd through 5th generation Ford Bronco

  4. 1st gen Ford Explorer

  5. Jeep SJ (Wagoneer)

  6. Jeep XJ (Cherokee)

  7. Jeep ZJ and WJ (grand cherokee)

  8. 2nd or 3rd generation Toyota 4runner

  9. 60 series or 80 series Toyota Land Cruiser

  10. 1st or 2nd generation Range Rover
As I said, NONE of these vehicles meets all the criteria above. As far as I know, NO vehicle does; but this is the list we thought met the most possible of the desired properties.

There were a number of others that we thought about, but dismissed for various reasons. Jeep CJ/YJ/TJ (excluding unlimiteds which are too new, or CJ8s which are impossible to find in decent shape) etc... are a bit too small; as is the first gen Bronco, the International scout, and the FJ40 land cruiser.

The majority of the "other brand" SUVs out there don't meet enough of the criteria above, or are just too crappy (Suzuki Samurai make great buggies when tricked out, but are still crap on the road for example, and are too small etc...).

Right away, we excluded the ramcharger based on it's problematic 4 wheel drive system, and transmissions; and the near impossibility of finding a good one in decent shape in this region.

The 1st gen Explorer has similar driveline issues; with crap auto trannies, decent manuals with crap clutches, and hubs that shred themselves. They are seriously upgradable, but they also generally suffer from having been long term mommy mobiles, then passed on as beaters. And honestly, the explorer just has no soul.

The 1st gen 4runner is a BIT too crappy. It's a solid pickup truck design (you just can't kill the damn things), but the engines and transmissions are weak, and not particularly upgradeable. There ARE good swaps available for it, but probably not worth it. The second gen is a bit better, but both have the problem of availability, and of parts availability at a reasonable price.

The Land Rover suffers from availability, and parts availability issues; otherwise it'd be at or near the top of the list. The land cruiser only slightly less so. It's not that there aren't lots of parts available for both; it's just that they are all special order parts, and EXPENSIVE.

The third gen on fullsize Broncos are great trucks, but they have major front suspension issues (the wife hates the look of the second gen. She loves the first gen, but they're too small). If we were going to run one, we'd have to swap out the TTB front suspension for a true solid axle. It's still a possibility, especially given the engine, tranny, transfer case, and axle options available to the machine; and that you could still get a removable hard top all the way until '96... but lets just say it's moved off the "short list".

That brings us down to the K5 Blazer/Jimmy, or some kind of midsize Jeep SUV.

The jeeps have the mixed advantage/disadvantage of being smaller. They're certainly more nimble and better on the trails; but they also don't have nearly as much room.

All of them have a lot of engine options; though obviously the K5, being a GM pickup truck based vehicle, has basically infinite options, including several diesels.

The XJ doesn't have an easy v8 or diesel option (actually, it has two diesel options, but neither are particularly good), but it does have a very good inline six that's highly upgradeable (including a factory 4.7l crate motor, and an available supercharger kit). The SJ, ZJ, and WJ all have V8 options.

The SJ, XJ, and K5 can all be had with a decent manual tranny, good axles, and good transfer cases; never mind every axle and transfer case manufacturer EVER makes a model either explicitly for, or that will swap in to, all three.

The ZJ and WJ don't have a manual tranny option, and have far more limited axle and transfer case options, without some SERIOUS fab work. It can be done, but it's probably not worth it.

Parts availability? Well, SJ parts are getting a little harder to come by, and there weren't ever as many parts for WJ/ZJs; but the XJ and K5 have basically infinite parts available, OEM and aftermarket. Hell, you can actually build an entire XJ or K5 minus frame, straight from newly available catalog parts from LMC and the like.

It's getting hard to find a good condition SJ for reasonable money. They're out there, but it takes some looking. On the other hand, there are right now, over 100 K5s for sale within 150 miles of me, and over 200 XJs.

So what we've come down to really, is trying to decide between an XJ and a K5; though the SJ is still in the running (my wife and I both love the old Wagoneer look; and they're great to work on, with real old truck construction, and a decent aftermarket), if we can find the right one.

The XJ is more upgradeable as an offroader, and is smaller and more maneuverable for in town stuff. The only real offroad limitation on it, is the tires. It requires a lift and flares just for 32s.

The K5 has more room, is cheaper, is easier to work on (that whole "more room" thing again), the parts are cheaper (it's a GM pickup based vehicle), we can get a diesel for it, and there are more options (though honestly, both have so many options that's really a wash). Oh and if you get one of the 3/4ton rated models (the civvy diesel, or the CUCV), you can put 35s on it with no lift (it will need flares though); or 32s with the stock half ton rating and no flares.

Complicating the decision, is the number of really nice XJs available around here for under $4k, including some already built or partially rigs.

Complicating the decision further, is the availability of a couple of diesel K5s; including an m1009 CUCV (ex military), with a turbo upgrade and newly rebuilt motor and tranny, for just $2250.

Mel likes them both. I like them both. Their advantages and disadvantages pretty much balance each other out.

We're slightly leaning towards the Cherokee, because of the manual transmission (I've found a half dozen in easy distance. I haven't found a single manual K5), and because it's a bit easier to deal with in town.

Basically, it comes down to finding the right truck, at the right time, for the right price.

We're flying down to Arizona in a couple days for JohnOCs wedding; and driving home with the kids and the car. When we get back, we're going to start looking in earnest, so we can take the truck off the road as soon as possible.