Toyota Tacoma History

Toyota Tacoma History

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Toyota's pickup trucks have a worldwide reputation for quality and toughness. Forget the high school boys bouncing around in Tacomas over here, the Toyota Hi-Lux is the third world's favorite beast of burden. In parts of the globe so remote they barely qualify as being on the globe, Toyota trucks cross rugged trails overloaded with farm equipment, goods, soldiers, mining gear…anything and everything. There probably isn't a vehicle on Earth more abused than the Toyota pickup.

Toyota began building its first truck, the G1, back in 1935 just three months after the company made its first car, the A1. The G1 was basically a one-and-a-half-ton stake bed truck powered by the same Type A engine used in the A1 and production AA cars. It was intended, as virtually all trucks were back then, as a commercial vehicle. Toyota would make just 379 of the G1s. But that was enough for Toyota Motor Corporation's founder Kiichiro Toyoda to earn a certification for his nascent enterprise as a company under Japan's Automotive Manufacturing Industries Law.

The first pickup in Toyota's compact line would come after World War II in 1947 with the introduction of the Toyopet Model SB powered by a 995cc four making a scant 27 hp. With Japan still recovering from the war, the tiny SB was a perfect implement for farmers and newly established businesses. But it would have been a joke in a prosperous post-war America.

The SB would be refined and developed through the 1950s and even sold as a taxicab with a unique four-door body placed over the truck chassis. But none of these vehicles were anywhere near ready for U.S. consumption.

The Stout changed that in 1964.

The Stout: 1964-1967

While the 1964 Stout was the first Toyota pickup sold in America, the dent it made in the market was almost imperceptible. Close to the size of the current Dodge Dakota, the Stout was a pretty homely beast with a windshield that looked like it was off a 1960 Chevy pickup, a cab that looked like it was swiped from International Harvester and a nose that put the turn signals high on the fenders where they could do the most aesthetic damage.

But the big problem for the Stout was that it only had Toyota's 1.9-liter, OHV four making somewhere around 85 hp. So not only was it ugly, but it was slow, too. Beyond that, the cab could only have been more spartan if it was without seats. Through the four years it was sold in the U.S., changes were virtually nonexistent.

Despite the Stout's obvious inadequacies, it earned a reputation for reliability in the U.S. And that would carry over to the truck that would truly establish Toyota in America's pickup market.

First-Generation Hi-Lux: 1969-1972

Though the 1969 Hi-Lux was initially powered by the same "3RC" 1.9-liter engine as the old Stout, it had the advantage of being a smaller truck with a more supple chassis and more comfortable cabin. That was enough to establish it in the market. And it was available in any form you liked as long as that was a two-wheel-drive machine with a standard cab and a short bed.

There was nothing revolutionary about the Hi-Lux's engineering. The front suspension consisted of A-arms and coil springs, while the solid rear axle rode on a pair of semi-elliptical leaf springs. Not only was that typical of all truck engineering back then, it's still how virtually all trucks are made today.

By 21st-century standards, the Hi-Lux's interior was sparse with a bench seat covered in the toughest plastic imaginable spreading out from door to door. Compared to the Stout, though — and to a lot of full-size American trucks back then — it was neatly detailed with easily read instrumentation and easily reached ventilation and audio controls. And the four-speed manual transmission shifted with elegance and ease compared to the brutal transmissions used in domestic trucks.

It still wasn't a pretty truck, though. The styling was more contemporary, but the turn signals were now bolted to the top of the fenders as if they were an afterthought, and the bottom edge of the bed didn't even come close to aligning with the bottom edge of the cab. It wasn't ugly like the Stout, but it sure was boring.

The 1970 Hi-Lux got a new 1.8-liter, SOHC engine ("8RC" within Toyota) that was both more powerful (about 97 hp) and much more refined than the previous year's engine, but the rest of the truck was very much a carryover. Sales were growing, so Toyota didn't bother changing the truck for 1971.

At the start of the 1972 model year the Hi-Lux was blessed with yet another new engine as the 2.0-liter, SOHC, 18RC found a home in the truck. Its 108 hp was the most yet in a Toyota pickup. But the pickup around it would change at midyear.

Second-Generation Hi-Lux: 1973-1974

A straightforward update of the Hi-Lux came on line midway through the 1972 model year (but marketed as a 1973) with revised styling that finally put the turn signals inside the front grille where they always belonged. The interior was updated as well with many elements seemingly lifted straight from the car lines to produce a more comfortable environment.

The big news for 1973 was literally big as a new "Long Bed" model appeared with a 7.5-foot bed that could haul many items that only a full-size truck could swallow before. It was so successful that Toyota did virtually nothing to update the truck for 1974.

Third-Generation Hi-Lux/Compact Truck: 1975-1978

With emissions requirements threatening to strangle down the 18RC, that engine grew to 2.2 liters to create the "20R" for 1975. The 20R (and its successor, the 22R) was the bedrock upon which the Toyota truck legend has been built. There are Toyota trucks out there with 20Rs under their hoods that have gone hundreds of thousands of miles with oil the consistency of oatmeal in their crankcases. These are the engines that would keep running even when their maintenance was entrusted to teenagers. The only way the 20R and 22R could have been more reliable is if they had no moving parts.

But the 20R wasn't the only change for '75, however. The cab was now larger in virtually every important internal dimension, and the styling and comfort became even more carlike. And for the first time a five-speed manual transmission was offered, which let the engine run slower at high cruising speeds, making it much better at commuting on American freeways. The basic chassis setup, however, carried forward pretty much unchanged.

The major change for 1976 was the deletion of the Hi-Lux name from the American version of the compact truck. The rest of the world could still get a Hi-Lux, but over here it was simply known as the "truck" or the "compact truck."

There were practically no significant changes to the truck-with-no-name for either 1977 or 1978.

Fourth-Generation Truck: 1979-1983

The 1979 Toyota truck was all new and again more carlike. But it was a more significant leap forward than ever before with four-wheel drive becoming available for the first time and the debut of a sport truck version known as the SR5.

"The Toyota SR5 is a quantum jump improvement over anything in the [Toyota truck's] past, for several excellent reasons," the Motor Trend editors wrote. "The most obvious is the SR5's new ride and handling feel which can be traced directly to the new torsion bar front suspension. It lends a much smoother ride than conventional coils did and helps the Toyota corner better than it ever could have with the old suspension. The torsion bar rates are softer than those of the old coil springs, and the original equipment Dunlop SP4 radials tend to accentuate the softness even more." Considering how brutal small truck suspensions had been until then, the new Toyota was a revolution.

Still, despite its bucket seats, tape stripes, chrome-ringed steel wheels and five-speed manual (or optional three-speed automatic) transmission, the SR5 wasn't particularly fast. After all, the 20R engine used in all Toyota compact trucks still made a slight 90 hp and a four-speed manual was standard in other Toyota trucks. Motor Trend measured its SR5 test truck accelerating from zero to 60 mph in a leisurely 12.4 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 18.8 seconds at just 70.8 mph. Scarier was the 17 feet it took it to stop from 60 mph with the rear end sloshing ignobly from side to side.

With a solid front axle on leaf springs (much like the rear suspension) and a high-in-the-air stance, the new Toyota 4x4 pickup was an instant status symbol in high school parking lots across the country. "Toyota's new 4x4 is visually the most impressive," wrote the Popular Science editors in a comparison test with the barely remembered Subaru Brat and Chevy LUV four-wheel-drive pickups. "Its body stands high off the ground and it towers over the others on massive tires that give it the appearance of a swamp buggy…". Of prime importance are two protective skid plates (one under the transfer case and the other under the fuel tank) that were specially designed to let this truck shine in off-road driving.

"For all of its ruggedness, the Toyota (like LUV and Brat) is highly civilized inside the cab. The seat is a bench type that will hold three adults in an emergency, but furnishes comfortable space for two. The seat back folds forward with the release of a lever on either side, revealing a small, handy storage area hidden from outside view. An AM/FM stereo radio, plush carpeting and a sliding rear window add to the passenger-carlike comfort...

"Not everything about these vehicles is outstanding. Their acceleration is adequate, but no more. Toyota's 0-to-60-mph time averaged only 17.4 seconds, well over the 15-second benchmark we consider excellent on our test track. LUV and Brat were slower still at 19.0 and 19.6 seconds, respectively."

Still, the Toyota 4x4 had significant advantages over its competition, the Motor Trend editors concluded in their test. "The Chevy 4x4 LUV is an excellent road truck with above average off-road capability. The Toyota is basically a rugged off-road machine with adequate highway performance plus a choice of cargo bed and wheelbase lengths and several options — including power steering, tilt steering wheel and an instrument package — not available on the LUV."

Both the SR5 and 4x4 trucks were big hits, so Toyota didn't mess with the compact truck lineup for 1980.

Engines were the big news for 1981 as the 20R grew to 2.4 liters to become the 22R and a diesel engine was offered for the first time — and then only on an SR5 with the long bed.

Car and Driver found the diesel to have some virtues. "The 2.2-liter, L-series diesel utilizes an overhead camshaft and a Bosch-Nippondenso fuel-injection system," the magazine reported. "It operates at a 21.5-to-1 compression ratio, developing a reasonable 62 hp at 4,200 rpm and 93 pound-feet of torque at 2,400 rpm. The five-speed overdrive manual transmission is geared short on the low end to obtain maximum pull from the torquey diesel engine. A governor limits revs to 4,900 per minute. Basically you shift like crazy to 30 mph, then cruise in relative peace.

"Toyota's advances in diesel technology have eliminated, or at least minimized, many of the objections most of us have against diesels. For one thing, the harsh clacketing sound of most diesel engines has been virtually eliminated in the SR5 by a fabric-reinforced-rubber timing belt and increased sound insulation….

"One of the high points of the diesel is, of course, its 31 mpg (EPA city) rating which is lower than both VW's and Datsun's diesel trucks' rating but still better than the SR5 gas engine by 7 mpg. But before the diesel option will pay for itself, you have to put on at least 40,000 miles."

The fourth-generation Toyota pickup would play itself out through 1982 and 1983 essentially unchanged while selling exceedingly well.

Fifth Generation: 1984-1988

For the first time the Toyota pickup was available as an extended cab truck in the form of the new Xtracab for 1984 (regular cab trucks continued through the fifth generation as well). The Xtracab's additional length produced a more spacious environment, while the revamped interior was, once again, even more carlike than before. In fact, the whole truck was tuned more for comfort than ever before with some road tests actually commenting that the ride was too cushy. The 2.4-liter 22R four-cylinder, the transmissions and most of the suspension bits carried over intact to the new trucks that were covered in new, more angular sheet metal.

But not everyone was thrilled with the fifth-generation truck. "The Toyota has the best acceleration and fuel economy in the group," Consumer Reports wrote in a comparison of 1985 base model compact pickups. "But its ride and handling were abominable, even by small truck standards. And the design of its front bumper invites major frame damage in a low-speed crash." With a base price of just $5,998 (and an as-tested price of $6,838 for CR) however, Toyota's truck sure was inexpensive.

But the base truck wasn't really the news for '85, as electronic fuel injection was now an option on the 22R (to create the "22RE"), bringing with it a power boost and an available four-speed automatic transmission. Beyond that, there were new turbocharged versions of both the 22R and the diesel.

Known inside Toyota as the "22RTE," the turbocharged version of 22R was impressive in its day. "The boosted engine is currently offered on only one model," reported Car and Driver, "the long-cockpit Xtracab with two-wheel drive and only with an automatic transmission. Whether application will be broadened later is uncertain, as Toyota's future appears to lie in the more-cylinders, more-valves path." But 135 hp was a generous amount of power for a mid-'80s small pickup and the magazine found it gratifying. "The result is enough fresh power to revise your notions of mini-truck performance completely. Really, it's a new world. Sixty mph comes up from zero in just over 10 seconds," the publication wrote. "On a two-lane road, you can now safely pass in places that are out of the question for a normal mini. Eighty and even 90 mph appear very easily. The turbo truck will even hold 80 mph going uphill on part throttle. And it's real: if traffic drops the needle to, say, 45, a bootful of gas once you're by will soon show you 80 mph again — still going uphill. And in this case the siren sounds are more often than not from under the hood."

The turbocharged engine proved a relatively popular option, but the early-'80s heyday of the diesel was already fading as economic recovery and less expensive gasoline made it less attractive.

In fact, 1986 would be the last year for the diesel Toyota pickup in the United States. But it was the fans of the 4x4 pickup who went through the most wrenching change that year, as Toyota abandoned the solid front axle of previous models and adopted a new torsion bar independent front suspension. In compensation to the hard-core 4x4 nuts out there, Toyota now offered automatic locking front hubs and an electronically controlled transfer case integrated into the four-speed automatic transmission. Still, some enthusiasts have never forgiven Toyota for abandoning the solid front axle.

Virtually nothing changed about the 1987 Toyota pickups. But the turbo truck was gone from the 1988 lineup as Toyota replaced it with the new "3VZE" 3.0-liter SOHC V6 engine rated at 150 horsepower. It was not only a more powerful, easier-going engine than the old turbo four, but it also indicated where the future of Toyota trucks lay. And that future came up the very next year.

Sixth Generation: 1989-1995

With more rounded sheet metal than before and, yet again, even more carlike ride and handling, the sixth-generation Toyota pickup logically followed the same well-established line of evolution as its predecessors. While short-bed trucks kept the 103-inch wheelbase of previous Toyota pickups, the long-bed versions now put a vast 122 inches between their front and rear axles. The 22RE 2.4-liter four's intake was modified slightly for the base trucks but was otherwise familiar and the optional engine remained the 3.0-liter, SOHC, 150-hp V6 introduced for 1988.

In naming the Toyota Xtracab SR5 V6 its 1989 Truck of the Year, Motor Trend wrote that "…without the extra burden of the hardware necessary to drive the front wheels, the 2WD truck kicks up its heels with the unbound abandon of a ballet dancer. A liquid clutch and five-speed manual shifter changed the gears with delightful precision. To support the fury available under your right foot is a complete rack of readable analog instruments nestled in an instrument binnacle whose view is unimpeded." So maybe MT's writing was hyperbolic, but the '89 Toyota pickup was a definite improvement.

There were essentially no changes to the 1990 pickup. While the 1991 version was virtually identical to it, production began to shift from Japan to the shared GM-Toyota NUMMI plant in Fremont, Calif. By 1992, more than half the production for the U.S. was coming from NUMMI and virtually all of the U.S.-sold trucks came from that plant during the 1993 model year (even though the year was fruitless product development-wise). All the Toyota pickups sold in the U.S. during the 1994 model year were made in California, but the year was not without at least one product change — the addition of a third brake light atop the trailing edge of the cab.

By the middle of the 1995 model year, it was obviously time for a change in the Toyota truck world. And Toyota couldn't even wait until the next model year to make that change.

Seventh-Generation Tacoma: 1995 1/2-2004

With production of its trucks for America now firmly planted in America, Toyota decided that its seventh-generation pickup could be tweaked to the specific demands of this specific market. And while it was at it, it could give it an American name, too: Tacoma.

By the way, the Hi-Lux name was (and is) still being used on Toyota pickups sold in the rest of the world.

While previous Toyota pickups had evolved slowly and methodically, the Tacoma not only featured new sheet metal, but a new frame, a fresh suspension and the choice of three new, more powerful engines. The Tacoma was truly all new.

The Tacoma still rode on a full frame and a solid rear axle supported by leaf springs, but the front suspension was redesigned with Toyota ditching the previously used torsion bars on 4x4s in favor of coil springs on both 4x2s and 4x4s. Naturally, the result was an even smoother ride, while suspension travel on the 4x4s grew from 5.9 to 7.7 inches. Of course, the cabs (regular and Xtracab) were roomier and better trimmed, and both bed lengths returned.

The old 22RE was finally dead, as base Tacoma regular cab and Xtracab 4x2s now came with a new 2.4-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four making 142 hp standard, while the 4x4s now came with a 2.7-liter version of the same engine knocking out 150 hp under their hoods. The optional V6 was a new 3.4-liter, DOHC, 24-valve unit making an impressive 190 hp. Combine that with even better five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions, and these weren't just the most powerful Toyota pickups ever, but the quietest and most refined. They were an immediate hit.

Since there was only a half-year of sales behind the new Tacoma, it's no surprise that the 1996 Tacoma was very much a carryover. But a slightly revised grille with better integrated headlights came on board for 1997.

A passenger-side front airbag to go with the one already in the steering wheel was added for 1998 (a year ahead of the federally mandated time). At midyear, however, Toyota joined the growing market for 4x2 trucks that look like 4x4s with the introduction of the PreRunner Xtracab. Insurance rates, maintenance and fuel consumption costs for four-wheel-drive trucks can be prohibitive (particularly for younger drivers), so offering a 4x2 with the 4x4's suspension and oversize tires makes a good compromise for those more interested in looking good rather than actually bounding across sand dunes.

The PreRunner option spread to regular cab models for 1999, and all Tacomas equipped with antilock brakes were also equipped with daytime running lights. With the PreRunner package a certified hit, Toyota pushed the style envelope even further during 2000 with the introduction of a Tacoma StepSide model incorporating a bed with distinct fender blisters.

With the Tacoma now more than five years old, it underwent a mild restyling and a major increase in model count for 2001. All Tacomas now used a new trapezoidal grille somewhat reminiscent of that on a 1953 Buick with a wide mouth containing thick bars. The interior was also redesigned with a new dash that included rotary ventilation controls in place of the archaic sliders that had been used previously, new door trim and upholstery and a new four-spoke steering wheel. Beyond that, the mainstream SR5 and upmarket Limited models now had white-faced gauges with orange illumination.

But for that year it was the introduction of two new models that garnered the most attention: the Double Cab and S-Runner. The Double Cab was a four-door (crew cab) version similar to those Toyota had been selling in other markets around the world for decades, but never before in America. Appearing after Nissan's Frontier and Dodge's Dakota four-doors and at just about the same time that GM was introducing four-door versions of the GMC Sonoma and Chevy S-10, the Double Cab was hardly innovative. But it was a very versatile truck.

Riding on the same 121.9-inch wheelbase as the Tacoma Xtracab, the Double Cab's lengthier cab required that the bed length shrink 13.0 inches to 61.5 inches. And in every major interior dimension it clearly beat the Nissan competition, even though it was behind the larger Dodge. The Double Cab came as a two-wheel drive with either the 2.7-liter four or 3.4-liter V6 in its nose, or as a four-wheel drive powered by the V6 in SR5 or Limited trim levels.

The S-Runner was a sport truck geared for those more interested in street-bound handling than bounding over rocks — or just looking like they were. Available as a 4x2 Xtracab with either the regular or StepSide bed and with the V6 for power, the S-Runner hunkered down on a one-inch-lower suspension on Bridgestone Potenza P235/55R16 all-season radials on 16-inch alloy wheels. Monochromatically finished in either Black Sand Pearl or Radiant Red paint, it also got a tuned exhaust with a flashy chrome tip.

The 2001 Tacoma Double Cab was impressive enough to finish second in's comparison of compact crew cabs, just behind the Dakota. "Perhaps the Tacoma's most endearing trait was its nimble nature," we wrote then. "On-road and off, the Toyota was never caught flat-footed. The V6's broad power band and the alert automatic gearbox were always ready to squirt the Tacoma away from a light or briskly down a fire road."

The Tacoma made it into 2002 unchanged, but that was enough for it for us to name it as the "Most Wanted" small pickup that year. It finished out its life in 2003 and 2004 virtually unchanged and fully successful — but never really stylish. That would come next.

Eighth-Generation Tacoma: 2005-Present

As this is written, the new Tacoma is still a few months away. But we already know that it's bigger than ever, more powerful than ever and, Toyota promises, better handling and more capable than ever.

The 2005 Tacoma will be available in 18 different flavors; from a regular cab 4x2 stripper with a short bed and the 2.7-liter four to a Double Cab 4x4 with a new long bed and Toyota's latest 4.0-liter, DOHC, 24-valve, VVT-i V6 knocking out 245 hp. Wheelbases range from a relatively long 109.4 to a very, very long 140.9 inches, with both the front and rear tracks almost four inches wider than before. In fact, at 221.3 inches, the longest new Tacoma is three inches longer than an Access Cab version of the company's "full-size" Tundra pickup.

All three body styles return with the Xtracab morphing into an Access Cab with a set of rear-hinged smaller doors providing better access to the rear compartment. The S-Runner is gone, having been superseded by a new X-Runner model that features a six-speed manual transmission behind the 4.0-liter V6, a lowered suspension and massive 255/45R18 Bridgestone Potenza tires on, naturally, 18-inch diameter wheels. Other Tacomas can be had with a five-speed automatic, but the X-Runner is six-speed only.

The new Tacoma is aggressive in its styling in a way no previous Toyota truck has been, and with newfound power under the hood and Toyota's long-standing reputation for steadfast reliability, it should continue to be a popular truck choice for years to come.

Hi there! This archived History article is a snapshot from a previous era. If you enjoyed reading it, please see our full model overview, which has up-to-date information and links to the latest model years.


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