It’s only natural to competitively compare what we love. And the diesel truck world? Well, that might be one of the most competitive segments in the industry. As a self-proclaimed enthusiast of primarily gasoline and alcohol-powered vehicles, I’ve come to understand and admire the knowledge and tinkering ability of diesel truck owners. These guys really love their rigs. Wrenching a diesel can be expensive, but the results of the upgrades are truly astounding. With this in mind, I set out to uncover what are the best used diesel trucks to modify.
Through my efforts—perusing forums and manufacturer websites, navigating screamy caps lock and comment section insults—I learned a few things about my subject of study.
What makes for a well-received platform in the diesel community, first and foremost, is the engine underneath. But, duh, we already knew that.
Second, every diesel engine that’s been put in a domestic pickup since near the beginning of time has some sort of fan club. By this, I mean they all seem to be genuinely popular in their own right. Admittedly, this made it difficult to sift through the options and find the best of the best. However, I also noticed that while diesel guys don’t hesitate to knock on a brand outside their own particular following, they’re more likely to compare their preferred model to another released by the same manufacturer. Forget about comparing Ford to Chevy, Chevy to Dodge. Fords were pinned against Fords, Chevys against Chevys, Dodges against Dodges. (You get the point.)
So, to avoid having a blanket discussion of how “any diesel model truck is a good project truck,” we’re going to unpack the best examples of each of the Top 3 American manufacturers. (It just so happens that the following engines were paired with some of the most legendary platforms.)
So, here are your Top 3 best used diesel trucks for wrenching.
1994-1998 Dodge Ram 5.9L Cummins
The second gen Cummins-powered Rams featured a 12-valve 5.9L straight six—probably the most infamous diesel engine featured in any diesel truck. (Paired with one of my favorite Dodge body styles ever, I might add.) Debuting in ’94 (winning Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year award) and continuing through mid-1998, these trucks were tough. They had an engine under the hood that responded well to bolt-ons and could keep up with the additional power. They were also equipped with the revered Bosch P-7100 injection pump. Robust, reliable, and wrenchable, the “P-pump” needed only minor mods for some serious power gains.
On top of that, the ’94-’98 Rams featured Dana 60, 70, and 80 differentials as factory options, but a rather weak transmission. Unable to match the beastly power of the 5.9L Cummins, the 47RH and 47RE transmissions left a lot to be desired. However, for those willing to get a little grease on the hands and invest in some worthy aftermarket upgrades, they could easily be modified to handle more horsepower and bigger tow loads.
A kickass body style paired with a wicked power plant, aided by a solid aftermarket makes this my top pick on the list of best used diesel trucks.
2006-2007 6.6L Duramax LBZ 2500 & 3500
What beats big power? Keeping up with big power.
Diesels are known for being able to turn out ridiculous numbers—which is all well and good. But blowing apart a bottom end with the kind of power these things are known to produce is absolutely within range. Luckily, the beefed-up LBZ graced the diesel community with its power-hungry durability. Often regarded as the best Duramax ever made, the LBZ lasted for only two short years before it was replaced with the more emissions-friendly LMM. But for the 2006 and 2007 model years, Duramax-powered Chevy and GMC trucks enjoyed increased power and torque, without those pesky particulate filters.
The 2500HD & 3500HD trucks not only packed a worthy power plant, but also a classic body style featuring a ride-friendly IFS assembly and Bosch common-rail injection. They also came mated with either an Allison 1000 six-speed automatic or ZF650 six-speed manual transmission, with ’07 marking the last year that a Duramax engine would be available with a manual.
The structural integrity of these platforms makes them a dream to work on, as building up power won’t unleash hell on the internals of the drivetrain. Additionally, the independent front suspension gives this truck an edge in terms of handling.
2001-2003 Ford Super Duty 7.3L Power Stroke
The last stop on our journey of best used diesel trucks is the 7.3L Power Stroke-equipped Ford Super Duty. Easily one of the most glorified platforms, the 7.3L Power Stroke debuted in 1994 and was retuned for the Super Duty F-Series in 2001. Equipped with either a 4R100 automatic or six-speed ZF-6 manual, it pushed out 250-hp and 275-hp respectively.
With a great body style, Dana 50 front axle, 10.5 Sterling in the rear, and a reliable beast under the hood, this is a relatively bullet-proof platform. Except, the one thorn commonly hindering these trucks is a failing camshaft position sensor. Causing acceleration hesitation, bad starts and stalling, a failing CPS is a pain but thankfully, an easy fix.
Like the LBZ, the 7.3L Power Stroke was phased out (midway through 2003) in favor of a more emissions-compliant replacement. In this case, the 6.0L Power Stroke. Despite late-model F-series diesels evolving into power mongers, there’s no denying that the 01-03 Powerstroke is still the mother of Blue Oval diesel engines. Sturdy, reliable, and simple to wrench, it’s a great option for builders seeking a diesel project truck.
No matter your decision, any diesel platform is ripe for max performance with some wrenching skills and help from the aftermarket!