Ask just about anyone who knows me well (especially my wife) and they will readily tell you that I have a problem when it comes to buying cars. Since I purchased my first car in 2015, I’ve had quite the list, so I figured I’d take some time and talk a little about them.
This was my first car, a 1992 Ford Explorer that I bought for $1800. It ran and drove great, and served me great for my first year and a half of college, and the first year of my marriage. It took me everywhere I wanted to go, even when I abused it. It was followed by a 1999 Ford F-150 that I got for $3500. I had needed a truck often enough that I decided to buy one instead of having to rent a Uhaul pickup, so I got that one. I couldn’t find any pictures of it, weirdly, so I’ll have to look into that. It ran and drove great for the first 4 days I owned it, then it threw a rod and needed a whole engine replacement. After that, it was basically flawless. I purchased it and got it fixed about 4 months before I got married, so the third car was actually our first purchased as a couple. It was a 1994 Toyota Camry, which was a cheap, but very functional car. We got it for $1200, and it never failed us.
We had all three of those cars for a while, and they worked great. However, as I was preparing to join the Air Force, it was very apparent that we needed to consolidate our vehicles. After basic, I would be going to Monterey, California for tech school, and the timing of that meant that Rachel would be driving around 1000 miles in the winter with a 4 month old baby. Of the 3 cars we owned, the only one that I felt would be reliable enough to make that trip would be the F-150, but there was a hangup with that. Rachel has never been fond of driving full-size pickups, which would be an issue over 1000 miles.
The solution that we came up with was to sell all 3, and consolidate into one new vehicle, with a warranty, for her to get to California with. So, we got a 2017 Ford Focus. The Focus was nice enough, and it served its purpose in getting my family to California safely. But, once I was allowed to move off base, I needed something for myself. So, enter my 1996 Ford F-250.
The F-250 was fantastic. Ran like a top, drove great, and best of all, it had the 460 big block, so it had power for days. I loved driving it, despite the fuel economy being abysmal. I still had some residual trauma from the F-150, I later found out, as when it developed some valve knock due to low oil level, I quickly traded it, hoping to not have to deal with another blown up engine.
The next rig I got was the first that I actually started working on myself. I had discovered the idea of overlanding, and wanted to get a vehicle that would work for that, but could also take the family. At that point, there was only 3 of us, but a car seat doesn’t do well in the backseat of an extended cab, and I really didn’t want to modify the F-250, because I wanted it to maintain it’s ability to tow. This was also the first vehicle that I researched, and bought after looking for a specific make/model. I knew I wanted a Toyota, due to their heralded reliability, and at the time 4Runners were a perfect mix of budget friendly and off-road capable. I didn’t have money for anything newer than a 3rd gen, and to be honest, I don’t like hatchbacks, so that narrowed it to either a 1st or 2nd gen. While I love the 1st gens as a concept, it needed to be a family vehicle for more than just sunny days, and driving the F-250 and highlighted the need for rear doors when it comes to car seats, so that was out. So, 2nd gen it was.
I found my 1994 4Runner for $600. I knew going in that it would need a lot of work, and initially I intended to do the majority of it myself. Right off the bat, it needed a water pump, which the local shop was going to charge $1200 to do. Considering that parts, including a timing belt (which wasn’t necessary, but you might as well replace since it has to come off to replace the water pump) was a little more than $80, I figured I’d do it myself. It should be noted, that while it’s a fairly involved repair, it’s straight forward, and a competent mechanic should be able to do it in 6 hours. I did it in 3 weekends flat.
Once the water pump was on, I was able to start driving it to work, and that was probably one of the most satisfying things I’d done up to that point. To have taken a vehicle that would overheat in the time it took to get it on and off a Uhaul trailer to being a running, daily drive-able vehicle completely by myself was exhilarating. A few months of driving, and it became apparent that despite my efforts, the engine was on its last legs, however. So, I went on the hunt for a new engine, and a place to install it. Because we were in Monterey, getting even a remanufactured engine installed was looking to be around $10000 to get the work done, and because it was something that I was both ill-equipped and inexperienced in doing the work, it was something I needed done professionally.
After much time, research, and frustration (which also meant I had saved up a decent amount of money) I discovered that I could ship the 4Runner to ToyOnlySwaps in Oregon, and they would swap the gutless 3.0 liter V6 in my 4Runner for a 3.4 liter V6 out of a 3rd gen, for a little cheaper than what I could get a stock motor done for. That was easily the better choice, in my mind, so that’s what we did. It ended up being worth every penny, as the power and fuel economy increases were huge.
The next rig we got was what we traded the F-250 for, which was a 1993 Jeep Wrangler YJ. This was the first Jeep I’d ever owned, and the first Wrangler style Jeep I’d driven. It definitely ignited my love for Jeeps as a whole. It was a 5 speed manual, with the 4.0 liter inline 6 engine. The previous owner had lifted it about 4 inches, put 33×12.50 r15s on it, and swapped 4.10 gears into the axles. The front bumper, front fenders, and rear bumper were put on by him as well, and he had cut the rear quarter panels to accommodate 35 inch tires eventually. As my first modified 4×4, as well, it was an adventure for me.
As soon as I got the top off, I was hooked. The tires needed replacing, so I swapped them out for some mud terrains, as opposed to the all terrains I had on it, and had a lot of fun with it. I was so in love with it, that I ended up selling the 4Runner, anticipating using it as my expedition vehicle. Reality soon set in, as I realized that a 2 door Jeep wasn’t really useful for a family of 3, especially for the longer excursions I want to go on, so I bought yet another vehicle.
This time, I had a bit of a better budget for a vehicle purchase, so I was able to get a Land Cruiser. I hadn’t researched quite as well this time around, as if I had, I would have not jumped on this one necessarily. It was 1991 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ80, and while the 80 series is fantastically off road capable, and highly reliable, the FJ80 (as opposed to the FZJ80) is underpowered. I loved driving this car, and it really ignited my love for Land Cruisers in general, but it really didn’t fit with our needs. Combined with the fact that things like the air conditioning didn’t work, and the front axle needed work resulted in my consolidating the YJ and the FJ80 into my next rig.
Our 2008 Jeep Wrangler JKU combined most of what I loved about the YJ with most of the practicality of the FJ80. It could comfortably seat 2 adults and 2 carseats (which was important, as Rachel was now expecting again). It had space for our gear, and I could take the top off, which was mine and Alex’s favorite parts about the YJ. Easily upgradable and already very capable in stock form, it was an awesome vehicle. The major Achilles’ Heel it had was its length, which is useful for people carrying, but for a solo trip vehicle, I missed the small, nimble, nature of the YJ. That lead me to the next rig.
Our 1958 Jeep CJ-5 is one of the rigs that we still have, and plan to never get rid of. I had wanted a classic Jeep ever since I got the YJ, and I put in a lot of time and effort to find the right one. I wanted something that was old enough to be emissions exempt everywhere I went, which meant 1975 or older. That limited me to either a flat fender or a CJ-5/6. I wanted it to be a short wheelbase, which eliminated the CJ-6. I wanted to be able to highway drive it, so I wanted the ability to get some kind of overdrive gear. Because of how short the wheelbase is on the CJ-2/3/5 is, that eliminates the possibility of swapping a transmission with an overdrive into it. However, the 1971 and earlier CJs used the Dana 18 transfer case, which had an aftermarket overdrive unit made for it, so that was the final limiter.
When I saw this Jeep on Craigslist, I jumped on it, and I have never once regretted doing so. It runs and drives great, so much so that I use it for my commute. It’s been so much fun off-road every time I’ve taken it, and it only has the potential to get better. Even considering the fact that it only put out 75 horsepower from the factory, it’s been awesome. Current plans for it are simple. I have a new front winch bumper and a rear tire carrier bumper for it, and that’s pretty much the extent of what’s going to be done to it.
As I neared the end of my tech training, it quickly became apparent that we would need to get rid of the JKU for something with an actual tow capacity. As much fun as it was, it wasn’t very practical for our needs, so we bought our 2019 Ford Ranger.
The Ranger has been everything we need in a truck. Plenty of room for the family and everything we need to carry the same towing capacity as my old F-150, all while getting 23mpg on average. Not to mention that it’s able to fit down the kinds of trails I want to run, and came with a rear diff locker from the factory. All in all, it’s been a great vehicle for us. We plan to keep it at least until it’s paid off, and it will likely stay fairly close to stock during that time.
The final vehicle that I’ve purchased is, I think, the ideal project vehicle for me. I managed to find a 1981 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ60 for $1800. That’s the vehicle that I have big plans for, but I’ll leave that for an article of it’s own. Suffice it to say, that it’s one of my dream vehicles, and it’s going to be, and has been already, a great experience just to build it.