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The 4Runner has been Toyota’s midsize SUV since 1984. As the automaker launches an all-new generation of 4Runner, I find myself wondering about the history of the SUV, and wondering what its name even means. It turns out a marketing firm just mashed together a name that sounded like a cool off-roader with four wheel drive.

Toyota has been building light pickup trucks for the North American market since the 1970s. There was no clear predecessor to the 4Runner, but it did offer limited-edition camper conversions such as the “Trekker.” In Japan it offered the “Hilux Surf.”

For the 1984 model year, Toyota threw a back seat into the Toyota pickup truck, mounted a roll bar, and added a fiberglass cap. Its first truck-based SUV was far from a luxury vehicle, it was a lightweight, no-frills off-roader. It was essentially just a Toyota truck with room for your friends. I mean, it only had two doors for crying out loud.

White first-gen Toyota 4Runner SUV off-roading
Toyota 4Runner | Jerad Hill via Unsplash

At that point, even Toyota trucks didn’t have names beyond… “Toyota Truck.” But the automaker wanted to make a splash with its first off-road SUV. So it hired Saatchi & Saatchi advertising company to come up with a name. It wanted something that promised off-roading capability, and accentuated the SUV’s four wheel drive. I’m not sure whether the team researched “desert runner” type trucks or just decided “running” off road trails was a thing. But copywriter Robert Nathan coined “4Runner.”

The name “4Runner” is obviously a play on the word “forerunner.” But it also has a 4 which stands for 4WD and uses the word “runner” to conjure up off-road fun. Toyota was sold, and the rest is history. Today, the iconic name blends in to a sea of models with names that are a string of letters and numbers. But back in the day, it was a bit of a pioneer. And the name, of course, has held up for decades.

Gray Toyota 4Runne SUV parked in the desert
2021 Toyota 4Runner | Toyota

Toyota finally released the 4Runner in May 1984. Just weeks before the nameplates 40th anniversary, the automaker will reveal an all-new sixth-generation model. The new 4Runner keeps beloved features such as the roll-down rear window, but shares an all-new chassis with the latest Toyota Landcruiser.

Next, learn about the secret ingredients to Toyota’s legendary reliability, or learn all about the history of the 4Runner in the video below: