Truck Hunt 2016: Time for a New(er) Tow Rig

1991 ford f350 crew cab2001 gmc suburban
2001 ford excursion1991 suburban
The Wagoneer’s gone, which means my backup commuting vehicle is either my bike or my wife’s patience. Secondarily, we’re down to the miniscule towing capacity of the Mazda5. It’s time to start shopping for a new truck or SUV to do Truck Stuff. The plan was never to reduce the number of cars in the fleet, but fill the Wagoneer’s slot with a vehicle better suited to our real needs. Ok, wants. But like, really well rationalized wants.
The Wants:

  1. Ability to tow a LeMons car (or two?) in an enclosed trailer with tools and spare parts on board
  2. Ability to take the family camping at the end of a rutted dirt road 1000 miles away in summer or winter (thus: 4×4 and AC-equipped)
  3. Ability to work and haul dirty stuff around without causing too much stress about “ruining it”
  4. Ability to do all of the above with reasonable durability and ease of maintenance
  5. Cost less than $8k, but preferably more like $5k

With those in mind, here’s what’s on the shopping list…

1974-1991 “Box Body” 3/4 Ton Suburban

They’re not the best at anything, but they’re cheap, simple, durable and have near-infinite aftermarket support. If I find a ’91, I get EFI and an overdrive-equipped heavy duty 4L80E transmission.

2001-2004 GMT800 3/4 Ton (2500) Suburban

The GMT800 brought with it a new generation of engines: the 6.0L LS-based LQ4 and the Last of the Big Blocks 8.1L Vortec. Either’s backed up by the same 4L80E as the ’91 ‘Burb, but these sport independent suspension, four corner disc brakes and a number of modern car features that normal people obviously prefer. My fear with this era of GM quasi-luxury truck product is the end-of-life of a million little electronic gizmos that require a multi-hundred-dollar “module” to repair. I’m skipping the ’92-99 GMT400s for being the worst of both worlds: old by age and engine tech, but still having IFS and high luxury feature content (aka stuff to break).

1999-2005 Ford Excursion

A Powerstoke-equipped Excursion would be damn-near perfect for what I’m trying to accomplish here, but they’re $12-15k regardless of mileage or condition. As a result, I’m defaulting back to the 6.8L Modular/Triton V10 as the nominal power plant. I don’t really like “Mod” motors, nor in the wake of owning an FE-powered wagon and Buick 350-powered Wagoneer do I want to end up with another oddball powerplant, but the base 5.4L just doesn’t have the stones to move the Canyonero-like Excursion and the payload I have planned. Newfangled OHC engines aside, the Excursion sports heavy-duty solid axles holding up leaves at all four corners. While unimpressive to most automotive reviewers, they’re cheap to lift and have half the wear points of the GMs’ IFS.

Crew Cab Pickups

I’ve only got two kids, so the third row is more of a “bonus” in the event of extended-family gatherings or field trip duty. There’s something to be said for being able to drop an engine or load of dirt in the bed and not worry about it. Right now they’re lower on the list because a 3/4 or 1-ton 4×4 Crew Cab of almost any brand, power or age costs the same as the above SUVs and having lockable, enclosed storage trumps being able to do the cool dramatically-drop-stuff-into-the-bed truck ad trope.

Dark Horse Candidates:

4×4 Vans of Any Kind: If it’s space you want, a van’s unbeatable. Unfortunately, few are 4x4s and the converted Econolines are so ridiculously expensive as to be offensive. Older 4×4 conversions (like this one or this one) tend to be a notch too “Sketchy Mountain Man” or “fundamentally dynamically unstable” to really fit the bill.
Ford Bronco Centurion: These ’80s/90s conversions were the aftermarket’s answer to Ford never offering a Suburban competitor. Take an F250/350 crew cab, add Bronco and voila! Alas, they’re rare and hard to find in the right specification. Their interiors tend to be of the conversion van school of thought: lots of tufted velour and unnecessary wood added in (I’d prefer Line-X). Ironically, there’s one permanently parked at a shop by my house, but they refuse to part with it.
Modernized Classics: Every once in a while someone repowers a ’72 Suburban or Wagoneer or Travelall with the engine, trans and axles of something newer. Sometimes the AC even works. Rarely do such vehicles show up in my price range in non-clusterfnck condition, but hey, a guy can hope. Also, here’s one.

The Case for Bigness

Why not a 5.3L-powered Tahoe or Suburban 1500? Why not a Sequoiah or Land Cruiser? Expedition? Honestly they’d all probably get most of the job done just fine. I could go cheaper or newer and get halfway decent ride quality or mileage. The thing is, we already have a reasonable vehicle in the Mazda5. We’re only going to use The Beast for Beast-grade tasks, so to compromise the ability to tow the bigger trailer or haul more crap defeats the purpose of this role. The same logic applies to getting a 4×4. 99% of our miles will be on dry pavement, but Caltrans has a penchant for requiring chains on 2wd vehicles at the drop of a hat snowflake, and I’d still like to do the occasional offroading just for the sake of it.
I’ve already test-driven one of the above and have a few more lined up, so stay tuned for more updates.

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20 responses to “Truck Hunt 2016: Time for a New(er) Tow Rig”

  1. Ross Ballot Avatar
    Ross Ballot

    If it were me, I’m sticking by the 2500 GMT400 ‘Burb. Excited to see what you end up with though. Best of luck!

  2. mdharrell Avatar

    “Ability to tow a LeMons car… in an enclosed trailer with tools and spare parts….”

    1. Vairship Avatar

      Bringing a spare car is so much more sensible!

      1. Rover 1 Avatar
        Rover 1

        And then using it as the tow car.

  3. Sjalabais Avatar

    I really like the modernized classic you link to, but the work that’s left to get it done is all the finicky stuff. In any case, it seems like you are well aware of your needs wants and it’s fun watching the process.

  4. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    From a low cost easy self repair standpoint the “box” Suburban is the answer. You lose some comfort and handling but can always go the repower route to get a EFI and built 700R4 transmission.
    A crew cab pickup actually makes a lot of sense if you don’t need the seats since various combinations of canopy, toolboxes, and utility beds give all kinds of lockable and covered storage options, plus almost infinite drivetrain and suspension choices.

  5. engineerd Avatar

    I’d vote for the Suburban over the Excursion…and I’m a Ford guy. The ‘Burb is just so much better…more refined, if you will.
    4WD van, though, is more rad. The red one…mein Gott!

  6. Tomsk Avatar

    Having grown up with an ’84 C20 Suburban in the family, I’m more than a little partial to it. Fit-and-finish and overall refinement leave something to be desired, but there’s a lot to be said for the dearth of expensive electronic doodads that will almost inevitably go FUBAR at the least opportune time.

  7. mdharrell Avatar

    I think you should work with this guy:

  8. smalleyxb122 Avatar

    This was my 2015. No longer trusting my ’88 Silverado to tow my LeMons car, I had to find a “new” tow-capable rig. My towing needs were/are less than yours, having just the one race car, and an open trailer.
    I was looking at 4×4 vans, RWD vans (a conversion van would be awesome for camping at the track), F250s, and GMT400 Tahoe/Yukon/Blazers.
    I wound up with a Saab 9-7x. I have yet to tow with it beyond moving my empty trailer around the yard, and I’m wary of the short wheelbase on the highway, but the LS2 and low axle ratio should have no trouble getting the trailer moving. I’m also concerned about the downgrade in cargo volume from my Silverado’s 8ft bed. I’ll have to be more efficient at packing.
    For your needs, I’d give consideration to a 6.0 Powerstroke F250, since they are the least desirable (read: cheapest) of the full size diesels. Just make sure it’s been “bulletproofed” (EGR delete, ARP head studs, et. al.), because there is a reason that it’s the least desirable of the full size diesels.

  9. Guest Avatar

    I’d go for the 2001-2004 GMT800 3/4 Ton (2500) Suburban, but that’s only because I drove the truck version (my dad’s 2000 GMC Sierra 2500 extended cab/long box) to school today.

    It was part of a cancelled fleet order, so it’s pretty base inside (i.e. cloth seats, no carpet, manual everything) but it’s got the 6.0L, 4×4, and AC, so it’s pretty livable.

    It’s also been pretty reliable, with the only major service in the 16 years we’ve owned was a front end rebuild this year. It wasn’t cheap, but again, as the only major service, it can be overlooked.

    I can also attest to the towing ability, as it used to regularly tow a 16ft trailer full of live beef to pasture and to auction (it’s been mostly replaced by a 32ft tractor/trailer combo do to the size of our herd).

    The aftermarket is also a definite plus for this body style, as “Dorman Products” and the other aftermarket companies carry most of the pieces that break, like the door handle, and tailgate handle and hinges we’ve bought were all available decently cheap at the local automotive/outdoorsy store.

  10. LEROOOY Avatar

    If you gotta tow, tow!!! Just bolt some extra seats into the sleeper.
    Who needs 4WD when you can just run things over, eh?

    View post on
    Yeah, I couldn’t find any serious answers.

  11. 0A5599 Avatar

    How serious is the occasional offroading? The long wheelbase GMT800 Escalade or Denali come standard with the 6.0 and AWD, and air suspension that can tow a lot without the harsher ride of a 2500.

  12. Jamey Burgess Avatar
    Jamey Burgess

    As much as it pains me to endorse GM product, go with the Tahoe/Suburban route.
    Look for at you local state vehicle auctions. Lots of state DOT’s used 2500 Sub’s as transport and survey vehicles. Usually well maintained, vinyl seats and interior, no power windows, heavy duty electrical systems and A/C, as well as trans coolers and the like.
    Another good resource is your local power company. I know more than a few contractors in my area that picked up old 2500, 454 block, 1991-1999 4wd Suburbans when Duke Energy and Sumter Utilities had massive fleet sell offs. All had small lifts, mud tires, hose out interiors.

  13. P161911 Avatar

    GMT400 Suburbans seem to be dramatically cheaper than the 1974-1991 versions around here, especially when looking for 3/4 ton 4×4 versions. Most issues aren’t that bad and they don’t have that many gizmos.
    The most commonly available thing to meet your requirements is a 1 ton dually 4×4 4 door truck.

  14. 1slowvw Avatar

    Is there a am easy transfer case and front diff that bolts into a Buick roadmaster? You know something between an us wrx/meets tow rig/meets super wagon. Because if there is I vote that.
    If not GMT 800 all day.

  15. Spridget Avatar

    What about this? Pathfinder 4×4 conversion, but a little on the expensive side.
    Then there’s this Bronco 4 Door Conversion by Metropolitan. It’s a bit rough, but is very, very cheap.
    Lastly, there’s this Pathfinder 4×4 conversion that’s a project, but is $6600 under your max price.

  16. Scoutdude Avatar

    I second checking out and any local auction companies that sell gov’t owned vehicles, particularly if you want that 3/4 or 1 ton crew cab 4×4 pickup. At least in my area the pickups are far more commonly found than a Suburban or Excursion and thus are not usually bid up so high. With publicsurplus once you register an account you can have it inform you of things coming up for sale in particular categories.
    You may have to wait until something you like shows up but it can be worth the wait because you’ll get more for your money. At least around here there are a number of dealers that bid and win a lot of the trucks and they buy there because they know they can sell it for a good profit. Many of my state’s vehicles actually give you online access to a units service and repair records and they tell you if it was retired because of a problem like a bad transmission ect. Yes they are spartan trucks with rubber mats and most of them are white and in less than pristine condition, but they certainly have a lot of hard work or play left in them.

    1. Scoutdude Avatar

      I also meant to say that the V10 isn’t really an odd ball engine and most of the types of parts you are likely to need are the same as the 5.4 in the same application so getting parts would not be a problem.