Since we started Roadkill, we’ve noticed a recurring theme: Lots of our fans love pickup trucks. And why wouldn’t they? Trucks obviously provide utility for getting work done, but they also provide a solid platform for building fun vehicles for everything from autocrossing to desert racing. Pickups have a lot of things going for them, from durability to the ability to house a variety of engines. Americans buy lots of trucks so you’ll seldom find short supply of running trucks, though some are harder to find for reasonable money.
With all of this in mind, we thought we’d put together another Roadkill list of relatively cheap pickup trucks to turn into running and driving projects. The “running and driving” part is key there; these lists started as a means to show how the younger, aspiring tuner could shuttle back-and-forth to school in a cool ongoing project. We’ve kept in mind the whole “summer cash” aspect and aimed for a truck that runs under its own power (so says the classifieds seller, anyway) for $4,000 or less.
Before we get on with the list, people tend to ask how we figure these things because they can’t find anything we list in their area for the prices. In the past, we’ve used CraigsList aggregators, but those have been unreliable lately. This time around, we looked up two dozen trucks in six different cities that more or less are representative of their regions (Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, and Los Angeles). Is it comprehensive? No, but it gives a pretty decent picture. Here’s how those search results look, charted for the cheapest running version of each truck:
That was compiled irrespective of things like engine options, bed styles, and so forth so you might have to be more patient or look farther afield if you want, say, a short-bed 1968 Chevy C10 Stepside or an extended cab Dodge Dakota. We jumped around a bit and skipped a few years, but basically, you should be able to find any post-1980 truck for under $4,000 with some patience if you’re looking for more late-model stuff. Without further adieu, here are 10 trucks we wanted to focus on:
1953-1956 Ford F-Series
Ford’s second-generation F-Series trucks mirrored the aesthetics of the brand’s mid-1950s car perfectly: a broader curvy hood, “stepped” fenders, a big curved windshield, acres of interior space, and a horizontal grille. Ford introduced new engines for their trucks one year ahead of the trucks’ 1953 redesign (which coincided with the company’s 50th anniversary), including the pushrod straight-six and the Y-Block V8. By 1954, these had completely phased out the old flathead inline-sixes and V8s. For the first time, truck buyers could check the box for an automatic transmission as well. While we know the contemporary General Motors and Dodge offerings were equally bridging the gap between old and new technologies, we were only able to find running Fords under our $4,000 price limit. That’s not to say there were lots of F-100s (Hagerty values them at a fair bit more) or you won’t find Chevy 3100 for the money, but it appears you’re more likely to strike gold if you’re looking for a running ‘50s Ford truck.
Like those early Fords, we had a hard time finding many International Harvester trucks so it was easier to just lump together all of the model years, everything from the rat-rod favorite K-series to the later 1000-Series (In order, the pickup lines from the ‘40s through the ‘70s were named K, KB, L, R, S, A, B, C, D, and 1000). International Harvester primarily served as an agricultural machinery company, but they produced pickup trucks of varying sizes and capacities for most of the 20th Century. Project trucks were easier to find, but the running trucks we found ran the gamut from early pushrod-sixes—International was an early adopter of overhead-valve engines in the ‘49 L-Series—to haggard V8-powered D-Series. We won’t pretend it won’t take patience to find a running project, but these are some cool and rare trucks.
Low End of Pricing: Expect to pay about $3,500 for a running truck. Older IH trucks are harder to find under $4,000 but not impossible.
Further reading: Zach Bowman explains some of the challenges the prospective IH buyer might face, Murilee Martin finds a ’72 IH in the junkyard. Hagerty entries on the L-Series/R-Series/S-Series, A-Series/B-series, C-Series/D-Series, and 1000-Series.
Jeep Gladiator and J-Series
Jeep’s pickup trucks, like International trucks, can be hard to find but are also interesting pieces of truck history. The Jeep company, as part of Willys-Kaiser, developed the Gladiator in the early ‘60s on the Grand Wagoneer platform, the ties of which would become more apparent by the time their pickups adopted the Grand Wagoneer grille in 1970 (above). Most of the Gladiators were sold, unsurprisingly for Jeep, as 4x4s and they were the first four-wheel-drive trucks offered with independent front suspension. Early models were powered by a 230 cubic-inch overhead-cam straight-six, the only such mass-produced engine built at the time. Jeep added V8 options later: first the AMC 327, then a Buick 350, then the gamut of AMC offerings after AMC obtained Kaiser-Jeep in 1970.The evolution of Jeep trucks is interesting and the trucks were later given J-Series naming conventions like Ford’s F-Series. After AMC’s acquistition, Jeep continued to build new J-Series trucks all the way until its final year, 1987, when Chrysler bought the scattered American Motors’ skeletal remains.
Low End of Pricing: Prices were all over the place here irrespective of model year. We’d say to aim for $3,000 if you’re looking for a specific year.
Further reading: FourWheeler.com on the Gladiator. AllPar’s Gladiator entry. JeepTech entry on trim levels, engine choices, etc.
1967 to 1972 Chevy/GMC C/K Series
We could have put the Muscle Truck-era GM truck on here, but we opted to go one generation further back to GM’s “Action Line” trucks. Unlike most Chevy road cars from this era, these muscle-bound trucks still remain relatively affordable. While some are other people’s swap projects, you can still find original straight-six trucks in running order to be your blank canvas. The beds were offered in Fleetside (smooth rear fenders) and Stepside (“indented” rear fenders with a step between the cab and wheel well) and the higher the number after the C (two-wheel drive) or K (four-wheel drive), the heavier-duty the truck. We’re clearly suckers for Stepside C10s. Chevy versions tended to have coil-spring and trailing-arm rear suspension (GMC’s trucks had leaf springs standard) with standard front disc brakes starting in 1971. V8 displacements jumped from 327 to 350 cubic inches early on, later including the Chevy 396 (actually 402 cubic inches) on the options list. These are super-cool trucks and a great chance to own an attainable vehicle from the muscle-car era as Chevelle and Camaro prices continue inflating.
1967 to 1972 Ford F-Series
Ford first offered the 302 Windsor V8 in its F-Series during the muscle-car era, which also saw them producing trucks with the 1967-debuting, stump-pulling 300 cubic-inch Big Six and the hefty big-block 390 cubic-inch FE V8. The design perhaps lacked the flair that General Motors instituted at the time and maybe even lacked a bit of the panache of Ford’s previous-generation truck, but there’s something appealing about Ford’s no-frills design of this time. Ford offered these trucks with Styleside (like Chevy’s Fleetside) and Flareside (like Stepside) beds and while GM aimed for non-traditional truck buyers to some extent with this generation C and K truck, Ford primarily tried to engender itself more toward commercial users. If you’ve ever heard of the vaunted Ford 9-inch differential, you’re looking at the home to hundreds of thousands of them.
1972 to 1980 Dodge D-Series
We’ve documented the love for these trucks exhibited by Engine Masters and Roadkill Garage cohost Steve Dulcich before so we will let Freiburger explain that a bit in this Roadkill Extra episode. Like the above-mentioned ‘67 to ‘72 Fords, the early runs of these trucks were basic, hard-working trucks that just look right. Dodge also introduced the Club Cab in 1972, which gave a bit more room for interior storage or the chance to wedge an unlucky human being sideways behind the driver. Later in the ‘70s, Dodge piled on gimmicky “custom” models that you could snap up from the dealership: the Li’l Red Express, Midnite Express, Warlock, Adventurer, and Macho trim level. Those are all outside the price range we’re exploring because while they were gimmicks, they were awesome gimmicks.
Low End of Pricing: This seemed more regional than most of this list. East of the Rockies, look for around $3,000 with prices starting around $2,000 west of the Continental Divide.
Further reading: FourWheeler.com Guide to Dodge Trucks. AllPar on the D-Series. Hagerty Entry. Info on trim levels and such.
Chevy El Camino/GMC Caballero
The El Camino and Ford Ranchero are as close as we ever got to Utes here in America and they had long production runs. However, Rancheros are harder to find in running order and older El Caminos are also hard to find. That said, you can still find later G-Body El Caminos (and their GMC Caballero siblings) for reasonable money and with the plethora of available speed parts for that platform, you have the makings of a fun car…truck…ute…whatever. Those laterG-Body El Caminos didn’t come with the Big Block Chevys the way that earlier ones did (and you’re unlikely to find a 454-powered El Camino SS), but the best part of that generation is that people have already put just about every GM V8 (and V6) in the world into that platform.
Low End of Pricing: Start looking around $2,500 for a G-Body. Anything older will likely be at or more than $4,000.
Further reading: Hagerty on the G-Body El Camino. Hagerty on earlier generations, which you are more unlikely to find in running order for $4,000: ’73-’77, ’68-’72, ’64-’67,
Ford Ranger/Chevy S10/Dodge Dakota
Each of these three small-to-mid-size pickups has its ups and downs that you can argue amongst yourselves. These are everywhere still for dirt cheap and many of have withstood the test of time with surprising vigor. As such, they can be good platforms for occasional work trucks or, many being rear-wheel-drive, for building a righteous, lightweight drag trucks. The Dakota, of course, had an optional 5.2-liter V8 starting in 1991 and while neither the S10 nor the Ranger had factory V8s, enough people have converted them to eight-cylinder trucks that swap kits can be found for reasonable money.
Low End of Pricing: Cheap, probably $1,000 or less for a well-worn truck. Somewhere around $2,000 should get you a runner in good condition.
Further reading: FourWheeler.com Ford Ranger Guide. TruckTrend’s Chevy S10 and Dodge Dakota guides.
Toyota sold millions of Hilux trucks around the world, though they were known as the Toyota Pickup or SR5 or a bunch of other names here in the United States for some reason. As Top Gear documented years ago, these have a well-earned reputation for being indestructible. That centers around the Toyota R-engine that have cultivated fans among the off-road world for it grunt (though not outright horsepower) and durability. Early four-wheel-drive versions borrowed heavily from the ubiquitous Land Cruiser. You will be unsurprised then, that many of these have been modified for off-road, rock-crawling, and trail duty so you might end up inheriting someone else’s work as these get harder to find in original condition.
Low End of Pricing: Around $1,800 for a basic truck. Add a bit more for 4x4s.
Further reading: Fourwheeler.com Buying Guide for Toyota Pickups.
Datsun and Nissan pickups
In addition to timeless sports cars and some rather pedestrian three-box cars, Nissan’s predecessor Datsun also imported light-duty trucks from Japan at a time before Detroit recognized the importance of having light trucks. From the early 520s to the Nissan D21 Hardbody trucks, they served well in the U.S. and many are still around. Through 1980, the pickups all ran the L-series engine, common to almost every Datsun sold here except the six-cylinder Z-cars. While they look perhaps a bit slighter than most other pickups, the fact that so many Datsun trucks are still around speaks to their surprising durability.
Low End of Pricing: Aim for $2,000 to $2,500.
Further reading: FourWheeler.com Guide to Datsun and Nissan trucks.
We couldn’t make this list without at least one oddball, right? In 1980, Volkswagen tried their hand at making a light-duty pickup. Instead of starting from scratch, they built a lengthened two-seater Rabbit with a small bed in place of the hatchback. Called the “Caddy,” the little pickup retained front-wheel drive and engine options that inclued a 78-horsepower 1.6-liter gas engine and a non-turbo diesel engine that made all of 48 clattering horsepower on a good day. Fast, they were not and the 1,100-pound payload limit seems optimistic in retrospect, but they’re an interesting take on the pickup truck as one of few with front-wheel-drive (throw the increasingly rare Omni-based Dodge Rampage and Plymouth Scamp in there, too). Some have had Volkswagen TDI swaps to make them more driveable and while these chassis—like their Rabbit siblings—suffer from structural rust problems, a clean one can get some basic work done in style.
Low End of Pricing: $3,000 should buy you a runner, but be very skeptical of rust on the strut towers and cabin floor pan.
Further reading: Hemmings on the VW Caddy.
OK, truck aficionados: What does your cheap workhorse and/or workhorse project? Something on the list? Something else?