The 1970s and ’80s were a time of reckoning for the American auto market; namely, the Japanese were playing “anything you can do I can do better” with Detroit. As the Mustang got fat, Toyota gave us the Celica. Midsize American sedans had become ponderous and unreliable, so people began buying Honda Civics and Accords in droves. And while The Motor City’s full-size pickups were — and still are — king, Japanese compact and midsize trucks began to attract a strong following for their manageable footprints, mechanical simplicity, and impressive ruggedness.
So it would only make sense that someone like Toyota would release something like the 4Runner back then. After all, its basic idea is as American as apple pie, and since the The Big Three were beginning to lose the plot, why not try to swoop in and corner the market?
By the early 1980s, the Sport Utility Vehicle segment was growing fast, and beginning to fragment into different niche markets. On the one hand, there were the old guard of full-size two door models — heavy bruisers that were based on pickups and could handle themselves both on- and off-road. The Ford Bronco and Chevy Blazer were solid-axle 4x4s with a removable fiberglass cap that allowed for open-top driving just about anywhere. Chrysler’s competitor, the Dodge Ramcharger, had recently been redesigned with a non-removable steel roof, but largely offered the same experience.
On the other hand, those body-on-frame trucks were beginning to look dated compared to the new crop of SUVs. In 1983, Ford introduced the compact, Ranger-based Bronco II, and GM launched the similarly sized S-1o Blazer and S-15 Jimmy. AMC Jeep would soon follow suit and release the newly downsized Cherokee. In 1984, Toyota joined the fray with the 4Runner, a model that seemed to do the impossible and fit in perfectly between these two camps. It quickly built a cult following that lasts to this day.
Toyota had played with the idea of an SUV as early as 1981, when it entered into a partnership with Winnebago to create the Trekker, a Hilux pickup with a fixed fiberglass cap and an added rear seat. Looking somewhat like a downsized full-size Jeep Cherokee, the Trekker proved to be an unexpected hit for Toyota dealers, with some 1,500 examples sold through dealers in just two years.
The Hilux seemed like a natural platform to base an SUV on. Simple, rugged, and dependable, the truck (known literally as the Toyota Truck in the U.S.) was one of the smallest and most affordable 4x4s on the market, and was robust enough to handle some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth. With the Trekker serving as research and development for Toyota, the company began designing an in-house model, and quickly had the 4Runner ready for the ’84 model year.
The 4Runner was roughly the same size as the new unibody Jeep Cherokee, but the body-on-frame truck was closer in execution to the larger Bronco/Blazer/Ramcharger camp. Toyota offered three models: a base with two seats and a large, open bed, a model with a rear bench, making it a five-seater, and the SR5, with a larger fuel tank and upscale interior.
Starting at around $10K (roughly $23K today), the 4Runner offered the dependability of the Toyota Truck, the quality that was winning Toyota more customers every year, a removable fiberglass top, and a compact footprint. All models came standard with a five-speed manual transmission, four-wheel drive, and the highest ground clearance in its class. Toyota was smart to position the 4Runner as a true adventure vehicle, playing up the truck’s solid axles and off-road prowess. It quickly caught on with the outdoor set.
Interestingly enough, most first-year models were imported as two-seaters to skirt the dreaded Chicken Tax, which imposed a steep tariff on imported compact trucks with more than two seats. As a result, many 4Runners didn’t receive rear seats until they hit dealerships. 1985 brought some big changes to the truck, namely beefier rear springs (Toyota didn’t account for the extra weight of the hard top and seats), and the move from a carbureted 22R to the 2.4 liter fuel-injected 22R-E engine. Rear seats also became available across the board.
In 1986, a turbo was available for the 2.4, but it was only available with an automatic transmission, and disappeared after ’87, making it one of the rarest first-generation 4Runners. That year, the truck was available with a 3.0 liter V6, increasing power significantly, but it failed to earn the same reputation for bulletproof reliability as the standard 2.4. There were few changes made in the first-generation 4Runner’s final two years, 1988-89, but by then it had well established itself as an important member of the Toyota truck family.
For 1990, an all-new, more refined 4Runner debuted, including a four-door model, which Toyota marketed as being able to take the entire family along on an adventure. It worked, and the second-generation truck quickly outsold the original model. By then, the SUV boom was in full swing, and Toyota would became a major player in it. On top of the tried-and-true Land Cruiser and 4Runner, the compact RAV4 would join the lineup in 1996, followed by the family-friendly Highlander and full-size Sequoia in 2001.
Today’s four-door only 4Runner is rugged and tough — not all that different from the template set by the second-generation model over 25 years ago. But to off-roaders, adventurers, and even some collectors, the truck may have hit its peak between between 1984 and ’89. Like the old-school American two-door SUVs, the original 4Runner is dead simple and easily modifiable, with its solid axles making it easy to lift for serious off-roading. Unlike the bigger Americans, the Toyota’s compact footprint and lighter weight make it far easier to maneuver. And compared to its original competition (with the exception of maybe the Jeep Cherokee XJ), the 4Runner can take punishment better than any of them.
As far as midsize SUVs go, a stock 4Runner of any generation is a safe bet for fun both on- and (to varying degrees) off-road. But while newer trucks are as plush and civilized as any modern Toyota, its reputation as a no-compromise truck that took the sport utility moniker seriously was set way back in the 1980s. We only wish that more automakers had followed Toyota’s lead — the world would be a more exciting place if it had more rugged, topless, two-door SUVs.