What can I look at to check the quality of a cheap old truck?
January 21, 2011 11:04 AM   Subscribe

What to look for when buying an older truck?

I'm in the market for an older pickup truck. It'll likely be a Ford F250, 1990 - 1996 or so. I previously owned an '84 F150 that couldn't keep a charge and stalled at red lights, so this isn't entirely new to me.

I'm not looking for an everyday driver, so the trucks at my price point (sub 3K) will almost certainly have some issues. What can I do in a quick inspection to know which issues are likely to be significant? For the most part it's unlikely I'll be able to take them to a mechanic prior to purchase, this will be a cash-in-hand craigslist transaction.

What kinds of things can I check out quickly to give an overall indication of health, or an indication that a truck might need money right away? I'm quite handy, but have little automotive experience.

(As a bonus question, any pros or cons to diesel vs. gas for trucks in this era? There seem to be a few of both around.)
posted by true to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My best advice for this sort of thing is to make sure that when you go to test drive the truck it's cold. Cars exhibit a lot more problems when you first start them up in the morning than they do after they've had time to warm up (except for problems with overheating). For instance, leaky head gaskets often manifest themselves as blue smoke in the exhaust, but often you can only see a puff of it right after starting the car, when the coolant in the cylinders burns off. After that, there may not be enough to notice if the leak is slow (fun fact, a leaky cylinder head will eventually lead to overheating, too. Usually sooner rather than later).

If you start it when it's cold, you'll also be able to verify that it starts OK. If you get there and the trucks already warmed up to operating temperature, I'd be skeptical that the owner's trying to hide a problem with it.

Generally these ford trucks are pretty reliable and pretty easy to fix, but a lot of potential problems are hard to diagnose until they become real problems.

Listen for any strange sounds coming from under the hood. Look for anything that leaks. Make sure the voltage looks OK if there's such a gauge, to verify the alternator's working. Make sure you try the turn signals, air conditioning, parking brake, etc while you test drive it.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:13 AM on January 21, 2011

Speaking from experience: depending on where it's been stored, does it have mice (or other creatures) inside? Check the heater, the vents, under the hood and inside the tailpipe, for starters.
posted by Madamina at 11:19 AM on January 21, 2011

The biggest trouble I had with my older truck which was also not an everyday driver was being able to keep it legal. We have inspection in VT and there were small problems [a dent that went in too far over the tire, emissions] that meant that getting it inspected [and driving 20 miles to get inspected] was a headache yearly and eventually not worth it. So you'll need to figure out what those things are where you are located. [i.e how much of a winshield crack disqualifies you, that sort of thing.]

So for me in VT the things to look for were rust, ALL lights working, someone who has maintenance records [or at least has gotten oil changes and that sort of "I am taking care of this vehicle" stuff], tires with tread that are okay [again points to maintenance], and driveability without mystery noises, shimmies, stalling etc. If you can, crawl underneath it to look and see if there have been repairs that seem half-assed or underbody rust that you wouldn't have seen. The cab shouldn't smell like exhaust or gasoline. All the dash lights and fan and heat should work. Drive it for long enough that you can make sure the heat works. Shift into all the gears. Use the emergency brake. Check under floormats for vicious rust and/or holes.
posted by jessamyn at 11:21 AM on January 21, 2011

Best answer: Fuel injection was standard in 1986 on, so you won't have to worry about that.
I would tend toward an automatic transmission, rather than a manual one.
Know the blue book price for the age, mileage, condition and options on the vehicle.

Look at several vehicles before you get serious about buying one. It'll help you with
the problem domain.

Why do you need to check it quickly? Some symptoms of expensive problems will require
that you jack it up to check it, or at least get under it, so save that stuff for last if
everything else is going great.

Bring a big sheet of cardboard to lie on, if you're going to get under it.
Bring a headlamp or flashlight.

Check the steering gear (ball joints and such) for looseness. You will have to jack up
and properly brace the vehicle to do this (need a big wrench, too).

While it's jacked up, check for chronic deposits of oil, leaking from various orifices and
seals. Look for fresh oil, as opposed to old oil. Look for signs of leakage where the
vehicle is parked. Look for dirt adhesion to the frame that has been facilitated by
sprayed oil.

Check the automatic transmission for signs of fluid leakage.

Meditate underneath the vehicle for a while, looking for signs of impact and bending
and rusting.

Check the wheels for side-play or looseness in the bearings. It shouldn't go clunk-clunk
when you press and pull the tires in a direction parallel to the axle (when the wheel is
off the ground).

Gaze upon the exhaust system, check for leaks and rusting.

Slide your hand over the tires, across the tread, first in one direction, then in the other.
If the tread edges catch your hand in one direction and not the other, you might
have an alignment problem. Check the tires for even wear.

Bring a voltmeter, and check the battery voltage when it is running. It should be above
14 volts, otherwise you might have an alternator/regulator/battery problem of some sort.

Check the date code on the battery. Look for bulges and deformations in the plastic case.

Check its ODBII codes with a cheap code scanner. Bring a reference so you can interpret
them on the spot.

Check all its fluids. Smell the oil dipstick (carefully) after you drive it.

Take it for a test drive. Keep in mind the things that the ODB scanner told you. Feel for
"hard shifting" (compensation for transmission failures). Watch the instruments a little,
especially the engine temperature (if it has a gauge), which should not vary much. Wide
ranges in engine temperature when driving are an indication of some kind of cooling
problem. Keep an eye on the odometer long enough to see that it is operating. Drive
it over a few speed bumps, and see how it rolls.

And do remember to apologize for being so detailed in your inspection.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:49 AM on January 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Check the body - in Ontario, at least, a vehicle will fail inspection if there are holes in the cab. Trouble spots are usually cab corners and rockers as well as floorboards.

Eyeball the truck from the outside - do the body lines match up? Misaligned body panels can indicate frame damage due to extreme use. Take a look at the truck from the back to see if the box looks twisted compared to the cab.
posted by davey_darling at 12:32 PM on January 21, 2011

Check the VIN on Carfax. That can often reveal serious problems and give an idea of how the truck was used.
posted by The Lamplighter at 2:09 PM on January 21, 2011

Smell the oil dipstick (carefully) after you drive it.

What are you looking for when you smell the dipstick?
posted by SpecialK at 8:02 PM on January 21, 2011

Best answer: Be aware that the 300 cubic inch six cylinder doesn't get any better gas mileage than the 302 V8; surprised me. And, depending upon how the truck is geared, that big six can really be gutless out on the road -- it's a great motor, Ford has been making it for about seventeen thousand years, tons of torque when in a work truck but when geared to get out at highway speeds, they had to make compromise somewhere; you can roll all day @ 80mph but it's a dog in the hills. A real pig. Suck.

That said, it's been dependable as hell, I've put 130k in about 13 years on top of the 60k it had when I bought it, put a couple of clutches behind it, a couple of starters I think, an alternator, a battery or two (killed one visiting in Arizona, the heat just KILLS stuff; I'm in Texas, you'd think it'd be the same, but you'd be wrong). All that minor jive but never been into the motor at all, had an oil leak on the valve cover but that's it. Really impressive.

You ought to be able to get 250k out of that vintage Ford, easy. Minor stuff will break, same as any older vehicle -- window motors, dash lights, blah blah blah. But it's a decent truck you're looking to buy; they rock.

btw, the stick is NOT the same as a stick in an older truck, the ones with the granny gear, first and reverse geared real low -- these things are hydraulic clutches, you're nowhere near as in touch with your truck if you're out stomping around in the mud or whatever; all my prior trucks *did* have what I call *real* transmissions, you could drive them not just with your hands but your feet, too, you were right in touch with the whole of the drivetrain. No more. Again -- suck. Still better than an automatic (imo) but not as good as those older transmissions, which totally rock, and which I miss the shit out of.

Was it me, I'd stay away from diesel but mostly because I don't know them, I'd have to learn them to be able to trouble-shoot them, damn sure to work on them. I'd guess they'd cost you more to get motor repairs by your local wrench but I can't really say.

Again, it's a good truck you're looking at -- have fun.
posted by dancestoblue at 8:56 PM on January 21, 2011

I sniff the dipstick because it's inscrutable and mysterious, and because I like to smell things.

It also allows you to check for gasoline in the oil, which is never a good or harmless thing.
It could be an indication of worn piston rings, a bad injector, bad fuel pressure regulation,
or some other thing that is also bad.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:20 AM on January 22, 2011

Response by poster: Resolution (part 1): We bought a '96 F250 4x4 with the 460 V8. We used lots of the above advice and we went with our gut for the things we couldn't know. We're in Chicago, and generally every truck more than 4 years old is beat to hell - rusted, dented, etc. This one was nice, with only minimal and typical wheel well rust.

I don't think it had ever been used as a scrapper truck, and someone clearly cared about it quite a bit. Drove it 140 miles on the first day, no apparent fluid leaks and it shifts well. No overheating yet. 4x4 works well (must have up here, if for nothing else than getting in the garage when the alley is iced up). It's got a lot of miles, but both the transmission and motor have been replaced in the past - transmission recently, motor maybe ~100K ago.

Steering is a bit looser than I like, and the side gas tank isn't installed since the switch isn't working. One bolt missing in the lift gate. We're going to take it in to have it checked out in the next week, so I'll see exactly how much else is wrong with it.
posted by true at 12:48 PM on January 29, 2011

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