Cars of a Lifetime: 1989 Toyota Hilux SURF (4Runner) – A Walk On The Right-Hand Drive Side

1989 Toyota Hilux SURF

I never set out to own this Hilux, it sort of fell into my lap. Despite this, it is one of favorite vehicles that I have owned for a number of reasons. I had previously owned a pair of 4x4s and neither could be trusted enough to leave the pavement, but this Toyota was quite able to play in the mud.

Toyota Trekker

Better known as the the 4Runner in North America and Australia, this SUV was known as the the Hilux SURF in many other markets including Japan. The SURF/4Runner story starts in an unlikely place with a partnership with Winnebago.  Toyota delivered a cab chassis pickup in SR5 trim to Winnebago who bolted on a fixed fiberglass rear section. Interior trim, including rear seats, were added to complete the transformation. Most were 4×4 models, but a portion were two-wheel-drive.

Toyota Trekker interior

Around 1200 of these Trekkers were produced from 1981 to early 1983 before production plans for the 4Runner made the conversion financially non-nonsensical. Most Trekkers were sold in the western United States or Canada, but around twenty were shipped out to Saudi Arabia.


Toyota 4Runner

The Toyota pickup underwent a redesign for the 1984 model year and Toyota look advantage of this to introduce the factory-built 4Runner later that same year. The concept was similar to the Trekker but now the fiberglass rear section was removable. Mechanically, the 4Runner was identical to the pickup right down to the suspension. With the added weight on the back end, many 4Runners of the generation suffer from saggy butt syndrome. Mechanical refinements followed with the fuel injected 22R-E engine being offered starting in 1985. A turbocharged version of this engine was offered the next year which boosted horsepower to 135. Independent front suspension also came in 1986, much to the chagrin of hardcore off-road enthusiasts. For those seeking even more power, a 3.0L V6 engine was offered starting in 1987. While the V6 offered a boost in usable power over the four cylinder, it is considered less reliable.


The second generation 4Runner/Hilux SURF altered the concept of what was essentially a modified pickup to that of a more holistically designed body placed on an existing chassis. The removable rear section was lost to this change but overall refinement was increased. A four-door body style was now offered and became the vastly more popular than the two-door. Mechanically, the 2.4L 22R-E four cylinder and 3.0L 3VZ-E V6 engines carried over with the turbo motor being dropped from the option sheet. For Japan, a 2.4L 2L-TE four cylinder turbo diesel was offered. This was later replaced with a larger 3.0L turbo diesel. A small number of 2.0L gas or 2.8L diesel engines were also offered, depending on the market.


My particular Hilux SURF was a very early second-generation 1989 model that was purchased by my sister in-law and her then-husband. They were both big Toyota truck, as well as off road, enthusiasts and jumped at the opportunity to add a recently imported Japanese market Hilux to their collection. It had the 2.4L 2L-TE four cylinder turbo diesel hooked to a five-speed manual gearbox which sounded ideal for their off road weekend trips. Like most Japanese imports, the odometer reading was very low and the truck was in very nice cosmetic condition and luckily, it did not suffer from cigarette burns in the seats that many do. The above photo was taken shortly after they acquired the SURF. Unfortunately the diesel motor did not last very long before it blew a head-gasket. I remember my brother in-law telling me at the time they weren’t very highly regarded engines and not worth the repair. He proceeded to replace it with a fuel injected 22-RE gasoline engine.


My sister in-law drove the SURF for several more years before colliding with a bridge support. She was able to source some used 4Runner parts and I was able to repair the damage for her but seemed reluctant to drive it again. Note the V6 badge in the grill as well as the turbo script on the rear passenger door which at this point neither was true. You can see a bit of a wrinkle in the hefty skid plate. After she received almost new Saturn sedan the Hilux came to rest in my parking pad behind the house. My Beetle was taking more time to get road worthy than I had planned for so after several months I offered to buy the SURF off of her and it became my daily driver.


After the Hilux came into my possession, I replaced the skull shifter knobs with a set of factory-correct junkyard replacements. The skulls weren’t exactly my style and got quite hot in the summer months. From what I can recall, I was able to re-sell the skull items to make it a no-money-loss swap. The SURF did originally have a clinometer installed, but it had be removed at some point in the past. The clinometer would have displayed altitude, tilt and and slope.

22R-E engine

While not blessed with an abundance of top-end power, the 22R-E engine proved to be a very good match for the SURF–especially with the five-speed manual gearbox. It offered plenty of low end grunt, reasonable fuel mileage and, unlike the V6 engine, was easily accessible for any necessary work.


While I had owned a pair of 4x4s before, a Ford Bronco and Jeep Cherokee, I had never been able to trust either one not to break down on me. The SURF was ready to go with a lift, bigger tires, and a shutoff switch for the electric radiator fan. Almost immediately, I took the Hilux off road and it did not disappoint with its performance.


By the time spring rolled around, I’d removed the inaccurate V6 badge and was able to hit the mud. Again, the SURF performed flawlessly; although, for any more serious off road adventures a winch would be necessary.

on top

Being a Japanese market vehicle, the SURF is obviously right-hand drive. Driving on the right side in a left-hand drive country presents surprisingly few problems. Overtaking on a single lane highway certainly takes more attention, but the raised nature of the SURF made that easier than a low slung sports car. Turning left at traffic lights would seem to present an issue, but in practice really it’s no big deal. The shift pattern for the gearbox is exactly the same, but obviously requires the use of the other hand. One small annoyance are the turn signals and wiper controls. They are swapped right to left on the steering column, and when I stuck to one vehicle, it did not really cause any problems, but if I switched between the Hilux and our Quest, I’d often turn on the wipers when preparing to make a turn.


While I would have liked to keep the truck as a weekend off-road toy, I was perhaps too nervous about not having a winch with which to extract myself. Modifying for off-road performance can get expensive in a hurry, so rather than follow that road I decided I’d had my fun and that I would move on. Making the choice easier was the need for some spare cash to fund a family vacation. So after eight months or so, the SURF found its self up for sale. The sale itself was surprisingly hard given the relative popularity of right-hand drive vehicles in Canada, but I managed to sell it for exactly what I’d bought it for.