Introduction: Cheap 4x4 Utility Vehicle

About: I used to be a mechanic who fixed big and small engines alike. Now, do to a spinal injury, I can't do all that I used to, but I get around. I love Linux, electronics, cars, and I make it my life's work to shar…

Now you see, where I come from, tractors and pickups are the order of the day. We get lots of work done, but through all of that, we need vehicles. I'm from a rural community in North Carolina, U.S.A. and personally manage the upkeep and maintenance of a 5 acre property. Now that might not sound like much, but I have to mow most of that, also included are trees, rocks, creekside access bordering one side of the property, garden plots, as well as 5 buildings and houses. This is a lot of work for one person, so for quite some time now I've been contemplating the purchase of a side by side UTV, or an ATV four-wheeler.

Then I checked the prices. The low end model side by sides are over $9,000, with a small loading capacity, and four wheelers, well. Can't really haul much without a trailer. Don't even ask me about buying something used, because if it's cheap, that means it's about ready for the scrap pile.

Here are a list of my requirements for an All-Purpose Utility Vehicle:

It must be TRUE four wheel drive (4x4) and not that AWD knock off junk. (My reason for this is because I eventually intend to drive this underwater, with some modifications, and AWD computer systems would be fried.)

It must be able to haul logs, up to 10' long.

It must have enough clearance to crawl over logs, rocks and ditches.

And Most importantly, it must be cheap!

WARNING: Working with moving parts and heavy machinery is dangerous. By following any guidelines as stated in this tutorial, you assume all responsibility to use the proper PPE and to work safely in accordance with OSHA regulations. You are responsible for following any local/regional laws regarding the operation and/or use of heavy machinery and equipment (This includes road vehicles) and power tools. Please take any and all precautions to keep yourself and others safe, as well as being mindful of the environment. You must dispose of all fluids in accordance with local law.

Basically, use common sense.


It is generally recommended that you have a good mechanical knowledge about you, otherwise you can follow a guidebook such as the popular Haynes(®) manuals, or an automotive/side by side repair guide. I also recommend that you have some fabrication skills, as this may be needed in later steps. (This includes the ability to weld) Also, you have to have good bargaining skills, to talk down some horrendous prices into the "reasonable zone" I will not be covering hydraulic systems in this Instructable, such as those found on Skidsteers, backhoes, or power log splitters, to name a few examples.

List of tools:


2. Pliers, vice grips, channel locks, and needle nose pliers.

3. An assortment of screwdrivers, depending on what you will be dealing with.

4. A VEHICLE JACK (rated at least 2 TONs) and JACK STANDS (THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT! Never work under a vehicle that is not supported by a jack and jack stands! If the jack fails, the crushing weight of the vehicle could sever limbs, or result in death!)

5. A really big hammer. Good for beating stubborn metal bits out of the way.

6. (Optional, highly recommended) A come-along cable puller, always good to have in a Utility vehicle. This will help us later. Link to Harbor Freight 2 TON cable puller

7. A welder (If you can weld)

8. A Rivet gun, (This can be the manually operated kind) and rivets.

(Supplementary tools, not required)

Drill and bits, tin snips, crowbar, sandpaper, spray paint of choice (If you decide to paint your vehicle into some atrocious color) WD40 (PB Blaster, liquid wrench) and anything else you think you might need.

Step 1: 2WD Vs 4x4 Vs AWD

To obtain a vehicle, you must first find the vehicle. This is not unlike an ordinary car hunt, however, keep in mind that if you are going to use this as a utility vehicle, part of that usage entails that you are going to be loading/unloading many different loads, such as rocks, wood, tools, etc. if you live on a farm or out in the middle of nowhere like I do. So the outward appearances are probably not going to matter, because you might not even register this thing for the road. It's a simple utilitarian work horse that is meant to be used, not seen. Of course, this is all up to your preferences. If looks are important, then by all means, go for it.

Now consider where you live, is it a flat area with lots of field that the vehicle will be working in? How much does it rain? Is the ground dry or muddy most of the time? Do you live in the mountains? All of this should be a determining factor in whether you decide to purchase a 2 wheel drive, (2x4) or a 4 wheel drive (4x4). Don't know the difference? Allow me to explain. 2x4 is the kind of drive system you would find in many sedan passenger vehicles, such as the popular Toyota Camry. In such vehicles, the wheel that drive the car are usually in the front of the vehicle, although there are exceptions in which the vehicle is rear wheel drive. What this means for you is that the car will do well to move itself, but if it gets stuck in mud, two tires will spin, but the other two will remain motionless, and the car will need external assistance to get unstuck. (Like pulling it out with a come-along, or towing it out with another vehicle) 2x4 vehicles are marginally cheaper and more common to find than 4x4 vehicles, although the modern trend of the AWD SUV is rapidly displacing these figures.

The great advantage of a true 4x4 system is that power is delivered to all four wheels, when this system is engaged. Most true 4x4 drivetrains have what is called a transfer case, and what this does is select between a 2x4 and a 4x4 system. All time 4x4 systems are also commonly found in some cars, but these systems are usually found as AWD, which is somewhat different than 4x4. I'll get to that later. On some older 4x4 systems with a transfer case, it will cause transfer case binding to drive on a solid surface (such as pavement) with 4x4 engaged, although this varies from model to model. The main culprit to 4x4 systems is that is the vehicle is teetering (Say the front right and back left wheels are only touching the ground) and will cause the non traction tires to spin. You probably won't be running into this situation, unless you are going somewhere offroad that is not generally meant to be driven on.

AWD, short for All Wheel Drive, is the most commonly found drive system in SUVs sold today, and is a varient of the original 4x4 systems. Basically, the main difference between 4x4 and AWD is computer control. The computer of the vehicle tells how much power is delivered to what wheel, and these AWD systems (Such as that found in Subaru vehicles) do great in muddy situations. The wheels get different amounts of power based on traction, and usually keeps the vehicle moving through mud for longer.

There is a more rare breed of 4x4 with what is called lockers, or locking differentials. What this generally is referring to is that both drive axles are locked in the center, and all four wheels are going to turn no matter what wheel is on the ground. This means that you are going to keep moving even if the vehicle only has two wheels on the ground, like in a teetering situation. However, if lockers are engaged on pavement, you will most likely skid your tires and/or break an axle, which is a VERY bad thing to do. Lockers are usually owned by hardcore offroad enthusiasts, and are not commonly found in everyday street vehicles. Generally, if you have lockers, you had to specifically buy them as an option, or install them yourself. You are most likely not going to find these in a car, unless it is a modified Jeep Wrangler or Cherokee, and these can raise the value of such vehicles exponentially.

Didn't understand a thing I just said? I don't blame you. It can be a hard concept to wrap your head around. Here is a good explanation video on The Differences Between AWD and 4x4, and A demo video showing 2WD and 4x4 capabilities.

TO SUM IT UP: If you need a 4x4 vehicle for your planned uses, get it. If you think that 2WD will be sufficient, say to move stuff around from one shed to another, get that. It's up to you.

Step 2: The Hunt

Now, where can you find a cheap vehicle? Check craigslist, there are
many ugly ducklings that run quite well for sale, and look around your neighborhood. Sometimes an old pickup truck will stay parked because something newer was bought, or part of the body was damaged. Who needs windshields, anyway? Remember, you're after functionality, not looks. We're going mad max now. (Well, that was partly looks)

Check your local junkyards, many times an old beater was brought in for nothing more than a blown radiator and a few dents. Narrow down your results, and compare. If you don't know how to inspect a vehicle, do some research on what to look for. My budget was $500, and I didn't surpass that. In fact, I made a deal with a guy and got 2 Geo Trackers for $300, one convertible, and one hardtop. That left plenty of money to fix what was wrong with them, and to make one working vehicle.

Ask a friend who knows more than you to look it over. Does it run? If so, good. Does it overheat? Find out why and see if you can fix it. Just keep a mindset of functionality. The looks of a car usually has nothing to do with how well it runs. Some of the junkiest beater cars lining the far reaches of a Walmart parking lot could have well over 250,000 miles on them, still running strong.

I don't like to be a finger pointer, but I will warn against buying an old Subaru. Subaru uses the boxer engine, and for many years, a lot of their vehicles would have constant headgasket/coolant problems over the 100,000 mile range. Some more reliable engines to look for are inline 4, such as found in the Camry, Geo Trackers and much, much more. Inline 6 and V8 engines are also of good design, and generally last a long time.

Next, consider how many miles the car has on it. Over 250k? If it's even running, these cars can go for very reasonable prices, considering they don't usually have much life left in them. As a mechanic, I can tell you that the main reason people throw away a good vehicle is because the maintenance and repair for daily driving exceeds the value of the car. Most people don't know how to change a main oil seal to fix a leaky engine, or how to change a blown radiator. Most mechanics could charge between $500 and, unsurprisingly, $2000 for these minor jobs! Auto repair is expensive, and I hope to teach you a little bit on how to do it yourself today. In the next step, I'll list some common issues you'll most likely find in cheap cars and trucks you'll see for sale, and give good common ways to fix them on a budget. Once you've identified an issue with your prospective purchase, try to identify any issues it has mechanically, and do some internet or library research on the make, model and problem of the vehicle.

Step 3: So What's the Issue, Anyway?

Any cheap car (Under $500) is going to have problems. Always. Unless you have some kind of mind control and get a person to sell you a vehicle for a low price that has NO issues, you are always going to have issues. Here are some common problems with used and beat up cars, and I'll try to list them in some resemblance of orderliness as well as how common they are.

1. OIL LEAKS! Need I say more? The humble oil leak, the downfall of cars and trucks post 200k, this issue is one that has sent hundreds of thousands if not millions of good working vehicles to the scrap yard, even in spite of how easy it can be to fix. The main causes of oil leaks are bad gaskets. Gaskets can be replaced.Here's how to see if a car has an oil leak: Look down the sides of the engine. Are there black streams of a sticky liquid going down the side? No? Check on the bottom of the engine. The black bottom is called the oil pan. Does the oil pan have any signs of fluid that had once been dripping from it? run your finger across random parts of the engine. Do you get a black dirty scum that's thick, especially around the timing cover and rocker cover? (Look these up if you don't understand) It's generally easy to identify an old oil leak. If you have one, you'll have to find out what type of leak it is, where it's coming from, and how hard it will be to fix it. You might not be able to fix it in a day, but this can be your practise car, and you can learn the art of fixing things, one Google search at a time! (I'll also mention the issue of burning oil, which is what it sounds like. The engine burns oil while it runs. This is mostly caused by bad piston rings, and is hard to fix. If you won't be using the car much, this might not be a big issue for you, since the car will mostly be sitting around waiting for the next assignment)

2. DOES IT RUN? No? Why not? If it does run, ask for a quick test drive. Does the transmission work? Check all the gears, is possible. If this is an older car, you might be dealing with a manual transmission, and you may have to learn to drive one. It can be a learning curve, but even if you're a slow learner, you shouldn't need more than 20 minutes to learn the art of not popping the clutch in third gear. Rev the engine. Do you hear a ticking/knocking noise? This could be a sign of a bad rod, a loose valve rocker, or many other little nightmares. Generally, if I hear a knocking coming from a running engine, I will not buy it. It's easier that way. If it doesn't run, but turns over, it could be a case of bad fuel. Ask the owner when it last ran. Many fuel injected engines (Commonly found from the model years of 1995-present) will start up on gas that has been sitting for over a year, and I've even seen sitting for 3 years that ran the engine just fine. Was the car built before 1990? You probably have a carburetor. And oooh boy. That baby is going to need a cleaning. If the owner says the car had been sitting for over 3 years, but ran when it was parked, that's up to your judgment. If you don't know much about mechanics and tinkering in general, I recommend you buy a car that already runs, drives and doesn't overheat, which leads me to

3. DOES IT OVERHEAT? Many cars are notorious for overheating/blowing their radiators, such as some older Jeep cherokee models. Do some research on the model you intend to buy, and find reviews for it. This will tell the tale on whether you're buying an immediate headache or not. If possible, drive the car for at least 20 minutes, getting the engine over 2.5k RPMs and watch the temperature gauge. If the car does overheat, it could be something as simple as no coolant. Check the radiator. Does it have coolant? Usually if the coolant is still in it after sitting for a long period of time, it's a good sign the radiator doesn't leak.

4. CHECK FOR RUST. If you live farther north than Virginia, you probably see a lot of cars go to a premature death caused by rust. It's called the rust belt for a reason. Honestly, this is left up to your discretion. If you only need the car once in a while to haul logs or whatever else, a little rust ain't gonna hurt a thing. My beater has holes in the floor big enough to lose a Starbucks cup in, but the frame is almost perfect. Check the frame. Is there surface rust? A little probably won't be a big issue, but I prefer none. Is the frame rusted in half? Cast it into the list of things you don't want to buy. A broken frame is not an easy fix, but once again, I will leave this to your discretion. You probably aren't going to be driving this thing on the road, and what driving you do will be short trips across the property. But only you know your needs. Do some of that glorious Google research and find out what you need to know.

Step 4: Found the One? Great! Now What?

If you've found your ultimate redneck beater utility vehicle, you're probably all set! If it runs good, and looks like it's been dragged through the far reaches of your weird cousins crazy mind, then it's probably set to work. But what if you have specialized needs, like ploughing over 8' tall weeds? Or lighting up your path brighter than day? Well, keep on reading. We're going to be getting into the beautification and functional-ization process making the vehicle more useful.

Step 5: Lights

If you don't have good enough lights on the car already, or if the lights even work, I've posted some links to lights I use. They are bright, functional and make working in a dark corner of the woods a whole lot easier.

These Roadshock Halogen Work Lights are great for night work, and light up a path about 75 yards in front of you pretty clearly. I use them personally, and all this comes at the cost of a little over $8.00 for one light. They are sealed waterproof units too, so you don't have to worry about installing them wrong. If they turn on, they work.

These 6" Lights are larger than the previous, and probably brighter. I don't use them, but I was going to, until I saw the cheaper ones that came with a rubber cover.

A set of Square Lens Halogen Lights are useful for dual installation, and can mount on the bumper.

An LED Light Bar makes for easy installation without as much worry to break as a glass bulb. However these are far more expensive, and they are entirely up to you. This 14" LED Bar is larger, and will light up more.

My $8 halogen lights work perfectly though.

You can also find good lights at Walmart, and other places as well. I'm not an advocate for Harbor Freight, it's just what's near me and what's cheap, decent quality.

Step 6: A Bumper

Will the stock bumper not work for you, or will you need to install a winch? A custom offroad bumper will be good for you. I installed a piece of 6x4 at 65" long, and it does well. I use it to knock down tall weeds, and it also makes a good footrest if I sit on the hood. I put some pictures up to give you an idea of what you could do.

Image One: Courtesy of

Image Two: Courtesy of Yours Truly

Image Three: Courtesy of

Step 7: Onboard Tools to Consider

What kind of work will the vehicle be doing? Will you be dragging things around? Moving heavy loads? Consider buying A Winch.

You could also have onboard: A hatchet/axe, sledge hammer, shovel, pickaxe, and whatever else you can think of. Make sure that all tools are secured, because we don't want those things bouncing around, do we? A good way to secure small items is with a toolbox.

I generally recommend you have a spare tire, and the tools to change it. Nobody like to be stuck, even if it is a two minute walk from the tool shed.

Step 8: Fabrication of New Body Parts and Accessories

So now you've got your brand new, (read old) beat up (total rust bucket) work-mobile. Are there any other kinds of things you could add to make the thing even more useful? What about a seat on the hood? I like sitting on my hood. You probably don't. If you can't weld, use some perforated metal strip. This stuff is your friend through hard times, and it never lets you down. As you can see in the third picture, I used some screws and the metal strip to install a heavy duty grill, good for taking direct impacts from logs and tools. I will be welding this on later, but it is good to hold parts in place until you can properly weld them down.

If you have an SUV with a frame mounted spare tire, it might not be a bad idea to mount the tire somewhere it won't become accessible if you get stuck in mud. I recommend the front of the vehicle (Directly in front of the grill) or in the rear. Be sure that if you make a roof mount or put it in the cargo area of the vehicle, you build proper mounts and secure it very well. If you were to get into a collision, the tire could jump up and hit you in the neck. Getting paralyzed is a big no-no. Or it could slide forward off of the roof and hit someone in front of you.

For non-critical parts of the body, wood is a perfectly acceptable alternative to sheet metal. It's cheaper too, easy to conform and modify and can be removed later. To attach wood to the metal parts of the vehicle, just drill a hole through the wood, into the metal, and install your bolt or screws to hold it in place. If you ever foresee this vehicle being used on the road, make sure you mount it firmly and possibly use some metal strip. Remember, you can make anything good out of wood, but to use it, you have to mount it right or risk losing it.

Step 9: In Conclusion

If you haven't guessed, this whole Instructable has kind of been a
ruse to brag on my Box. By the way, have you named your vehicle? You can! Give it a unique name nobody (Not even pretty much every 80's car designer) has thought of. This vehicle is yours for the making. You can do whatever you want to it, and because it's not street legal, nobody can get you in trouble for your crazy modifications. I wanted a simple 4x4 to haul stuff and to crawl up old four wheeler trails, and that's exactly what I got. You might want something different, whether it be your first car, a dune buggy, a work mule, demolition derby, and so much more. Welcome to the world of motorsports, I guarantee you didn't buy something that can do 0-60 in 5 seconds with this guide, but at least you can make it work. Show us your style, and post some pictures to show us your custom ATV/UTV/Box (Had to throw that in there) vehicle, and give us your ideas! If you need any help getting something running, feel free to comment and I'll try my best to figure it out.

Did I miss something? Message me and I'll add it to this instructable!

Have a great day!

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