Project 4Runner

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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 locker.

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:

1.       "Immaculate" in C/L speak means hit in the door and patched/painted by myself during a haboob.

2.       "Maintenance records" in C/L speak sometimes means "I really have nothing and am hanging up the phone now".

3.       A "Carfax" can still be considered "clean" even with 31 hits on a 119k mile car.

4.       On C/L a bleached white plastic bumper is a sign the vehicle has always been garaged.

5.       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 as follows:

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 looked at.

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 door.

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.

TRD Headers

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 mileage 4runners.

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 at.

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 for $4200

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 point.  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.

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