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How much work is a used Toyota truck?
August 23, 2009 8:56 PM   Subscribe

Never owned an old car, thinking of buying a 1988 Toyota 4x4 truck. Stupid?

Some background:
My partner wants us to buy a pickup and spend a few months/years driving around the country visiting friends and camping. This question is about the pickup part, there may be another question about the larger proposal.

I consider myself mechanically included. I'm a very adept bicycle mechanic and I can get an old lawn mower running without a whole lot of fuss -- BUT with the exception of a one year period I've lived without a car for most of the last decade.

When I had a car it was a newish used Toyota Echo. I changed the oil and fan belts myself but I don't know a whole lot about car mechanics. I've never owned a car more than a few years old. Am I setting myself up for failure if I buy a 20+ year old Toyota 4x4 pickup for $2,000, put a camper shell on top and spend a few months driving around the country?

What is owning an old vehicle like? By most accounts old Toyota trucks are quite reliable and the 22re engine seems to last forever. Does that mean that they don't break as often as say, a 1980s Ford but still break/need tweaking a lot more frequently than a 4 year old car? Is every mile the answer to a small prayer?

Assuming I find a truck that is in average or above average condition (little rust), what can I expect? Will something need tweaking every few hundred miles and something else need replacing every few thousand? Will I spend a lot of time worrying about what will go wrong next and a lot of money fixing it when it does? Am I more likely than not going to end up stranded on the side of the road, hitchhiking several hundred miles in search of some obscure part only available at a premium price from Japan?

What about safety features? Obviously there won't be airbags or ESC, but what about crumple zones and the more basic things that save lives?

How do emissions compare to a more modern vehicle? Obviously much worse, but are there hard numbers to compare?

It just doesn't seem like these trucks would cost as little as they do if the reliability with regular maintenance was as good as a three year old car or truck -- things just don't work that way. Right?

I know having a lot of questions doesn't make for a good AskMefi post so I'll summarize my two key questions:

If I buy a 20 year old Toyota 4x4 in average or above average condition (150-200k miles), how much extra worry, cost and pain will there be in driving it a substantial distance versus a 2-4 year old truck?

Am I going to be able to do a lot/all of the maintenance and repair myself, as a mechanically inclined car/truck newbie?

To tell the truth the most interesting part of this proposal is getting to learn car mechanics but I don't want to set myself up for failure and/or getting eaten by rabid vultures somewhere in the Canadian wilderness.
posted by ChrisHartley to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
i don't know about where you are, but here (vancouver island) a toyota truck that cost that little is in rotten shape. you need to have a mechanic go over it with a fine-toothed comb and let you know what kind of work it needs. if it's a v6, the timing belt is your biggest concern. if it breaks, the engine is hosed. it's a big job to replace, but it must be done at the proper intervals. most people ignore them. these trucks are bomb-proof, but they do wear out eventually.
posted by klanawa at 9:09 PM on August 23, 2009

as for this: "how much extra worry, cost and pain will there be in driving it a substantial distance versus a 2-4 year old truck?" none, except it'll be cramped and bouncy in there. a 2-4 year old tacoma is like a lexus in comparison.
posted by klanawa at 9:11 PM on August 23, 2009

I own a 1994 Toyota 4wd, after owning a 1996 Honda Accord from 1999-2006. Honestly, the maintenance issues aren't that different. Things wear out over time, like ball joints and egr valves and things like that, but I've never had to perform major overhaul on either car, just routine maintenance. Obviously a 2-3 year old truck is going to be a lot less trouble, but exactly what's going to go wrong with your particular truck is more or less unknowable.

If you're extremely risk averse, go with a newer truck. That said, the Toyota pickup/Hilux is a very easy car to work on, so don't be intimidated. There are lots of online resources to help you out, and the Haynes/Chilton manuals should be all you need if something goes wrong.

Also, if you're going to buy a Hilux, read up on the Toyota War and check out the Top Gear episode about killing a Hilux.
posted by electroboy at 9:14 PM on August 23, 2009

Just from browsing on Craigslist it looks like there are a lot more around here (location in my profile) in that price range than there are around Vancouver Island. They may last longer here because we don't have much road salt and the original supply may have been larger.

Having an independent mechanic go over any potential purchase is definitely on the list.
posted by ChrisHartley at 9:22 PM on August 23, 2009

FWIW, I've had a 1988 Toyota pickup for the past month or so and am currently seriously considering driving it from Austin, TX to Portland, OR in the near future. If I do it, I'll be praying the whole time, but I think it'll make it. So far, it seems pretty bombproof. (Mine only has 130k miles, though and has already had the master cylinder replaced, which seems to be the usual thing that goes wrong on these.)
posted by youcancallmeal at 9:23 PM on August 23, 2009

What klanawa says about cost/condition. Maybe it's a west coast thing, but the only 4wd Toyotas I've seen selling for $2000 needed a lot of work, and had been beaten hard and abused for years. If you can find a creampuff for $2000 that hasn't been beaten up as an offroad rig and isn't rusty you'd be wise to buy it that instant -- those kinds of deals don't come along often.

So -- I've owned a couple of Toyotas of that vintage. Good: they are overbuilt and really tough, with some very smart design features. They sold tons of them, so parts are easy to find and every mechanic knows how to work on them. The 22re engine didn't change much over the years, so all the kinks were worked out long before your hypothetical 1988 pickup was built. Ground clearance is very good, and even with totally stock tires and suspension the trucks will go all over the place.

Downsides: small, cramped cabins with few creature comforts. The bed is only 6' long, and there isn't much weight carrying capacity; it's hard to find a camper top (assuming you mean something more luxurious than a simple aluminum shell) that doesn't overload the truck. The engine is pretty marginal; loaded you'll be going slow on the uphills. Crumple zone? Airbags? Side impact protection? ABS? Are you kidding? The best safety advice in old cars is don't have a wreck -- and remember that safety requirements for trucks lag those for cars, so an '88 truck is comparable to a much older car in terms of safety features.

Reliability: There are really two issues with old vehicles. First you have the trouble and expense of catching up on all the deferred maintenance issues that the previous owners chose to ignore, and that can be really expensive if you do it all at once. Add up new tires, brakes, hoses, fluids, etc, and your cheap truck isn't so cheap anymore. And then you have the ongoing expenses of an older vehicle. Things break and fall apart, and you need to be ready to fix them. Battery cables get fatigued and fail, for example, or the radiator springs a leak. Honestly this isn't the huge deal people make it out to be -- if you have AAA and a cell phone, and the flexibility to enjoy the adventure of getting your truck fixed in bumblefuck nowhere, you will be fine. If you are driving in places where a breakdown is a safety issue, then you might want a more modern truck.

All that said, if you were really planning on living in the truck, I think you'd be much, much, much happier with something larger. A full-sized truck (or better, a van, where you can move from bed to front seat without having to exit the vehicle, for safety) will be astoundingly more comfortable, more capable of carrying the load, and more likely to have an engine and brakes up to the task. You'll give up a bit in offroad capability, but will gain it back many-fold in comfort.
posted by Forktine at 9:38 PM on August 23, 2009

If you buy an old 4x4, you're generally up against two big unknowns, out of the gate: the first is, that people don't usually buy a 4x4 just to drive to church on Sunday, and the second is that a lot of people who buy a 4x4 know very little about driving off road. The result is that a lot of 4x4 vehicles that look fairly good, are mechanical "projects," particularly where the running gear is involved. Locking hubs, transfer case, clutch, differentials, brakes, and transmission all deserve a thorough going over in your pre-sale inspection, and you should look for signs of water/flooding in the body, as well (in case somebody flooded it out in a creek or two).

But even if you get thorough pre-sale inspection, and a clean bill of health on such a vehicle, expect expensive surprises in one or two years of ownership. There are just a lot more parts to deal with on an old 4x4. You should also understand that the utility of a truck style 4x4 drive set up, for most pavement driving situations, is pretty limited, because they aren't designed to be full time dry pavement drive systems, like Audi FWD cars have. If you get big snow several days a year, you might get some use out of 4x4 4WD, but 99% of the time, on pavement, 4WD is just extra weight, lower mileage, and more worries.

For the sake of your wallet and peace of mind, look for a 2WD version of a truck in that vintage.
posted by paulsc at 10:34 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I know a considerable amount about the 1984-88 Toyota trucks -- I own a factory turbocharged 1986 Toyota 4x4 truck, which I have modified extensively (and fixed repeatedly, lol), so I can provide some specifics about the common issues with the 22RE motors. I also run a forum that's specific to the turbocharged version of the 22RE; there's a link to my personal truck site in my profile, and within my site, there's a link to the forum; I don't want to self-link in this reply. My background is as an enthusiast, not a professional mechanic, but I've been modifying these motors since 1995, so I know them pretty well.

The 22R-series uses a an iron block with an aluminum head. The blocks had a high nickel content and are capable of lasting for 250k miles and more. They are are a simple but solid design.

The fuel injection system on these motors is a first generation digital system. It is simple and very reliable.

In general, these motors are well made and will last 250k miles and more with regular maintenance.

For the 22RE, the single most common points of failure are the timing chain guides, followed by the head gasket.

Timing chain guides: The factory timing chain guides are plastic/nylon, and they commonly break. Once they have broken, the broken pieces fall into the oil pan, and the timing chain will typically slap against the inside of the timing chain cover on the exhaust side of the motor, eventually wearing through the cover. If I were to buy a 22RE, one of the very first things I would do would be to replace the plastic timing chain guides with aftermarket metal-backed replacements. I would also change the timing chain at the same time (well, I would probably just rebuild the motor while I was at it, but that's me...) The timing chain can be replaced without pulling the cylinder head, but you can do a better job if you remove the cylinder head and freshen up the top end while you are in there. This is a common job and there's a lot of info on the web on how to do this, or one can take it to a mechanic and have it done.

Protip: the Japanese timing kits are more expensive (and considerably better) than the cheaper kits made elsewhere, but IMO are well worth the extra money. A Japanese-made timing kit for a 22RE may cost $300, and a cheap kit made elsewhere may cost $100, but if you intend to keep the vehicle I think the extra money is money well spent. I have a LOT more I can say on this subject, so feel free to MeMail me if you want gritty details.

Head gasket: For the most part, the 22RE is a tank of a motor, but Toyota made one very poor design decision on this motor, and that was the decision to use 10 head bolts for four cylinders, arranged in a square around each cylinder, like this: :o:o:o:o: . This design forces the inner two cylinders to share the middle six head bolts, typically causing the bolts to stretch over time, just enough to lift the head and cause the head gasket to fail between the 1 & 2 or 2 & 3 cylinders. There are some simple remedies for this -- a company named American Racing Products (ARP) makes very high quality head studs that can be used in place of the factory head bolts -- but that's little consolation if you buy a truck with a failing (or failed) head gasket. ALWAYS have a professional mechanic check the condition of the head gasket on these motors when you are looking at buying one. It isn't particularly hard to change the head gasket on a 22RE, but it's a big enough job that it you need to be aware of it going in.

Another way the head gasket can fail is that the water passages in the cylinder heads will corrode over time due to electrolysis caused by the iron block/aluminum head combination. These corroded passages can be repaired via welding, or, even better, there are new, high quality aftermarket heads that can be purchased very reasonably, i.e., $400 - $500 for a brand new head.

Protip: the best way to check head gasket condition on these motors is to use a block test kit that checks for the presence of hydrocarbons in the coolant. In the US, NAPA sells

So, as a motor, the 22RE is very reliable, but it has some shortcomings. These motors can age well with proper maintenance, but any motor that's 21 years old needs to be treated with suspicion until you have gone through it thoroughly. Pay special attention to the areas I mention.

If it were me...I think the 22RE trucks are great for some things: as 4x4s, they are very capable, and there are a zillion aftermarket parts for these that will allow you to build a very sturdy off-road vehicle, of that;s what you want to do. However, if you want to sleep in the back of one of these and tour the country, I would urge some caution. As has been noted, the beds are only 6 feet long, and the trucks only age well if they have been maintained properly. If you find a truck of uncertain provenance, treat it with suspicion unless/until you can have it checked out. With the right parts and maintenance, these trucks will last a million miles, and even with mediocre maintenance, 250k miles is pretty common, but they are aging vehicles, and they lack many of the creature comforts found in recent vehicles.
posted by mosk at 11:14 PM on August 23, 2009 [7 favorites]

Life's too short not to take a chance here and there, and $2000 isn't a life-changing amount of money for someone who has the time to travel extensively.

Just, do these things:

1. Buy it knowing it may stop running in a week, and so you may have to shift to a back-up plan;
2. Have a back-up plan, both for having it crap out on you right away, or during the trip;
3. Buy it well in advance of the trip (months if possible) and drive it every day, so that you can fix the things that come up right away and gain confidence in it (or realize it's a bad idea.)

Have fun, good luck.
posted by davejay at 12:48 AM on August 24, 2009

I tend to keep cars well past the point where sane people get rid of them. The big pro of this is that I have a long baseline to look at so I know what issues I have. With an old vehicle that is new to you, you're not going to have that.

Here's a short tour of what I've had to/need to screw with on my 10 year old Volvo in the past year and a half. Once I get this stuff done the car will be in excellent shape, but it's getting this stuff done that's the issue:
>Replace drive shaft (Bad universal joints that can't be independently changed. Grumble.)
>New struts plus all the trimmings - reused old springs, replaced everything else.
>Replace control arms and tie rods. (Hey, let's make an AWD car and make suspension the weakest link. Grumble)
>Crack in radiator, doing all the hoses while I'm at it.
>New timing belt (preventative - this breaking is BAD on many engines.)
>Oil leak - cam or drive shaft seal has given up the ghost and is making a mess.
>Some tiny little piece of plastic in the tailgate lock that makes it not lock or impossible to open.
>Replace old dead tailgate lifters.
>New tires and alignment.
>Dead front motor mount - oil leak a contributing factor.

You're mileage will, of course, vary, but that's the kind of crap you have to deal with when you drive an older car. Knowing what I'm "saving" by doing these repairs myself, I understand how people can justify paying what you pay to drive a new car off the lot. I still can't see it myself.

If you're mechanically inclined, willing to spend $1000 on tools and have a tree branch you can use to pull an engine from you can do about 90% of anything that comes up. With $400 worth of tools and no tree branch, you can still do about 75% of anything. What you need to do is figure out what portion of anything will you want to do when you're far from home and/or there is six inches of snow on the ground or it's too hot to walk on the pavement barefooted.

All things being equal, mileage is a pretty good indicator of emissions. I had a Ford F-150 with 250,000 miles on it that would pass an emissions test with casual ease if it was in tune.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:42 AM on August 24, 2009

Top Gear Toyota Pickup testing
posted by hungrysquirrels at 2:16 AM on August 24, 2009

I've owned 2 of these vehicles. Be aware that the 4x4 height makes them very unstable & subject to rollover (which happened to me).
posted by canoehead at 8:04 AM on August 24, 2009

Thank you everyone for the good answers and the encouragement. It sounds like I should look more towards two wheel drive to avoid the mechanical complications of four wheel drive and the increased likelihood of a roll over (especially with a tall, heavy camper on the back). Two wheel drive also minimizes the "did someone drive this thing off a cliff into a river" questions.

I guess I'm looking for a 2wd regular cab long bed from the late eighties with no frame rust, minimal body rust, with new timing chain guides and a good head gasket seal. I'm also looking for someone with local knowledge of the used Toyota truck market.

This may be a question for Wikipedia, but did a lot change for these trucks between 1987 and 1995? I see that they used the 22r engine until 1995. I found a really nice looking manual at the library 'How to Keep Your Toyota Truck Alive" that covers the 1975-1987 model years. The Haynes books covered the entire 1979-1995 span in one book but it doesn't really explain WHY you would need to do the things it tells you how to do.

So is the general feeling that this plan is feasible, provided we can accept that it may end with unfortunate timing and a sickening rattle?
posted by ChrisHartley at 9:25 AM on August 24, 2009

The 2wd trucks are OK, but if you want to do four wheeling, buy a 4x4 -- they are tough trucks, and the 4x4 components are very well made. Stability issues can be remedied with the addition of an aftermarket anti-swaybar. Just keep in mind that the motors are going to be 20+ years old, and as a result their best years are behind them.

FWIW, Toyota produced outstanding (!!!) factory service manuals (FSM) for their trucks and 4Runners. Because these motors didn't change a whole lot (except as noted below), a manual for one model year may worj fine for another model year, although see my notes below. This manual has been scanned and can be widely found online with a little searching. It is hundreds of pages long and details almost every conceivable type of service you could hope to perform on these motors. It is definitely not a general document, but it will tell you how to do everything from changing the oil to rebuilding the motor.

As for the year-to-year changes, the 4x4 trucks are generally grouped as follows:

1983 and earlier: 20R and 22R engine (not the group you are targeting)
1984-88: the first generation of the "classic" Toyota truck body style, which can be further sub-divided:
• 1984: Solid front axle, 22R carbureted engine only
• 1985: Last year for solid front axle, first year the 22RE (EFI) motor is introduced in these trucks. Also, the first year for the 4Runner, which is essentially a truck cab with rear passenger seats on a truck chassis
• 1986: First year with independent front suspension
• 1987: Same as 1986. No real changes introduced in 1987
* 1988: Last year of the "first generation" body style for trucks. 1988 is an evolutionary year for these trucks
• 1988.5: mid-way through the model year, Toyota introduces the 3VZE 3.0 V6 motor as a higher power output option. Nicknamed the "3.slow" by many, the 3VZE is not a great motor, and has been plagued with serious head gasket issues, eventually leading to a factory recall/repair program. It isn't a horrible motor, but it doesn't have the same rock-solid reputation of the 22RE.

Also, in mid 1988, Toyota revised the EFI system in the 22RE. The 1985 to early-1988 22RE motors use low impedance "peak and hold" injectors and a very unusual 2.5V-9V signal voltage for the air flow meter. The 1988.5 - 1995 22RE motors use high impedance "saturated" injectors, and a more standard 0V-5V signal voltage for their air flow meters. Why am I diving into the weeds with these sorts of details? Because the electrical fuel injection components that were used in the pre-88.5 EFI motors are not compatible with the components used in the post-88.5 EFI motors, and 1988.5 is a dividing line of sorts for the 22RE. If you want ot get a truck with a 22RE, I'd suggest getting one made after 1988.5. For 1988 motors, the easy way to tell the difference between early and late motors is the early motors have a canted or down-sloping intake plenum (the throttle body attaches at a slightly downward angle), while the late 1988 motors have a straight intake plenum (the throttle body attaches in a straight line to the intake plenum).

1989: The first year for the "second generation" of the classic Toyota truck body style, but no mechanical changes to the motor. In fact, from 1989 onwards, the 22RE does not change in any significant way.

1990: The first year for the second generation of the Toyota 4Runner
1991- 1995: No notable changes to the 22RE or either the truck or 4Runner body styles. 1995 was the last model year for the 22RE in these trucks and 4Runners.

1996: The Tacoma model is introduced as the replacement for the earlier body style. The Tacoma features a 2RZ 2.4 cylinder motor. Although it is the same displacement, this motor shares NOTHING with the 22RE. The 2RZ and 3RZ, introduced a few years later, are decent motors, but they a very different design.

Hopefully, the above data dump is helpful rather than confusing. These are still popular and well understood vehicles, with large and long-standing user communities, especially in the 4x4 realm. The 22RE is a lot like the small block Chevy V8, insofar as it was very widely used for a number of years in trucks, 4Runners, and some Celicas. Unlike the small block Chevy, though, this motor only makes fair power, but it has a reputation as being very reliable. Which it is, although with almost 25 years since its introduction, the earliest iterations of this motor show their age.
posted by mosk at 10:44 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great information, thank you. Are there significant design differences between the four wheel drive and the two wheel drive versions beyond how many wheels get power? Obviously the 4wd has more clearance but does it come with a beefier frame?

I was afraid that they changes between the 1987 and 1995 were for the worse but it doesn't seem like that was the case.

Since the 22RE was such a good engine, why did they stop using it? To compete with the higher horsepower offerings of the American made big trucks? Is it still in production elsewhere?
posted by ChrisHartley at 12:01 PM on August 24, 2009

> Are there significant design differences between the four wheel drive and the two wheel drive versions beyond how many wheels get power? Obviously the 4wd has more clearance but does it come with a beefier frame?

Both are body-on-frame designs. I think the 4x4's came standard with 8" rear ends (differentials), while the half-ton 2wd trucks came standard with 7.5" read ends. I think the 1 ton 2wd trucks got the 8" rears. Other than the 4wd components and the increased ride height, I don't think there were any other significant differences, but all of my experience is w/the 4x4s, so I could be forgetting something minor.

> I was afraid that they changes between the 1987 and 1995 were for the worse but it doesn't seem like that was the case.

Nah. Like I said, I think the post-88.5 22RE motors are a little better: updated electronics, different injectors, improved intake plenum, probably slightly better emissions. They also make a bit more power (pre-88.5: 105 hp; post-88.5: 112 hp. Source). Since emissions regulations increased over this period of time, Toyota had to revise the motor a bit to squeeze more power out of it, which they did by improving the plenum, throttle body, and EFI in the post 88.5 trucks. In fact, one of the common upgrades people do on the older (pre-88.5) motors is to swap over the intake plenum and TB from the "newer" motors; the swap yields about a 5 hp increase, and it improves reliability by eliminating a poorly designed air control valve used by the older system.

> Since the 22RE was such a good engine, why did they stop using it? To compete with the higher horsepower offerings of the American made big trucks? Is it still in production elsewhere?

Well, the 22RE was very solid, but it wasn't all that clean a motor, and it's power output was only average. The replacement model, the 2.4L 2RZ (and later the 2.7L 3RZ) made about 150hp and featured a much better flowing dual overhead cam cylinder head, and made more power from the same displacement, with better mileage and lower emissions. From my previous link, you can see that the four cylinder 3RZ made as much power as the 6 cylinder 3VZE. The 22RE had a good run, but ultimately, it suffered from outdated electronics. The 3RZ is an On Board Dash II (OBDII) motor, meaning it utilizes significant computer reporting and control, making it much cleaner and more fuel efficient.

Like I said in my first reply, I'm sort of crazy for the turbo version of the 22RE. I've modified mine extensively -- I won't say always intelligently, but I have more than doubled my power output, bringing it from the stock 135hp at the flywheel to a dyno tuned and verified 253 hp/ 280 ft. lbs of torque at the rear wheels, which is a pretty huge increase for this motor. It hasn't always liked these modifications -- big boost is very hard on head gaskets, and I've already mentioned why that is a weak feature on these motors -- but it's still very well behaved, and very reliable.

A freshly rebuilt 22RE with a fresh head that is well maintained should run for 250k+ miles and get ~19 mpg, maybe a bit more on the highway if you use your right foot carefully. An average used 22RE with unknown prior maintenance and who-knows-what kinds of issues is going to be a crap shoot, which is why I mentioned the timing chain guides, head gasket, and perhaps head as the big things to look out for. These motors take abuse well, which is why people can get away with abusing them for years without really seeing the negative results of that abuse for a long time, until the timing chain cover breaks or they blow a head gasket and crack the head. The bottom end on the motors is very solid -- the crank shaft on all 22R-series motors is forged steel, which is yet another reason for their longevity.

Just be sure to get any motor you have interest in checked out for the things I mentioned, because when the timing chain fails, it usually does so by chewing through the timing chain cover, which not only causes the chain to break (and the valves to bend or break when they contact the top of the piston), it also requires you to replace the timing chain cover, which is a $300+ piece of cast and machined aluminum. And it's no fun to be stranded in some strange place with a 20 year old truck that suddenly needs $1800 worth of work just to get moving again.
posted by mosk at 2:13 PM on August 24, 2009

a note about clearance. i had a 2wd datsun pickup, which is geometrically similar to a toyota. you will not clear even the tiniest ditch without hanging up the bumper. the 4x4 may only have 6" more clearance on paper, but it makes an incalculable difference in the dirt. if you're going on anything but maintained roads, a small car will get through more crap than a 2wd pickup, but a 4wd is much, much better.
posted by klanawa at 10:24 PM on August 25, 2009

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