I replaced the brakes completely (new rotors, calipers, brake pads, brake drums, wheel cylinders, brake lines etc) when I bought the vehicle (160,000 miles). The front calipers were hanging up and in bad shape, so I decided that in such a small, open truck, I'd rather play it safe and buy everything new, even though I am usually a cheap SOB.
Wheel bearing at around 163,000 miles. The bearings and races were thoroughly destroyed; probably should have been replaced by the PO thousands of miles previous.
Replaced the knuckle seals and kingpins when I did the bearings. Water was getting at the bearings and into the hubs.
Rebuilt the hubs when I first bought the truck. Passenger side manual hub was rusted up and causing the 4wd to be inoperable.
Rotor, cap, wires, coolant flush, plugs, valve job, rebuilt carburetor, etc.
Cleaned out the heater box by drilling a hole in the box and using compressed air to get all of the leaves and debris off the heater core. Heater works amazingly well now.
Replaced the exhaust completely from the manifold back with a stainless kit from Trail Tough. Now I wish I had bought a header at the same time.
Endless small cheap parts such as the PCV valve, valve cover gasket, fuel filter, 02 sensor, steering shaft coupler (type 1 Beetle coupler fits perfect), and a lot of other things I can't recall at this time.
Rebuilt the shifter.
Rust. Hey, any 80's New England truck will have it. All the Samurai's I've seen have had mint frames, but as for the bodies, I once read someone remark, "The Samurai was Japan's way to smuggle rust into the U.S.", and I have to say that might be true. Pay close attention to the body mounts under the floors, as they tend to rust out around this area. I cut all the fenders and rockers out of mine, and welded in all new metal. The floors weren't too bad and got several layers of fiberglass. About a third of my hood was eaten away, but I have never seen another Samurai with this issue. Watch/check the windshield frame as well.
In my opinion these little Samurais are the most fun you can have on four wheels. However, you have to understand what they are, and more importantly, what they aren't.
They are extremely underpowered in stock form, they are very small, and the ride is rough. If I had the truck dynotested, I would be lucky if it had 25 HP at the rear wheels after 180,000 miles. Add off road accessories, a lift kit, larger tires, and gear, and you will be lucky to see 60 mph on the highway.
However, that being said, they are perfectly capable daily drivers that get great gas mileage, and are in my opinion peppy enough 0-30 mph unless you have really large tires without changing the gearing. Anyone who says that they are unsafe at highway speed and unfit for commuting, probably had unrealistic expectations. I liken it to people who buy small convertibles and then complain that there is no storage room. Know what you are buying, and how well it fits your goals in a vehicle.
OK, so you wanted a spartan, reliable little warrior of a truck? You really can't do better than a Samurai (Sidekick/Tracker might be a good start). They are tough as nails, easy to fix, easy to maneuver, and (my favorite part) easy to customize and personalize. I use mine as a DD and weekend off roader. It is not lifted two feet in the air with a monster motor crammed under the hood. I fit 29" mud tires under the custom fenders and replaced the transfer case with 12% lower gearing out of an SJ410. I have heard a lot of people who have gone the former route with their Samurais, complain that the truck was much more fun when it was small and nimble. I do, however, plan eventually to switch to Jeep YJ springs, and keep it sprung under to improve the flex, ride, and get approx 2" of lift. If your goal is to lift it though, the sky is the limit with all of the aftermarket companies out there making a variety of kits.
The truck does great off road. I can't go over or through some of the bigger obstacles in stock form like the big boys, but I can always find a technical way around, and this suits my preference. Also, it is just a blast in the snow. I am really not sure why, as I have owned other 4x4's that were not nearly as much fun in the wet stuff.
Even with high mileage, my Samurai runs great, starts on the first crank at any temp, and always gets me home. A year or so after I bought it for a few hundred dollars, I went on a 5,500 mile road trip to Utah with my cousin (77 VW Micro Bus), and the only thing that broke was the throttle cable that we replaced with an old choke cable. We beat them both up offroading in Moab, and then drove home with no issues. I do plan, however, to rebuild the motor with a more wild cam, larger 1.6 exhaust valves, high compression pistons, ported intake, and a CV carb. As an example of the ground-pounding power of the Sammi, I had to go 15 mph in second gear up the Rocky Mountains, with hundreds of pounds of gear (my cousin had to take it in 1st. The Truckers loved us).
I recommend fabbing in new seats. I replaced my ripped worn out seats with bucket seats out of an '89 Prelude Si, and now the ride is so much more comfortable; it is like I modified the suspension.
Conclusion: Buy a Samurai, remove the soft top, pull the doors off and drive it like you stole it. Worry about breakdowns, scratches, and body damage? Hell no. Just don't plan on winning any street races, or getting any friendly waves from Jeep owners.