My Toyota Tacoma has proven to be a hard worker ever since I gave it a minor overhaul a while back. However, there are a few mechanical issues that I failed to address the first time around. Most Tacoma owners would probably grow used to them and say “that’s just how it is.” But I had to fix them.
Lately, these issues have been driving me crazy and they all stem from the rear end of the truck.
The first symptom, and by far the most annoying, was what felt like excessive movement coming from the rear axle. When accelerating or braking, the axle seemed like it was moving back and forth. Tacomas, along with many other trucks, don’t come equipped with traction bars which precisely center the axle under the truck. As a result, the only parts locating the axle are the leaf springs themselves.
The standard leaf springs fitted to Tacomas are fairly soft, which allow for decent ride quality. The problem is that over time, the springs can lose a lot of their rigidity. As a result, the rear ride height develops a “sag.” The springs also lose their ability to keep the rear axle centered while drivetrain load is applied or reduced. This failure to keep the rear axle in place is colloquially known as “axle wrap.”
The second symptom I noticed was a CLUNK that could be heard - and felt - from the rear whenever the brakes were released from a dead stop. Maybe this was also due to the leaf springs? Perhaps something was up with the rear drum brake system? The only way to find out was to take it all apart.
The third symptom that caught my attention was the parking brake’s inability to hold the truck stationary on the mildest of inclines. The brake was properly adjusted, so I figured that some of the parking brake’s components must have failed.
I didn’t think any of these issues prevented the safe operation of the vehicle, but their presence kept nagging at me. I couldn’t stand it any longer - it was time to get down and dirty to fix them.
Leaf springs are about as simple as it gets when it comes to suspension systems. Trucks are just about the only vehicles that still employ this ancient configuration, which dates back to the days of horse-drawn carriages. In fact, many modern light-duty trucks have abandoned the design for comfort-oriented systems such as coil springs. The leaf springs on my Tacoma had seen better days, so it was high time to change them out for new.
To begin, I needed to lift the truck off the ground and let the frame rest securely atop some jack stands. Something to keep in mind when replacing leaf springs is that they are literally all that secures the axle to the frame of the truck. If you remove a leaf spring pack and the axle isn’t supported independently from the truck’s frame, the axle will fall to the ground - yikes.
Don’t do that, put a jack under the axle too.
Each leaf spring pack is secured to the frame by two large bolts, and the axle is fastened to each pack via two large U-bolts. I was fortunate that none of the fasteners were rusted out so their removal was straight forward. Well, all except for the spring perch bolt nearest the fuel tank. That one was thoroughly stuck. I had to cut it in half with an angle grinder. Nothing says “fun” like sparks near gasoline! (In all honesty, there wasn’t any real danger.)
With all the bolts removed, I could finally pull the old leaf spring pack out. Woah, that thing was heavier than I thought!
Aside from the surface rust, you wouldn’t be able to tell the old springs were worn out just by eye-balling it. I elected to purchase original-style replacement leaf springs instead of the heavier-duty units which were also available. This is because I wanted to retain decent ride quality and stock ride height.
Installing the new leaf springs was relatively simple. A little finagling was required to get the axle to line up with the locating pins in the spring pack. Nothing unreasonable though. I went ahead and used new U-bolts to secure the springs to the axle.
Next, it was time to inspect the rear brakes.
Tacomas have a few areas where you can tell Toyota was all about the cost savings. One of the results of this penny-pinching is the truck’s use of drum brakes in the rear. What’s worse is that Toyota is still putting drum brakes out back on the new Tacomas on sale today. That’s right, your $45,000 TRD Pro comes equipped with these vintage stoppers. It makes you wonder why you have to cough up so much for the privilege.
Anyway, the drum brakes on my truck were looking rusty and I had no idea when they were last serviced, let alone inspected. I was experiencing a strange clunking noise when releasing the brake pedal from a stop, and I had to suspect something was out of whack with the drums.
With the drum removed from the axle, I caught my first glimpse of drum brake’s condition. Actually, it looked in decent shape on the inside. It may have only needed a little bit of adjustment to make the shoes contact the drum liner properly, potentially eliminating the noise I’d been hearing.
But you know what? I already bought new brake shoes and spring hardware because I was expecting to find the worst. I might as well install the new parts. Also, there was a secondary issue I had gone in there for: the parking brake.
The parking brake on these trucks uses a bellcrank-style assembly that is prone to seizing up. Water, sand, and general debris find their way inside of the mechanism which eventually renders it inoperable. There are two of those bellcranks, one for each drum assembly. The only way to access the part is to remove all the drum brake components first.
With the old bellcrank assemblies removed, it was clear there was no saving them. The hinge points were seized solid - no wonder the parking brake hardly functioned. Luckily, I was able to pick up a new bellcrank set locally for not much cash.
After a bit of fiddling, I had the new bellcranks assembled, lubricated, and ready to go in the truck.
With the parking brake situation now sorted, it was time to attend to the drum brake rebuild. Have I mentioned how much I despise drum brakes? They are overly complicated compared to a conventional disc brake setup. Anyway...
I quickly found out that the new brake shoes I purchased weren’t ready to be installed without a bit of prep work. The new shoes required that I swap over levers from the old shoes that were for the parking brake assembly. I also needed to press in small metal posts which act as fulcrums for the levers. This was typical drum brake over-complication. Luckily, I have a small arbor press that made this job slightly less of a hassle.
After conquering this finicky job, the new shoes were ready to be installed on the truck. I won’t sugar coat it, installing new drum shoes is frustrating. There are high-tension springs that must be extended which are poised to mutilate your hands at the slightest lapse in concentration. To add to the immersive experience, there are many small parts that like to fall out of place when you aren’t looking. With enough determination, everything will eventually go back into their proper locations.
I went ahead and purchased new drums as well, because the old ones, while still functional, looked terrible. Rust had taken a firm hold and it wasn’t going to go away.
The new drums arrived unpainted which look great when they’re brand new in the box. The problem is that the first time it rains, they will flash rust and look horrendous from that point onward. I decided to take a little extra time to do some corrosion prevention.
The first step was to remove the oil-based coating that is applied to the drums by the manufacturer which keeps them from rusting when sitting on the shelf. I did this by spraying the metal surface with brake parts cleaner and wiping it off with a clean rag.
I then masked the interior friction surface of the drum (this is where the brake shoes contact), and followed that with a shot of high-temperature black paint. After painting both sides of the drums, they were ready to be mounted to the truck’s axle.
With the new drums offered up, the whole rear end looked almost new. What a transformation just a few new parts makes to the mechanical appearance of a well-used vehicle.
Leaf springs & hardware: $335.03
Drum brake parts: $117.90
Parking brake parts: $52.15
Labor hours: 8
I was anxious to get the truck out on the road to see what impact the new parts had on all the prior “symptoms” I had experienced. Well, I immediately found that the parking brake actually worked. The brake now has no problem holding the truck stationary regardless of how steep the incline is.
However, the parking brake was fairly low on the list of desired results. I really wanted to know if the axle wrap was still there. I took the truck through town, then on the highway. I ran through the gears and accelerated quickly and then slowly. I wanted to subject the drivetrain to a wide range of load scenarios so I could analyze how the truck responded.
I have to say, the truck took the tests in stride. It now drives like it should have all along. It’s important to note that I was never going to eliminate 100-percent of the axle movement. Some of that movement is just how the truck is engineered. However, the axle no longer moves an alarming (or even a noticeable) amount. It feels quite sure-footed now. It really did pay dividends to install fresh leaf springs.
As for the nasty CLUNK that was present when releasing the brakes from a stop? That, amazingly enough, is completely gone. It looks like the new brake hardware, along with properly-adjusted brake shoes, worked wonders. The brake pedal travel, compared to before, is now significantly reduced as well.
The combination of all these repairs made this hard-wearing Toyota not just more comfortable to drive, but also a much more civilized work horse to use day in and day out. Here’s to hoping there will be many trouble-free miles to come.