advice on purchasing an old beater pickup truck
October 28, 2013 12:28 PM   Subscribe

How is purchasing an old pickup truck different than purchasing a late-model used car?

I've always bought used cars instead of new and had good luck with them. But they've always been late-model, usually single-owner, etc. Easy to carfax and have my mechanic check out before buying.

But now I want to buy an old beater pickup truck & not spend more than ~$3k on it. Blue Book values & even mileage don't make as much sense the older the vehicle is, with replaced parts how do I gauge price? How is this purchase different than what I'm used to?

Please share whatever advice you have, e.g., Toyotas last the longest, manual transmission is better/worse than auto, be sure the mechanic checks X and Y, etc. (If offering specific truck recommendations, I am not looking for extended cab or full-size, just a small one for mulch-schlepping). I am in inland Virginia, so not too worried about salt/rust but will check for that anyway. What else?
posted by headnsouth to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I had a beater pickup truck, one of those indestructible Chevy S-10s. If you have another car, you should get a serious discount on insurance and you might be able to register it as a farm vehicle if you're really going to use it rarely. If you're used to cars you should be aware that they're really light in the back and can be sketchy to drive on ice/snow if you have the 2WD versions. I don't think it's worth going AWD for this, just toss a few 50lb bags of sand/salt in the back. You'll also want to think about whether to get

- bed liner (or spray on version of same) - keep your stuff from getting scratched up possibly
- cap - you can put stuff in the back that won't get rained on
- toolchest or something so you can lock stuff in the back, otherwise without a cap the back is wide open. Carry tarps.

These things hold a decent amount of value as long as you can keep them inspected (in my state). I bought mine for $1000 and sold it five years later for like $400 after it had been in an accident. I still think it's worth looking at KBB/Edmunds for this sort of thing to get an idea on price. Be aware of this weird Toyota buyback just in case you're looking at affected pickups (unlikely). As with a lot of cheaper cars, watch out for cars that may have been flood/storm/whatever damaged and aren't really fully functional. Check to make sure all electrics work and that there's no weird mold/rust in places you're not really expecting it. Even with a cheap vehicle it's worth getting a mechanic to once-over it to make sure things like the Check Engine light haven't been tampered with.

Only other thing worth paying attention to from my vantage point is bucket vs. bench seating. I am a small person and when I had the bench seat pushed far enough forward so that I could reach the pedals, my com[anions were often jammed into the dashboard. Suboptimal.
posted by jessamyn at 1:02 PM on October 28, 2013

I have a 1985 Chevy C20 pickup. I paid $1,800 for it and needed to replace the radiator immediately after purchasing it, which cost about $150 in parts (I did it myself, it's a pretty easy job). I didn't (but probably should have) notice the leaky radiator before I bought it.

I made the decision to buy it based on looking it over and test driving it. Obviously I missed the radiator problem, fortunately it was minor.

This is sort of what you get buying a vehicle like this, though. It's old. Some stuff probably doesn't work, you probably don't want to spend a few hundred dollars on an inspection, and you probably don't care if some minor stuff isn't great. Part of a purchase like this is *not* worrying too much about making the perfect purchase and just being able to say, "well, looks pretty good, I'll take it" and dealing with what comes up from there. If you want rock solid reliability and factory warranties, buy a new car.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 1:23 PM on October 28, 2013

Using your parameters, I would look for the best manual shift Toyota in your price range I could find. I had one that I got 300k on, and I abused the heck out of it. The older Nissans seemed pretty stout, and I had good luck with a Ford Courier as well. But, Toyota would be the one for me if I was in the market.
posted by jcworth at 1:29 PM on October 28, 2013

Like any older vehicle you would considering buying, apart from a general look-over, have your mechanic perform a leak down and/or compression test on the engine as that will tell you a lot about engine condition. I'd also suggest a manual transmission as they tend to last longer than the auto (and are cheaper to replace!), but make sure it shifts smoothly and the clutch engages/disengages cleanly.

In your price range, I'd look at late-80's fuel injected trucks. Toyota's with the 22RE, as others have mentioned, are very reliable trucks and can easily last 300k miles if taken care of, but tend to be pricey. You could probably pick up an older Nissan or Ford for < $2,000 depending on condition, and both last 250k miles. Avoid Dodge and Chevy as they have a boat load of problems and will require constant attention.

Another (even cheaper) suggestion would be to find an older Jeep Comanche... the AMC 4.0L engine in them will go 250k miles and are very easy to repair (ask me how I know - I'm rebuilding one right now!). I've seen them sell for $1,000 in running condition.

Good luck on the search!
posted by mrrisotto at 1:51 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Previously (emphasis on Toyotas, but other makes covered as well):

I'll just add: 1984-1995 Toyota trucks with the 22R (carb) and 22RE (fuel injection) engines are fairly indestructible, but as you cross the ~220k mark you will encounter some issues with head gaskets and timing chain guides failing, so those are things I'd ask about. Not deal breakers, but areas of concerns with older Toyota trucks.
posted by mosk at 2:04 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have always felt that old Toyota trucks are pretty damn indestructible, even when only indifferently maintained. You see them bombing around dirt roads in developing countries all the time, often looking like they should have fallen apart long ago but still going strong after hundreds of thousands of miles. I myself have a '94 4Runner that's due to cross the 200,000 mile mark any day now and it shows no sign of quitting anytime soon. It starts the first time every time, all the little buttons and knobs and guages work as they should, and it drives perfectly. It gets its regularly scheduled maintenance and so far has never given me a single unpleasant surprise. It's got its share of dings and scratches, but that's par for the course with beater trucks.

Highly recommended.
posted by Scientist at 3:08 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I bought a Toyota 4x4 pickup new in 1990 and drove it for over 15 years, much of the time in the sub-arctic and on gravel roads. I saw it in a parking lot a couple of months ago and it looked like hell warmed over but it was obviously still going with over 500k kilometers on it.
The used Toyota 4x4s can be expensive since they're popular for off-road conversions but if you don't need 4x4 a used 2 wheel drive Toyota truck would be a good bet.
Ask when the timing chain and clutch were last replaced.
posted by islander at 3:10 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Marking this resolved, thanks for the comments. I have the advantage of working for a credit union so I have colleagues who know auto sales well. One of them stumbled across a 1995 Ford Ranger that has fewer miles than my car. Had a mechanic check it out, did a respectable job negotiating, and now just need to DIY a big xmas bow for it.
posted by headnsouth at 7:10 PM on November 28, 2013

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