The Van That Can: A 4x4 Toyota Van Built for the Rocks
So, what is an old, boxy Toyota Van from the '80s doing on Driving Line? This isn’t just any old minivan; it’s a rare 4WD Toyota Van.
Let that sink in.
When I say four-wheel drive, I don’t mean all-wheel drive. None of that ABS modulating, wheel speed sensing “smart” all-wheel drive mumbo jumbo. This van has a four-wheel drive system with low range transfer case and locking front hubs. But of course, this van didn’t come off the assembly line this hardcore. After all, it was designed to transport families, not mild rock crawling.
An odd choice for anyone, the van's owner, John Chow, has never been one to follow the masses. After all, he has owned several FC RX-7s and blown twice as many motors, yet continues to stick with Rotary power, if that tells you anything. After seeing a 4WD van on the road, he went home and searched Craigslist and found one for a steal. Since the van wasn’t common to begin with and 30 years old, most OEM parts were discontinued and aftermarket was non-existent. Slowly he began the long trial and error process of trying parts from different Toyota trucks and getting some all-terrain tires. After its first outing, John realized that he lacked the gearing to make it over steeper and rockier obstacles.
With a little research, he realized he needed low range gears to help his crawling power. Fortunately, the manual transmission vans came with a low range transfer case. Unfortunately, his van is automatic and did not come fitted with the transfer case, so John had to swap one in.
Since these vans weren’t necessarily designed to be serious off-roaders, John used a hodgepodge of parts (courtesy of toyotavanpeople.com) to lift his van. The front torsion beam suspension doesn’t use springs, but slight adjustments gain a few inches of lift up front. In the rear, a set of springs from another '80s minivan, the Ford Aerostar, paired with shocks from a first gen Toyota Tacoma helped make room for the 28” tires—the largest he could fit without getting in the way of the sliding door.
The locking front hubs were also sourced from a first gen Toyota 4Runner.
The extra ground clearance and all-terrain tires give this van has some legit off-road capabilities making it surprisingly capable on some of the Southwest’s (moderately) rocky off-road trails.
On the trails, the front weight bias, lack of articulation and front seats over the front axles make every obstacle much scarier than it should, inside and out of the van. Despite its shortcomings, given the right trail, brave driving and some "I Think I Can" attitude, the van has always made it out.
Outside, the van looks fresh out of the '80s. White 8-spoke wheels from a Suzuki Samurai wheels fill the wheel wells. Up top, a roof mounted spare, ARB awning and KC happy face fog light covers mounted on a Yakima roof rack finish off the period correct look.
Though a bit more spartan than the similarly built VW Westfalia Syncro, the van makes a humble home off the grid. A factory option refrigerator with ice maker keeps drinks cool on the trail while the swiveling second row captain’s chairs fold down flat to create a sleeping area.
It might not be as equipped as a VW Westy, but with off-road capability backed with Toyota reliability, could it be the next go-to van for overlanding?