Curbside Classic: 1986 Toyota Turbo Pickup – Get Tough, Get Turbo

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(first posted 5/12/2014)    My brother is one of those people who, in choosing his cars, has always stumbled upon vehicles with legendary drivetrains.  Maybe it’s simply a matter of his perpetually meager budget unfailingly leading him to survivors, but about ten years ago he found his favorite, a 1981 Toyota pickup.  He was in college at the time, and had blown up the 1989 Ford Probe GT my parents gave him for graduation for the second time when he found the Toyota sitting in a storage shed. The owner said if it fired up, he would accept $500 for it. Of course it fired up, and proceeded to last several years with no maintenance (including oil changes), igniting my brother’s long-lasting Toyota truck obsession in the process.

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In the early 1980s, the very popular compact Japanese pickups faced a new challenge from Ford’s and GM’s newest compact trucks. Ford’s hot-selling Ranger and the GM S-line both offered V6s in an effort to satisfy America’s need for power, or at least, to give the impression of power to prospective buyers. Forget the fact that the GM 2.8 was initially a reliability nightmare, and that Ford’s offerings were pretty anemic–the public had been effectively sold on the virtues of the V6.


Toyota and Nissan took note as the Americans came to the game, and needed something in response. Even when it came to the hot-selling Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, I clearly remember “grown-up” discussions during the ’80s circling around the fact that they didn’t have a smooth, “powerful” V6 available. Of course at the time, nobody had come to realize the drastic difference in longevity between Toyota’s legendary 22R/R-E and GM’s new sixty degree V6s, but I remember my dad and his buddies talking all about how much better they felt the American V6 offerings were.


When it arrived in late 1985, the turbocharged 22R-TE added twenty-three horsepower, bringing the total to 135 from 112, but more importantly adding thirty-one foot pounds of torque, going from 142 to 173. Peanuts compared to the new modern turbocharged engines like the EcoBoost, sure, but it only had to motivate ~2800 pounds of pickup compared to the nearly 6,000 pounds of EcoBoosted F-150. It compared pretty favorably to the V6s of the time, beating Ford’s 2.8 (115hp), GM’s 2.8 (130hp) and even coming close to the improved Ford 2.9 (140hp). On paper, it seemed to be an excellent band-aid, offering a great amount of power in comparison to the competition with theoretically better economy to boot.  And, of course, it was a boon to owners in high-altitude areas.


In my life, I’ve seen all of three turbo Toyota trucks, and one of those sightings was the result of a kid hooning a DeLorean in the parking lot of a mall on the silver screen. I suspect that Toyota missed the mark with this engine. It’s likely that a buyer of the time who wanted a V6 didn’t want the cost premium of the turbo, and didn’t want the tradeoffs that the turbo motor had. One of the biggest selling points of the EcoBoost is that it really does feel like a V8 thanks to a really powerful base motor in addition to quick-spooling turbochargers. Back thirty years ago, turbo lag was the name of the game, though the low-boost 2.4 liter Toyota wasn’t too bad, and prospective buyers shopping on power definitely noticed an improvement.  Nothing worth bragging about in today’s context, of course; the current owner of this truck commented that he expected it to have a little more “go.”

Toyota Turbo Rear

Another factor making the 22R-TE ill-suited to pickup duty was that many turbocharged cars of the ’80s also suffered turbo failure if not cooled down sufficiently before the vehicle was shut off and the oil stopped circulating. Modern technology has made huge strides, specifically when it comes to bearings and engine computers, but there certainly is a reason boosted engines have only truly reached mainstream acceptance in recent years. In the late 80s and 90s, aftermarket firms did solid business selling gear to keep engines running–and circulating oil through turbos–after their ignitions were shut off.  Who here remembers the turbo timer?


This motor lasted on the US market all of three years, with all reports being that it ceased production sometime in 1988. Once Toyota’s excellent new V6 (this engines has its own, well-known reliability issue-ED) arrived in their trucks in 1987, the 22R-TE was doomed.


All those factors together make the turbocharged Toyota truck a unicorn. My first experience with a turbo Toyota truck was in high school, where a fellow employee at the local grocer had one that he was pretty proud of.  With taller tires, a roll bar and with lights on top, it would have been completely lust-worthy aside from a terrible color choice.  Someone had repainted it in what I can only describe as a ’70’s LTD color, a sea foam metallic that turned it into somewhat of a joke.  It didn’t help that his frequent attempts to impress a couple of us gearheads while leaving work didn’t amount to much, with nary a chirp coming from the big mudders during the most aggressive take-offs.


Our subject truck caught my eye simply because it was a Toyota in “normal” shape with a reasonably intact body. When I noticed the big “Turbo” badge, I investigated further and got quite the story to back it up.

Like my brother’s 1981, this truck was found by the current owner about a month ago in a barn, becoming his after $500 exchanged hands. After another $1,500 in mechanical work to cure the various ills that had it in the barn in the first place, it’s running great.


On the subject of odd option packages, near as I can tell–aside from the turbocharged four and 4×4 drivetrain–this one doesn’t have any.  That interior is an absolutely cherry example of the basic ’80’s Toyota truck interior with the only blemish being a late ’90s Alpine deck.  But with steel wheels, a manual transmission and the reportedly stout turbo four, it’s a real truck owner’s dream.


Of course, with an absolutely cherry interior and relatively rust free body, its new owner is already getting quite a few unsolicited offers, one of which has come from none other than my brother, who is absolutely chomping at the bit to get this truck.  He’s already offered his ’99 F-150 XLT “Sport” 4×4 SuperCab in direct trade, even with the F-150 being rust free and sporting the legendary 4.6.  Too bad the old fisherman isn’t interested, he likes his rare Toyota–which turned out even better for me, but you’ll find that out in a future post.