By on May 31, 2011
Geðrven writes:

Greetings!

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.


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59 Comments on “New or Used: The Homebrew Uberwagon...”


  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    The ideal vehicle here would be a late-model Outback with an EDM boxer diesel transplant, but that’s not getting done for $10k.

    As for the Benz wagon, could one crib the parts from a 240D?

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    The BMW E30 was available with all the components mentioned, and there are at least a handful of wagon bodied E30s running around in the US. I know of someone who was putting an E28 524td M21 engine into an E30, but it was a RWD E30. I don’t know how easy it is to make the 325ix’s front axle work with an M21 block and oil pan, or if these components mix and match with the M20 that came in US 325ix cars. Good luck! You’ll be an internet hero, but you’ll have to be both a great mechanic and place no value on your time. Also, you’ll have to find the worst E30 wagon to start with in order to stay near budget.

    When I was in high school, my friend’s father had an Isuzu Pup 4×4 diesel with a stick. We borrowed it from time to time. I assume that the drivetrain from it would have swapped directly into a Trooper II, but I also recall that we would stick the fuel pedal under the floormat and still be the slowest vehicle on Virginia’s interstate highways back when the speed limit was 55 mph and our cops were famous for for their vigilence. Also, it was incredibly short lived. Perhaps working harder than any other engine ever had to was the problem, but that truck went to the scrap yard at less than 3 years of age.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    I know this goes against all the collective automotive wisdom of western civilization, but you could find the building blocks you need in the form of a VW Quantum Syncro Wagon and a Quantum, Dasher, or Audi 5000 diesel.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    A well-used M-1 Abrams tank stripped of all armament, as that vehicle will run on anything!

  • avatar

    I think there are at least two Peugeot 505 wagons in Bethesda, MD, alone, one that’s used as a hauler. But I’ve never seen a 505 anywhere in the US with a stick.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Peugeot did not make any Turbo-diesel 505 wagons with a manual transmission. Or Turbo-gas for that matter, they are all automatics. They did make non-turbo 505 wagons with manuals though. I had a 2.2L gas ’92 SW8 that I had converted to manual. One of the very last shipment sold new in the US. Lovely car, wish I still had it.

      Mercedes did sell a few W124 TDs with manual transmissions in the states. Good luck finding one, and even more good luck getting the present owner to sell. In theory it should be possible to transplant the diesel into an AWD W124 chassis with a stick. MB certainly sold plenty of such on the other side of the pond. On the other hand, probably one of the most expensive to run AWD drivetrains ever made.

      As to the recommendation of an Isuzu Trooper?? Have you driven one of those turds? I have, and it is about the LAST thing I would want to take on any kind of extended road trip. Loud, ill-handling, did I mention they are LOUD?! And they rust like rust is going out of style.

      Actually, how about a diesel Suburban? Most are automatics, but easy enough to do the swap. Loads of space, relatively comfortable. A little on the big side, but plenty of sleeping room.

  • avatar
    M 1

    So you’re one of those people who could actually use a real truck-based SUV, but you don’t want to admit it.

    Good luck with that.

    • 0 avatar
      TEXN3

      I am one as well, but we’ve done quite well getting by with our 2007 Outback (2.5i H4, 5MT, 50/50 AWD, locking rear diff, 8.9 inches clearance, Geolander AT tires, skid and diff plates).

      Otherwise, the XTerra was the most likely candidate…always liked the Hertz rentals I had. Great looking in red brick too.

      • 0 avatar
        Quentin

        Where did you get a locking rear diff for your Outback? The center diff is a limited slip, but even the newer WRXs don’t come with a limited slip rear diff.

        If he’d ditch the diesel requirement, I’d recommend an Outback. Great vehicles and far more capable than 90% of the CUVs sold today.

      • 0 avatar
        TEXN3

        You’re right, I was thinking about the Xterra while writing up about my Outback.

        The center and rear are limited-slip differentials.

        Thanks for pointing out my mistake.

      • 0 avatar
        M 1

        I’ve had a few friends with XTerras who actually use them. If you put a ton of money into them, they seem to hold up well, but if you go with stock, you’ll end up putting a ton of money into them anyway.

        They weren’t exactly Nissan’s best effort.

        Heck, now that I think about it, what the guy really needs is a pickup truck with one of those slide-in bed camper topper things.

        But given the sum total of the parameters of his request, he’s basically fantasizing.

    • 0 avatar
      Quentin

      Yeah, my vote was going to be swap a diesel into a 2nd gen 4Runner. They are pretty easy to find with 4WD and a stick. Diesel engines from the Hilux are filtering in from north of the border. You’ll probably have to regear the rear end, though.

      <— loves camping/biking/hiking with his BoF SUV.

  • avatar
    william442

    Didn’t Leon Mandel do this about 30 years ago? Check Car & Driver.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    Toyota Pickup/Hilux 4×4. They came in Diesel in the US, or import a drivetrain.

    Put a cap/canopy/shell on it and call it good.

  • avatar

    Vanagon Synchro with a 1.9TDI swap.

  • avatar

    Or a DIY version of a MkII Golf Country, with a 1.6TD or 1.9TDI swap.

  • avatar
    TEXN3

    Forgo the veggie-diesel (always potential for issues) and just get a 3rd-gen Outback wagon. Everything you’ve asked for.

    Want something cheaper, a 1st-gen Outback wagon with a rebuilt boxer and Forester springs (increased height).

  • avatar
    Sundowner

    claimants to having a tool box and a brain have to be ready to brew your own. My vote is for an AMC eagle wagon as it had good Jeep hardware and copious engine room. Then snag an Onan gen set ‘engine swap in a box’ as it came with the beautiful 4 cyl Cummins turbo diesel engine and all the widgets you’d need to put it in an odd car frame. A little tuning and that thing would be a monster.

    OF course, it the miserable pigs and Audi or BMW would just bring over an off-the-shelf commonly found vehicle from any new car lot in europe, they could win a lot of my money as a sale. I’ll take an A6 Avant quattro with a 6 speed stick and the big 3.0L TDI, please. If they still feel like screwing me over, put a DSG in it, but keep the damnable sliptronic.

  • avatar
    friedclams

    An old Suburban with suspension lowered and extraneous bits removed (to reduce weight). It’s all there.

  • avatar
    friedclams

    An old Suburban with suspension lowered and extraneous bits removed (to reduce weight). OR:

    An old Blazer. The 4.3L motor can be replaced with a 3.9 Isuzu diesel (there are kits available for this) and manual transmissions abound from S-10s. That gets you even closer…

  • avatar
    Pinzgauer

    Diesel Vanagon Syncro. I think you could buy a Vanagon stock with a diesel, and there are surely many conversion kits if not. You might even be able to get a Westfalia Vanagon already made to be a camper with a pop top.

    • 0 avatar
      airmon

      These guys make parts and full conversion kits. http://www.vanagain.com/conver1.htm

      I think the hard part is going to be doing it for $10k or less, particularly if you go with a Westphalia camper version.

    • 0 avatar

      Seconded. The Synchro Vanagon Westy is incredibly functional and has great support resources. If you can let go of the French fry scented diesel ambition, you can get a decent one and an EJ22 for under $10k.

  • avatar
    Kosher Polack

    I believe some XJ Cherokees came with a diesel, though it may not have been a good one. But if you’re resourceful enough, sure, it could happen, no problem.

    Not very glamorous or large or relaxing, but a Suzuki Grand Vitara or a Kia Sportage could probably accept a lot of wacky backyard engine swap hijinks on the cheap. A low-end nameplate makes these things easier. Mercedes? Ha!

    • 0 avatar
      sean362880

      I like the old jeep idea.

      You could get really stupid, and go with an ’86 wagoneer and a Cummins turbodiesel.

      http://aaronreevesgarage.com/category/1986-grand-wagoneer

      How hard can it be?

      • 0 avatar
        Kosher Polack

        That thing is way cooler than some run-of-the-mill Suburban.

        More than a decade ago my father and I put together a ’67 Wagoneer with an old Chevrolet six-cylinder dump truck engine strapped up to the existing TH400 with an adapter made out of iron plate (this was for farm use, though it can reach 70). Anything you can imagine can fit into that engine bay.

      • 0 avatar
        airmon

        I love that Wagoneer/Cummins, but I’m not sure how nice something like that would be on long road trips. You might wish for a gas Subaru wagon after a thousand freeway miles. Depends on the driver, I suppose.

        I think this is going to be pretty tough unless you give up even just one of your wishes. I thought up lots of examples, but they all seemed to miss on at least one point, so I’m going to suggest a car that I know leaves one out. Hey, it’s a discussion, right?

        How about an 05 or 06 Jeep Liberty CRD ( Common Rail Diesel )? They were only made for two years, in ’07 emissions regs changed and they stopped making them here in the USA. All of them were 4×4’s and have off-road capabilities greater than most of the other small SUV’s with a transfer case and a low range.

        With the passenger seat all the way forward, I think I could sleep on that side in mine. though I’ve never tried. If you’re taller than that, or need accommodations for two you could easily tow an off-road capable teardrop trailer with the 290lb/ft of torque. I use mine to tow a 23′ Carolina Skiff without much effort. Car and Driver tested it at 10.1 seconds 0 to 60, so they’re not terribly slow.

        On the highway they get 25mpg and are fairly civilized and happy with a day spent at 80 mph. It’s still a small SUV, but it’s a pretty modern one with A/C and cruise control. You’ll have to do some looking to find an ’05 for under $10k and all of them were 5-speed automatics, though I think it’s a pretty nice one.

        Also, I believe that Jeep made a Cherokee from 85-87 with a 2.1l Renault turbo diesel. 85 hp, 135 lb/ft of torque. Supposed to have been problematic and hard to find these days.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        In 84-86 AMC did offer a 2.1 Renault diesel in the Cherokee/Wagoneer. I remember seeing a few back then. They had a 2.1 emblem on the tailgate

  • avatar
    BigOldChryslers

    In 1983-85, Chevy Blazer and GMC Jimmy were available with a 2.2L Isuzu 4-cylinder diesel. They were pretty gutless in stock form, and likely pretty rare, but if you can find one in decent condition it might be a good starting point. Other than the engine itself, maintenance and upgrade parts for a Jimmy/Blazer ought to be very common. I don’t know anything about these particular engines, but adding a turbo and intercooler seems like a given to me.

  • avatar
    ADent

    How about a nice 245 Dirsel

  • avatar
    ADent

    How about a nice 245 Diesel Volvo wagon? For more power check out a 745 Turbo Diesel. See D24T.com .

  • avatar
    bucksnort

    These suggestions are getting very complicated when there is a simple solution. All you have to do is determine the maximum degree of difficulty of your the off-road driving. Where I live in western CO, we use a simple rating system for vehicles required for various back country destinations…Subaru’s or no Subaru’s/high clearance.

    If you can get there in a Subaru, that is your solution; just pick the year and model. They meet almost all of your criteria and can get you to a lot of places if you are willing to accept some undercarriage/exhaust system damage. If not, stick with Toyota/Nissan maybe Isuzu body on frame SUV or pickup options. Full-sized Ford or Chevy diesel pickups could work as well.

    As an aside, and if you decide to go further into the back country, at 72″ tall, I can actually sleep on the passenger side of my ’08 Jeep long wheelbase Rubicon (LJ) with the back seat removed and the passenger seat leaning up against the dash in rear seat entry mode. If you stay with 31″ or 33″ tires the highway ride is tolerable, mainly because of the longer wheelbase. You can import a European spec diesel crate engine from a German Jeep dealer or take CRD one out of an old Jeep Liberty.

  • avatar
    SunnyvaleCA

    I had a 1986 300E with stick. The only w124 bodies with stick in the USA were the 300E and 260E from 1986 and 1988. There were very few. The good news is that sticks were common in w124’s in the rest of the world, so parts and information should be available. Also, the cars are old enough that they don’t have a gigantic amount of electronic controls that can make changing things difficult.

    The factory stick in the 300E wasn’t particularly good unless you got the rare “close ratio” unit. Unfortunately, in the USA the only car that could be had with “close ratio” was the 190E-16. So, you’re probably looking at a transmission from some totally different vehicle. In that case, I’d suggest finding a stick that can handle 295 pound-feet of torque and also transplanting the 4.2L 32-valve V8. The aluminum V8 is about the same weight as the iron inline-6, and because it is shorter can mount farther back in the engine bay to actually improve weight distribution.

    Maybe you could throw in the limited-slip differential from the 300CE.

  • avatar

    Peugeot 406 7 seater wagon diesel turbo has heaps of room and will cruise at any speed you are game to drive it at
    , if you stay under 3000 rpm the fuel milage is about 40mpg

    • 0 avatar
      Gedrven

      I’ve driven and maintained a couple of diesel Peugeots, both 504’s. Noisy and goofy and scarce parts… no thanks.

      The whole inspiration behind this project was looking at what came from the factory with what I want, deciding it all had glaring faults, and wanting to build the same specs out of chassis and engines that aren’t crap.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Mid 1980s diesel Suburban 4×4 at stock ride height. My uncle had one and they’re roughly the height off the ground of a mid to late 1990s 4×2 truck. You’ll think you’re in a slightly elevated station wagon. You might find one with a decent body and interior just be prepared to rebuild the mechanicals cause the guys that have ’em have put 300,000+ miles on them. My farmer uncle couldn’t kill his and good lord knows he and every animal on his hog/grain/produce opperation tried to.

    Or alternatively you could find a B-body wagon with the Olds 350 diesel (from late production in 1985 when they fixed just about everything) and figure out what it would take to get a 4×4 front axle under it along with beefing up the frame.

  • avatar
    ajla

    It isn’t 4WD, but there is a guy on a Jeep forum that did this with a Chevy Celebrity Eurosport wagon. A-body wagons are cheap, and they actually were apparently available with a diesel engine/manual transmission combo. Should be doable for under your budget.

    Here’s the mod list:
    3″ strut lift
    2″ cradle spacers
    Relocated coil spring perches in rear.
    Relocated panhard bar
    1991 U-body van rear shocks
    Boxed rear axle.
    235/60SR14 Firestone Destination A/T’s wrapped around factory alloy

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      (As a former A-body owner and enthusiast) I was aware of the diesel option (a guy in my home town had a Cutlass Ciera sedan with the diesel that he ONLY used for towing his boat!) But I was not aware of the manual trans option. That’s really freaking cool. Now if only there was a limited slip for that FWD.

  • avatar
    Gedrven

    Guys, don’t get hung up on what came with a diesel and what didn’t. That’s the whole point: that I’m able and willing to build this thing myself. I’ve done engine swaps before and I can do them again. As someone suggested above, my time has no value; my only expense is parts.

    I’m willing to fudge on the veggie oil requirement (partly because my preferred climates are such that it’d be a solid half the year), but not on diesel. So… no Subarus. Sorry; otherwise it’d be too easy a choice, since a Legacy or Forester would be perfect.

    Suburbans are way way too heavy. A GMC Safari/Chevy Astro is also too heavy; otherwise its AWD/S10 driveline would do quite well.

    In doing a bit more thinking, it’s coming down to driving enthusiasm taking a back seat to living practicality. So at the top of the list is forming an 80’s Toyota pickup with a custom integrated camper and a 1.9 TDI swap. But I’m keen to hear the more car-like suggestions as well. W124 was at the top of the list, though I don’t think I can live with the maintenance requirements of another German car (see my current überwagon: http://forums.bimmerforums.com/forum/showthread.php?p=16269995).

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Guys, don’t get hung up on what came with a diesel and what didn’t.

      I see. I thought you were looking for a “what if?” period-correct style project.

      • 0 avatar
        Gedrven

        Not sure what gave you that idea, but not at all. I want to build a vehicle to aforementioned specifications, by customizing an older platform on a $10k budget. For this project, I don’t give a hoot for period correctness, or any other kind of correctness other than functional.

  • avatar
    mazder3

    Ford Fairmont wagon. Dirt cheap to buy? Check. Lightweight? Check. Manual transmission? Check. Diesel engine? The Mark VII had a BMW M21 diesel at one point, check. Four or all wheel drive? No check but there has to be a way to fab something up….

  • avatar
    DasFast

    Visit us North of the 49th and pick from a diesel HiLux, 4Runner or LandCruiser. That is if you’re able to register a RHD vehicle in your area. http://www.mustang.bc.ca/
    This is a factory solution and easily serviced although, you must be prepared to live without A/C on the Canadian model. I had one a few years ago, and it was unreal off-road. http://www.dieseltoy.com/DieselToy/default.aspx However, as someone who’s driven 1.5+ million accident free, with it’s short wheel base and high centre of gravity, the BJ70 can dish out a unique type of terror when it goes sideways on black ice at highway speed.

  • avatar
    Feds

    This one’s easy: First gen Mazda MPV.

    They came from the factory with a 5-speed and 4×4. You can find transmissions very easily in yards.

    The transmission itself was the same as in the B2600’s that came with Mitsubishi 4-cylinders. You can swap bellhousings with the earlier truck trans.

    Here’s the good bit: Mitsu 4-cylinders had the same bolt pattern, so a turbo diesel 2500 bolts up in place of the gasser 2.6.

    As for budget, you could probably build 2 for $10k.

    • 0 avatar
      Kosher Polack

      Dang, never would have thought of that. I still see those things everywhere, too.

    • 0 avatar
      Gedrven

      This is one of the few good ideas on here. Unfortunately, the 4D55 engine in question isn’t so great when it comes to reliability. It was one of the first diesels designed to use a turbo, and while it handles boost ok, I’ve never heard of one lasting longer than 200k, most barely making it to 100. Plus parts are getting scarce. I have an 83 Dodge Ram 50 with this motor, and I’m sure glad I have another two spare blocks.

      Still, native transmission and near-native engine fitment is a big plus. This will require some rumination…

  • avatar
    Signal11

    What does “light off road duty” mean? Camping and ‘not rock crawling’ isn’t really a good description.

  • avatar

    Nissan made a diesel Maxima wagon in the early to mid 80s.

  • avatar
    mopar4wd

    Well for this one instead of LS swap FTW. How about 4BT FTW
    http://www.4btswaps.com/forum/index.php

  • avatar

    I’ve done SVO and I’ve done BioDiesel homebrewing. Trust me, it is far easier to hack the fuel than to hack the car. Making your own fuel that will run just fine in any pre-CARB-Bad-Math-Mandate (2007) Diesel is so much more reliable than filtering WVO. Seems counterintuitive, but it’s true.

    Save your injectors and your sanity.

    Otherwise I applaud your quest and wish you well.

    BTW a buddy of mine sold a Wagoneer with a 6.2L Diesel in it not long ago. There are already-done Diesel swaps out there to buy if you look hard enough.

    My Diesel dream is a 1.9L VW A4 TDI in a lightweight, two-seat sports car ala Elise or Miata.

  • avatar
    wsn

    AWD
    Manual
    Wagon
    Diesel
    Veggie Oil

    It’s going from normal auto enthusiasm down right into being a weirdo, with a small budget.

    Just pick a brand new Forester at $25k and call it a day.

    • 0 avatar
      Gedrven

      *sigh*

      I find comments like this downright depressing. Here I’m trying to come up with a way to satisfy a set of needs with what I have (10k and two hands), maybe make something unique and interesting in the process, and I get the ol’ “come up with money you don’t have, stick your head in the sand about petroleum, and follow the herd”.

      I was expecting better from the Best and Brightest. Or does that require posing a different conundrum?

  • avatar
    sage06

    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 4×4 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.

  • avatar
    sage06

    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 4×4 and a locking rear diff. more stock clearance than a ford explorer.

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