COAL 13: 1986 Toyota 4X4 XtraCab – Back to the Future

A few weeks ago, there was a post here at Curbside Classic about questionable engineering decisions.  The one that tops my list is Toyota’s decision to go from the bulletproof double row and metal guide timing chain set up of the 20R and early 22R engines to the single row and plastic guides of the later 22R and 22RE.  I think I can make a case for that contention with this story.

Yellow was starting to get tired. I was on the lookout for another truck and my preference was another Toyota. There was a nice reliable Mazda in the driveway that wasn’t up to my work requirements.  I was living in the Columbia Valley by then, where there were fewer used vehicles available, when I saw an ad in the local paper for a 1986 Toyota XtraCab 4×4 that needed clutch work. I had my suspicions as to what the issue was and when I looked the truck over, I saw the clutch fluid was low. The truck was $1500 underpriced for what it was, all due to a leaky clutch master cylinder which cost $80 and took 10 minutes to change.

As usual at this time of my life I was running a bit behind.  I had a contract going and was under the gun to complete it before break up.  I picked up the insurance papers, had my wife drop me off with my equipment, I changed out the clutch master cylinder and without returning home set off to work.  On the 3-hour trip to the area I was going to be working I was pretty impressed with my purchase.  The fuel-injected 22RE had so much more power than Yellow’s 20 R. There was power steering and room behind the seats.  Best of all was the 5 speed transmission which cut noise considerably.  I was getting 5 miles per gallon better mileage. The ride from the independent suspension was stiff but smoother than its older compatriot.

The next day I headed in to reconnoiter the area I would be working.  This was March and I was doing Fall and Burn on some beetle infested trees, felling them, piling them and then burning them thus killing the beetles before they could fly out and infest more trees.  When I was at University, I hadn’t pictured that I would still be running power saw after graduation, but truth be told I was happy enough to do it. I always took a lot of satisfaction from wearing caulk boots and a Stanfield’s Henley and doing real work.  Heading out to make bonfires with my friends and getting paid well for it made it an almost fun activity minus the singed hair and eyebrows you get from working around fire too much.

The trees to burn were a few miles up a steep, rocky and snowy forest service road.  When I started driving up it the first thing that became apparent was that this new truck was not as good at crawling through obstacles as Yellow was.  A few times I had to back up and hit sections with a bit more speed than I was used to before.  I was making it, but the truck was getting beat on a bit.  When you hit a big bump the independent suspension would lose a few inches of clearance under the skid plate.  Still, I could put up with a bit poorer off-road performance as the rest of the experience was so much better.

I don’t have too many pictures of it, but this truck had been someone’s pride and joy for sure. It had all the Smittybuilt and Lund accessories that could be bolted on plus some fabulous 80s blue splash graphics.  My friends asked me if I was going back to high school with my stupid looking Hot Wheels truck.  It did resemble Marty McFly’s truck from Back to the Future.

Business was if not booming, certainly steady. I had contracts on the go in three different regions in the southern part of BC all at once. It was nice to have a quicker and quieter way to get between them.  If I knew of a shortcut through the bush, I would take it.  Gray Creek Pass from Kimberley to Kootenay Lake, Revelstoke to Lumby along Mabel Lake and the 201 Road from OK Falls to Big White among others.  All these miles and all the pounding started to mean a few problems which were not unexpected. I hit a surprise jump at speed off road and blew out the front shocks. I got into some very deep mud which wrecked the alternator. There was a cold weather hesitation that I just couldn’t solve. The local garage played with it for a while and were nice about not charging me much diagnostic time to find a misbehaving coolant temperature sensor that affected the fuel injection. Nothing terrible, just a few annoyances.

After a mechanical check at the behest of a MOT inspector it was confirmed that the truck was solid.  I didn’t enjoy roadblocks but this one had been amusing.  Forestry, the RCMP and the Ministry of Transportation had decided to have an all-encompassing check stop to catch all manners of malfeasance at the end of the logging road where I had been working.  The MOT inspector crawled under my filthy wet truck and tapped the suspension with a hammer to see if anything was loose. The only thing that was loose was a giant clump of mud which fell off right into the inspector’s face and mouth.  I wasn’t going to laugh but an RCMP officer who witnessed the inspector eating a mud pie started to bust a gut and then I couldn’t help it either.  I sniggered all the way to the garage which inspected the truck and pronounced the truck safe. The MOT guy was actually pretty nice considering, the Mountie and I had laughed at his misfortune, he didn’t give a formal VI with paperwork, just advice to check.

I had been putting money into the truck to try and keep it in good shape. The sagging rear springs were replaced with a nice heavy duty set from Standen’s.  A noisy front differential was exchanged for a junkyard one. I was looking for a logger’s box to replace the stock one. The truck fit the rural lifestyle we were living quite well, as it can be seen outside our place in the Columbia Valley.

The timing was getting wonky so I sent it to a mechanic to sort it out.  There was no leak through the cover yet, so this didn’t seem terminal.  Oil pressure at idle was getting lower as the months passed.  Finally, one day 200 kms from home a knock started.  I set off back home and with an increasingly noisy engine got within 20 km of my destination before it quit.  Only time I have paid for a tow truck in my life.  I had a couple of weeks before I really needed to use it, so I tracked down a junkyard engine for the swap.  I went all the way to Alberta for the engine, got hit by a rock fall at Three Valley Gap that sent a boulder through the windshield of the Mazda, necessitating replacement and a bit of gratitude that the boulder went through the passenger side. I swapped out the engine without too much hassle.  At which point I noticed that the dreaded timing chain guide issue was starting to happen to this engine as well.  I changed out the timing chain and guides myself this time. You can see my dirty fingerprints in the manual.  Also note Step 1, Remove the cylinder head!  There’s a task especially with the fuel injection in the way.

When I started it up this time it ran well enough but may have gotten a bit of coolant in the oil. Exactly at that time I found out we were moving up to the Cariboo for my wife’s new job.  We loaded up the Mazda with a bunch of stuff, a relative had a Dodge Ram with a 225 slant six and a 3 speed Torqueflite which we hooked a U-Haul trailer to.  I put the heavy stuff in the Toyota and off we went. There is a really long hill out of Little Fort that can be a bit taxing on a vehicle.  Two of the three vehicles made it without incident. Of course it was the Toyota that started overheating on the hill but managed to limp to our destination.  As an aside, I note that the old Ram was still a going concern in 2020 as pictured here.

I wasn’t that confident in the engine I had put in, so I put the Mazda into service as a bush truck. By early spring I had another truck in place which left the Toyota doing yard duty on the farm we rented.  The next fall my wife got a very good permanent opportunity in the Arrow Lakes, so it was time to move again.  Her grandmother’s boyfriend who was in his 80s came with me to get the Toyota, crack endless jokes and flirt with the waitresses at truck stops along the way. It made it all of 30 km and died in a cloud of steam. The next day we returned with a U-haul car trailer and retrieved it with the bonus of a repeat performance of all the jokes from the day before.  I still liked the truck somewhat, so I obtained another used engine out of a 4-Runner which was undergoing an SBC swap. I was quicker at swapping engines than doing timing chains anyways.  I was slightly disappointed that it burned a bit of oil.  I was much more disappointed that the ring gear was worn in one spot and the starter didn’t always catch especially when I could have changed it out so easily with the engine out.  A bad ring gear was particularly stressful when getting off the ferry and it had to start right away.  Still, I had my truck back and it did return to active service when I had an unfortunate incident with its replacement. It was the right size for the narrow and steep roads of the West Kootenays and Arrow Lakes.

I think though, I was finally getting smarter.  I remain a fan of Toyota trucks.  But pushing them beyond their limits will break them.  Something I should have learned from the Hiluxes at the mine.  Loading the crap out of this thing with sleds and fuel and trailers was a bit much for it.  Not for a moment suggesting that these were not a good truck.  But I think that for harsh work they were a step down from the previous generation.  I had maybe believed a bit too much in the can’t kill a Toyota myth. The other problems I could live with, but the timing chain issue seemed like a real misstep for Toyota.

A few years later I was not using it much. The box was in rough shape, but I had diligently kept the frame clean and rust free.  I was planning to fix it up, as even then they were becoming less common on the ground, but life happens and we needed money for a family vehicle for a second baby on the way.  I put an ad in the paper, and at the end of the day there was someone waiting with the asking price in cash at the end of the driveway.

I think that I decided to have a rule of three on not buying the same type of vehicle more than twice. Which I immediately broke next week when someone else became involved in the transaction.