COAL 11: 1980 Toyota 4×4 Pickup – Yellow

When working forestry in remote areas you want to have good equipment you can trust.  Breaking down in the middle of nowhere is an inconvenience at best and a big danger at worst particularly if it is very cold.  But good equipment costs money and when you are starting off a new consulting business you probably don’t have much.  Which might explain why I found myself towing a slightly beat up tent trailer with a 1980 Toyota 4×4 across the Columbia Icefields in mid-November.  The thing was though, the old Toyota turned out to be very good equipment that I would trust anywhere.

I had ended up in my second year after graduation heading back out to subcontract to some colleagues from university. They had a few research contracts scattered over Central BC and since I was subcontracting I needed to provide my own truck.  I would have liked a nice 89 Toyota or maybe a Nissan Hardbody but they were well out of my target price range.  Any of the American trucks I could afford tended to be bigger and older and the gas bills would eat my profits. But I did call an ad for a $1700 Toyota that ran well and had its rusty bed problem solved by the addition of a flatbed made of railway ties. I road tested it and it ran strong so I bought it.

I made it more useful for work by mounting two toolboxes and two spare tires on the flatbed.  I put on some Wrangler Duratrac tires and had a nice Kenwood VHF logging radio installed.  I put all manner of recovery gear in the boxes, bought 2 sets of heavy-duty V-Bar tire chains and figured this would get me anywhere I needed to go.  Sometimes my vehicles get a name. This one was just called Yellow.

We were mainly doing summer research projects at remote sites and taking samples of tree roots.  Often these were at the end of overgrown, deactivated and rough roads.  The Toyota excelled in this role. It could squeeze into narrow areas, get through any ditch and most importantly do it day after day in remote situations with no need for repair. It being quite pre-scratched meant I had little worry about mowing through the brush with the front bumper.

When I wasn’t working, I was still camping and hiking and canoeing a fair bit. The Toyota was very well suited to this activity as well.  If you put enough weight on it the ride was a bit less busy, despite the leaf springs all around.  And although the solid front axle had less static ground clearance than the fancy IFS trucks it was always the same amount of ground clearance when you hit a big bump.

There are some fancy coil-spring off roaders from the premium brands that may be better off road than these were.  These old pickups were still pretty good despite the lack of sophistication.  I don’t remember many roads stopping it and I do remember it making it easily where other trucks struggled or outright couldn’t make it.  I was an avid reader of the auto magazines when these trucks came out and Car and Driver said they were no better than the Chevy LUV with 14-inch wheels and IFS in a comparison test of the two.  Another magazine test preferred the Ram 50 over the Toyota. Only the Datsun seemed to be less well regarded when new.  I have a sneaking suspicion that when it came to actual off roading the magazines didn’t have a clue, but maybe that’s just me.

When I wasn’t using it sometimes my girlfriend would commute in it as it didn’t have much issue with snowy roads.  It did on occasion get a touch of carb icing if conditions were right but that would only lead to temporary power loss which usually lasted less than a minute.  It did not help the fuel mileage this obtained which wasn’t great for its size.

I believe the original 1979s had a weaker front axle than the 1980 and up, as the axle was made stronger for 1980 with an additional buttress added. There wasn’t much fragile on these trucks except for the boxes dissolving and eventually the frame rusting if you didn’t rinse it out.  I did crack a slightly rusty cab mount after one contract on a terrible series of washboard roads. I welded it up and reinforced it and it held up for the rest of the truck’s life.

The little truck made it through its first season with oil changes, lubrication, a new radiator cap and that was it. Considering the abuse it had endured I’d have been happy enough with that performance from a new truck, let alone one that had 250,000 kms. on it at the end of the season.

While the truck had survived its field season well enough, I myself was getting a bit disillusioned with the way things were going with the subcontracting arrangement.  I had offers to do contracts closer to home and when the chance came up, I decided to take it.  The contracts I was offered were far more operational in nature than the research work I had been doing.

Writing about reliable vehicles seems to be harder for me than writing about cars with issues so I will digress into the world of forestry consulting for a bit. I spent a lot of time looking for the various species of Dendroctonus, otherwise known as the Pine, Spruce and Douglas Fir beetles, which kill the trees they infest by burrowing under the bark and eventually cutting all nutrients to the top of the tree. The trick is to remove those trees before the beetles infest even more. If the infestation gets too bad it becomes pretty much unstoppable as BC found out 20 years ago when the bugs killed huge swaths of Pine forest.

These operational contracts were more often than not in active logging areas.  Here is where Yellow had a few failings. Resource roads being a workplace need to have a few safety rules have rules to prevent accidents.  An active road has a VHF road channel where it is mandatory to call your position using the km marker boards.  You have to make sure you get to a safe passing point to get out of the way of a loaded truck heading downhill.  There are enough pullouts to make this work, that is as long as a vehicle can move fast enough between them.

Turns out a 20R powered Toyota loaded down with a sled is slower up a hill than a Western Star log truck is empty.  So not only was I dodging vehicles coming down, but there were also empty trucks gaining on me from the rear.  In addition, most loggers were using a 3/4 ton and up so even when I called “Empty pick-up 16 River Road” on the radio when the logging truck drivers encountered me, they sometimes did not make the connection that Yellow was the pickup in question as they were expecting an F250.  So once in a while, they warned the other drivers of a “Yellow Datsun, no radio coming at you.”

There was another issue at speed.  When every other vehicle is a full size or larger the tracks on a softer road are wider than the narrow-stanced Toyota.  I often found myself being bounced sideways from one rut to another.  The fellow who had done my radio installation said when the Toyotas initially came out, he had done a few Toyota installations but more than a few of them had ended up upside down.

And the final issue, for those who have been to BC, you may have noticed there are a lot of uphills which were a challenge.  I had a multiyear contract that was at the top of the Coquihalla Connector and I was staying in Kelowna.  In the winter grinding up the long hill with a sled on was a slow and noisy affair.  One of my favorite Yellow stories did occur up there though.  I had invited my father-in-law to accompany me on an easy snowmobile trip into a cut block I had to look at.  While we were in there a terrible cold blizzard blew in.  The snow got everywhere and froze everything up. Both of our Yamaha snowmobiles packed it in within 10 minutes of each other and we had to abandon them and snowshoe out.  He got a touch of frostbite. When we got back to where we had parked, his 2-year-old Chevy 2500 4×4 was frozen and wouldn’t start.  But of course, Yellow did.  We eventually got his truck started and with Yellow in the lead we bashed our way through the drifts back to civilization.

There was another reason why speed was an issue.  Most contracts were piecework meaning was paid by the metre of survey line done. That meant tying a 2,6 km string hooked to a tree and heading out on a straight bearing set by a Silva Ranger compass, correcting for slope distance with a Suunto Clinometer, all the while recording observations on Rite in the Rain paper in my field book.  Because of their life cycle, the bugs I was looking for were more easily seen in the winter. Winter days are short enough as it is, you have to make the most of them. Distances can be pretty big.  You can get up earlier in the morning and finish later but there was paperwork to do as well.  A faster truck saves time.

Yellow started to get a bit tired, so it was time for a replacement. A contract that I had to finish in deep snow, that required chaining up every day, was starting to cause a bit of a rattle in the input shaft. There was the odd electrical issue starting to show and a rear leaf was cracking.  After losing a day of work to an alternator problem I was ready for a change. After 100,000 kms. with me I had made a heck of a lot of money with the old girl, so I had money for something else.  Still, it was a bad day when on the way home from picking out Yellow’s replacement I saw a police check stop and rather than waiting it out, as I had a broken taillight, I drove up to it and was rewarded with an inspection order.  I drove home and retired Yellow to acreage duty on the 40 acres we were renting.  A need to move for my now wife’s job meant I put it up for sale but with an inspection order against it, no one wanted it so it was scrapped.  It turned out to be a lot better truck than its replacement as we will see in a few weeks, but in the meantime, I had to find a simple commuter vehicle.

Every so often I think I would like another one. Prices on them are nothing like the crazy numbers on Land Cruisers and Broncos. I keep the Toyota repair manual in my workshop just in case.

On a similar note, I’ve not been working in the bush for nearly 20 years. I now have a soul crushing bureaucratic desk job with an admittedly benevolent employer which for contractual reasons I can’t mention here. But on a shelf in my basement near the Toyota repair manual, my compass, cruiser vest, and field book lay ready.  Just in case.