Just as “jump the shark” and “nuke the fridge” have special meanings in pop culture, to “Buy the 4Runner” has a special meaning for me and my family. To find out why, let’s rewind to spring of 2002: I had three summers of “professional” tire/oil change experience under my belt and was just wrapping up my sophomore year of college at UC San Diego.
With ubiquitous internet access and lots of time between classes, I was spending countless hours on 4×4 forums, pirate4x4 in particular. Funny thing about spending 100X as many hours debating something online as actually doing it: You can lose track of what matters.
I’d become convinced that my ’91 Wranger, with its 35″ tires, a 5″ coil conversion lift and front/rear air lockers was underbuilt. The factory Dana 30 and 35 axles would snap at the slightest hint of a hill climb and the transfer case was woefully under-spec’ed. What I really needed to do was sell my Wrangler for the high price it could bring, then build up a solid-axle Toyota 4Runner from scratch to be the hardcore wheeling machine I really wanted. After all, you could get a great used specimen for like $4,000, and that 22RE motor would run forever.
Of course, none of this was true…
As long as I didn’t make a habit of bumping my way up rocky hillclimbs under full throttle, my drivetrain was been fine. Busy with school, I wasn’t doing all that much offroading to begin with, certainly not of the Super Hardcore variety. I’m not sure how I thought a 17 year-old 4Runner was going to be a reliability upgrade over a Wrangler with a 2 year old motor.
Regardless, a grandiose plan was hatched: I’d sell the Jeep for a bunch of cash, and use it to buy and build a 4Runner into exactly what I wanted.
I came across the example you see above. 5.5″ All-Pro Offroad lift, 5.29:1 gears, 35″ Super Swampers and a winch. Sure, it had 160k miles, but it really only had 50k on a rebuilt engine, so it was fine.
There were a few small problems…
- Instead of the $4-5k that I was looking to spend, the guy was asking $9k (but it already had lift/tires/gears that I wanted, so it was really a bargain!).
- It had an exhaust leak at the manifold-to-head surface (and easy fix)
- The driver’s seat was busted, with the backrest flopped backwards.
- The transmission was in need of a 2nd gear synchro (but good, used replacements were only a few hundred bucks)
- The clutch was chattering (but I could get it when I did the transmission)
- Lastly, it was in Sacramento but I was in San Diego. No problem, I’d just have my dad check it out for me
Everything in italics came back to bite me.
I’d like to believe if I’d been there in person to hear the exhaust leak, to drive it and realize just how gutless 100ish horsepower feels when yoked to 35″, 50lb bias ply tires, that I would’ve passed. Most importantly, it showed all the signs of a vehicle built in all the wrong ways, then neglected. Tip: all the “little things” wrong with a vehicle that’s clearly not getting driven are just the tip of the iceberg. Get those fixed and another round will pop right up.
Because of some ancient history involving his dad, my dad was reluctant to let me know what a pile of crap I’d sent him to buy. Meanwhile, I was 50/50 on the whole thing, but figured fortune favored the bold.
Straight away, the spread between the $12k I sold the Wrangler for and the $8k I paid for the 4Runner disappeared quickly. I paid for sales tax, 1st insurance premium, a new driver’s seat, a (used) replacement transmission and getting the exhaust leak (mostly) fixed. The budget for tons of kickass upgrades vaporized pretty much instantly.
Winter break of that year really epitomizes my ownership experience…
On the way to my parents’ place, the front main oil seal quit. I added at least five quarts of oil over the trip, most of which proceeded to spray down the undercarriage and up the back of the car. Once there, I had two weeks to fix the seal, change a clutch, swap a transmission and install dual transfer cases before joining my girlfriend and family on a snowboarding trip. After burning a day fixing the oil seal issue, the drivetrain swap was longer and more difficult than expected. My girlfriend up expecting to go snowboarding, but instead spent the first day helping me bench press 300lbs of drivetrain into place. Yes, I married that girl.
It turns out this 4Runner once had a rear seat heater, with its own dedicated coolant line. I learned this because my new dual transfer case setup was about eight inches longer and rubbed on the U-tube that was used to cap off the coolant lines. I learned that because said U-tube blew out at a rest stop on I-5, resulting in a few hours delay while I figured out why the hell my car was leaking coolant from the transfer case.
After four months of relative calm on the maintenance front, the head gasket blew. I think it had something to do with the return of an exhaust leak, causing a local hot spot at the head/block surface. Without the skills, tools or space to do a head gasket, I borrowed a pile of cash from The Bank of Dad and took it to the best Toyota specialist in town. A little over $2000 later everything was perfectly sorted with a full 12 month warranty. It hurt, but at least I could stop worrying.
Two months after that, it was stolen. I parked (right here) it at 8:00am, came out at 5:30pm and it was gone, never to be seen again. Insurance paid me more than I could’ve sold it for, but less than I paid and nowhere near the total I’d spent in 10 months of ownership.
Back to the original goal of the vehicle, I did manage to get two offroading trips out of it. On neither one did it perform anywhere near as well as the Wrangler it replaced. That said, I’m still in love with the 1st generation 4Runner. They’re a perfect size and proportion, with tons of utility.
For years, I beat myself up over the whole fiasco. Really, the whole thing embarrassed me. In my family to “Buy the 4Runner” came to mean entering into a financial boondoggle with delusions of coming out ahead of the game, when in reality you’re just biting off more than you can chew. A few specific car-life lessons from that experience:
- “I can sell my _____ for $______, buy a ______ for $______ and then…” is always false
- Chances are you’re not as hardcore of a track rat/auto-crosser/offroader/drag racer as you think you are. Using a “lesser” vehicle more often is better than endlessly wrenching on your purpose-built machine.
- Beware of other people’s upgrades. Very rarely they can work to your advantage, but more often than not they’re not really done right and distract from other issues.
- Beware of cars advertised as potential drivers that have a bunch of problems that prohibit driving. Chances are they’ve been sitting (or worse, driving) half-broken for months in the hands of an owner unable or unwilling to maintain things properly.
- Don’t buy a car remotely, at least not with any expectation that you’ll get something good. There’s no substitute for being there to see/hear/smell the car and seller to get a handle on a car’s condition in its totality.
Ten years later, I’m still frustrated by the experience. But when I think about everything I learned as a result, I’m not sure I wouldn’t wish it upon myself again. I learned a lot about wrenching, but even more about just how much time, money and space it takes to take on a real project. I’m glad I had that learning experience on an $8,000 4Runner than a $30,000 BMW or a $300,000 money pit of a house.
I wish I could say that’s the last time I bought the wrong project car, but this is “Episode 1” for a reason…