Reader Question: Best ’90s Trucks under $5,000?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Steve asks: Lost job as a school teacher . . . wouldn’t ware a Face Diaper as a PE teacher and refused to make students wear Diapers . . . outside. So going back to painting carpentry I’ve done since grad school. Love your site!

My reply: Very sorry to hear you got the boot for showing your face but applaud you for taking a stand – and the consequences. You showed those kids an example some will recognize and admire. The effect of that is incalculable.

On the trucks: The good news is there were several compact-sized trucks made during that era which you can probably find today in decent shape for $5,000 or so. They are the Nissan Frontier and its Toyota rival, the “pickup” (it had no name). Both are sturdy little trucks capable of doing truck things, such as tow and plow and carry heavy loads. They also have/offer real-deal 4×4, and with manual locking hubs, too.

The bad news is they are hard to buy – precisely because they are so desirable. People who own them are reluctant to sell them. But if you are diligent – and prepared to jump on a find when you find it – you’ll succeed. I recommend having cash on hand and being ready to buy right now. Don’t dilly dally. If you come across an ad call the guy and make arrangements to see it immediately – and bring the money. If it checks out, buy the thing!

This, by the way, is exactly what my friends who bought the ’90s Ram 1500 did. They bought the truck within two hours of the ad appearing on Craigslist.

Speaking of 1500s: You may be able to find one for $5k or so but it will probably need work. Mechanical work is one thing. Body (and frame) work is another thing. It’s generally easier to swap in a new/rebuilt engine or transmission than it is to weld – or replace – a rotted frame. But if you know how to weld, that might be less an issue than replacing a tired engine.

Either way, practice due diligence. A truck from the ’90s is now almost an antique truck and rust/age do their things to old vehicles. And vehicles that have been carefully cared for and which are free of rust and haven’t got mechanical problems tend to be expensive.

I think your money will go a lot farther toward a compact-sized truck like the ’90s Frontier or its Toyota rival.

Hope this helps!

. . .

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  1. 90’s F150’s (The ones that still shared the same bodies as the F250/F350) can still be found in turn-key condition for under $5K, if a 1/2 ton’ll work for ya. Seems the more desirable those F150’s are- i.e. straight-six 300ci engine, manual tranny, will make ’em even cheaper. Probably the last good deals left in pick-ups- a full-sized truck that’ll be functional forever, for under $5K- Get ’em while ya can.

    • Amen to that. An F150 with a 300 and a 5 speed will get very respectable mileage and be quite maintainable. Beware the goofy twin traction beam front axle- its a PITA to maintain and the internal U joints do fail.

      An equally good option is the Chevy/GMC C/K 1500 with any small block V8 or the 4.3 V6- they are even better but they are more popular so the prices are higher.

      Avoid Dodge like the plague- unless you can score a Cummins/2500 under 5k (good luck), thirsty engines, weak transmissions, rusty bodies, wear prone steering, run screaming the other way!

      • Ernie, you forgot the vaporizing dashboards on those Dodges! My neighbor had a perfect example of the problem- a ’95 or ’96 Dodge 1-ton 4×4 Cummins dually flatbed. Great truck, except for thast pin inside the timing case that has a tendency to fall out; the weak A-arms in the front suspension, and the vaporizing intior. The dash in that truch was literally held together with sheet metal and pop rivets. Try finding a good dash for one….they’re all bad. Shame, ’cause otherwise they’re phenomenal trucks (when equipped with a manual tranny), and the pick-up bodied models can easily pull 20MPG.

        • The killer dowel pin is easy to fix/prevent. My 01 with auto/4wd will get a consistent 30mpg if I drive slow (50), or 21 mpg at 67. But that’s all Cummins and very little Dodge. My steering needs to be rebuilt for the third time in 250k, and the body is much lighter than it was when it left the factory.

          Pity, because I like the styling inside and out, and it’s comfortable for day trips with the gooseneck behind. I won’t get rid of it, but the flaws never end.

  2. IMO, rust is the issue. I needed a beater farm truck, and got lucky. Found a late 90’s Chevy K2500 std. cab, 8ft bed (rare today) in the North East where the older gentlemen used it to travel with a bed camper in it all over the South West (no rust) for 10-12 years of it’s life. It had lots of miles, 150 I think, but that doesn’t scare me if all highway. We’ve used it as a firewood truck, beat the hell out of it. Original engine/trans still, 175miles now.
    Since it’s been with us for about 8-10 years it has needed lots of maintenance, typical stuff like brakes, etc…
    But recently it hit me hard because of our salt here and the brake lines are all gone. No way I was doing that job so it cost me $2000+ to do them all. Hard to stomach for a $5K truck, but I justified it by saying if I bought another $5K truck, it would be worse.
    I am a fan of the late 90’s GM K series. I think the truck that could still be built today without all the Regs/CAFE crap. Parts are relatively cheap and you can mostly do your own work on it.
    Best of luck.


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