As much as I consider myself a car guy, my personal fleet over the years hasn’t exactly been impressive. In hindsight, it’s kind of pathetic how singularly my high-school identity was tied to my first car — a beat-up, green 1994 Toyota Previa All-Trac with over 200K on the odometer, layers of electrical tape covering up the rust building on the edges of the hatch, and a jerry-rigged CD player torn from my mom’s Camry.
The Previa (or G-Bubble, as I liked to call her–a moniker that makes me shudder now), was the second in a series of 1994 green All-Trac models my family had put through the trials of cross-country trips to Winnipeg from the woods outside of Ottawa and the automotive perils of a family of six living in the middle of nowhere.
While the little 2TZ-FE under the seats would never skip a beat, the air conditioner seemed to be a point of fragility (the length of line extending to the rear A/C unit was part of the problem). A/C was noticeable by its absence during road trips involving four kids in a vehicle resembling an oblong greenhouse with next-to no ventilation in the back. In the original Previa, the viscous coupling at the front end gave up the ghost, leaving the front wheels in posi-trac mode and tearing up the asphalt on our freshly paved driveway — a story my father told to pretty much everyone who came to our house until we moved, years later.
That Previa also managed to tow a massive rental trailer carrying my dad’s pristine (unplated) 1986 Jeep CJ-7 Laredo across the city for an hour, at a leisurely 60 km/h, with the rear suspension completely bottomed out (a photo exists, but I have been unable to locate it).
The first one endured enough mileage (easily well over 300K), salt and abuse to prompt my dad to buy an identical but less thrashed example a few years after the first one had been pretty thoroughly worn out.
The Previa became more or less mine sometime after my 16th birthday. While the title remained with my parents in order to make my insurance premiums slightly less insane, that old van was my means to autonomy, as well as the vehicle that transported me to everything I could possibly get out of while going to high school in the suburbs. Granted, this was limited by how much fuel I was willing to put in her when gas first shot up north of $1.20 a liter post-Katrina.
Twenty bucks’ worth of mid-grade at a time, it became a place to sleep after the inebriated adventures in the wilds of the Ottawa Valley and suburbia to which my friends and I were prone. The only photographic evidence I could find that had not been lost in old cellphone cameras is the photo above, which shows me wielding an ax after destroying a broken couch at the furniture store where I worked part-time.
With swiveling captain’s chairs in the second row and a third row that folded into a flat, bed-like surface, we routinely slept several people in the van after house parties, field parties and assorted fairs and concerts. While the van didn’t have the optional fridge ( which I have seen in at least one junkyard example), the biggest cooler we could find would fit behind the third row bench without difficulty, making it the ultimate camping machine.
However many of the 133 factory horses there still were strained to handle a full load of teenagers, but were mostly adequate for the highway, even enough to reach what felt like an insane velocity when coaxed in the middle of the night (downhill) along Highway 17. I can distinctly remember absolutely standing on the gas in a parking lot and front end just shooting up as all four tires grabbed, a sensation that could be likened to an enthusiastic whale rising up.
And for what it was, the Previa was at least slightly fun when unladen, tuned up and on the Toyo summer tires. Underpowered, yes, but the All-Trac was hilarious on gravel and snow — two plentiful commodities in rural Ontario. There’s one particular stretch of winding road that I mapped out perfectly with that van, and with the right combination of cornering and not lifting, I could pull off something that to my unseasoned 16-year-old self approximated fun (the same road would later almost write off my Subaru Legacy GT). There was also a regrettable drag race against a buddy’s similarly unfortunate grey and rust-colored Mercury Villager; the Previa did not fare exceptionally well.
Since I saw it as such an extension of myself, it’s not surprising I was highly protective of the Previa. I dealt a swift punch to the jaw of one character who dared to dent the driver’s door at a party. I also locked one co-conspirator out of the “cabin” one night in rural Quebec, when his level of intoxication may have led to soiling the brown houndstooth upholstery.
The Prev would take without complaint pretty much any abuse I was personally willing to dish out. After one loose-gravel “drifting” experiment not at all reminiscent of 2Fast 2Furious left the front end mounted over a concrete culvert along the side of the road, she backed right out, even though an alarmed passerby offered to call a tow truck. The rad never started leaking after that misadventure either–much to my confusion, given the massive dent to its bottom. I bent the whole front end in that incident and the hood never again closed quite straight. Thankfully, the oil pan and engine were tucked back under the front seats.
It routinely drove through fields, dodging rocks and gullies (I always feared setting off grass fires due to how alarmingly low to the ground it was for a truck-ish 4WD vehicle with a solid rear axle). The lack of ground clearance made it less ideal in deep snow, but her eagerness in winter led me to believe that driving straight into a three-foot pile at the end of my parents’ unplowed driveway would be no big deal. It took us only an hour or so to dig her out after getting hung up halfway through.
A local junkyard had a beige 1991-93 example that my brother, my dad and I completely gutted for spare parts one summer — if I recall correctly, the deal was $300 for anything we could tear off before closing time. To this day, there is a complete spare set of seats in the back of my parents’ garage (a bunch of the assorted trim bits, including a spare engine cover, can be seen in the photo below).
The fact that I did most of the maintenance myself, and generally babied it much more than an 11-year-old minivan with a brown interior should ever be babied, still makes me associate a lot of my high-school memories with that thing.
As the more affluent of my peers were given the keys to used German sedans, Lincoln Navigators and Volvos, I remained confident that if my van wasn’t the most impressive of rides in the parking lot, it was certainly bulletproof and *ahem* unique. Plus, it could carry an obscene amount of anything, even when it usually just carried me.
After I moved away for university, the Previa sat behind the garage, in need of a brake job and some exhaust and front-end work that never quite happened. It functioned as a shed for a year or so before a buyer was found. Apparently the new owner already had one or more of these weird Japanese vans already in his arsenal. I’m reasonably confident that even if the rusty body was stripped for parts, that little four-cylinder might still be humming somewhere.