Tuesday, March 10, 2009

My AutoBiography, Part 2: "Buying the 4Runner"

Working on my '85 4Runner

Just as "jump the shark" and "nuke the fridge" have special meanings in pop culture, to "Buy the 4Runner" has a special meaning for me and my family.

When we last checked in with a younger and stupider me, I had three summers of simplified professional wrenching experience under my belt and was just wrapping up my sophomore year of college at UC San Diego.

With ubiquitous internet access and lots of time between classes, I was spending countless hours on 4x4 forums. Funny thing about spending 100 times as much time online talking about something as actually doing it: You can lose track of what matters.

I'd become convinced that my Jeep, (now upgraded to 35" tires, a 5" coil conversion and dual air lockers) was underbuilt. The axles would snap at the slightest hint of a hill climb and the transfer case was woefully under-spec'ed. I was doomed. What I really needed to do was sell my Wrangler for the high prices that they could bring, then build up a solid-axle Toyota 4Runner from scratch to be the hardcore wheeling machine I really wanted. After all, you could get a great used specimen for like $4,000, and that 22RE motor would run forever.

None of this was true. As long as I didn't make a habit of bumping my way up rocky hillclimbs under full throttle, my drivetrain was been fine. Busy with school, I wasn't doing all that much offroading to begin with. I'm not sure how I thought a 17 year-old 4Runner was going to be a reliability upgrade over a simple Jeep with a 2 year old motor.

Regardless, a grandiose plan was hatched: I'd sell the Jeep for a bunch of cash, and use it to build a 4Runner into exactly what I wanted.

1985 4Runner Parked 4

While searching for something to buy, I came across the example you see above. 5.5" All-Pro Offroad lift, 5.29:1 gears, 35" Super Swampers and a winch. Sure, it had 160k miles, but it really only had 50k on a rebuilt engine, so it was fine.

There were a few small problems...
Instead of the $4-5k that I was looking to spend, the guy was asking $9k (but it already had lift/tires/gears that I wanted, so it was really a bargain!).
It had an exhaust leak at the manifold-to-head surface (and easy fix)
The driver's seat was busted.
The transmission was in need of a 2nd gear synchro (but good, used replacements were only a few hundred bucks)
The clutch was warped (but I could get it when I did the transmission)
Lastly, it was in Sacramento but I was in San Diego. No problem, I'd just have my dad check it out for me, as he was in SacTown at the time.

Everything in italics came back to bite me.

I'd like to believe if I'd been there in person, to hear the exhaust leak, to drive it and realize just how gutless 100ish horsepower feels when yoked to 35", 50lb tires, and recognize the generally neglected state this thing was in, that I wouldn't have told my dad to pull the trigger. Alas, I wasn't, and he didn't want to be the bad guy and tell me this was a terrible idea, so I bought it.

The spread between the $12k I sold the Wrangler for and the $8k I paid for the 4Runner disappeared quickly. Straight away I paid for sales tax, 1st insurance premium, a new driver's seat, a (used) replacement transmission and getting the exhaust leak (mostly) fixed.

Winter break of that year really epitomizes my ownership experience.

I had two weeks to swap the transmission and transfer case to the new (used) tranny and dual transfer case setup I had ready to go.

On the way from San Diego to my parents' place in the Bay Area, the front main oil seal went from bad to worse. I added at least 5 quarts of oil over the trip, most of which proceeded to spray down the undercarriage and up the back of the car.

After burning a day fixing the oil seal issue, the drivetrain swap was longer and more difficult than expected. My lovely future wife had come up to join my family on a skiing trip, but instead she had to stay back an extra day and help me bench-press 300lbs worth of drivetrain into place.

On the way back to San Diego, I had the pleasure of learning that my 4Runner had been equipped with a rear-seat heater. It turns out the previous owner hadn't bothered to remove the coolant lines that fed it, and instead put a "U" hose right were my newly installed second transfer case would rub right through it. This was determined over the course of 4 hours and several hot-coolant baths in a parking lot at the base of the Grapevine.

Sidehill 1

Later that spring, the head gasket blew.

Without the time, money or skill to do a head gasket, I ventured into my own personal Bailout Plan. The Bank of Dad granted me a $3k, 5 year loan to get the better part of the engine rebuilt at an expert shop. I was in debt, but my 4Runner was finally running right.

It was stolen 3 weeks later, never to be seen again.

Insurance paid me more than I could've sold it for, but nowhere near the total I'd paid into it over 10 months of ownership.

For years, I beat myself up over the whole fiasco. Really, the whole thing embarrassed me.

In my family to "Buy the 4Runner" came to mean entering into a financial boondoggle with delusions of coming out ahead of the game, when in reality you're just biting off more than you can chew.

Five years later, I'm still frustrated by the experience. But when I think about everything I learned as a result, I'm not sure I wouldn't wish it upon myself again. I learned a lot about wrenching, but even more about just how much time, money and space it takes to take on a real project. I'm glad I had that learning experience on an $8,000 4Runner than a $30,000 BMW or a $300,000 money pit of a house.

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