Cars Of A Lifetime: 1987 Toyota 4×4 Van – You Just Can’t Kill It, No Matter How Hard A Certain Somebody Tries

Our Toyota Van

The old Dodge M886 was getting a bit shaky around the seams and was a wee bit utilitarian. So we decided that we were in need of a new family vehicle. Our criteria were pretty stringent: true four wheel drive, seats seven, at least twenty mpg, reliable. There aren’t many vehicles that can meet those points, but we managed to find one. Probably the only one.

(Here it is before the lift and tires next to my friend’s space cab, turbo, 4wd pickup)

The Toyota Van was called simply “Van” in the US market since it was the only one they offered. In other markets it was the HighAce. It is the only factory true 4×4 van ever offered in the USA. By true 4×4 I mean having the capability of locking the center differential or not having one at all as in the Toyota. Thus the Toyota is “part time” four wheel drive with auto or manual locking front hubs and a two speed transfer case on the manual transmission version.

For my purposes I had to have a manual transmission model so as to get the two speed transfer case.  It just so happened that perusing Craigslist I found one listed for the incredibly low price of fifteen hundred dollars. Now you may not be aware of it but the 4×4 Toyota vans are a whole ‘nother animal than the two wheel drive versions when it comes to pricing. They tend to range from about twenty five hundred for a so-so automatic one, to as much as six thousand for a good manual version. So when I saw the price tag I had to call and ask what the catch was.

Turns out there was really no catch! The man simply wanted to get something else. And the van was very nice indeed. The interior looked like it was about year or two old, the body was about ninety percent straight, and it ran like a Toyota.  I didn’t bother to dicker with him; I just gave him the money and thanked him.

Not mine

Of course the first thing that struck me about driving it compared to the Dodge was how small it was. One sat scrunched up on top of the engine, driver’s side elbow pinned against the door or against the window that does not roll all the way down. But of course I am not even close to the size of an average Asian adult, maybe two put together. However Michelle fit in it just perfectly and the seats offered decent comfort and the dash and steering were ergonomic enough.

I bought the van with memories of my VW vans knocking about in my head, as many Toyota van buyers likely do. However they were only similar in a very few ways. In both, the driver sits over the front wheels, and both are shaped like a Snickers bar, but that’s pretty much where the comparison ends.  For one, the Toyota van is water cooled; secondly the engine resides under the front seats, and of course the one big difference is that it is actually a reliable vehicle.

To the casual eye, it may look similar to a Vanagon, but it’s really closer to the older Type 2. Sure, both the Toyota and Vanagon are water cooled and resemble a Star Trek shuttle craft, but the Toyota is much smaller, even smaller than the original VW type 2. It is also much more solidly built, more efficient, and more powerful.  So in actuality it didn’t remind me of the good old VWs at all and I think that is probably a good thing.

(not the author’s toyota)

One of the first things I did with it was to take it out in the mud and see how it did. So I put it into four wheel drive low and headed out to the back forty which was pretty nasty.  It did surprisingly well, but its relatively low ground clearance hindered it severely on tractor rutted areas. Also the auto locking hubs tended not to lock reliable in slippery mud. Several times I ended up pulling it out with the Dodge. So I could see a few modifications were in order.

One downside of Toyota vans is that the cooling system is perfectly matched to the engine. By perfectly, I mean just barely, which of course in the mind of any good engineer is the pinnacle of efficient building. However after years of service, said systems can fail to keep up with circumstances. That, compounded with the fact that the engine is stuffed in a little area the size of a foot locker with no airflow can make for an interesting trip.

We started to notice that the temp gauge was edging up the dial on our way back from buying a vehicle that will be the subject of it’s own post. It was mid summer and the traffic on highway 217 was backed up as usual. Michelle was in the van with all of the children and I was in the new vehicle. The air temperature that day was hovering around one hundred and the van was starting to get hot. She turned on the heat full blast and that cooled it down a little. But then the alternator light started coming on. So she didn’t want to shut it down for fear that it would not restart.  Luckily after a few tense and very hot hours we made it home with both cars without overheating the Van.

The cooling problem turned out to be a weak fan clutch which I rectified with a couple of screws (not a recommended repair method). The charging problem was a bit more tricky. After replacing the alternator and all of the fusible links it was still giving us problems. However, a very helpful community of folks over at helped me out. Turns out that there is a junction block hidden behind the battery (which is located under the floor behind the driver’s seat) and that block was very corroded. After a bit of wire brush work and some Vaseline it was charging as good as new.

So with it running pretty good and hunting season coming up, it was time to address the limits of the Toyota Van’s off road capabilities. I started with replacing the auto lock hubs with factory manual locking hubs. Then, using coil spring spacers on the back, and cranking up the torsion bars on the front, I lifted it about two inches. With the addition of a set off new larger and more aggressive tires it improved the ground clearance enough to be a bit more useful in the muck. I also disconnected the sway bars. That might sound pretty dangerous but in actuality I really didn’t notice the difference on the road, maybe because I never drove it like a sports car in the first place.  All these little modifications added up to the Van being quite able to keep up with my friend’s Jeep Cherokee off-road.  The limiting factors were now the large front overhang due to the American five mile per hour bumpers and my reluctance to wreck my nice van. I was able to live with those limits.

After hunting season a rather peculiar incident occurred which was to lead to us being less one Toyota van. A certain woman whom I  happen to live with came to me one day after driving the Van and said ” there is some kind of goo pouring out all over the driveway from under the van”. I went out to take a look. Sure enough; gray, thick, oozing goo was pouring out from the bellhousing by the gallon.  What the hell could that be? I thought.

A certain woman who shall remain unnamed

It turned out to be a frothing mix of oil and water. I first thought that it must have been a massive head gasket failure. And inspection of the cooling system found it clogged up with oil.  But then I noticed something: the cooling system was full, but there were gallons of goo coming from the bellhousing. How could this be?

I asked this same woman when the last time she had topped up the cooling system was. She said it was just before she left. I asked her how much water it took. She said it took “a whole lot”. Hmm, “and did you check the oil”? “Yes” she told me, “it needed a quart”. “How did the oil look”? “Perfectly normal” Hmm.., I said “look at the radiator, it’s all oily, was it that way before”? To which she sheepishly replied “that’s the radiator”? “Yes”, I said “didn’t you know that”? Her eyes shifted from side to side, and she said in a low voice, half turning from me; “I thought that was the oil filler”. “So you put oil in it”? “Yes she answered” To which I posited, “and you put water in the oil filler then!!?? “Yes I guess so” was her timid response. “How much” I asked. “I kept filling it until it was full” she said. Apparently after that she drove it around town and back before noticing the “sludge problem”.

(Notice the close proximity of the oil filler cap and the coolant cap?)

So it appeared that through those minor oversights that we had lost a good Van. But you can’t keep a good Toyota down. So I figured at least I could get it into a state that someone would buy it. I replaced the rear main seal that had blown out with the steam pressure, and replaced the clutch, pressure plate, and pilot bearing. I let the engine drain for several days with the oil pan removed and scrapped all the goo out of the pan. And then I put it all back together again. I filled the engine completely up to the filler neck with a mix of ATF and kerosene and let it sit for a few more days.

Then I drained it all, filled it to normal level with a mix of oil and kerosene, put a new filter on it, and ran it at idle until it heated up. I then drained it again and put regular cheap oil into it with a new filter and repeated twice. And then I did the same the with the cooling system using Dawn dish washing soap and water as well as replacing the oil softened hoses I could reach. But I couldn’t reach the hose that Toyota Van owners call “the hose of death”. It lies hidden behind the engine under the floor, so I figured I would have to chance it.  After all that, the oil came out clean and the engine ran without knocking! So I put good oil and a good filter in it and took it out on the road. It ran pretty good, but not quite as good as before. I could now hear the lifters a little more and it seamed just a little bit sluggish.

I was amazed at how the van had survived the horrible attack on its life. But in my mind’s eye I could see the bearing surfaces chocked full of particles loosened by the water and burnished bright from lack of lubrication. The engine seemed like a ticking time bomb now. So what to do? The mid to late production Toyota Vans used the 4YEC engine. The same one used in their forklifts (most being propane however). Obtaining one in good condition was not easy or cheap. So I figured I would make it somebody else’s problem.

I mentioned in the advertisement that the engine ran OK but would probably need a complete rebuild, and I priced it accordingly, which was still as much as I had paid for it. I didn’t mention why I thought it would need rebuilding, but I did stress to the eventual owner that it would and that was why it was priced so low. He was of course from Eugene and he was comfortable with replacing the engine and fixing up the Van to suit his needs. So that was the end of our Van. But finding something to replace it was no easy task, as next week’s article will illustrate.