A year ago, I had the urge to buy an old four-wheel drive Toyota Pickup. The boxiness of the body, the square stance of the off-road suspension, the no-frills interior, and the perceived reliability of an old Toyota—it all came together to create an irresistible combination. But is the craving to own one just the result of shallow nostalgic emotions, or can it hold up to your expectations?
To find out, I’m going to show you what it’s actually like to buy, repair, and live with one.
These trucks aren’t difficult to locate. Jump on your favorite auction or classifieds website and there will be a number of them to instill lust. So, what’s the catch?
The market values have gone haywire, that’s what. The decent ones are pricey, and the nice ones are downright expensive. We’re not talking about an air-cooled 911 here; if you want one, you want to get a deal on one.
And deals on old Toyota trucks don’t just come knocking on your door. You have to do some grunt work to find a candidate that fits in the price range of the budget-minded buyer. A screaming deal will be gone in less than 24 hours of being posted. If you aren’t in the seller’s backyard, you’ve probably already missed out.
I had already missed out on five different trucks over a span of months because each time I was too late to the party. Then, finally, the one appeared; rust-free, running, and honest. It was an hour and half away and the seller said they would hold it for me if I came down that afternoon.
I dropped what I was doing and ran to the bank.
The pickup truly was rust free. Originally from California, the little Toyota had made its way around the southwestern United States until it finally ended up in Kansas. It was a 1988 model and came equipped with a V6 engine—the only year this body style was offered with that engine.
Old Toyotas have a certain homeliness to them that overwhelms the senses the moment you climb inside. It’s the deadened groan of the dried-up door hinge. The faint scent of mildew that has been sun-dried over a thousand searing hot summer afternoons. The wavering screech of the seat belt warning buzzer when turning the key to the “ON” position. It’s all there and it makes you feel a sentimental bond with the vehicle.
The spartan interior catapulted me back into my childhood memories of my parents’ 1985 Toyota Corolla, a car that represented my formative years of automotive enthusiasm. Memories like this never leave your mind. The right combination of sensations bring it all back. It was like discovering a long-lost brother or sister.
I took the truck for a brief test drive which told me everything I needed to know. It drove well and all the controls worked. The engine had a bit of a stumble, but I figured a much needed tune-up would cure it. The body, while rust free, had some dents and other imperfections.
None of the flaws mattered to me, however. The most important feature, the rust free body, made the truck worth the price. I would have easily paid the seller’s asking price, but I put in a slightly lower offer, as one does with Craigslist exchanges. The seller accepted my $3100 offer, and I drove the truck back home.
These trucks are not that difficult to work on yourself but they are a righteous pain when it comes to actually researching the repairs. You have to become an expert of every four-wheel drive vehicle Toyota produced during the ’80s and early ’90s. Many parts are shared between models but there are often peculiarities with the Pickup that differentiate it from, say, the 4Runner.
You may be thinking, “Can’t I just plug ‘1988 Toyota Pickup’ into a Google search and find the repair information I need?” The answer is, quite simply, “No.”
When you type “Toyota Pickup” into Google, you are making the assumption that your fellow internet users have used the same precise language that you have used. In most cases, you will have to try harder than that to find what you are looking for in search results.
Before the model “Tacoma” came along in 1995, Toyota trucks were known by many different names. In places outside of the U.S., they were called the Hilux. However, for us Yanks, “Hilux” search results won’t do us much good because the Hilux’s engines and many other components were often different than their States-bound counterparts.
In the USA, they were referred to as “Pickup” and “Truck” and other variations of the aforementioned. For one simple search, you may find yourself doing five or six different searches just to cover all of the keywords. It’s a lot of fun, let me tell you.
Service manuals are few and far between for specific model years. Your best bet is to find a service manual that references the specific engine you have, and just pray you can find year-specific specifications somewhere out in the vast forums. All I can say is, “Good luck.”
I started repairs the day I brought the truck home. The truck came with two service records: one stating that the timing belt had been replaced 10,000 miles ago, and the other stating the clutch had been replaced around the same time.
Even still, I wanted to “benchmark” the vehicle by changing all of the fluids and doing some basic mechanical maintenance. Performing this work would give me the peace of mind to use the truck on a regular basis.
On my drive home I noticed that the truck had an abnormally high idle speed. This was paired with a strange RPM oscillation when the brakes were applied. After some research I learned that this was a symptom of the throttle position sensor being out of adjustment. Since this required removing the throttle body, it was a great opportunity to also clean out the carbon build up inside of the throttle body itself.
The valvetrain was audible while the engine was running so I decided a valve adjustment was in order. This is a maintenance item that is almost always overlooked on these engines, so I had good reason to suspect it had never been performed before on this truck.
Of course, doing a valve adjustment on the Toyota 3VZ-E V6 engine requires a special set of tools. The engine utilizes a shim-over-bucket arrangement which means that to adjust the valve clearances, you must change out the shims that lie on top of the buckets.
The special tools aren’t expensive ($30), but you will want to rope off a whole week to perform this job.
This is because you will need to disassemble the upper half of the engine and take valve clearance measurements. If any valves are out of spec, you will need to remove the shims and take their measurements. Only then do you have the information you need to order new replacement shims. Dealerships rarely stock the shims you need, so this means you will have to wait a few days to get the new shims. Once you receive all the new parts, you can then reassemble everything. Throw life into the mix and that’s why this job can take a whole week.
It is a tedious, strung-out process which is probably why it rarely gets performed. But, it was worth it in my experience. The engine ran smoother and the valvetrain noise was reduced considerably.
Valve Cover Gaskets
While I was doing a valve adjustment, it was a perfect opportunity to install new valve cover gaskets and to re-seal the camshaft bearing end caps. Oil leakage was present from both items.
The bearing end caps are an often overlooked component that can begin to leak over time. A light bead of sealant along the external edge of the cap, along with some assembly lube in the journal where the camshaft rides, and the leaks are gone for good.
Installing new valve cover gaskets is a simple repair when you have the top of the engine disassembled, so it is a no-brainer to replace them. I found some high-quality silicone gaskets at my local auto parts store which, to be honest, are better than the OEM Toyota gaskets. With the valve covers torqued back down, the oil leakage was no more.
The truck seemed to have a slight misfire that made the engine feel like it was lacking power. Knowing that the 3VZ-E V6 engine has a reputation for eating head gaskets, I performed a compression check to make sure nothing major was amiss. Readings from all cylinders were good, which sent me looking for other culprits.
The spark plugs looked worn out, and the ignition wires were lousy aftermarket items. Either of these items can very well cause a misfire. I decided that it was a good idea to replace all ignition system parts with new OEM Toyota pieces.
What a difference such a simple repair can make! Then engine came to life with a vigor that was lacking before and the misfire became a thing of the past.
Drivetrain Oil Change
Many 4WD vehicle owners are unaware that their complex 4WD system has a multitude of gearboxes that need regular oil changes. The front and rear differentials, transfer case, and transmission all have oil change intervals which are often neglected.
I had no idea when the last time any of these fluids were replaced on the truck, so I thought it was best to change all of them at once.
Here’s a tip: No matter what component of the drivetrain you are exchanging oil on, always loosen the fill plug first. This prevents you from draining all of the oil out and then finding out that you cannot refill the gearbox because the fill plug is seized.
Brake & Clutch Fluid Flush
The brake fluid and clutch fluid were a nasty brown color. This is typical of very old and contaminated fluid. The brakes and clutch may still appear to work OK, but contaminated fluid will slowly degrade every component in both systems.
It is an inexpensive procedure to flush the old fluid out and replace it with new. New fluid will prolong the life of the brake and clutch systems, provide consistent feedback through the pedals, and ultimately make the vehicle much safer to operate.
The rear suspension on the truck had begun to sag quite a bit. If I had added any sort of load in the bed, the suspension would have bottomed out.
I elected to install an “Add-A-Leaf” kit to raise the rear end back up. As I found out, I also needed to get longer U-Bolts to secure the axle to the leaf springs. The addition of one leaf per side made the suspension assembly exceed the length of the original U-Bolts.
While I was in there, I also replaced the worn out shocks that were on the truck. New KYB shocks would hopefully help dampen the bouncy ride that these trucks are known for.
At some point in the past, the catalytic converter had been removed from the truck.
I don’t live in a state that requires emissions testing, but honestly, I prefer to have a cat fitted, especially if one was fitted to the vehicle from the factory. It reduces exhaust smells and quiets things down significantly.
Installing a new catalytic converter wasn’t the cheapest repair at $305, but I felt it was worth the spend to clean up the exhaust fumes.
The cosmetic condition of the truck wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either. These things are seldom garage queens, as you might expect. There were a number of items I could improve on that would make the truck look noticeably better.
The wheels, while original, had been painted white at some point in the past. They looked tatty to say the least. Stripping all of the old paint off and spraying a coat of silver wheel paint had them looking respectable once again.
The plastic stone guards that protect the rear fenders had gone missing and really brought down the rugged-look of the pickup. New Toyota replacements were sourced at $40-a-pop.
The bed on these trucks employs an interesting design. They have interior “panels” that bolt to the bed frame. Over time, dirt and leaves get trapped behind these panels and act like a sponge whenever it rains. What does this lead to? You guessed it - rust.
I removed the side panels, cleaned out all of the debris that had collected, then ran a bead of sealant across all bed panel seams. This would hopefully stave off rust and corrosion for the foreseeable future.
The engine’s intake plenum was oxidized and was an eyesore in the engine bay. I had to remove it to adjust the valves anyway, so I decided to throw a new coat of paint on it.
Having masked off the all of the machined surfaces, I think the end result came out looking nearly factory-fresh. Not bad for a basically free procedure.
What I came to learn when attempting to refresh the truck’s interior is that replacement interior parts are basically unobtanium. You are at the mercy of eBay, Craigslist, and the local junkyard.
Luckily, my local junkyard actually had some old Toyotas in stock that I could pull from. Going to a junkyard is so exciting. You can make it out of there like a bandit. I got all of this crap for $25. It would have been a lot more had I bought it all individually on eBay.
The plastic steering column bezel was cracked and mostly missing. I sourced a replacement at the junkyard and painted it up to match my truck’s interior color.
There were a lot of other small interior pieces that I replaced along the way, such as switch blanking plates and a shift knob. I wasn’t looking to make the interior perfect, just more presentable. I think I accomplished that at least.
Actually Living With One
Shocking news: these things actually drive like trucks.
No, really. You are probably imaging how your buddy’s newer F-150 drives. Think more along the lines of a 1960's Land Rover. Old Toyota pickups are downright harsh. The suspension is stiff, the steering is vague, the shift throws are lengthy, the clutch take up is long.
On and off the throttle forces you in and out of the seat. Every bump you hit is another chiropractor appointment down in the calendar. You can try to drive as smooth as you can, but the truck will laugh, strike an imperfection in the road, and wipe that smug look off your face.
The truck is light enough to feel nimble but still heavy enough to strain the engine. From a stop, first gear is too short, and second gear is too tall. Once you get past 20 mph, progress is easy going, but I’m telling you, starting from a stop in modern rush hour traffic, you will be the hold up.
This truck would make all the sense in the world on farm roads and narrow cart tracks. In town, however, you’ll be wishing for your old sedan back.
These are just some of the realities of driving an old Toyota Pickup. Many will find charm in all of those characteristics. I did too, for the first couple of months. Then it got old.
I then began to wish I had a less-nice example. I guess what I mean by this - and I can’t believe I’m saying this - I wish it had some rust.
Do you know how stressful it is to try and keep an old Toyota Pickup from rusting? I started seeing salt in my nightmares. The value of these particular Toyotas lies almost completely in the rust-free bodywork. Simply living in an area where salt has been applied to the roads at one point in time is asking for trouble. You can try to prevent rust by applying an undercoating, but when you do that, it looks like you are covering something up. What’s under all of that black paint? Good question, prospective buyer!
I’m embarrassed to say it, but when winter rolled around, I parked the truck in the garage and my Lexus LS400 became my winter driver. The Lexus can handle some salt and moisture. Old Toyota Pickups cannot.
During my ownership of the truck, the values for clean examples began to rise considerably. What I had on my hands was a truck that I could not use as a truck. It was now a collector vehicle. If I were to use this truck as it was meant to be used, I would only be making a financial mistake by hurting its value.
I had to get rid of it.
I’ll admit it, I became the thing many people despise: A person cashing in on a flip.
During my eight months of ownership, the market had turned on these old Toyotas. I saw a window to make some profit, while at the same time relieving myself of the duty of preserving the condition of the truck. It seemed like a win-win scenario.
I put the truck up for sale in a few online locations, priced at what I saw as reasonable market value. It took a few weeks, and there were a lot of virtual tire kickers, but eventually the right guy showed up in person.
He was a local and he looked the truck over in the same detailed manner that I would have. It was clear the truck was exactly what he had been searching for.
He made a genuine offer and I accepted it. The truck, which I had invested so much time and effort into, was going to a good home. Like any car enthusiast, that was all I wanted.
I was sad to see it drive away, but I knew I couldn’t be the truck’s long-term steward. The market upswing priced me out of my financial comfort zone. I had to say goodbye and find resolve in the profit I had managed to make.
Purchase Price: $3100.00
Repair Cost Total: $1190.82
Registration, Tax & Insurance: $543.83
Labor Hours: 90
Sale Price: $8000.00
Hunting down, purchasing, and repairing an old Toyota Pickup proved to be nearly everything I had hoped it would be. It was a memorable adventure. However, it was not meant to be a long-term affair.
Actually owning a classic Toyota truck did not live up to what my imagination had drawn up. The balky ride, temperamental steel, and hike in value made my brief period of ownership a chore instead of an enjoyable pursuit.
These trucks aren’t for everyone, even if everyone thinks they want one. The truck will do what you ask of it. It will start every time and won’t leave you stranded. It will claw its way out of a muddy situation. It will haul stuff. It is a truck, the way trucks used to be.
For some, this is enough. For them, the Toyota Pickup, in all of its rugged glory, will satisfy their deep, soul-rooted longing for a classic Japanese 4x4. They just need to know what they’re in for.
Peter Monshizadeh is the Practical Enthusiast.