What is the best towing vehicle? Certainly not my 1974 Scout. It’s underpowered, undersprung, and I need something to tow the Baja Pig to desert races like the Baja 1000 which runs the full peninsula this year.
The real answer to the question is pretty obvious: get the largest pickup truck you can afford. Have you seen the new F-350? It makes 925 lb-ft of torque and you can order it with massaging seats and a huge sunroof that covers the entire crew cab.
But the fully loaded Platinum Edition starts at $61,975, which makes no sense for a vehicle I’ll use maybe a dozen times a year while towing to races.
Other than the price it would be perfect.
What I need is a cheap tow vehicle which is generally a bad idea because cheap AND reliable tow vehicles don’t exist. Or they aren’t supposed to. I also want the vehicle to be a lot of other things which is a recipe for failure. Things like:
- A vehicle large enough that I can camp and store tools/spares in it while I’m at the race or traveling around the southwest playing with cars.
- It should get decent gas mileage. This is a relative measure, but 7 mpg doesn’t sound like a good number.
- I want it to be manageable, meaning no 30-foot box trucks. Have you backed one of those down a narrow tree-lined street?
- I would like to buy my replacement parts at the local parts store and be able to take it to a dealership in the middle of nowhere if (when) I run into trouble. So I’m trying to avoid larger commercial trucks.
I know that I’m not going to be able to find anything that covers even a majority of these needs so I might as well get something fun. Fun is always a good idea and makes digging around Craigslist so much more enjoyable. Especially when you don’t have a lot of cash to spend.
So here’s my endless Craigslist tow vehicle loop.
Before we start searching, let’s talk cash. My budget is $15,000. But that doesn’t mean we just pick a vehicle and get the nicest one we can for $15,000. I don’t want a brand new $15,000 cargo van. Nope. Cargo vans are worth like $3,000-$7,000 to me depending on the engine. Expensive vans never have free candy—you need a cheap van for that. So I’m only spending the $15,000 if it’s something awesome like a mini party bus or a crew cab 4x4 truck that would be great in Baja. Something like Strategic Racing Design’s chase truck, which looks like more than $15,000, but you get the idea.
A crew cab, “more than medium” truck, would be ideal; this is Andrew Collins-speak for a one-ton truck. I happen to like theFord F-350 but it seems to be universally accepted on the internet that the 6.0-liter diesel built during the early 2000s is junk. Seriously. Start Googling, it sounds like the IMS bearing in a 996 911 or a Takata airbag.
I can’t imagine it being as bad as the internet says, but they do make you feel pretty stupid for wanting to buy one. The problem is that an early 2000 truck is the sweet spot for our budget. Go earlier and you get a pretty old truck that won’t be much fun to tow hundreds of miles with and go newer and you get something too expensive. Or it has a million miles like Matt Farah’s Lexus.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have options. I found one 1999 dually with 186,000 miles for $11,500 that didn’t look too bad, but the posting is gone now.
There are Chevy options as well; I’ve just always been a Ford truck guy. I like what Ford does with motorsport, from beating Ferrari back in the 1960s to backing Ken Block at World Rallycross to its new GT program at LeMans.
I can also buy a gas truck and then I would consider a Chevy, because LS EVERYTHING, but nothing tows like a diesel. The problem with trucks is they still cost a lot relative to a van with the same driveline.
Vans are cheap but they’re also so much safer to store things inside—and you can camp in one at races! It’s like a mini bedroom on wheels.
Quickly you’ll realize that you’ll want the largest van you can find, which means going Chevy and GMC because they extended the wheelbase, not just the body. Ford added the extra length on behind the rear wheels which creates a massive overhang and can’t be ideal for the amount of weight I want to tow.
So now we’re looking at Chevy/GMC vans with the extended body like this 2005 for $5,400. Look how long this van is! Sure, the camera is playing tricks, but you get the idea. Now this has a gas engine, not a diesel, but its a 6.0-liter Vortec which should tow just fine for $5,400.
But if that extended length gives you a mini bedroom, why not get a little shuttle version of a van and have a mini house!
Shuttle Van Things
You know, those things at the airport. They’re basically a van with the back cut off and a shuttle bolted on. Vans are like the transformers of cars. The manufacturers even sell them brand new with just the front part and the frame sticking out the back with some plastic wrap covering the front two seat area.
The cool thing about these shuttles is that no one wants them. Vans are creepy enough, but they make good work vehicles. You can get an E-450 shuttle van with a 7.4-liter Diesel for less than $10,000.
They tow a whole damn lot and have a massive amount of room inside. They are built a little cheap and most have been abused for a few hundred thousand miles, but they seem to be a pretty ideal little platform once you pull all the seats out of the inside. This one is a longer length E-450, but you get the idea.
The only thing missing is four-wheel drive. I know you can’t have everything, but we should look.
If you take a van and shove the driveline and front axle from a 4x4 truck under it, you get a Quigley style conversion. Chevy made a really cool all-wheel drive van with independent front suspension but its only a “smaller” chassis and not ideal for towing. There’s a a fair amount to the 4x4 swap on the full-ton chassis, which is why Quigley charges so much, but their vehicles are nicely built too.
The problem is that a 4x4 van costs even more than a 4x4 truck. This one below is $28,000. So maybe we should look at a 4x4 truck with the ability to sleep in the back.
Pickup Truck with Camper
The other option before getting into weirdo apocalypse vehicles is a 4x4 truck with a camper in the bed. You can get a crew cab, 4x4, and have a place to sleep and store some tools.
Some, like the Lance, are incredibly nice inside, but now you’re buying the truck and a camper and the whole thing is starting to get pretty expensive compared to a van with a sofa-bed in the back for $5,000. And the end loop continues. Before we loop though, lets look at the other options.
Sometimes you find people selling both at once like this Chevy with the Lance on the back for $21,000!
The camper hangs way over the dually, but it’s pretty nice inside. It’s over the budget but maybe the plan could be to get a truck and find a cheap camper later.
I know what you’re thinking. If I would stick that nasty camper on the back of the truck, why not get an RV? Because most RVs don’t tow very much weight.
They used up all their towing capacity with the wooden cabinets, toilets, water heaters and televisions. And as nice as an RV would be, it seems like a lot of weight I’ll never use. The campers take up a lot of the pickup truck’s capacity as well, but depending on which one you buy, it’s not nearly as detrimental to your tow limits.
So start with a truck, you say! Now we’re looking at Chevy 5500s, 7000s, and cab-overs like the Mitsubishi Fuso. You can even get a 4x4 Fuso, but they are rare and all the overland guys buy them up the moment they hit the market. But for $15,000-$20,000 you can buy a pretty nice crew cab Fuso with a big box on the back.
I couldn’t locate a crew cab just now, but here’s a really clean 2012 Fuso with just 140,000 miles for $16,000.
It will tow the Baja Pig and house an army on race weekends. I just need a place to park a 30 ft long truck the rest of the year.
But the real answer is Earthcruiser. It really the ideal vehicle. They started with 4x4 Fuso and built the rest. But its $200,000.
Seriously, what would you buy to tow with? It will only get used once a month and then will be left in a storage unit the other three weeks. It needs to be something I can tow with but also use for race support. Something I could camp out of at King of the Hammers and the Baja 1000 and work on cars from.
Like a Dakar service truck. Just much, much cheaper.