Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My Autobiography, Part 3: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Picking up from my last exercise in narcissism, I'd just had the rug pulled out from under me with my basket case 1985 Toyota 4Runner. "The Compensator" (as my sister called it) was gone, never to be seen again, so where to go next?

With roughly $7000 in insurance cash burning a hole in my pocket, I was back in the market. For some truly bizarre reason, it was a toss-up between another 4Runner and an El Camino. As Captain of the (top 10 in the nation) UC San Diego waterski team, I frequently found myself driving all over hauling stuff. Either vehicle was a good fit, and the El Camino had the extra dose of awesome.

Any incoming Jalopnik readers are hoping this is where I dive into my El Camino phase. Alas, it was not to be. I looked at one semi-seriously, and while very reasonably priced, it needed lots of love. I was pretty burnt out on Project Car Hell from my previous 4Runner, and managed to locate a mildly lifted 87 4Runner that was in super good shape.

With 250k on the odometer, it had about 100k on a complete new engine. Yes, this line of reasoning bit me in the ass last time, but this time I was there to see it in person. I'd never before seen such a clean engine compartment. The previous owner was a mechanic, and had dutifully taken care of the car for several years.

It was in great shape, and only gave me trouble early-on with a sticky temp gauge that decided to read A-OK while I climbed the 4000' grade out of the desert back into San Diego. A-OK, until it suddenly unstuck and pegged to the red just in time for me to see the steam coming from under the hood.

After addressing that little issue, it needed a few things if I was ever to get those 33" BFGs dirty.

The 4" lift was a typical mid-90s crappy "let's quintuple the spring rate" special that I had to swap the springs out of. When the lift was put on, they re-geared the rear axle to 4.88:1, but not the front. Luckily, the whole Toyota IFS front axle assembly is a pretty easy swap.

The final modification I would make on it is exemplary of why I love Toyota trucks: the electric locking rear differential from the TRD Tacomas is a near bolt-in item to earlier Toyotas. I managed to pick one up for a whole axle drum-to-drum and swap it in over a weekend.

1987 4Runner 2

It was just a matter of getting the wiring sorted out. Unfortunately, before I finished that, or ever got an opportunity to test it out in the dirt, the 4Runner was stolen.

There's nothing quite like that sinking feeling when you come out in the morning and your car's not where you swear you left it the night before. It's particularly distressing when it's the third time in as many years. Calling work to let them know you probably wouldn't be able to make it because your car got stolen ("Again?") is no fun, but calling your insurance is even less fun.

This time around, having done most of the upgrades myself, on the cheap, it was hard to get my adjusters to recognize the value I'd added to the car. After weeks of negotiations, I got $500 less than I'd paid for it, roughly 14 months (and $1200 in upgrades) earlier.

So what's the take-home message from The Second 4Runner? The Missus jokes that I should be careful spending a bunch of time working on my cars, as it was stolen on a Monday after I'd spent all weekend working on it. Beyond that, there's not much to be said...it was a good little truck that got swiped. Bummer, dude.

The story does carry a bit of epilogue: While my 85 4Runner disappeared without a trace, the Fastrak toll road pass that was in my 87 when it was stolen was still being used occasionally. I tried to contact the CHP to see if they could use the system in place to ticket non-paying drivers to pick up whoever was using my pass. No dice. Essentially, it came down to the fact that the CHP has no interest in actually fighting crime.

As great a car as The Second 4Runner was for me, I find myself wondering if the El Camino would've been the better choice...

Next up: The Modern Era.

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