True confessions: After almost eight years, the number of cars that we’ve never covered here at CC is seriously dwindling. And the number of cars we’ve covered more than once is seriously increasing. But there’s a few that have yet to make their appearance, and I’ve been keeping my eyes out for them. And this early gen1 4Runner with the solid front axle that was only sold here for one and half years, was one of them. I’d long given up, until there it was, sitting at the paint store, another little moment of history waiting to be found and documented.
Toyota has a very deep history with serious four whee drive vehicles, especially in its export markets. Fun fact: the very first Toyota model to be exported was the legendary FJ Land Cruiser; this rock-solid vehicle was the first they sent out to conquer the world (full story here).
And the FJ in its short and long wheelbase variants became a mainstay for Toyota, although its volume was of course never really that large, given its intended mission, uncompromising construction and significant price. And the intrinsic limitations in that segment of the market. But the time they were a’ changing.
That change took a huge turn in 1969, when Chevrolet rewrote the 4×4 formula. Instead of a unique and specifically designed machine, they took a 4×4 Chevy pickup, shortened the bed and gave it a removable fiberglass topper. The resulting K5 Blazer was a big hit, and led to a drastically expanding market for 4x4s in the 1970s. The off-roader boom was on.
1979 saw the introduction of Toyota’s new N30/N40 Hilux Pickup, which was now available in a 4×4 version. It borrowed components and experience from the FJ, and with its rugged solid front axle and other components, was instantly acclaimed in the US as the 4×4 compact pickup of choice. Good luck finding one nowadays; they’ve mostly given their lives to the call of the wild.
Someone at Winnebago industries saw the opportunity to build a small-scale Blazer using the new Toyota 4×4 pickup. Or was some dealers? Or Toyota USA itself? The true origins of the resulting Toyota Trekker are lost to the sands of time, but we know that Winnebago and Toyota cooperated in this project.
A short bed pickup was sent to Winnebago, where a fiberglass tub lined the inside of the bed, a seat added, and of course the fiberglass top. Only some 1500 trekkers were made and sold, between 1981 and 1983. A safe way to test the waters. And apparently, the water was warm, despite the modest number made.
The next generation Toyota pickup (N50-60-70) arrived for 1984. And mid-year 1984, Toyota’s new 4Runner appeared, very similar in concept to the Trekker, but straight for mother Toyota this time.
And the 4Runner’s topper was removable; there’s no evidence about the Trekker’s being removable. It made for a very appealing package in 1984, right at the time the off-road boom was going mainstream. That could be us with our little kids, except we were driving in a new 1985 Cherokee. I’m sure the kids would have loved riding in the open once one got to the open country; on the way there, not so much so.
Here’s that old-school solid front axle, suspended on leaf springs. It only lasted for a year and a half; for the 1985 MY, a new IFS replaced it. Undoubtedly with many benefits for most folks, but not the hard core rock hoppers.
Sold front axles are preferred by the this bunch, for the relative ease of lifting the body and increasing axle articulation. This is how so many of these ended up.
Which makes this one a rare survivor. No rocks and dirt have sullied the sills and original graphics on this baby.
It’s almost a traitor to its name, at least at the time.
The interior is equally unsullied. The 5 speed manual was teamed up to the legendary 2.4 L R22 SOHC four, still carburated in 1984, but in 1985 it got fuel injection to go along with the IFS. The 4Runner was being civilized.
The 4Runner has became a stable in Toyota’s portfolio, and has carved out a very nice little niche for itself, as pretty much the only thing left of its kind; a genuine BOF 4×4 in a reasonable size package and with both excellent on-road comfort along with serious off-road creds, especially in the TRD Pro package. Toyota sells close to 100k 4Runners per year, and they have a very loyal following and very high resale values. Toyota has cultivated its niche judiciously; meanwhile Nissan’s Xterra has exited, and there’s very little else to compete effectively with it.
It’s a classic Toyota playbook move: identify a market segment where its intrinsic strengths can be leveraged, execute almost flawlessly over the years, and slowly but steadily squeeze out the competition. That’s how it got to be the most profitable automaker in the world, and so far, nothing has stopped it yet. Let’s check back in in 30 years.