Four Teams. Four Decrepit $1500 Vehicles. It’s the Battle of the Off-Road Beaters!

From the December 2016 issue

Until you’ve realized that the phone in your pocket is still connected via Bluetooth to the car your co-worker just started outside your office window, which means he is now listening to Shakira’s Oral Fixation, Vol. 2, and the infotainment display is outing the music as yours, well, you can’t know the struggles we endure here at 1585 Eisenhower Place. It’s hard driving new cars all the time; sometimes you just gotta go for a run in a turd.

That’s more or less how we decided the time had come for another beater challenge. Past such budget-burners have featured ice racing, a sort of street-car Olympics, and a cross-country scavenger hunt. For this installment, we decided to buy old 4x4s and fix them up so we could break them again. Pairs of editors were given $1500 budgets, which they promptly blew, and we devised a series of off-road abuses. The scoring was, to put it mildly, improvised.

Reviews editor Josh Jacquot and your author immediately ­dismissed rationality. “We could buy a pretty nice Cherokee for $1500,” Jacquot observed, “but that’d be like buying a Camry.”

Agreeing that insanity was the surest path to victory, we found a ’79 Ford F-150 missing the bed, fenders, and hood. The hood was not actually missing, but the seller wanted to keep it because he was using it as a sled to pull his kids around behind a snowmobile. Our test drive suggested that gravity and friction were standing in for threaded fasteners, as no part of the truck seemed to be securely attached to any other. But it rode on 44-inch tires and looked like a Mad Max prop, so we towed it home $1500 poorer and fully agreed that we had already won.

Triumphantly, we parked it in front of the office. As our co-workers debated how comfortable they were even standing near it, deputy editor Daniel Pund and I climbed aboard for a joyride. The Ford stalled 12 feet later, refused to restart, and wouldn’t take a jump. As we pushed it back into its parking space, the power-steering pump puked its fluid. Lucky for us, our landlord likes oil stains. At least, we hope he does, because he now has a panoply.

With more rock-crawling and dune-running experience than the rest of us combined, road-test editor Chris Benn and senior online editor Mike Sutton were early favorites, especially when they announced their intention to buy said “Camry.” They reasoned that when it comes to Jeep Cherokees, a late ’90s vintage would make the most sense, as it would be fitted with sturdier axles, plus airbags they could sell to pad the budget. But as Benn glanced over a Craigslist ad for an ’88 XJ, his seasoned eye caught something: lockable hubs on the front axle, not factory Cherokee equipment. The seller had neglected to mention in the ad that the Jeep sat on the burlier running gear from a ’79 Bronco, complete with shorter gears and locked front and rear differentials. In the cons column: The fuel tank had been relocated to the cargo area and fixed in place with fabric ratchet straps, the windshield was spider-webbed, and there was a distinct lack of doors. They snatched up their backwoods mash-up for $800.

Looking to maximize agility and minimize parts cost, Pund and assistant tech editor David Beard set their hearts on a Suzuki Samurai. They found one with an external roll cage that the seller told them “doesn’t look pretty, but that’s because I know it works.” That pitch apparently worked for other potential buyers, because it was sold out from under them. They found another that the seller said didn’t run so well because “it got stolen for a year and they didn’t take very good care of it.” Ultimately, the Pund/Beard team laid out $1200 for a 1990 Geo Tracker with a three-inch lift and an odo showing 130,000 miles. After a quick vacuuming, some Meguiar’s on the dash, and a loving exterior wash, it looked like an honest $3000 car—right up until your humble narrator did a cannonball onto the Tracker’s hood, because who needs a hood?

Our leaking liabilities successfully registered and insured, we set our schedule: We’d trundle 60 miles west to Bundy Hill, a 350-acre gravel-pit-cum-off-road-park in Jerome, Michigan. After a few days for recuperation and repairs, we’d long-haul 220 miles northwest to the dunes at Silver Lake State Park along Lake Michigan.

And then one morning we arrived at the office to find an old Land Rover, sans front bumper. Wanting in on the fun, creative director Darin Johnson had emailed a Craigslist link to editor-in-chief Alterman asking if he could dark-horse a Discovery into the competition. In retrospect, the one-word reply, “Boom,” might not have been permission so much as a prediction for the outcome. Rather than seek clarification from the boss, Johnson found and purchased a 2004 Disco near Chicago. While the rest of us ­worried about how many more heartbeats our rigs might have left, Johnson drove it the 300 miles home, then another 200 miles the ­following weekend visiting family in northern Michigan. It was there that it developed an ominous knock, requiring photo assistant Charley Ladd to rescue his teammate and tow the WasteLand Rover back to the office. And so began Car and Driver’s fourth ­quasi-periodic beater challenge.