Part I: From Scratch To Mastercraft
We here at 4WD & Sport Utility Magazine have always been fans of Toyota 4WDs as trail vehicles and for hard core pursuits. The mini trucks have been around since 1979 and we've found them to make great camping, exploring, and all around wheeling rigs in stock or modified form. The early trucks were well over-built and could be used hard and stood the beating off the highway. Their engines, drivetrain, and axles proved to be reliable and the aftermarket has come alive with upgrade parts as well.
In 1995, Toyota introduced its fourth truck body style and deemed it the Tacoma. They stuffed this generation with even better engines, providing more performance and reliability. The new body style grew a bit more curvaceous and stayed up with styling cues of the time.
A downside to the wheels of progress is that in 1986 Toyota had taken away the solid front axle and replaced it with an independent front suspension (IFS). The dirt road ride was better with the new setup, but we lamented the loss of an easy way to lift the front end. When the Tacoma debuted, it was equipped with power rack and pinion steering which was reasonably durable and Toyota reliable, but not as appropriate for a truck used more seriously offroad.
Our plan for this project is targeted towards assembling a beefier rig that can take us comfortably to remote camping areas, negotiate some good sized rocks, and still behave decently on the highway to let us put some miles under it getting to those places we want to explore.
The base we decided on was a 2001 to 2004 vintage Tacoma. This model retains the mini truck size body we wanted; in contrast to the larger 2005 and later body style. When it came time to choose a starting base, we decided we had two choices, a 4WD model or a 2WD Prerunner model. Both share the same frame, rear axle, front suspension, and many other components, but the Prerunner lacks the transfer case and the front driveline parts.
Since our plan was to go with a front straight axle swap, we didn't need any of the front suspension or 4WD components and we probably wouldn't be using the stock 4WD transfer case, so a Prerunner began to look more attractive. We found many more clean Prerunners for sale than 4WDs, and we found them to be $2000-3000 cheaper and often in better condition.