Reader Question: EMP-Proof Ride?

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

Conroy asks: I’d like to ask you a question related to one of your past articles (  You indicated that if one wants to buy a vehicle with a purely mechanical fuel delivery system, one should buy something made before 1980.  I’m looking for a vehicle that would be likely to run after an EMP event (an EMP from either a military source or from the sun). Would that same pre-1980 rule also apply?  A prepping newsletter even recommended getting a diesel vehicle for this scenario (something about it not having a wire harness). Do you suggest looking for a diesel vehicle over a gasoline vehicle? Do you have any suggestions as to where I might be able to find a vehicle (preferably a pickup truck) like this? I live in San Diego, California.

My reply: Cars made until roughly the early-mid-1980s mostly still had mechanical fuel delivery systems (i.e., carburetors) but they also had electronic ignition systems. That means they are vulnerable to EMPs. To find a vehicle that is invulnerable, you’d need to find one equipped with a mechanically-controlled (i.e., points-type) ignition. That takes you back to – roughly – 1974 and prior.

However, the good news is that later-model cars (through the ’80s) that came with electronic ignitions are still serviceable, if you keep a spare ignition module and keep it in a place that protects it from EMP surges. Or, you could install an older, points-type distributor; these readily retrofit.

A mechanically injected diesel is however you best bet – and not only because it will start so long as you have a battery (or a hill). These older diesels will run on practically any fuel, including vegetable/waste cooking oil and so on.

As far as where to find: I’d regularly cruise your local Craigs List/Auto Trader for the best deals and also just keep your eyes and ears open; let your friends and associates know you’re looking for a vehicle. This is usually a very effective way to find what you are after!

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  1. Could I note that this article is based on extreme misunderstanding of what an EMP actually is and how it “fries electronics.”

    Protecting any vehicle from the effects of an EMP is simply a matter of shielding circuit boards. EMPs don’t magically make electrons stop flowing or whatever nonsense you come up with, they merely create a surge in a part of the circuit that expects lower current which can burn out components or otherwise break the circuit path. You don’t need to go to a completely mechanical system to be impervious to the effects of an EMP, you simply need proper shielding. The military shields all their vehicles against EMPs, this isn’t some revolutionary new concept.

    Really, it’s stupid easy to protect against an EMP. Electrons will still flow, an EMP changes pretty much nothing about how electronic devices work. spark plugs will still bloody spark, the laws of physics don’t stop just because an EMP went off. Now a spark plug control system can get fried, but the plugs themselves are just an air gap.

  2. I’ve got an old Land Rover Defender with a 300 Tdi, the last pure mechanical diesel shipped by Land Rover. These were made from mid ’90s up until the mid-2000s. Three wires go to the engine for starting/stopping (others are gauges): starter, glow plugs, shut-off valve. All can be removed and still start: it’s small enough of an engine to roll start with a manual, glow plugs aren’t needed except in the coldest weather, and the shut-off valve is a simple electro-magnet driven plunger that can be bypassed electrically (small battery) or physically (remove plunger). Earlier Land Rovers aren’t bad either, except the short-lived Land Rover Tdi – avoid that one.

    There’s decent support for the 300 Tdi in the US but be prepared to order most parts, either from US parts houses specializing in Land Rovers or from the UK – you won’t get much from your local Autozone except fluids, fuel filter, oil filter, and V-belt. The only engine failures I’ve had are a leaking injection pump ($20 fix) and head gasket failure (the original seems to fail for most at about 150,000 miles). With care they’ll last quite a long time, but are not speed demons. They are simple enough for a novice who is willing to learn to maintain.

    Early VWs and old non-US Land Cruisers also have pure mechanical diesels, but I’m not familiar with those.

    • I just noticed your location (California). You’ve got about no chance to get a non-US diesel registered in your state. Maybe if you found an old US one (e.g. 80’s era Ford with the International), and even then if it’s not already in state, good luck.

      FYI, I meant “serpentine belt” when I said “V belt” above.

  3. I recall hearing a Puzzler on Car Talk with Tom & Ray on NPR a long time ago. Here it is.

    After Truman dropped the bomb on Japan American troops went ashore. They found that only half of the jeeps would run. Why? Only the diesel jeeps ran because they didn’t need a spark to ignite the fuel. The EMP that they were dealing with would not allow that level of electricity to be generated thus, only diesels would run.

    I’d look for a first gen diesel rabbit…wish I still had mine.


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