New or Used: The Homebrew Uberwagon

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
Geðrven writes:


Here on TTAC, one finds recurring references to that elusive “sub-$20k AWD manual diesel wagon”. Clearly, this brief blurb of specs isn’t my dream alone; sounds like a lot of us want such a car. But suppose one cares not for a million airbags, iPod styling, touchscreens, blackbox electronics, or much of the other modern malaise plaguing cars that come with warranties. Suppose one’s warranty is a toolbox, two hands, and a brain. Suppose one wants to get such a vehicle by customizing an older platform oneself, on half the budget. And suppose we add one more criterion: light off-road ability. What does one do?

Here are the basic specifications for the end result:

– Size: must be able to fit a person sleeping in it, but weigh no more than 4000 pounds, preferably closer to 3000. Compact pickups/UV’s

are ok, but a wagon would be preferable, I think. This is primarily a long-distance roadtrip/camping vehicle with secondary offroad ability, not an exo-caged monster-tired rockcrawler.

– Drivetrain: non- (or minimally) electronic, proactive AWD, or

manually operated 4WD.

– Diesel, capable of reliably running on veggie oil in a dual-tank system.

– Age: as long as it performs adequately and I can get parts, the older the better.

– Wear parts must be readily available in North America. Other parts should be reasonably sourcable on this continent (so no Euro-only

engines, for instance).

– The chassis, suspension, ride comfort, and driving dynamics have to be good in at least one of two arenas: on dry pavement, or off-road.

I’d like to avoid a basic-transportation shitbox that’s both mediocre on roads and incapable off of them.

– No slushbox. Three pedals. Ye olde stick ‘n clutch.

– Budget is about $10k. This has to cover the candidate vehicle, either a whole donor vehicle or used/junkyarded big pieces (engine,

trans), and the vast majority of the entire vehicle’s wear items (new parts). Labor costs will be little to none.

Comfort, performance, style, badge cachet, and other criteria not listed are secondary to irrelevant (about in that order). The theme

here is reliable long-term Function. I’m able and willing to do some custom work, including driveline swaps and mild fabrication. So, what platform should I start with, and what should I do with it?

Steve Answers:Two vehicles almost fit your description. Really. They are both ‘authentic’ in their approach. Although one of them is a PITA and the other as rare as a hen’s tooth. But if you must buy an elusive model…I have owned two Isuzu Trooper’s from the late 80’s. The first had about 90k. The other 105k. Both of them averaged only about 5,000 miles a year when I got them and both came with Isuzu’s oil spewing. 2.3 Liter 4-cylinder engine. Nope, not a diesel.However there is a very strong enthusiast site for this orphan brand, especially in diesel form. Even today you can sometimes find them available as diesels in the US because they are a popular aftermarket swap. The diesel offers better grunt. 30 mpg on the highway, and more than enough space in the back for sleeping. They are awesome vehicles even without a diesel. . Land Rovers are also available as diesels but I would just go for something a bit easier to service and less costly on the wallet.Other cars? Ummm… Peugeot 505? A jacked up 1st gen VW Passat? Maybe even a W124 diesel wagon if you can find one? But if you want to do any off-roading… fughedaboutit! Go get something a bit more rugged with a lot more room. You may be a little sorry when repairs come for the Isuzu. But not nearly as sorry as when you try to buy parts for the European vehicles.

Sajeev Answers:

You want something with a diesel, a stick, a wagon/utility body and a fair amount of parts availability in North America? I don’t doubt your ability to keep this hypothetical beast running, but what intrigues me is your ability to do a custom work. I’d start with a diesel wagon and let you figure out how to put a stick in it. My choice? A mid-80s Mercedes 300TD wagon. While the platform totally rocks and has decent aftermarket support, I don’t believe the diesels ever came with a stick. But I am sure you can find a U-shift-it gearbox that’ll bolt up, and the pedal assembly to make it work. If you can’t, hey, three outta four ain’t bad.

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to , and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.
Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang

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  • Sage06 Sage06 on Jun 07, 2011

    Mitsubishi Delica!!! not a US car but widely available in Canada. and occasionally imported from japan. pick on up that has 25yrs on the clock and self importing is easy. they go from 8 to 12K. Parts are widely available (same parts as there trucks) its a 4x4 deisel (25mpg) with a available stick and the space of a WV van. you can get a pop top camper attachment. and they will run forever. Iv seen some nicely decked out surf wagons in Vancouver made from these.

  • Sage06 Sage06 on Jun 07, 2011

    Or pick up an older soobie GL wagon for around a grand to 1.5K. mine was $800 with 100k on the guage and no rust. I have the carb gas version that is not fast but gets 28 in town and 35 on open road. you could swap out for a euro diesel boxer (available on all non us current models) an throw on a lift kit to run forester springs and 29" truck tires. as far as the lift it works great and is cheap enough. O and they were Front wheel drive with a true 4x4 and a locking rear diff. more stock clearance than a ford explorer.

  • Wjtinfwb Funny. When EV's were bursting onto the scene; Tesla's, Volt's, Leaf's pure EV was all the rage and Hybrids were derided because they still used a gas engine to make them, ahem; usable. Even Volt's were later derided when it was revealed that the Volt's gas engine was actually connected to the wheels, not just a generator. Now, Hybrids are warmly welcomed into the Electric fraternity by virtue of being "electrified". If a change in definition is what it takes, I'm all for it. Hybrid's make so much sense in most American's usage patterns and if needed you can drive one cross-country essentially non-stop. Glad to see Hybrid's getting the love.
  • 3-On-The-Tree We also had a 1973 IH Scout that we rebuilt the engine in and it had dual glass packs, real loud. I miss those days.
  • 3-On-The-Tree Jeff thanks. Back in 1990 we had a 1964 Dodge D100 with a slant six with a 3 on the tree. I taught myself how to drive a standard in that truck. It was my one of many journeys into Mopar land. Had a 1973 Plymouth duster with a slant six and a 1974 Dodge Dart Custom with 318 V8. Great cars and easy to work on.
  • Akear What is GM good at?You led Mary............................................What a disgrace!
  • Randy in rocklin I have a 87 bot new with 200k miles and 3 head gasket jobs and bot another 87 turbo 5 speed with 70k miles and new head gaskets. They cost around 4k to do these days.