Last week I outlined how I managed to fool myself into buying an overpriced basket case of a project car, one I didn’t have the tools, time, space or skills to work on. I’ve got no problem with basket case project cars; it’s the paying too much and the getting something worse than you thought you were part that’s frustrating.
This week we’re talking about my latest frustration: how I once again overpaid for a basket case of a vehicle, but how this time it’s going to be different.
At some point I’ll write a cautionary tale/diatribe about how much space babies and their requisite rear-facing car seats take up, but the take-home is two kids = no more WRX or Wrangler. With two kids and a dog, they failed as prime family mover and family dirtwagon, respectively. With “just” The Missus’ Mazda5 and my ’67 Falcon, we “needed” a third vehicle to fill in as backup commuter, crap hauler, tow vehicle and family dirtwagon.
“Not enough room in the Wrangler? Get a 4Runner” was my facepalmingly unwise suggestion. She vetoed 1st generation 4Runners
because duh for not having four doors and later ones for being too small and too new. “New” in her book being anything that’s not an obvious pre-malaise classic. The list of four door classic 4x4s is surprisingly short: Suburban, Wagoneer, Travelall, Wagonmaster or various crew-cab trucks. Of the batch, the Wagoneer’s the only one that’s not gigantic.
The cool thing about Wagoneers is that nearly 30 years of single model run works to your advantage. The lesser known uncool fact about Wagoneers is that the entire chassis is different between the 1963-1971 “early” models and later ones (with ’72-74 being bastardized orphan transition years just for fun). For the most part, it’s the later AMC/Chrysler years that benefit from a wealth of parts. The early Kaiser years, not so much. Unfortunately those later years also sport a horribly “modernized” malaise-o-lux interior and generally lame exterior styling details. The early years feature cleaner lines inside and out, but come with things like closed-knuckle drum-braked Dana 27 front axles and nailhead pattern TH400s adapted to Buick motors.
The shopping goal was to find a cheap(ish) example in the $2-4k range that had the cleanest body possible. If I had to do a little (or a lot) of mechanical work, that was fine, just please no body work. We’d be able to piece together a great sleeper trail rig with the proceeds from the Wrangler’s sale and a BJ’s Offroad catalog. (starting to sound familiar?)
Then this example popped up in my eBay saved search.
Pretty paint, newly remanufactured engine, only 66k miles, great looking interior, being sold by a classic car broker with lots of positive feedback on eBay. For $8,000. In St. Louis, Missouri. I just re-read the year-old email dialog between The Missus and I, wherein I pose it as “basically the perfect Wagoneer, the one we should buy”, she expresses concern that it’s twice the price we were thinking, far away, and generally feels like “buying the 4Runner again”.
“There’s no way we could start with a cheaper one and duplicate this for the price” I pointed out. “It looks great, but we’ll pay to have a pro inspect it”. See? Problems solved.
The inspector noted a slight exhaust leak, various paint imperfections and an unspecified oil leak, but generally proclaimed it to be in good mechanical shape with no major body issues.
In a year of ownership I discovered the following, starting with the most obvious and infuriating to miss in an inspection
- Rusty floor sections that will need replacing
- Obvious big-ass crack in an exhaust manifold
- Gas gauges don’t work (one’s dead, one reads a max of 3/8 tank)
- Bad power brake booster
- Tires rub on the fenders over any bump
- Oil leaking from rear main, intake manifold and timing cover
- Transmission leaking from pan and vacuum modulator
- Loose spark plug
- Leaking cowl vents (that caused the floor issues)
- Cracked steering box mount on the frame
- Runs hot on the freeway
- Tailgate window trim shot
- Passenger window crank very sticky
- Transmission-to-motor adapter ring cracked
- Low oil pressure on idle (a Buick 350 trademark)
- a rearview mirror that keeps fncking loosening up and flopping around
- …and no documentation to the history of the vehicle.
I’ll let the list speak for itself, but the last bullet point was the most problematic. It’s equiped with a warrantied Jasper reman motor, but any warranty work would require the original documentation. I kicked into internet super-sleuth mode. Some
thorough internet stalking clever googling led me to not just the previous owner. After an awkard “hey, did you used to own a Wagoneer…” conversation, he sent me “the file” for the Wagoneer. I found the warranty info, along with everthing else I could possibly want to learn. Based on the most recent documentation, the Wagoneer had been sold back in 2010 at a classic car auction in Scottsdale, and had pretty much been sitting for the last year.
Based on the name on most of the receipts,
again e-stalked my way to got in touch with the previous previous owner, the guy who actually built it. My initial “did you own a Wagoneer 10 years ago…?” email resulted in a 1500 word email and a 6:45am voicemail about all the build work he put into it. It started as a hopeless project and he spent countless nights and weekends getting parts, doing body work and building it out to almost exactly what he wanted before a combination of time and cash forced him to unload it. Ever have one of those conversations where you feel like you’re talking to some past/future/alternate universe version of yourself?
Between the original 4Runner and this one, I’m forced to conlcude
- I’ll never, ever under any circumstances buy a car without being able to see and drive it in person.
- My track record on “buying the one with all the stuff already done” is 0/2
More than anything, I’m frustrated by my repeated self-delusion and overpaying for a basket case. That said, I’ve kept an eye out for “the one I should’ve bought”, and there’s only been a few examples nationwide in the last year that beat it. So maybe I didn’t overpay by that much. Besides, I’m a hell of a lot better equipped to deal with said basket case this time around. Having a garage, tools, cash and more knowledge has allowed me to fix a bunch of things on that list (e.g., spent half a Saturday and welded up the frame with my bitchin’ Miller 180). Even with all its issues, the Wagoneer’s earned its keep as the family hauler for countless hardware store runs and even did some offroading to fetch last year’s Christmas Tree.
It may or may not end up built out to be the perfect classic camping rig, but in the meantime I’m just going to fix what’s wrong and keep driving it.
…at least until that Megasquirt EFI kit shows up in the mail.