I have been meaning
to put together another light duty trail rig for a while now. After
having sold the Jeep we missed being able to head up north for a day
out in the high country and playing in the snow in the winter. This
time around I was after something on the lower end of the spectrum
so I would have a project vehicle to work on. My criteria were as
follows: 4 doors, V6 or better power, 18+ mpg, room for 3 people + 2
big dogs and camping gear, 2-3” lift, 32-33” tires, and a rear
I initially started looking at Toyota Landcruisers and narrowed those
down to the 93-96 year range. These had plenty of room but the full
time 4wd meant the mpg was down around 13-16mpg. Parts were also on
the expensive side, almost as if adding “Landcruiser” to the name
commanded a price premium.
After a week or so of sifting thru classifieds ads I started looking at
Toyota 4Runners. While I liked the looks of the older ones I did
not trust the V6 drivetrain. The 3.0l engines are to be avoided at
all costs due to their poor head design. The sheer number of 3.0l
4runners for sale with recently rebuilt engines confirms this. This
led me to look at the 96-02’s with the much more reliable 3.4l V6
engine. After watching Craigslist for a month I came away from the
experience with some knew gems of used car buying knowledge:
"Immaculate" in C/L speak means hit in the door and
patched/painted by myself during a haboob.
"Maintenance records" in C/L speak sometimes means "I really
have nothing and am hanging up the phone now".
A "Carfax" can still be considered "clean" even with 31 hits
on a 119k mile car.
On C/L a bleached white plastic bumper is a sign the vehicle
has always been garaged.
It is perfectly acceptable to ask 2k over high blue book
despite a head sized dent in the hood and various dash warning
lights always on.
I must have looked at or called about 10+ vehicles and on over half
of them I discovered some sort of blatant lie by the seller that led
me to believe the sale was a scam. The other half of the
interactions were not much better and the owners were asking more
than high blue book for dented vehicles with potentially serious
mechanical issues such as massive oil leaks, ABS and check engine
lights , torn CV boots etc. Even basic maintenance seemed to be an
afterthought with no one being able to come up with receipts to show
oil changes or timing belt services. Based on this I made a few
offers on vehicles with the assumption that I would have to make the
repairs, so obviously the offers were in many cases much lower than
what the person was asking. In all cases I was told the offer was
too low and that was it. The funny thing is I would see the same
vehicle 3-4 weeks later at an asking price 100’s less than what I
offered. This played out several times and I just had to wonder has
our culture lost the ability to negotiate? I mean in two specific
instances if the seller would have offered to split the difference
between my offer and their asking price I would have probably done
it and they would have sold their vehicles for several hundred more
than they eventually ended up with.
After nearly two months of looking I finally decided on a candidate.
Actually I should say the candidate reappeared on my radar screen.
I had looked at it 30 days previous and offered the owner $4500 due
to it requiring a lot of work (asking price was $6500). The owner
said that was a little too low back then. Lo and behold it was still
on the market but now with an asking price of $4200. This one was
definitely more of a project due to having 296k miles on the clock.
I had estimated it requiring about $1000 in parts to get it
mechanically sound (by my estimate) and based my offer on that.
Here’s my thought process on this one, the items in the plus column were
Owned for 11 years by same owner - This tells me the owner had some
interest in keeping the car running. A lot of people on CL were
simply flipping cars which were some of the most suspect cars I
3” Lift – One of my eventual requirements.
265 BFG AT Tires in good condition - A nice tire for a light duty
wheeler and already upsized from stock.
Clean body - No major dents which is much better than the “immaculate”
4Runner I looked at with the bondo covered/spray painted passenger
TRD Supercharger, boost gauge and upgraded injectors – I wasn’t sure if I
was going to keep this or sell it but the fact that the whole setup
runs $1500-2000 in used form (4k new) brought the value of this
particular 4runner up in my eyes.
Recently replaced transmission, steering rack among other things,
documented with receipts.
Here are the negatives that I considered:
296k miles – This means there is a good potential for the engine block
needing a transplant soon. This many miles also means stuff like
wheel bearings and u-joints may be reaching the maximum service life
thru normal wear and tear.
Passenger side front CV boot was torn – Pretty typical on the higher
Really bad oil leak from the engine – Based on what I could see it
appeared to be the valve covers which is a very typical thing with
4Runners due to the difficulty in getting to the valve cover
gaskets. Unlike most cars you have to remove the throttle body,
intake plenum and all attached hoses and cables to get to them
(which includes the S/C).
The front end had a bad shimmy when applying the brakes – Again a typical
thing with 4Runners which warp their front rotors easily. In this
case the front rotors were visibly grooved and there wasn’t much
brake pad material left so it was ready for an overhaul.
Leaking rear axle seal – With 296k on the chassis I had no doubt the rear
axle bearings had excessive play in them which can cause the axle to
wobble and seal to be ineffective.
Rear window did not function.
Tear in dash/worn seats – Again very common on all the 4Runners I looked
Check engine light – Owner thought this was electrical related.
Needs a timing belt - Looked like the timing belt service was about 60k
miles overdue for replacement.
Considering I paid about $4000 for my 1st Suzuki Samurai (with
no A/C and bone stock) I did not think this was a bad starting point
The Tear Down
At the time I purchased the 4Runner we were in the midst of a move to a
different house so it was a few weeks before I could dig into the
truck and see if I had missed any mechanical issues. I was still
able to get a jump on things by putting together a list of parts to
cover the stuff I had seen on the test drive. I placed a parts
order to RockAuto. The final tally was roughly $800 which included:
A complete timing belt kit which includes gaskets, belts, tensioners,
water pump and thermostat.
New upper and lower radiator hoses.
New valve cover gasket set, spark plug wires and plugs.
It ended up being easier to just order a new CV axle assembly for $54 vs.
$20 for a new CV boot.
Since the front brakes needed a complete overhaul I went ahead and
ordered parts to do a common upgrade. The larger Toyota Tundra
calipers are a bolt on upgrade as long as you replace the 4Ruunner
rotors with the larger Tundra rotors at the same time so I ordered
Tundra calipers, rotors and brake pads. The cross drilled and
slotted rotors and semi-metallic pads came in a kit I purchased from
E-bay for about $110 shipped.
For the leaking rear axle I ordered all new bearings, retainers, seals
and brake pads (I assumed the pads were oil soaked on the leaking
side). The drum on one side ended up looking fairly new but the
driver’s side looked pretty grooved so a new drum was acquired from
the local O’reily.
I started at the front brakes.
Once the CV with the torn boot was replaced I changed out the brake
rotors, calipers and pads for the beefier Tundra parts. Everything
went in without any issues.
With the tires were pulled I could more clearly see the buildup of dirt
and grime on the front undercarriage from the leaking valve covers.
I used a small scraper and removed several pounds of crud from the
underside of the vehicle. While in there I found a torn bellows on
the steering rack but everything else looked ok.
The passenger side ball joints looked to have been changed at some
Based on how they looked at full droop a set of limit straps would not be
a bad idea.
Moving to the rear axles I pulled off the brake drum from the leaking
side and found the drum was filled with oil and brake dust in the
consistency of tar. This side had been leaking for a while from the
looks of things. The other side was still in decent shape although
the pads and drum were pretty worn and ready for replacement.
While working on pulling the rear axles I noticed the rear 3rd
member was leaking on the front side. Might as well re-seal that
since the axle shafts were pulled so I removed the rear driveshaft
and unbolted the 3rd member.
The 3rd member looked to be in good shape and with it out on
the bench I decided now was the time to put in a locker if there
ever was one so I ordered up a Lock Rite from 4Wheel Parts.
Over the course of several mornings in a week I devised and fabricated a
puller and utilizing the press we had at work I managed to get the
bearings swapped out. One mistake I made in the process was not
pulling the old ABS tone rings and re-using them. I cut them off
thinking the ones I ordered for $15 from Rockauto would replace
them. Problem was I ordered front tone rings thinking they were for
the rear. The rears as it turns out are very expensive ($54 were
the cheapest I found) and hard to find so I was left wishing I had
bought a puller to remove the old ones. This added an unexpected
$110 to the parts tab.