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Get The Most Truck For Your Buck

Keep your eyes open because you might find your next project where you’d least expect...

Kevin Lee
Aug 1, 1998
Photographers: The Sport Truck Archives
Keep your eyes open because you might find your next project where you'd least expect.
No event in our lives holds as many hopes and expectations, or as great a potential for a crushing letdown, as buying a used truck--except for maybe a date with a supermodel (tip: always find out what she models).
If you're anything like me, you love the excitement of looking for that next project. I buy all the typical publications: The Recycler, Truck Trader, Hemmings Motor News, and the like. As I read those fine magazines, visions of rust-free, dent-free trucks dance through my head. I find a couple of trucks that fit my imaginings and make arrangements to take a look at them, but, unfortunately, they rarely live up to my expectations.
I was recently on the hunt again, this time for a '67-'72 GM 1/2-ton Fleetside shortbed. So I went through my regular routine and--eureka!--finally found just what I was looking for.
Follow along as I detail what my routine is and give you some tips that I've found make the entire process easier and more rewarding.
Set Your Goals

Before you can even start a successful truck search, you need to set some parameters. How much money you can afford to spend will dictate the type and condition of the trucks you can reasonably look at. Can you afford to buy one that’s fixed up and ready to enjoy as is, or do you need to find one that will need some work and parts that you can purchase as money allows? Never spend all your money to buy the truck; after all, it’s a used truck and unexpected repairs are inevitable. Nothing is worse than being unable to drive your new truck because you don’t have the money to fix a problem.

How much of the work can you do yourself? Do you have the garage space and tools necessary to do the work? If you'll need to farm out a lot of the labor, then you must realize that a large portion of your budget will be allocated for that. One of the biggest problems first-time builders have is that they arrive at the middle of a project and then run out of money or enthusiasm or both. A tried-and-true practice is to estimate your expenses and then double the amount. Also, keep in mind that these half-finished projects can be a good buy as long as the work has been done well and they mesh with your goals. You don't want to have to redo a lot of the work.
It's also essential that you consider the type of truck you want. Be true to yourself; it's your money and you're the one who's going to drive and cherish the truck when it's done. If your dream truck is an International, then by all means build an International. But do so with the knowledge that when the time comes to sell it, it might take a while, and you might not realize a return on your investment.
After you've set the make and model you want, devise a profile of what you expect the truck to do for you after the buildup. If it will be a daily driver, then a blown-injected, alcohol-burning big-block might not be the best choice.
Another important factor to consider is the parts you're going to have to replace. If you have a fresh engine and transmission sitting in the garage, then look for a truck with no engine or an engine that's not running. It makes no sense to pay for parts that are going to be replaced during the buildup. In my case, I knew I'd be replacing the entire drivetrain, so the most important thing for me was to find a truck with a clean body and a straight frame.
The Search

Trucks are everywhere. Typically, it shouldn’t be necessary to travel too far to find what you’re looking for. The obvious place to start is the newspaper classified ads for the local and surrounding cities. Most areas are covered by some kind of a speciality publication such as The Recycler or Truck Trader, which cover a broader territory than the local paper. Several nationwide publicationa, such as Hemmings Motor News and Old Car Trader, are also available if your search has come up empty. The problem with these publications is that they list ads from around the nation, so you need to be prepared to travel.

Read the ads thoroughly; the truck you want might not be listed in the area where you think it should be. Someone might be trying to sell two vehicles in one ad. For example, if someone is selling a GTO and a Cheyenne, the ad might be in the Pontiac section. Read as many ads and look at as many trucks as you can to educate yourself on the going rates for the trucks you're interested in. Once you've found some potential trucks, call the sellers, and if the trucks still sound interesting, go look at them.
Swap meets and truck shows are good places to start your search. Be prepared for some variations in asking prices; some owners operate under the theory of testing what the market will bear and put outrageous prices on their trucks. Others really want to sell that very day and set their prices accordingly. If you find a truck you like, but it's priced higher than you think it's worth, write down the seller's phone number and call in a month or so. The truck will probably still be unsold and the owner might be motivated to lower his price. This strategy also works well when responding to classified ads. It's not uncommon to call about a truck that was advertised a couple of months before, and find it not only still for sale but for less money.
You can also find a deal by driving around your neighborhood and scouting the type of truck you want. Don't be afraid to ask the owner if it might be for sale. If it's not, maybe he knows of a similar one that might be. Leave your phone number with him and thank him for his time. You might be surprised by the number of return calls you get. Of course the majority of calls will come after you've found your next project.
What You Want To Know

When it’s time to make a call on an ad you’re interested in, be sure to gather as much information as possible from the seller by phone before you go look at the truck. Remember, the owner’s trying to sell it, so take whatever he or she tells you with a grain of salt. The owner should be willing to take the time to answer your questions over the phone. If the owner acts as if you’re infringing on his or her time, move on.

Armed with all the information you can muster, you can better decide whether a trip to get a look at it is worth your time. But be prepared to be disappointed. Here are some of the most important things to ask:
What's the model? Many times, the ad might not mention whether it's 1/2-ton or 3/4-ton, 2WD or 4WD, or longbed or shortbed.
What condition is the body in? This one is very subjective; what's good to one person might be junk to another.
What condition are the engine and drivetrain in? Find out how many miles are on it. If repairs have been made, ask if there are receipts to prove it.
Is the registration up to date? If not, it can be quite expensive to renew. Check with your local DMV about the renewal fees before you make an offer.
Does he have the Certificate of Ownership? Never buy a truck without the appropriate paperwork.
Diamond In The Rough

Make arrangements with the seller to look at the truck. Set a time during the day so that you have good light and can see as much as possible. Paint and bodywork can appear a lot better at night under artificial light. If the seller wants to meet somewhere like a supermarket parking lot instead of his house, be suspicious. The paperwork might have an incorrect name or address and if something goes wrong there’s no way to track him down.

Be prepared to crawl under and around the truck to look for signs of rust, rust repair, frame damage, or poor maintenance. If the truck's front end or bed are a different color, there's a good chance it has been in an accident. If that's the case, make sure the frame is straight. Look at all the gaps in the sheetmetal. If there are wide variations in them, look for the reason why. Is it just an adjustment problem or is something out of square?
Check the fluids. Look under the seat and around the cab for bottles of oil or transmission fluid or the funnels used to top off the levels. If you find those items, then there's a strong indication that the engine or transmission might be burning more oil than normal. Both times when I went to look at the truck I bought, the owner was putting in either engine oil or transmission fluid. That's definitely not something you want to see unless you're planning to replace the engine and transmission soon.
Let’s Seal The Deal

Now that you’ve found a candidate for your next project, it’s time to hammer out a deal that, hopefully, will make both parties happy.

Always be polite. If a truck you've arranged to look at is something other than as represented, take a quick look and leave. If you like it, but it's overpriced, make an offer. Don't tell the seller all the things that are wrong with his truck. He already knows and doesn't care. He knows you're interested or you wouldn't be there. If you upset the owner he's not going to budge an inch. If he refuses your offer, leave your phone number, thank him for his time, and move on. Often time is on your side and you'll be surprised how many return calls you'll get.
Don't get emotionally attached. It's hard when you're looking at several trucks and then find one that interests you. As a gearhead you already have the truck built in your mind and hate to give up on one that matches your visions. Even if that deal doesn't happen, another one will. There are lots of trucks out there.
Bring the cash with you. Make an offer and show the seller the cash. Cash talks and everything else walks. Many times just the presence of a wad of cash is enough to bring a reluctant seller around to your way of thinking. Another possible way to turn a no-sale around is to make sure the owner's wife or girlfriend witnesses the cash offer. She might be the one writing the checks and balancing the budget.
Following the advice outlined above will give you the best possible beginning and increased confidence when you're driving an unfamiliar truck.


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