Some Thoughts on the Survival Vehicle, by OddShot

Wednesday, Mar 11, 2009

I recently had the opportunity to read JWR's novel "Patriots" . As a former professional automobile mechanic with 25+ years of experience and having a similar history building, restoring and racing British sports cars (MGBs), I became intrigued with a certain aspect of his book: the preparation of a “survival vehicle." This is intended to be a vehicle rugged enough, durable enough, and simple enough to be an important part of anyone’s survival program.

My first consideration was to define this vehicle. Next, I set out to list a number of modifications to this vehicle that would increase it’s simplicity, strength, and usefulness of this vehicle as a survival tool. The following that I listed a number of tools and spares important to the operation of this vehicle.

Survival Vehicle Selection and Modification
For reasons of strength, durability and utility the vehicle needs to be a truck. For load carrying considerations I would recommend a Pickup Truck over a SUV type, such as a Blazer or Bronco.
I think the truck should be of American manufacture. Although some foreign makes might be suitable in terms of ruggedness and durability, the parts availability---both used and new--for American made trucks makes them the winner, hands-down. Also parts for “high-survivability” modifications are plentiful and cheap for American vehicles.

There is a reason that America’s largest selling vehicle for the last 50+ years has been the Ford F150 pickup truck. They may be low on creature comforts and fuel economy, but they more then make up for those sacrifices with ruggedness, dependability, ease of repair, and parts availability. Chevy and Dodge make great trucks, but there are millions more Ford Pick-up trucks out there. Parts are still available and junkyards and rural back yards are filled with them.

Older vehicles (1970 or 1980s vintage cars and trucks) with older technology are better in the survival situations than newer, lighter, hi-tech vehicles. Carburetors, distributors with breaker points, and generator charging systems may not be the most fuel efficient…but they are simple, rugged and reliable. They can be rebuilt and maintained very easily. Fuel Injection and High Energy Ignitions systems have very limited life spans, are difficult to diagnose and dead without spare parts.

One drawback is that NOS parts for really old vehicles (1960-1975 +/-) are getting somewhat harder to find, even finding used stuff is getting tough. You don’t need much…but if you can’t get it now…you won’t be able to get it later. If you can stick with an 1980s vintage +/- American pickup. As I said before, parts are still available and junkyards and rural back yards are filled with them.
Choose one with a 302 V8 (minimum), with a [traditional] carburetor! Backdate the engine by installing a distributor with ignition breaker points and condenser. No electronic ignition. The electronic ignition is a [reliability] weak link of all Ford V8s. Just look in the glove box or under the seat of most of them and you’ll find a spare “spark box” or Ignition module. Ford used points and condensers on their V8s through 1974. A little digging through Craig's List or most junk yards should yield a good useable distributor. New ones are available at most speed shops.

Make sure you get a truck with a manual transmission, and try to get four wheel drive. Avoid automatic transmissions. If for no other reason:cars with automatic transmissions can not be push-started. Also, with a manual transmission …if you can get two gears to mesh…you can keep rolling. Once an automatic transmission starts to slip, the party is over.

With a manual transmission you can adjust a clutch unless you’ve burned it up. In the middle of nowhere you can replace a burned clutch (and even reline the disc if you really had to), but the rebuild of an automatic transmission requires an expert with lots of spares and spotlessly clean working conditions. Also, with a manual transmission, were the clutch linkage give up, there are techniques you can learn to take off and shift without using the clutch pedal.

Because this vehicle should be multi-terrain and multi-use Do not put great big tires or lift kits on it. I would beef up the rear springs to carry more weight but would not raise the height of the rear. Don’t use air shocks or air bags either. These are just something else that will break and “let you down”. [JWR Adds: As is taught at executive protection driving schools, airbags should be disabled if anticipating inimical situations where you might have to play "bumper cars".]

I’m thinking of lowering my Ford a couple of inches to make it easier and faster to get into and out of. Lowering the truck will also make it handle better on asphalt…and maybe even make it a bit more aerodynamic for some fuel savings. The extra road clearance is nice but how many times are you going to use that advantage? Not as often as you might need to get in and get going as fast as possible.
You’ll want the ruggedness of 6 ply truck tires. Choose ones that have a “mildly aggressive” tread pattern allowing a good mix of on-road and off-road use. Unless you are considering moving way out in the woods then avoid strictly off-road tires. They will not give you the wear and handling needed for use on asphalt [and they are quite noisy at highway speeds].

Up grade the charging system to a 65 Amp. alternator, minimum. You’ll want the amps to power other electrical devices. Install two batteries wired in parallel (for 12 VDC, many amp. output). One battery should be a “Deep Cycle” type. This battery can power 12 VDC lights, radios, tools etc. Also, if the alternator dies while on a long drive, this battery set up can power a V8 ignition system for a long time. The batteries should have their ground wires connected with “marine” type terminals. Simply disconnecting (unscrewing the wing nut on the Marine Terminal) the ground side of the batteries [or installing a battery disconnect switch from JC Whitney] can prevent them being discharged by shorts or [unexpected] draws. It can also somewhat reduce the risk of vehicle theft.

Consider removing the ignition/steering column lock switch. If you don’t…you could loose your keys…and “hot wire” the ignition/starter circuits and get the truck running….but imagine your chagrin when you realize that the steering is locked! A heavy duty DC toggle switch will take care of the ignition and a [momentary] pushbutton [DC switch] will handle the starter. Mount them in a hidden, out of the way place.
Remove the very complicated emission control carburetor and replace it with the simplest Holley 2 or 4 barrel that you can find.

I prefer gasoline engines. Diesels are okay, but I don’t think there will be a lot of diesel fuel around. You may not always be able to get diesel or even cooking oil. Consider converting your truck to a multiple fuel vehicle using both gasoline and propane. LPG is still very easy to get and easy to store at home. A conversion to propane is very doable …and not real expensive, especially on an engine equipped with a carburetor. There are number of sites on the web that discuss this.

A good number of pickup trucks have two fuel tanks…if yours doesn’t, consider installing another tank. There is a lot of room under most trucks. Build in onboard storage for 20 gallons minimum…or and extra 250 mile range.

Remove all emissions control equipment, at least the catalytic converter. [Of course, first consult your state laws before doing so.] Remove the metal cooling fan and install electric fan for engine cooling. If you take a hard front hit, then those metal bladed fans will destroy a radiator. You can do this with a junk yard fan unit…or find something in the JC Whitney catalog, or any auto parts store. As a side benefit, you may see some improvement in fuel economy, due to the reduction of parasitic drag. Wire this electric fan with sensor and a manual override switch on dash.

Consider installing an oversized radiator and coolant overflow tank. Trucks that came with air conditioning generally have the biggest radiator. The more coolant you have in the cooling system is the further you can go if the radiator gets a hole in it and you just can’t stop to fix it right away.

Install a Class 3 towing hitch. Its good for both towing and for ramming [-- with the ball removed from the hitch extension plate, to back up and pierce another vehicle's radiator]. Make sure you carry both popular sized hitch balls. Remove the chrome piece of garbage that passes for a front bumper and install a heavy duty store bought or home built. Again, the front bumper should be sufficient for towing or ramming. Install hooks for towing on both the front and rear bumpers.

A cap or bed cover should be in place over the truck’s bed to allow space for sleeping, shelter and dry, secure storage. This can be as elaborate or as simple as you’d like but due to rearward visibility concerns, make sure that its not higher or wider than the roof of the cab. Due to weight and height considerations [adversely affecting center of gravity] I would avoid campers that install in the bed of a pickup.
You might consider finding a used tool box like the ones you see on the back of pickups used by plumbers and electricians…this would be the ones that replace the entire pickup bed and have 5 or 6 compartments on each side. The Reading brand tool bodies are well-made. These have tremendous utility, secure and dry storage and are all very strongly built. With a little ingenuity you could configure a knock down tent over the top of one of these giving you dry off-the –ground shelter. Again, the deep cycle battery can provide 12 VDC for lights and heat in this area.

Install commo [and communications scanning] gear as appropriate to your mission. At least be sure to have a good, strong basic AM & FM radio. [JWR Adds: At wrecking yards, you can sometimes find a Becker or Blaupunkt brand "Europa", "Mexico" or similar model AM/FM/Shortwave radio pulled from a European car such as a Mercedes Benz, for under $50. These are not only very reliable radios, but will also give you the opportunity to get WWV time signals and some international broadcasts.]

Install quartz halogen headlights in the front. I wouldn’t bother with driving lights but I would install fog lights…mounted in a way as to light to the immediate front and to the sides for cornering. In the rear, I would mount driving lamps or fog lamps as back up lights, work lamps or rearward spot lights. Wire all auxiliary lighting with switches on dash.

Remove all electrical systems not necessary to mission. No power windows or door locks. Remove the air conditioning system. Electric windows, door locks, fancy [add-on] heating systems and other fancy electric doo-dads are to be avoided at all costs. As I said before, automatic transmissions should be considered a liability.

Put in Bucket seats, especially in a pickup. They are easier/faster to get into and out of…and will create more storage space in the cab. Gun racks? If desired, make them solidly mounted and as far out of sight as possible.

Onboard tools will be important to keep your survival vehicle operational. All should be secure and hard-mounted.

Carry an appropriate workshop manual with wiring diagrams. Study it carefully and know how to reference its various sections.

Complete Automotive hand tool kit.
Heavy duty jack, jack stands and wheel chocks.
An onboard portable compressor, even a small 12 VDC model has a lot of usefulness. If you can afford a larger one, then you can run pneumatic tools with it.
Portable generator. As much and as good as you can afford. Its just plain worth it.
Tow Chain, shackles and tow hooks, various rope and line.
1-1⁄2 ton power winch or chain hoist or block and fall. I would consider something that is not hard mounted so you can use it from the front or rear of the vehicle…or not even need the vehicle at all.
Propane torches and solder/rosin for soldering wires and radiator repair. Learn how to solder!
Electric wiring, electrical crimp connectors, electrical tape, spare switches, heat shrink tubing, nylon wire (cable) ties.
Onboard Axe, shovel, pry bar.
12 VDC mechanic's drop lamp.
Additional fuel, lubricants, brake fluid, silicon sealant, adhesives (especially, JB-Weld and Goop), duct tape, grease gun, thread tape, emery paper (2) spare tires, potable water, fan belts, Radiator hoses, heater hoses, hose clamps and tune up parts

One properly inflated spare in good condition is good, but having two spares is even better.

Keep tire repair equipment! Six cans of Fix-a-Flat, a radial tire plug kit and about 50 plugs. Find or make tools for breaking down and mounting tires.
Fuel transfer pump for getting fuel [from one vehicle to another or from] out of in-ground tanks. A hand-operated barrel pump with extensions for both the suction side and the discharge side.
Spot light (hand held)
A volt/ohm meter and mechanics test light.

Very Important: Drive your survival vehicle regularly. Use it. Go get plywood and shrubs and groceries in it. Work it. Houses and vehicles need people using them. When either is not used they deteriorate very quickly. Hard use will keep you thinking about repairs or modifications you might want to make. By date and mileage keep good repair and maintenance records.
A rugged dependable vehicle should be part of your survival gear. As long as you can get fuel there is freedom in mobility. The above is not a definitive list or the “end all to be all” one size fits all solution.

Consider this article a starting point and add your own ideas. - The OddShot


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