Field Vehicles I've Customized
I have to admit that I am party to the American craze for automobiles. My siblings were all "gear-heads," and my mother was interested in "anything with wheels under it," so some of that interest - and skill - rubbed off on me. My more serious "builds" have been field vehicles, with special features to facilitate work and recreation in the field - or so I imagined.
1972 Jeepster Comando 1974 FJ55 Landcruiser Tacoma - Sunrader
1972 Jeepster Commando

Photos of the Jeepster

My first automobile. Stock and like new when my mother bought it, during my senior year in high school. I still have the advertisement mom clipped from the local newspaper. Within a year, I put the axles under the leaf springs to raise it, re-powered it with a Chevy 327 V8, and installed a roll bar and bucket seats. I learned a lot in the process, and I guess that's why mom tolerated such radical tinkering on a perfectly good car.

1974 FJ55 Landcruiser Wagon

Photos of Zentoy  

In the late 70s, I saw FJ55s frequently in the Nevada outback and fell in love with their "safari" look. It was somewhat longer than most SUVs on the market at the time, which I thought would make it easier to sleep inside without bending my knees. I discovered "Zentoy" - as my wife came to call it because of the countless hours I spent working on it - parked along Hwy 41 near Oakhurst, CA, with a for sale sign in the window. I bought it "as is" for $2500. The owner had put a Chevy 350 in it, but otherwise it was mostly stock. It was the original gray/white paint combination, which was somewhat rare. I soon learned why the seller insisted, as I prepared to drive away, that I "don't call to ask why I did things the way I did." For one thing, when he dropped the Chevy engine in, he basically snipped off all the wiring to the original Toyota motor, literally leaving it hanging, and then installed GM electrical components as needed. He was also in a bit of a hurry to install the new motor mounts too, because the Chevy motor was not straight from front to back, and a good four inches higher in the front than in the rear.

While I was off in the Himalayan wilds for several months, I left Zentoy parked and asked my wife to start the motor from time to time. It was too unsafe for a loved one to actually drive. When I returned she explained that one day while cranking it over some smelly smoke emerged from under the dash and it hadn’t turned over since. I soon figured out the main wiring harness was toast. The previous owner's shoddy wiring had finally shorted out. I removed it, painstakingly labeling all connections, and spread it over a sheet of plywood. I then created a replacement harness from scratch, using the old one as a template. I added several new circuits for new goodies I had in mind, including power seats, 12V sockets at strategic locations, cargo lights, a second battery, and a continuous hot back to the trailer hitch. A few years later, the old 350 was in need of a valve job. After having the valves done, the improved compression blew out the cylinder rings. It was time for a new engine. At the time, new Mexican-made “target” 350 short blocks were available for ~$1500, so I bought one. I took the opportunity to build and install new motor mounts. Finally, the motor sat square in the engine compartment. The 350 was a good-looking installation - everyone that looked under the hood commented on it. To dress it up a bit I installed cast-aluminum valve covers and a Corvette-style duel-snorkel air filter housing. For performance I added an electronic distributer, high-volume water pump, and aluminum radiator. I have to admit, I never solved an over-heating issue, even after the $1500 radiator upgrade.

In 2001, I decided Zentoy needed new paint. Always on the lookout for a bargain, I identified a guy in my home town in central California that painted cars in a shop he shared with other freelance mechanics. He was an acquaintance of one of my brothers. We settled on a price, I paid him half in advance, dropped the vehicle at his shop, and returned to work in southern California. The first few times I talked with him by phone he assured me it would be done the following week. Then he became impossible to reach by phone. It got to the point that I decided I needed to rescue my vehicle from this guy and cut my losses. When I arrived at his shop he was nowhere to be found and Zentoy languished, sandblasted to bare metal, in an uncovered lot behind the shop. I found the keys, screwed on the headlights and taillights, duct-taped the windshield in, started it up, a drove it 500 miles to my home in Los Angeles. There, I paid a guy an hourly wage to sand and paint it in my garage. In the end, the epic paint job cost me over $10K. Fortunately, the end product was quite good - probably because I was there to watch over everything. It became routine to have people wave me over to comment on it – more so than with any other vehicle I’ve driven. A few months after the new paint job, I put Zentoy to work as my primary field vehicle surveying grouse throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I used it in that capacity, as well as my daily driver, for nine years.

In 2010, I convinced myself Zentoy would need another restoration in a few years, and that I no longer had the drive to do it. I needed a “turn the key and go” vehicle that got better gas mileage and spewed less carbon. Whereas FJ55 parts had been readily available before, they had become difficult to get, and some would have to be hand-crafted. I sold “UNIQ TLC” to a young guy who loved it and had both the drive and skills to do the next restoration. I used the money to buy a 2001 4Runner, which has proven to be just the vehicle I needed - with virtually no customization necessary.

Sunrader RV / Toyota Tacoma 4x4
(2015 - present)

The TacoRader Story

In 2016, I transplanted a camper from an 18 ft Sunrader mini-RV onto a 2003 Toyota Tacoma 4x4 cab and chassis. This was definitely my most ambitious and expensive field vehicle build, but I believe it will serve me well, and often, for a very long time. 
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