SHTF Vehicles On A Budget
If you do a quick image search for SHTF vehicles there seems to be an infinite variety of monster-themed big-wheeled large displacement machines that looked well-suited to plowing through hordes of zombie corpses (at least until their limbs start to gum up the wheel wells). Some of them are pretty cool, making this Chicken envious for sure. Unfortunately like most Americans these days, I'm on this thing called a 'budget' and can't necessarily fork out the big bucks for the kind of off-road mauler that I'd like to have. While there is a Survival Chicken trucky project in the works, the fruits of my labor are a few months off at best. Even then the temptation to play with the nuts and bolts could drag out the project for years. Perfectionism is a dangerous mistress, but at some point I'm going to have to suck it up and put her back on the road again because compost doesn't haul itself.
What's In the Driveway
Right now, however, being prepared means our family has to have something that will work in a pinch. Disasters don't wait for you to get your rig tuned, and having reliable transpo that doesn't require debt slavery can become an adventure in itself. First you have to negotiate a fair price for a vehicle that suits your needs. These needs include the ability to safely and efficiently haul you, the most important people life and an acceptable minimum amount of gear to a safe place when called upon to do so. Everything else is just window dressing. So who wants to talk about window dressing?
Everyone's needs are different, or so goes the cliché. I'm going to include a list of nice-to-haves but maybe they aren't necessary for your situation. Consider this a primer for coming up with your own list of must-haves versus would-be-nices.
1. It's gotta be affordable
Like we said, pimping ain't easy. We are willing to bet there is no Xzibit in your life who's willing to front the moolah and the manpower to help you turn your heap into a Doomobile. That means sticking within your budget as it is now and cruising Craiglist with your paycheck and whatever change you can scrape out from behind the couch cushions. If this isn't in your means, then consider a bug out bicycle. They are going to get you farther in a grid-down situation anyway, and you can save a ton of money on car insurance by switching to NOTHING! When people pursuing futile exploits like burning gas by driving around looking for more gas (that may or may not exist) you can dedicate your time to more practical purposes. Plus parking. That's a huge one. Ever see a car you can carry upstairs to your apartment for safekeeping? Ok I've said to much. More on this in another article.
2. It's gotta be reliable
There are the cars that you can fix yourself and keep rolling, and then there are the ones where everything is okay until it's not and then you are walking. I prefer the former camp myself. My mechanical inclinations started late, but through the power of YouTube, books, and actually talking to people I've gradually expanded the repertoire of repairs that I'm confident enough to perform without much help. I say 'much' because when you are working on a car it's almost always going to require an extra set of hands at some point, so when going the fixer-upper route it's good to have someone who will let you borrow their body (and possibly tools, rides to the auto parts store, etc) when you need them.
The bonus of the fixer-upper is after spending enough time together you will know all her insides, weak pionts, limits, and places to hide contraband. I remember more than once people showing off their new trucks, only to bust an axle doing the kind of dirt-doughnuts that they saw in the television commercials used to sell that particular truck. Now they know the limits, I guess. Advertising is the art of stretching the truth in order to sell a product. In my opinion it's always better to wait a few years and see how the product performs in the real world (and buy it later at a discount) than to plunk down cash on an extended warranty and hope for the best.
It always makes me crack a smile to see how the giant-tired 4x4 behemoths coated in olive drab and festooned with scary-looking brush guards and other tactical accessories. Oh wait. That's what my project looks like. Well this is awkward...
Yes technically I fall into this category, but it got me thinking. What hope do I have of making it past police/military shtf checkpoints if I'm already scaring soccer moms down at the grocery store parking lot? So I did this little experiment and put some hippie feel-good organic tree hugger stickers on the back. Instantly people's perceptions changed. Suddenly I wasn't a threat, just a strange dirty degenerate driving a rusty old farm truck. Imagine if I'd covered it with NRA logos and zombie hunting permits.
There is also another issue of attention-grabbing vehicles which people don't think about in a functioning society. When the buildings are burning and mobs are running riot, a new class of neo-feudalist barbarian warlord will inevitably jump up on top of a truck with a rifle and rally the former citizens around his cause. Do you want him jumping on your truck? Because that probably means you aren't getting it back. Better to have the kind of vehicle that won't be the envy of apocalyptic despots.
4. It's got to be efficient.
Now 'efficient' can have a lot of different meanings. Technically the newer cars are more efficient because they get better gas mileage, but in fact they are less efficient in a lot of other ways. I have a theory about this if you are willing to hear me out.
Back in the mid 1980's there was a huge shift in the world markets to computerized trading. This pretty much resulted in creating a soft-Skynet scenario where evil robots control the world with only one goal in mind: generate profit. Right around this time a lot of strange trends start to develop like the gutting of the American manufacturing sector, market crashes, universal computerized emission standards and other factors that pushed automobile manufacturers to make cheaper cars that broke down sooner and required replacement more often.
Although this shift to planned-obsolescence did make cars somewhat safer due to crumple-zones (where the car is basically destroyed by absorbing energy that would otherwise be transferred to the passengers), today's automobiles are pretty much to designed to start falling apart as soon as the warranty is up. Welcome to the world of “Sealed For Life” transmissions and on-board computers that track your every movement for tax purposes (and theoretically can be hacked, causing you to crash and burn in a mysterious inferno).
So what's more efficient? A car that requires an advanced electrical engineering degree and a new transmission every 80k miles, or one that gets a few extra mpg's that you can jury-rig with some duct tape and bailing wire? The last time I checked those engineering degrees weren't getting any cheaper, at least not in this country. In a SHTF scenario where mechanics have severely limited resources and leasing isn't an option, you are going to have to consider that the overall price includes access to specialized skills/equpment as well as storing almost a whole nother car's worth of parts. Doesn't look so efficient now, does it?
You can take these or leave them. I understand that some people wouldn't be caught dead owning or even being seen in these kinds of vehicles. With 100% certainty we will all eventually be caught dead at some point, so I'm just laying this out for those of us who would rather do a lot less walking before inevitably being caught dead.
If you are ready to turn a wrench and don't mind getting greasy, I'd suggest you find a pre-1994 car without the required OBD-II scanning option. Scanners are very handy for finding emissions problems, but do you know what's even not more handy? Not having a computer screwing up your otherwise perfectly-functional internal combustion engine.
Compression, not Spark
The second recommendation I'd make, which isn't so easy in North America, is to find yourself a diesel. Regular gasoline is a solvent, and as a result it has a shelf life of about one year without some sort of fuel treatment. Diesel fuel last much longer as long as you can keep it cool, dry, and bacteria-free. It also doesn't require spark plugs, and if you are lucky enough to find one with a mechanical injection pump then you don't even need electronics. Technically you can grow your own fuel, although this is much more difficult in practice, but with the right filtering equipment you can drain the motor oil out of dead cars and get an extra few thousand miles out of that old clunker long after the gas stations run dry. Yes you will eventually destroy your pump/injectors, but at least you're rolling in the meantime. That's better off than the recently deceased late-model SUV that you just stole the oil from.
The best part about looking for an older car that will last is all the research has been done for you. Take a look around your regularly scheduled outings and notice what kinds of older vehicles you still see in significant numbers. This is a particularly important step, becasue vehicles enjoy different levels of popularity in various locations. Here in Hawaii the old school Toyota is king. A quick peek through the classifieds reveals many older parts still available, as well as an extensive fanbase and the knowledge that goes with it. While they still command high resale values that some may consider ridiculous, many of them are well maintained and have rebuilt engines and drive trains that are ready to go another 300k miles if asked to do so. When people say "they don't make them like they used to" chances are Toyota is on the top of that list.
This may not be entirely necessary based on your needs. Modern roads tend to fall apart rather quickly, not to mention become infested with bandits once law enforcement decides to take a holiday. Having the ability to grumble your way through some unfriendly terrain could be a possible benefit, but that means you are out in the middle of nowhere making noise and smells that will draw nearby goblins like flies. If you can afford it by all means do it. I've made some friends using my granny gear to pull stuck people out of the mud and tow them to safety. It's also really handy when carrying heavy stuff up a hill as required in many farming applications. Maybe you just need an escape pod to get out of the way of the next hurricane. Our daily driver is a 2wd because surf missions are expensive enough as it is, and breaking out the Beast is reserved for actual work.
The more people you can come with you, the more that can chip in/help scavenge for fuel. In any bad scenario the ability to pool resources is going to seperate the winners from the losers in short order. If you can squeeze 8 people into your ride and cruise at a leisurely 20mph you will be getting much better mileage than three or four different cars all trying to do the same thing seperately. It makes choosing what goes on the stereo a little more difficult, but everybody will be grateful for saving the wear and tear on their own boots.
My last recommendation would be to find something that is comfortable to sleep in, ideally some sort of van or station wagon. While not only practical as an emergency shelter from a bug-out perspective, it can also be used as a guest bedroom or dry storage area once it's transportation days are over.
Don't become too attached
Eventually the parts which can get re-purposed will be pulled and what's left over will rust down to nothing, which brings up the most important point. We are living in a very unstable world where at any moment fuel can become scarce or non-existent. The era of private transportation for ordinary people is coming to a close, and you shouldn't kid yourself into thinking this is something you'll be handing down to your grandkids one day. Consider this a project to make a SHTF vehicle that will get you an extra 1-2 years tops beyond a collapse scenario, and only for very select special trips. While it's possible to heavily invest in fuel storage/processing schemes or gassifier technology, that's better reserved for stationary equipment or larger vehicles which are group-owned and benefit the entire community. Having one of the only remaining functional personal cars in your area is a sure way to attract unwanted attention, and flaunting it in the face of the shuffling masses is a terrible idea.
If it helps you escape just one scary scenario or two then it will all have been worth it, but for the long term it makes much more sense to invest in bicycles. At some point the only remaining benefit of your SHTF car will be in the form of the mechanical skills you learned from fixing it. Those will continue to come in handy long after your hoopty has been converted to a chicken coop.