As you might have noticed, '79-'95 Toyota pickups have experienced an explosion of popularity in the past several years. The aftermarket support for and shear number of these trucks found on the trail now rival Jeeps. Solid-axle swaps and crossover steering are the norm, along with Low-geared transfer cases and long, soft leaf springs. As Toyota Tacomas become older and easier to purchase, they too are showing up more and more often on the trail. One of the first people to recognize this trend and offer hard-core rockcrawling components for Tacomas was Brian Ellinger of Front Range Off Road Fabrication. Front Range began building components such as transfer-case crossmembers, full-floating axle conversions, and transfer-case twin-stick shifters for early Toyotas back in 1999. Now, the company produces all these products (and more) for Tacomas as well.
To prototype Tacoma products, Ellinger parked his '85 pickup and purchased a salvaged '99 Xtracab Tacoma in May 2003. He then used this vehicle as a platform to develop and show-case his new Tacoma products, gaining a formidable trail rig in the process. On a run through the Independence trail system in Penrose, Colorado, we had a chance to see just how well this vehicle works.
The drivetrain of the truck is mainly stock, consisting of a 5FZE 3.4L V-6 motor hooked to an Aisin R150F five-speed manual trans-mission. Behind the transmission, a Marlin Crawler adapter was used to mate a gear-driven Toyota transfer case to the stock case, where the gears are split with a Front Range Off Road twin-stick. Further product development is evident under the vehicle, where a whole combination is held in place and protected by a Front Range crossmember and skidplate.
From the transfer case, Ellinger ran the stock rear axle and a custom front axlehousing that would accept a Toyota 8-inch third member, but with the correct driver-side drop for the Tacoma transfer case. This was combined with the stock rear axle and allowed for the use of 5.29 gears. Previously, Tacoma owners were forced to use Dana 44 front axles, or switch to an earlier transfer case with a passenger-side drop. The most significant issue when running a Dana 44 in combination with a Toyota axle is that the lowest matching gearset is 4.88 -- not quite low enough for those running 35- or 37-inch tires. Note that the above is all in past tense. The 8-inch axle combination saw extreme trail use for approximately a year before Brian upped the ante. He developed an entirely new product line under the name Diamond Axles, which in addition to custom 8-inch axlehousings, now offers Ford 9-inch axlehousings.
Ellinger's current axles consist of these fabricated 9-inch 'housings, both stuffed with Strange nodular third members containing 5.43 gears. The rear 'shafts are connected with a spool, while the front differential is an ARB Air Locker. The differentials transmit power through 35-spline chrome-moly axleshafts -- the front with Dedenbear Dana 60 outers and the rear with Diamond Axle full-floating ends. Why the need for such a stout running gear under a little Toyota? Those axles are tasked with turning 42-inch Swamper IROKs on Rockstomper bead-locked rims. Rockstomper also provides the hydraulic-assist ram, which is responsible for turning the massive meats with the help of a Saginaw pump and a Toyota steering box mounted using Front Range Off Road Fabrication bracketry. Each corner has 170 pounds of tire and wheel hanging off it and a 259:1 crawl ratio transferring torque through the axles. "The weak link is now the driveshaft yokes," Brian joked. "Ask me how I know."
To locate the axles, Ellinger designed a kit to replace the independent front suspension with leaf springs. The front springs are 3-inch Downey models intended for an earlier Toyota pickup and coupled with 15-inch-travel BBCS shocks from Poly Performance. The rear is similarly sprung, with stock leaf springs from a Mazda truck combined with 14-inch-travel Rancho shocks and a custom traction bar. This suspension setup is simple and surprisingly effective, providing the low center of gravity and stable, predictable characteristics that Ellinger prefers.
The cab of the truck is relatively stock, though it seems to undergo massaging every time Ellinger takes it out on the trail. Take the dent on the roof Ellinger added in Moab's Upper Proving Grounds. The obstacles necessary to challenge this rig are typically considered "buggy only." The front fenders have been cut to fit the massive Swampers, and the entire thing was covered in yellow paint. "I wanted the most obnoxious yellow I could find," Ellinger explained. "I ended up just getting the yellow pigment that they use to mix other colors. You can't get any brighter than that." The stock seats and dash have remained in the cab, with the addition of some strategically placed duct tape. It seems that the airbags had been deployed before Ellinger purchased the truck, and since it was never intended to see more than crawling speeds, he didn't see the need to replace them. A 'cage from Off Road Solutions protects the occupants better than any airbags ever could and clears the dash and doors nicely, while a custom-added crossbar provides a mounting location for the M&R harnesses.
Behind the cab, the wheelbase of the truck was shortened from 120 to 114-1/2 inches, providing more maneuverability and a better breakover angle. This was accomplished by moving the rear axle forward 12 inches, then shoving the front axle 4-1/2 inches forward to allow the tires to clear the cab. A custom flatbed was fabricated out of 1-1/2-inch box tubing and diamond plate to cover the big meats and provide storage space. The unique design of the bed is not actually flat, but rather has raised wheelwells to allow more uptravel for the rear tires. A Hi-Lift jack, CB antenna, and two ammo cans reside on the bed, while the spare tire stays back on the trailer.
The end result is a reasonably priced truck that flirts with buggies. Unlike full tube buggies, though, Ellinger did not have to deal with time-consuming issues such as fabricating a firewall or adding additional components for legality. And he still has a fully enclosed cab with a heater for foul-weather 'wheeling when the buggies are back in camp. To us, that sounds like a winning combination.
As is often the case, photos don't really do this obstacle justice. This 5-foot-tall ledge often leaves short-wheelbase rigs on their lids and anything with small tires beached like a whale.
Brian Ellinger/Red Feather, Colorado
'99 Toyota Tacoma
5FZE 24-valve 3.4L V-6
190 at 4,800 rpm
220 lb-ft at 3,600 rpm
Aisin R150F five-speed manual
Stock Tacoma with a Marlin Crawler dual-case adapter and 4.7 gears
Front: Downey leaf springs with 15-inch-travel BBCS shocks; rear: Mazda leaf springs with 14-inch-travel Rancho shocks
Front: Diamond Axle custom Ford 9-inch with Dedenbear Dana 60 outers, a Strange nodular third member, chrome-moly axleshafts, and an ARB Air Locker
Rear: Diamond Axle custom Ford 9-inch with full-floating ends, Strange nodular third member, chrome-moly axles, and spool
17x8-inch U.S. Wheel steel wheels with Rockstomper bead locks
14/42-17 Super Swamper IROKs
The rear suspension consists of kinked Mazda leaf springs aided by a custom traction bar. As with the front, the rear axle is a fabricated Diamond Axle 9-inch housing with disc brakes, 5.43 gears, and a spool.