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Years ago, when I was shopping for my first truck, my dad gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever ignored: “If you buy the cheapest example of any make and model, it will end up being the most expensive.” You occasionally see “beater” pickup trucks from the 1980s and 1990s listed for $2k or even less. I bought a 1988 Ford F-150 for $1500 and tried to drive it across the country, and I’m here to reveal how much a sub-$2,000 pickup truck will truly cost you.

Meet my 1988 Ford F-150

Henry Cesari sitting on the roof of his 1988 Ford F-150 pickup truck.
1988 Ford F-150 | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

I spent the COVID quarantine living on a farm in Vermont. At some point, I decided my lifestyle required a truck. The problem was that I didn’t want to pay for a truck. So I ignored the best advice I ever received and began scouring Craigslist car ads for the cheapest used pickup I could find.

I did one thing right: I ignored the used trucks in the frozen north and bought a slightly less rusty one while visiting the Washington, D.C. area. But longtime readers will know that my 1988 refused to start on the first full day I owned it and I had to rent a trailer to tow it north. My $1,500 truck turned into a $2,000 truck in our first 48 hours together.

As I troubleshot the Radwood-era classic‘s electronic system (a common weak point in these vehicles), it was easy to justify swapping out all the worn components of the ignition system. So one distributor, coil, TFI module, ECU, and a bunch of sensors later, I had yet to drive my $3,500 truck. Throw in a set of new tires, and I was cruising like a king…in my $4,000 truck.

Every vehicle will need something different. But at $2,000, your used truck will probably have some major maintenance looming. If it hasn’t been a daily driver or rarely gets up on the interstate, it may have a whole host of minor issues that previous owners have ignored. If it has been parked for more than a year, assume you’re looking at $500 in tires, a battery, some lights, brakes, and maybe even vacuum lines. It’s much better to round up and have money left in the bank than buy a vehicle that you ultimately can’t afford.

Henry’s folly: driving my 1988 Ford F-150 across the country

I used my 1988 Ford F-150 for chores around the farm for years. It was a fantastic stump-puller, firewood hauler, and dump day truck. But it needed suspension work, a clutch, and a whole host of minor repairs. I cruised around my small town, but whenever I needed to get on the interstate, I reached for the keys to something else.

Then the quarantine opened up, I parked my truck, and I flew overseas to do the whole digital nomad thing. Fast-forward to spring 2023, and I’m off-roading in the Andes, missing the U.S., and wondering, “Could I drive my old 1988 F-150 out to the Rockies?”

I tried to be realistic about the trip, which friends and family soon began calling “Henry’s folly.” I considered spending $4,000 on a used Jeep out west but decided I would budget the same amount to repair and roadtrip the truck. I first hired a mechanic to swap out the clutch, do some suspension work, and pull the engine to reseal the pan gasket to stop up an oil leak. This probably should have been $4,000 worth of work. But it all ran way over schedule and I only had to pay a cool $2,000.

So I hopped in my $6,000 truck, pointed the “brick nose” west, and floored it. A minute or two later, we were up to highway speed, and I was feeling pretty good. Then I broke down.

I believe I stopped for some form of “unscheduled maintenance” in every state I passed through. For me, that wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I did the trip for the experience, in no hurry, and loved how many people I met while driving a unique old used pickup truck across the country. Folks were helpful and generous wherever I found my hood up.

By the time I landed in Wyoming, I had most of the truck’s systems well sorted. I was familiar with anything that might go wrong. And I actually did some extended off-road trips with no problem. But I also had countless hours–and at least another $1,000 in parts–into my “sub-$2,000” used pickup truck.

How much will a $2,000 pickup truck truly cost you?

There is no universal rule for how much upgrading a beater truck to be a reliable pickup will cost. But I’d say if you aren’t able to spend $10,000 total, you will be making some major sacrifices when it comes to the comfort and/or capabilities of your vehicle.

1988 Ford F-150 pickup truck parked on a dirt road with its headlights on, the setting sun visible in the background.
1988 Ford F-150 | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

I can already envision this article’s comments section: “I’ve been driving my $4,000 truck for years and everything works fine!…except for having to climb in the passenger door, the heater core leaking onto the floor, the manifold leak that gives you a headache after an hour, and the brakes that are totally unsafe!” Ladies and gentlemen, Exhibit A.

The truth is that used vehicles are much more expensive than they were–even three years ago. Used 1980s and 1990s pickup trucks are becoming Radwood-era classics and beginning to command a premium price in many places.

Here’s the best-case scenario: if your budget is limited, try to choose your sacrifice. You’ll probably have to spend that $10k over the first several years you own the truck. But depending on your lifestyle, you may be able to find a sub-$5k truck that meets all your needs at first. Like I did, you may be able to use it for local trips and tinker it up to be comfortable at highway speeds later on. But please invest in good brakes, all lights, and seat belts–from the jump!

I drive an old truck because I love it. But to be completely clear: Most months, a payment on a gently used vehicle would have been cheaper than parts and labor. In addition, reliable transportation does a lot to improve the quality of your life. You might be surprised how many trips you avoid or how much you worry while driving a less-than-reliable $2,000 used pickup truck.

Next, read my entire pickup truck road trip series:

See several options for reliable used pickup trucks under $25k in the video below: