No great road trip story ever ended with, “…and absolutely nothing went wrong on the entire trip.” Epic stories are filled with drama, punctuated with intervals of sheer terror, and wrapped up with a “but we’re better for surviving it all” ending. Sure, one can drive a new car from coast to coast on interstate highways, staying in major hotels and eating bland-but-safe food from chain restaurants, but the real fun lies in taking the back roads, staying in inns you’ve never heard of (but may have seen in a late-night horror movie), eating unfamiliar food and driving a car that you’re less than certain will reach your destination without roadside wrenching.
The five candidates below all appear to be running and driving examples, priced below (and in some cases, well below) the $5,000 threshold. The Jeep will require a bit of wrenching before the journey begins, unless the thought of a cross-country journey without brakes is your idea of a good time, but other examples seem road-trip-ready as soon as the title is handed over and new plates are put on the bumper. Still, we’d pack tools, just to be on the safe side.
Swedish automaker Saab went of business in late 2011, but the brand lives on in the hearts (and garages) of Saabophiles worldwide. Regardless of the mileage on the odometer, clean examples are generally snapped up as soon as they hit the market, so for those in search of an open-air 900, there’s no time like the present to call on this one. The seller says, “drive anywhere with confidence,” and we’re betting that the car’s next owner will continue to do so for years to come. The asking price? $2,500, just half the $5,000 budget cap.
Want to buy a dependable car, but have less than $4,000 to spend? Chances are you could do far worse than this Merc, which may well be the most road-trip ready car on the list. If something does go wrong, parts for the 302 V-8 should be as close as the nearest NAPA store, and for those uncomfortable with turning wrenches on their own, any capable mechanic should be able to get it back on the road with a minimal amount of fuss. For an asking price of $3,695, it’s cheaper than a week’s vacation at a big resort, and we’ll bet it’s a lot more enjoyable, too.
First the good news: this Jeep appears to be just about rust free, and it sounds as if it still receives regular use on the farm. Now the bad news: it will need brakes, and most likely tires, before it’s ready for any long-distance road trip. The four-cylinder F-head engine should prove plenty reliable, and mechanically speaking, about as simple to repair as internal combustion engines get. Sure, you’ll need to spend a little more than the $3,500 asking price to get the Jeep road trip ready, but a weekend’s worth of wrenching could lead to a lifetime of four-wheel drive fun.
Chrysler’s 2.2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder “Turbo I” engine was used in a variety of applications, ranging from hot hatches to minivans, from 1984 to 1988, when it was replaced by the higher-output, intercooled “Turbo II” 2.2-liter four. While this wood paneled wagon may look like a sedate grocery-getter, forced induction Mopar fans probably see it as a blank canvas, waiting to be turned into a 12-second sleeper with a bit of wrenching and modification. Imagine the fun of road-tripping in an under-the-radar family hauler, supplementing your income with friendly wagers at drag strips along the way. The buy-in price of $4,750 buys a well-preserved Reagan-era wagon, but with a bit of research and a few thousand more, this screams “untapped potential.”
Road trips and vans go perfect together, and the beauty of this example is that it’s right-sized and powered by a rebuilt six-cylinder shifting through a rebuilt automatic transmission. The seller claims that a restoration was started, and that the van was driven weekly, which tells us it’s probably capable of getting a mechanically inclined individual home without a lot of drama. Pack a sleeping bag, some tools and an atlas, and for $4,900 you have the start of a potentially memorable adventure.