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     The cost of new vehicles has risen to an all-time high.  Recently, a bold new Ram/Cummins HD2500 4x4 on display at the local Costco boasted an MSRP of $75,815.  The buzz at the 2018 Easter Jeep Safari will be the new Jeep® JL Wrangler 4x4.  In addition to its innovations and advancements, this vehicle will MSRP in the $50,000 (US) range for a Rubicon Unlimited Edition...If you find this unsettling and would rather spend your hard-earned money making any 4x4 work like new, get on board.  "Speaking Out!" is a reality check on what you need versus what some want...

     New Year is a time for resolutions and refocusing.  As 2018 begins, the global stock markets look good and U.S. unemployment numbers are low.  Interest rates have climbed some though not enough to thwart consumer growth.  Two areas of the market have also seen rising costs:  housing and motor vehicles.

     When I took my first driving test in 1965, a new Jeep CJ-5 sold for $2400, and totally stock, these spartan utility 4x4s were fully capable of negotiating the Rubicon Trail.  I proved this with my folks' 1964 F-134 powered CJ-5 in the summer of 1967.  By the time my Jeep® Owner's Bible™ (Bentley Publishers) was released in 1992, a new 4.0L Jeep® YJ Wrangler cost around $18,000.  By the release of the book’s 3rd Edition in 2005, the LJ Rubicon had trended to a $30,000 package.

     All of this would be relative, including the latest $400K median home values at nearby Reno, Nevada, if wages and salaries were similarly inflated.  They're not.  Taking up the slack for most consumers and new vehicle buyers is credit.

      Credit spending can be okay, regarded by most Americans as a norm, until a household’s debt-to-income ratio turns off the money faucet.  Disposable income is way down yet the price of new vehicles continues to rise—along with the cost of housing.  Despite predictions that some offshore manufacturing jobs will be coming back to the U.S., the vehicle manufacturers and aftermarket vendors are highly unlikely to leave their 2nd and 3rd World, low labor cost production facilities.  At this point, the supply chain, which takes years to develop, maintains a compass bearing beyond the U.S.  So buying means credit, and credit has limits.

     Vehicle manufacturers are well aware of this dilemma.  Advertising pushes leases, and the shift toward 84-month financing on new vehicles continues.  As for leasing, that’s where vehicle equity ends.  7-year financing?  What’s a 140,000 mile vehicle worth at trade-in time?  While consumers are “payment buying” new trucks and SUVs in a grossly inflated market, household financial stability heads for a fall.  Buy a new vehicle today and suffer tomorrow—symptoms of the next “bubble”?

     When we invest this much income in a new vehicle, then attempt to buy a house, which most often requires a dual income, there's little room left for quality child care or any kind of family life.  For the sake of that new Ram/Cummins, G.M. Duramax, Ford Powerstroke, Nissan Titan Cummins, Toyota Tundra, Jeep Rubicon Unlimited 4x4, take your pick, we're spending our kids' and grandkids' college educations and foregoing braces on their misaligned teeth.  Add $15,000-$20,000 worth of dazzling accessories and culturally driven elective upgrades like lift kits, oversized tires and wheels, axle and gearing changes (to offset the oversized tires), armor, winches, performance chips, the list goes on, and something has to give.

      The days of using home equity as an ATM machine ends in 2018.  A HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit) will no longer be considered a mortgage interest tax deduction under the new U.S. tax bill.  Using personal (non-collateralized) or HELOC (your house now has a second mortgage) credit to buy high ticket items like a new vehicle or aftermarket products that keep up with fellow club members or the snobbish neighbors will provide no tax relief and, in fact, just add more credit interest and debt to a household.

     While these cold facts might sound bleak, as automotive, 4x4 truck and SUV consumers, we do have choices.  Competing with those neighbors, your coworkers and well-intentioned fellow 4x4 club members over who has the newest, best-equipped, most accessorized, tallest or most awesome 4x4 is a choice.  In this case, choices are essentially based on the value we place on motor vehicles.  At the most basic level, for me at least, a 4x4 should be safe and reliable transportation, access to a trailhead or the great outdoors, an occasional candidate for primitive roads, a utility vehicle that can haul a load, and clearly a means for meeting my family’s needs.  You can answer what a 4x4 represents to your family. 

     For some families, a UTV/side-by-side has become the affordable alternative to a newer Jeep® JK Unlimited 4x4.   The typical "off-road only" side-by-side has no DOT safety features, a meager aftermarket heater at best, a minimalist top, no windshield wipers or DOT-approved windscreen, off-road-only lights and a scaled down powertrain that strongly resembles snowmobile technology...Before rationalizing my way into a "family" UTV side-by-side in the $20,000-$24,000 range, I'd comb Craigslist or eBay for either a restorable Jeep® CJ or a lower mileage YJ/TJ Wrangler 4x4 with a history of spending time on a trailer or dingy-towed behind a motorhome.

     Once you weigh your needs and separate them from wants, consider the tens of thousands of preowned 4x4s just waiting for preventive maintenance or restoration.  You'd have a wallet full of cash for accessorizing and personalizing the vehicle.  Jeep®, statistically, is the most accessorized and "personalized" 4x4 in the world, winner of the SEMA Show's new SUV of the Year Award for as long as most attendees can remember.  If the price of admission for a Jeep Wrangler 4x4 has reached $50,000, however, what's left for the SEMA Show Members' accessories?

New Versus Preowned Vehicles

     Sure, any older vehicle will likely require work, often the same work that many showroom fresh vehicles require either during their warranty period or at some point before you've strained your way through the 72-84 monthly payment coupons.  In my experience, once restored properly, preowned vehicles can be maintained to deliver safe, reliable service for many years.  In the past fifty-years, over 80% of my 4x4s and motorcycles have been preowned.

     I have always been a motorhead and technology buff.  The latest electronics, 8-speed automatic transmissions and electric vehicle milestones are truly amazing.  Yet some technology has changed very little despite the staggering cost of new vehicles.  Breaking this down to what we need and not what we want, consumers do have the option of buying preowned vehicles.  As for needs, what really matters to our family is a vehicle’s safety, reliability, fuel-efficiency, ease of service and affordability.

     Considering the complexity of new vehicles, many are no more reliable than a properly restored traditional 4x4 truck, Jeep® or SUV.  A close look at the latest 4x4 light truck and SUV technology reveals gear train improvements and not much else.  The high price of new vehicles is driven mostly by an overabundance of do-dad options, burgeoning use of electronics and modules, elaborate electrical (CANBus) systems, and a clambering for car-like interiors and comfort features.  Add to that the stop-gap solutions to meet emissions standards and Sloan Age* cosmetic facelifts.  Each comes with a price.

*In the 1930s, Alfred P. Sloan, General Motors’ President, encouraged GM to build bigger cars each year with Fisher Body changes.  This became the standard marketing paradigm for American car manufacturing.   Wikipedia sums it up: “Sloan is credited with establishing annual styling changes, from which came the concept of planned obsolescence. He also established a pricing structure in which (from lowest to highest priced) Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac—referred to as the ladder of success—did not compete with each other, and buyers could be kept in the GM "family" as their buying power and preferences changed as they aged.”

     Simply put, the cost of the newest 4x4 trucks and SUVs appears unsustainable and economically impractical.  In my lifetime exposure to motor vehicles, I have never felt less inclined to buy or recommend a new vehicle.  Thankfully, my professional wrenching and welding skills have seen to it that our family can do quite nicely without new vehicles.

      Exposed to the service side of the automotive industry since high school (over a half century ago), my professional roles have included parts sales, truck fleet mechanic, heavy equipment operator, truck dealership tech, and adult education level instructor at both the Job Corps and Rite of Passage’s Automotive/Diesel Technology and Welding programs.  I served several years as the Director of Vocational Training at Rite of Passage, acted as the VICA site administrator and served as a board member with the Western Nevada (Community) College Tech Prep program.  Over the past three and a half decades, I have been an automotive photojournalist, best-selling automotive author, videographer and magazine publisher.

     Since more than 80% of our vehicles have been preowned, we have been able to meet our children’s needs and send them to college.  We have lived in reasonable, secure homes.  While producing my Bentley Publishers book series, I added a fully functional, 2400 sq. ft. shop to our property.  The shop served as a studio backdrop, project vehicle workshop and facility for keeping our vehicles rolling.  During the Great Recession boondoggle, we were fortunate enough to sell that property for a fair price and downsize to our current home with an office and an appropriately smaller, highly functional 480 sq. ft. shop/studio.  Although I do miss the 9000# vehicle lift and 20-foot work bench, I still perform quite well off a creeper, and the sit-ups are good exercise!  The dog wants to lick my face while I’m working, but that’s a whole other story. 

     My current shop is a great model for what many homeowners and 'DIY' consumers can muster for their vehicle work...At a personal level, I much prefer the satisfaction of restoring and improving vehicles—rather than the monthly angst of car or truck payments.  Today's new vehicle payments, even at very low interest rate incentives, can waver between $600-$1000 per month for a "loaded" 4x4 truck, SUV or even a Jeep® Wrangler Unlimited.  Once buyers “come out from under the ether” of a new vehicle purchase, it’s downhill from there with these ongoing high payments, a major hike in their insurance premiums, routine dealership maintenance costs at $90-$120 per hour labor charges, repairs, replacement tires, steady mileage accrual and the inevitable depreciation.

"Through the Looking Glass”

     For 2018, 4WD Mechanix Magazine will cross its own Rubicon, and I invite you to join me.  It's said that when we know better, we do better.  I do know better.  It's simply not reasonable for every day working households to keep up with the Joneses, Kardashians or our favorite Trophy Truck and Ultra4 racers.  Do we really need to finance $75,815 (US) plus tax, license and doc fees for a new 4x4 pickup truck?  Or pay $50,000 for a new Jeep® 4x4 utility vehicle? 

     On that note, my folks bought a new Chevy K10 4x4 SWB pickup in 1970 with power steering, power brakes, a 350 V-8 and Turbo 350 automatic transmission for $3700.  At the 1970 U.S. hourly wage average, it took 1000 hours of work to pay for that truck.  Today, it would take well over $75 per hour to pay for the Ram/Cummins truck at Costco in 1000 hours.  (Try 5,054 hours at the controversially proposed $15 per hour minimum wage.)  Add to that the lift kit, oversized wheels and tire, winch and bumper, running boards and a front and rear axle gear changeout.  You do the math... 

     There are many rabbit holes when buying a new vehicle.  For openers, the initial down payment or price of admission is high.  Even if leasing the vehicle (which means you’ll never have equity), you have a down payment and license fees.  New vehicles come with much higher registration fees in most states plus higher insurance costs and lower deductibles.  Unless you can do routine service yourself, there’s the constant interplay with the dealership's service department.  Business wise, today’s franchised dealership service department is considered an additional sales outlet at the store, and even during the warranty period, nearly all consumers have a harrowing dealership repair story to share.

     A large number of today’s 4x4 owners either need to or would like to perform professional level service chores, including engine, geartrain, chassis, steering and axle work.  A big incentive is the exorbitant $90-$120 per hour labor rate at auto dealerships or $75-$90 per hour independent garage rates.  Are these rates justified?  I can speak from experience, and the answer is, "Kind of..."

    During the run-up to the recent Great Recession, as things were bubbling along and car buffs used their artificially inflated home equity to dabble in hobby and collectible cars, we operated a classic car and truck mechanical restoration shop.  Specializing in vintage manual and automatic transmissions, engines, steering gears, chassis and axle rebuilding, our automotive shop's overhead was clear.  Arguably, contemporary shop labor rates may be justified—but regardless, this labor is simply not affordable for many.       

     Performing your own service work does come at a price.  You need the right tools, which the magazine and forums discuss and demonstrate regularly.  (I often suggest cost-effective tool alternatives and even ways to make or improvise a tool.  In the mechanical restoration work, I relied upon vintage car, truck and muscle era factory shop manuals as a guideline for obsolete factory service tools—then made them myself!

     Despite anecdotal YouTube and Facebook videos that pass for acceptable work, to do your own work requires safe, professional-level mechanical and welding skills—plus a willingness to perform this work.  Even if you wind up subletting tasks to a shop, you can at least benefit from performing your own troubleshooting and diagnostics.  There is a mistaken notion that social media can provide all you need to get through service and upgrade projects.  Professional mechanics/technicians and certified welders spend years at training and accruing workplace experience before calling themselves professionals.  Should your brake, steering, axle, electrical, powertrain or fuel system work be anything less than "professional"?  Then why would you expect professional insights from studying a cell phone video?

I'll Even Help You Make a Wise New 4x4 Truck or SUV Purchase!

     However you approach or value motor vehicles, it’s always better to be an informed consumer.  Despite my personal indifference to new vehicle ownership, I’m more than willing to offer objective, professional insights to those who have an unwavering urge to buy a new vehicle.  As an automotive journalist, I tested and evaluated the newest 4x4 trucks, SUVs and performance cars for decades.  Chevrolet, GMC, Geo, Subaru, Toyota, Nissan, Jeep® and Mercedes-Benz each enlisted my experience at 4x4 and SUV consumer and media marketing events.  For a dozen years, I was the Jeep®/Mopar® Performance official workshop host at Camp Jeep®.  Alongside John Davis (PBS MotorWeek fame), I co-hosted the North America point-of-sales launch videos for the Toyota Sequoia.  There are many insights to share about selecting, equipping and negotiating a new vehicle purchase at the dealership.

     Those who want to upgrade or modify 4x4 vehicles can draw from my many years of enthusiast magazine and book project 4x4  builds.  From the mid-1980s to the present, I have constructed more than a dozen trail worthy and SEMA Show level magazine and book project 4x4 vehicles.  These projects all began with preowned, often well worn vehicles.  To offset cost, doing your own work can be both valuable and also your assurance that the work has been done properly.

     As for aftermarket products, I bring more than four decades experience to the magazine and forums.  I know what works and what doesn’t, what you need and what you don’t need.  There is a trickle-down effect for every modification, which advertising often neglects to mention.  I can clarify these effects before you spend your hard earned money.  In fairness, many aftermarket parts and accessories live up to their claims of better performance, safer handling, increased utility or longer parts life.  These are the manufacturers that I support and actively promote.

     Fixing, restoring and upgrading vehicles come with risks.  As a publisher, I’m committed to consumer-oriented, accessible content.  When I started the magazine, video journalism was an emerging medium.  Despite my print media and photography background, I transitioned to how-to videos and instructional media.  By last year, the magazine’s new content focus and coverage was entirely HD video.  (For details on video production, visit the http://www.mosesludel.net/videoservices website.)

     Serving consumer needs has also impacted the magazine’s advertising focus.  In automotive print media magazines and cable television shows, advertising-driven editorial content is a common practice.   4WD Mechanix Magazine has a selective approach to sponsors and advertisers.  Advertisers must offer quality service-related parts, proven hand and power tools, and functional, cost-effective shop equipment.  Restricting the magazine’s advertising to a select group of responsible manufacturers and vendors comes at a price.  To evaluate and promote products without bias requires freedom from pandering to advertisers.

     Note:  Aftermarket manufacturers whose upgrades and accessories improve the safety, reliability, efficiency, utility or handling of 4x4 light trucks, SUVs and Jeep® vehicles are welcome to advertise at 4WD Mechanix Magazine and its forums.  Others need not apply.

What Distinguishes These Forums?

     I follow or reply to every pertinent topic and post at the forums.  Why?  I respect your need to fix a vehicle properly.  I don’t care whether your shop is an apartment complex carport or a 4,000 sq. ft. clear span building.  My concern is the caliber of your work and how much professionalism you can muster.  If you’re willing to make the effort, I’m interested in helping. 

     ‘DIY’ work requires tool and equipment choices for your shop or home garage.  Cost is always a consideration, and if Harbor Freight impact sockets or floor jacks and stands will do the job, that’s my recommendation.  If Snap-On, OTC, Miller/SPX, Mastercool, Flareforce or Bosch is the only source for a niche specialty tool, we can discuss that approach—or ways to improvise these kinds of tools for a one-time project that will not justify a substantial tool investment.

     My priority is helping 'DIY' and professional mechanics perform quality work.  Sadly, the car culture frowns on “book learning”.  YouTube and cable TV have become prime information mediums, and we know where that often leads.  Sometimes a quality tech on YouTube helps others along, like at 6061.com or Tips-N-Tricks tutorials.  Other times a lay person’s 360P cell phone video, looking like it's been shot through a screen door, covers a first time axle rebuild—without a shop manual.   As an automotive mechanic, welder, machinist and apprentice-trained heavy equipment operator, my work has always begun with a professional service manual, followed by professional service procedures and safety guidelines.

     The magazine’s extensive automotive resource library consists of four six-feet tall by two-foot wide bookcases, covering motorized vehicles from the 1920s to present.  I have catalogs, original print FSMs and OEM/CD versions of FSMs…Do you really want to "wing it" on an automatic transmission rebuild, a steering gear reseal or brake work?

     Instructing at the classroom level has been rewarding for me.  As the Director of Vocational Training for the Rite of Passage programs, I instructed and drafted curriculum that ultimately served over 1,200 students on my watch and beyond.  These were tough young men whose adult lives depended on making a viable livelihood.  Their success at welding, automotive technology or the building trades was paramount, and our staff taught these courses with a sense of urgency.  Your mechanical and welding projects are no less important.  The reliability and safety of your vehicles depend upon your skill.

     Automotive mechanics and welding have been my passions.  Fifty years ago this month, I began my adult career in the automotive trade.  Automotive mechanics has served me well and led to photojournalism and the authorship of seven Bentley Publishers books, including the best-selling Jeep® Owner's Bible™ and six other successes. 

     We're all pressed for time, and while taking a community college adult ed course can provide a great overview, it won’t solve an immediate problem like a broken steering gear mount along the Rubicon Trail.  The internet has conditioned us to expect solutions right now—in bite size pieces.  These forums fit right into the current culture while serving as an instructional and information tool when you have the time.  At these forums and the magazine, I share my experience, resource library, research data and hands-on trade skill experience with any subscriber interested in learning.  It is a pleasure to share this knowledge, information and how-to projects with earnest readers and viewers who want to professionalize their skills.

Worth Subscribing! 

     The magazine and forums' Google Analytics reports make it clear that consumers, DIY enthusiasts and professionals place a high value on the technical content at these forums.  While the best things in life can sometimes be free—family, friends, our favorite dog, fly fishing or a breath of fresh air on a primitive 4x4 trail to name a few—one-on-one solutions to members’ mechanical problems takes time—my time.  Beginning February 1, 2018, the magazine’s forums membership is by subscription.

     Note:  All current and new URL pages at 4WD Mechanix Magazine, including searchable information and viewing embedded videos, will remain available for free.  “Guests” can visit the Forums for a total of ten (10) URL page views without a Sign-In.  After ten (10) URL page views, Guests are prompted to register and subscribe.  Guest status permits reading the topics and posted text.

     Forums subscribers will have all of the privileges previously extended to “Members” plus access to these blogs and the new Gallery.  (From February 1, 2018 forward, all non-subscribers will have “Guest” status permissions only.)  As a Subscriber Member, you will have access to images and downloads.  To help resolve your mechanical problems, you will be able to post questions, photos and even short video clips.  In addition to getting answers to your questions, you can initiate and participate in discussions with like-minded members—just as you would at any social forum.  I am optimistic that Subscriber Members will be invested in these forums and their communities!

     A new feature at the forums is this blog.  Both Guests and Subscriber Members have access to these candid blogs.  Only Subscriber Members will be able to make comments and add replies.  This premier blog ("2018:  Year of Speaking Out!") is the first in an ongoing series.  In forthcoming blogs, promised to gradually decrease in length, expect my frank discussion about automotive industry developments, new versus old technology, breakthroughs in troubleshooting and diagnostics, and other topical subjects.

     The annual subscription fee is only $12 (US)—yes, equivalent to only a dollar per month!  Subscriber Members can expect the kind of feedback that has always characterized these forums.  The aim is solutions for Subscriber Members' mechanical trouble, troubleshooting tips, repair and restoration recommendations and sensible, proven advice on vehicle upgrades.  Review the 'Subscriber Member Benefits and Terms' for details.  If you would like to subscribe now through the safe, secure PayPal Services process, visit the 'Store'.

     The magazine and forums are available on your PC, mobile phone or tablet.  Free magazine content plus Forums Subscriber Members privileges can be available for quick access whenever and wherever you need it.  If cell reception is available, many find solutions while making trailside repairs!

     So if you've tapped out your household budget with that new Jeep® JL Rubicon Wrangler or Ram truck payment, or need to get a vintage flat-fender out of the barn in time for the hunting season, or if your diesel 4x4 pickup has the 200,000 mile quirks and eats too much fuel, or whatever, a 4WD Mechanix Magazine ‘Tech and Travel’ Forums subscription can help you master routine service, troubleshooting, repairs and rebuilding.  If you have more than a passing interest in automotive mechanics and welding, a forums subscription will be the best buck a month you can spend!—Moses Ludel

Entries in this blog

The Need for 4WD Mechanix Network's Vimeo On Demand Library

In this era of audio-visual learning, I have been building an instructional library at Vimeo On Demand, the best use of my time and a worthwhile means for serving the needs of 4x4 light truck owners.  This exchange with a thoughtful forum Member characterizes a choice that many consumers make today: 6-11-2018 Forum Member Question:  Should I? '"I would like to first off apologize for burdening you with this question, but I have read a lot of your stuff and feel you would be the m

Moses Ludel

Moses Ludel

'DIY' Versus Subletting Your Automotive Service Work

The high cost of new vehicles has its counterpart in rising dealership labor costs.  Shop labor has crept up, and more consumers find themselves working on their own vehicles.  This starts with basic lube and oil/filter changes, spark plugs and an air filter.  Then comes the transmission filter and the cooling system flushes.  AutoZone, NAPA and O'Reilly's, much like Home Depot and Lowe's, cater to a growing number of DIY customers.  Expect this trend to continue. As vehicles fall out of fa

Moses Ludel

Moses Ludel

Is the Internet an Alternative to ‘Thinking Like a Mechanic’?

When we were in kindergarten, it was common to take a watch apart—and not get it back together.  Some of us, not content with things that no longer worked, went on to fixing things instead of just taking them apart.  Toying with mechanical things versus putting things back together properly is for most a clear fork in the road. In my early childhood, I was fascinated with all things that rolled:  trucks, cars, bicycles, motorized cycles, locomotives, take your pick!  By age eleven, with the

Moses Ludel

Moses Ludel

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