Truck Hunt 2016: The Perfect Suburban that Wasn't

1991 suburban used car review
Every type of old/classic car has the “bad year(s)” and “good year(s)” to get. With Toyota 4x4s, it’s 1985 for the solid axle and EFI. With Box Body 3/4 ton Suburbans, it’s 1991 for the combination of solid axle and 4L80E overdrive transmission. While Box Body ‘Burbs lie thick on the ground in rust-free California, examples of just one specific year are harder to find. Which means if one pops up with a cheap-and-dropping price tag, it’s hard to resist making a case to The Missus to burn the better part of a day driving two hours each way for a test drive.
I want to believe if I’d called and asked the right series of questions that maybe I’d have skipped the trip, but in reality I would’ve found a way to rationalize the trip no matter what. Anyway, hit the jump for what I thought I was getting versus what I got.

On paper, we’re talking about a ’91 Suburban with a 350, 4L80E, 6″ lift, 35″ tires and a full-float 14-bolt rear axle swapped in. The beefy roof rack is just the (nearly literal) icing on the cake. It had been listed at $2800 and then just dropped to $2450, leaving me it’d get snapped up any day now. Sure, the cosmetics were rough, it had at least one non-functional power window and the AC needed work, but those were the typical headaches I’d expect from a $2500 ‘Burb.
Research I’m too lazy to cite properly suggests we form both lasting and accurate opinions of others in the first few seconds of our exposure to them. Such was the case with this truck: it was clearly on the wrong side of the line dividing “rough driver” from “beater”. Most troubling were the multiple rust blossoms on the upper door openings, as they’re not easily cured without significant metal work.

Secondarily, it just drove like crap. The brakes managed a hat trick: mushy, pulling to one side and squealing badly. It had 35″ tires but mere 3.73:1 gearing, imparting a feeling of gutlessness. The lift came with giant blocks in the rear and no crossover steering up front. Follow the link for an explanation of why, but basically it had awful bump steer.

Back inside, I was prepared to deal with a “AC needs recharge” situation, but the entire AC control panel was nonfunctional. Blown fuse? Short that caused blown fuse? Who knows. Also, trying to strap in one of the kids’ car seats turned into a frustrating game of tensioner yo-yo to get enough belt out without it locking up.
I was prepared to deal with one or two of the preceding paragraphs of gripes for a low-$2s price tag, but I’m specifically trying to avoid that near-endless list of fixes and upgrades with this purchase. I don’t yet take this as an indictment against all Box Bodies due to their age, but it definitely leaves me leery of the sub-$3k price range. If I burned a day to learn what I don’t want, that’s probably just as valuable anyway.
Previously on Truck Hunt:
Introduction: Time for a New(er) Tow Rig
2001 GMC Yukon XL (aka Suburban 2500)

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  1. dukeisduke Avatar

    Even looking at the first pic, before making the jump, I figured it was a beater.

  2. dukeisduke Avatar

    That spot under the rear diff – is that a leaky pinion seal?

    1. mad_science Avatar
  3. CruisinTime Avatar

    That rust at the roof is strange,never seen that here is MI.and we do have the chloride in Winter.But yes,cost too much to try and make it nice.Good Beater though.

  4. Alff Avatar

    Very timely post, as I’m currently lusting after a potential beater on CL that is about two hours away. I’ve always wanted a V8 swapped Jaguar XJ but the potential downside for something like that is strong. If the seller won’t give me the insight I need, I’m not going to bother trying to see it.

    1. Tanshanomi Avatar

      Fix the Ford instead.

      1. Alff Avatar

        The Ford is fully functional and the cosmetic restoration is in the long range strategic plan. However, I am suddenly in need of another set of wheels.

        1. Tanshanomi Avatar

          If you have money to spend on a V8 Jag, you can buy my lunch. Speaking of…

          1. Alff Avatar

            Next week?

        2. Sjalabais Avatar

          …I am suddenly in need of another set of wheels.

          I admire your practice for acquiring sets of wheels, seriously.

          1. Alff Avatar

            Remember Rob’s post about the Audi for his daughters? I’m in the same boat and the VW Cabrio I was going to send the girl to college with has rust in the strut tower. It’s reparable, but probably not on her time table. The options are:
            1) Buy a budget hooptie for her to drive and sell it or the VW when the VW is repaired.
            2) Give her my “best” car – 2005 Legacy GT and buy something slightly less decrepit but still cheap for me to supplement the Alfa and the Ford for me. I’m losing my pickup to my son, who is also leaving for college. This is where the Jag comes in. I figure between it the Alfa and the old Ford I can keep one on the road at any given time.

          2. Sjalabais Avatar

            A well-structured argument and my selfish interest in getting to read however that V8-in-a-Jag might turn out makes me support your thinking, ha! Seriously, lucky kids again. Mobility is a great bit of support.

  5. Tanshanomi Avatar

    A few years ago, I drove a hour to buy a motorcycle that was on my bucket list. When I got there, it was in way worse shape than it had been represented to be on Craigslist and on the phone. I tried to talk the guy down, but he was firm on a price that was clearly unreasonable for the bike in its current condition. After having rented a trailer and making the trip, it was really, really hard to face the fact that I was going to go home empty-handed. But sometimes that’s the way it has to go.

    1. P161911 Avatar

      In 2004 I was looking for a car to replace my 1994 Corvette. I found a mid-1990s Mustang Cobra convertible, stick shift. It looked perfect in the ad. I showed up with the full asking price cash in my pocket. I didn’t want it to get away. It looked great in person. I do a short test drive. Grear pick up in first, shift to second and GRRRR. Didn’t think I flubbed the shift. Try again with the same result. Second gear synchro was shot. Went home with no car.

      1. Tanshanomi Avatar

        In retrospect, both my Kawasaki W650 and my Honda CL125S were examples of when I SHOULD have walked and didn’t. In both cases, things turned disappointing when I saw them in person and my spider-sense was saying nope, but I bought anyway just because I had the cash in my pocket and was so primed to buy. Never again.

        1. P161911 Avatar

          My Z3 was an example of when I should have RAN away. Left a deposit and the guy tried to sell it to someone else offering more money. I was already paying the asking price. Spent almost 50% more than I paid for the car in less than 2 years on repairs. Even when your wife tells you to buy a hot sports car sometimes it is better to walk away.

          1. salguod Avatar

            I’ve spent 200% of what I paid for my 318ti in repairs (almost all parts) in 9 months. 😀

          2. P161911 Avatar

            I had to put a new S52 (junkyard engine) in less than 500 miles after buying it. A year later it overheated and warped the head. That was as expensive as the engine. Other misc. typical BMW repairs in between.

    2. mad_science Avatar

      I think I’m still in the process of figuring out how much to bug a seller and ask over the phone Vs just going to see the thing.
      In this hunt, I keep finding potentially great examples that’ll require me to burn a day to go see. I think my new requirement is to just pester them with a million questions before I go see it.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        My experience of over-the-phone-talk is that what they say tends to be ridiculously rosy. I may have had bad luck with sellers, but the lesson I have learned at great cost in both money and time is that local cars trump vehicles on the other side of the country any day – even if it may not appear that way.

        1. salguod Avatar

          I have two things going for me. One, the low purchase price of $500 (which, of course, means it doesn’t take much to get to 200%) and two, I know the previous owner. He had it 14 years and kept it up well. Things like those fragile plastic coolant elbows have already been done.

          1. Sjalabais Avatar

            Two big advantages! The lowest priced cars I’ve owned were really the best experiences; might have to do with low expectations though.

  6. P161911 Avatar

    Don’t overlook the GMT400.

  7. neight428 Avatar

    Cheap “perfection” in an old vehicle (or anything else, I suppose) means finding the particular compromises that you are uniquely suited to either live with or personally remediate. Otherwise one should see a low price as hard evidence of a lack of general desirability.

  8. theskitter Avatar

    The 4Runner.

    1. mad_science Avatar

      I was literally sitting in it when my dad, having seen a FB post or something called and said “you’re totally looking at another ’85 4Runner”. To which I agreed 100%.

    2. Tanshanomi Avatar

      Should I read that as “Don’t buy the 4Runner!” or “Dont! Buy the 4Runner!”
      …or perhaps “Don’t Buy! [Because of] the 4Runner!”

      1. theskitter Avatar

        (D) All of the above.
        (E) None of the above.

    3. 0A5599 Avatar


  9. mad_science Avatar

    BTW, you guys notice the numerous deck screws holding the headliner in place?

    1. P161911 Avatar

      Someone didn’t have a good staple gun.

  10. Jeff Glucker Avatar
    Jeff Glucker

    You know what you don’t want to have to do again?
    Metal work…

  11. 0A5599 Avatar

    Once I went to look at a car theoretically an hour away, but I stopped for lunch on the way there. About 10 minutes before the destination, I saw a car matching the description headed the other way. I continued on to the seller’s house. Yep, that was the car; already sold.
    A few years later, I found a car for sale a six-hour round trip away. During a test drive, the seller decided he was going to keep it.
    It’s better to waste a round trip deciding not to buy a car than to waste one on a car you want but can’t have.