Cheaper than Fiction

I did it!

Not shown in photo: me

Last month, I asked the O&E community for input on a overland rig under $4,000. I want to thank all of you for your input, even though I ended up ignoring most of it. I was this close to getting a tasty Xterra as recommended by yonse, but that deal went sour (more on that later). While no one did suggest an Isuzu Trooper, you all made me comfortable with the thought of a deceased brand with IFS. So I bought one.


All of this happened several weeks ago, if I’m honest. The reason for the delay in this write-up is caused by two things: 1) this rig has no plates, no registration on record, was last registered in Texas as far as I can tell; and 2) to save myself potential embarrassment if the People’s Republic of California doesn’t allow me to register it for less than the deficit. That second one is still a possibility, but just like overlanding itself, it’s about the journey as much as it is the destination.

The Search:

I started with a large list of potentials that spanned from Acura to Toyota. In my last post, I mentioned that I liked the Trooper, Land Cruiser, Grand Cherokee, Discovery, et al. Y’all added the Montero/Pajero, Grand Vitara, and XJ to that list. I researched everything, surveyed comparisons, watched Youtube videos of each offroading, read countless forums. To be honest, much of it was just noise in a crowded room. I will say that the videos gave the best info as to what a rig is capable of, but almost nothing overrules the desire of the heart. I still kinda want a Disco...

I boiled it down to Trooper, Xterra, and Land Cruiser. A couple $1,500 Land Cruisers popped up and disappeared immediately. All other LCs were just above my price range, so they were out. I could not believe that 2nd gen Xterra’s were dipping into my range. They all needed some work (timing chain, catalytic converter), but were feasible. A good Trooper was so hard to find that I basically stopped searching for them. I saw one listed for $150 more than mine being sold as a parts car.

Then it happened. A 2006 Xterra Off Road with the rear diff lock popped up in San Francisco. After a few back-and-forths with the owner, I told him I would fly up that Sunday to pick it up. I bought a one-way ticket from Orange County and that was that. Only, that wasn’t that. The night before the flight, he called me and said “oh by the way, it just started smoking blue from the tailpipe, and a check engine light for P0420 Catalytic Efficiency Below Threshold trouble code has come on.” I told him I wasn’t coming after all, and the deal was off. Now I have $135 in credit with United Airlines. Yay!


Discouraged, I went back to the Craigslist. I viewed a couple more that turned out to be dogs. Weirdly, I found my old grey 4Runner for sale with 50k more miles on it. I didn’t really want it back but was glad to see it sell in 2 days. Then I found a white Trooper in LA. The seller was a tow company who said the vehicle was on lien. I told him I would be there in 90 minutes.

The Purchase:

I arrived at the tow company in El Monte, CA just as the last glimmer of light seceded below the horizon. The truck was down a dark alley swathed with dirty cars, barbed wire fences, and the sound of barking watchdogs. I met the seller and he showed me around the truck. He didn’t know anything about it other than it had been left in his lot for some time. I did a top to bottom flashlight inspection on the thing and could tell that the delinquent owner had cared for it up until its confiscation. No accidents appeared on the Carfax. I drove it around the block; engine good, trans good, 4WD good, limited slip positive, all electricals were good except for an ABS light, the tow company’s documentation was good, the stars aligned, and I plunked down the $1,850 cash. My search was over.

Betcha didn’t think 37s would fit, did ya.

(By the way, if you’re reading this and this is your car, any information you can provide about the suspension lift would be appreciated. Thanks.)


The Drive Home:

There’s no quicker way to bond with a vehicle than for it to scare you. That’s why the elderly stick with their cars like James Bond covered in Gold Bond mixed with Bondo.


It’s 52 miles from El Monte to my house. Every mile was as sketchy as it was terrifying. I’ve been in sinking rafts that were more stable. If you want to know what it’s like to drive a truck with the torsion bars cranked all the way up, then unlock your seat and steering wheel adjusters, deflate your left-front and right-rear tires to 6psi, then drive through a sharknado. Freeways that I thought were butter cream-smooth suddenly had jumps on them. I swear a couple of times I got air. Every “landing” required about 110 degrees of steering lock one way then the other, which would cause the massive 37" tires to rub, effectively braking one of the wheels and requiring another correction.

Actual re-enactment

I’d never concentrated so hard in my life. I went miles at a time without blinking or breathing. My wife, who was following close behind so as to hide the fact the car had no license plate, said it looked like I was on a roller coaster.

After that experience, I’d say this this car and I are like glue.

The Full Assessment:

Spot the zip tie

The next morning, I skipped out the front door to my new ride like a kid on Christmas. I drove it to my garage, jacked it up and took the wheels off.


I understand that I bought this as-is on lien, but a few things raised my eyebrows. Apparently, the previous owner had a fetish for spray painting things red. The rear springs, shocks, diff, driveshaft, front skidplate, and all 4 calipers are racecar red. When the color red ran out, he went to black. Pretty much everything else is black, except for the T-case which is painted silver which probably means it was replaced with a salvaged unit. But it works, so who cares.


The shocks are different brands and are all blown out (no surprise). I found the cause of the ABS light: a wire that was stretched to oblivion on the right rear. The torsion bars were cranked to absolute max as I had assumed, and this had destoyed the CV axles due to the extreme angle.


The interior needs a gross tonne of elbow grease, but that should be fine. I found $3.27 in loose change and a gift card with $4 left on it. Score!

Lens Flare. Car not actually on fire
Mobile dumpster

The To-Do List:

Getting these hoops down to size is job #1. Because it’s got 17" wheels, it’ll be getting new wheels and tires to increase my options. This will get 16x7s as God intended. That’ll make room for Goodyear Duratrac 285/75R16s quite nicely. Then I’ll be able to tell what sort of rear spring lift it has.


The front torsion bars will have to be dialed down about a mile, but that’s a freebie fix. This is the first offroader I’ve owned that will have to be lowered in order to make it better.


The rest in no particular order:

  • Exhaust gaskets
  • Shocks
  • Manual hubs
  • CV Axles
  • Roof rack
  • ABS wire
  • Reattach fender flares and interior panels
  • Clean and de-stinkify interior
  • Rear sway bar links
  • Ball joint spacers
  • Ball joints?
  • Smog and registration

Morals of the Story:

  1. If you’re looking for a unicorn and you find it: act now!
  2. Don’t trust anyone’s story about a car. Do your own research, especially on registration status.
  3. With a lower price range, buy local.
  4. Take good photos.
  5. The heart often fights the head. Figure out to what degree you will compromise to get the one you really want.

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