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1981 Toyota 4x4 Pickup - The Phoenix Project Finale - Tech

Posted in How To on April 1, 2009
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Photographers: Will Blumer

Normally, the final installment on a project buildup shows a working vehicle finally conquering a long-awaited trail. Not this time. This project wraps up with the author finally conquering denial.

In our heart of hearts, most of us wish we could peek down our shirts and see a big, red "S" emblazoned on our chests. In a flash, we'd change from our everyday selves into caped crusaders and leap tall projects and impossible dreams in a single bound. If only.

While the Phoenix wasn't an impossible project by any stretch, it was only one of two monster-sized truck projects I chose to get myself into. My other project is a Ford Ranger desert racing truck, which is receiving long-travel suspension and a full roll cage. Conquering denial meant one of the two projects had to go. The Phoenix got the ax.

Several factors did the Phoenix in. First, I'd made the mistake of not changing the registration status to Planned Non-Operation (PNO). Filing a PNO form with the California DMV costs about $30 and you don't have to pay normal registration fees until you begin to operate the vehicle. Letting the registration lapse without filing for PNO status means that late fees and back registration become due. Yours truly was looking at several hundred dollars' worth of back DMV fees.

Garage fabricators like myself can take advantage of pre-formed tabs from Proto-Fab, Bluetorch Fabworks, and others. There are still times when a pre-made product isn't available. I needed some washers with a 2-1/4-inch O.D. made from 3/16-inch plate. Tim Duncan of DMZ Fab and Race Prep had the solution. Tim has an in-house optical tracer connected to a plasma cutter. This allows DMZ to cut any needed shape with a simple paper pattern as a guide.

Second, the Phoenix needed an engine swap. Since the plan called for the Phoenix to remain street legal, the DMV's hoops had to be jumped through. Smog-legal engine swaps are possible, but they're a time-consuming hassle. I'm short on time.

Third, my wife had developed a deep-seated dislike for the Phoenix over the years. The truck has been down more often than not, and it's not a comfortable truck to ride in when it is running. Uncomfortable and unreliable added up to unpopular. She wanted to see it go away. Even though this was a major blow, it wasn't the final nail in the coffin. The final nail was hammered in by me.

Fourth, and finally, I wasn't looking forward to driving this truck even after all the upgrades that the Phoenix was slated to receive. While trail capability and on-road speed were sure to be worlds better than before, there was no getting around the cramped dimensions of the '81 cab. It's tiny inside. No, I don't need a luxo-wagon for a trail rig, but I do need more room inside the cab. Enthusiasts with trailers and tow rigs don't care about cab space as much as those who drive their rigs to and from the trail. I don't have a trailer or a tow rig.

These four factors snapped me out of denial. It turned out that my chest was covered in pink skin instead of a red "S." The Phoenix had to go.

Cutting the 3/16-inch steel plate with a hole saw would've been an option, but such a method requires a lot of patience and sweat. Plasma cutting is much easier.

Plan A was to sell the rolling chassis minus the transmission and transfer case to someone who would finish the Phoenix and put it back on the trail. Plan B was to strip the chassis of all the good hard parts and take the frame and cab to the scrap yard. I sent a couple of messages along the grapevine to see if there were any takers. Ultimately, the grapevine proved its worth, and a 'wheeler named Jeff Simpson stepped forward to save the Phoenix from the scrap yard.

What pearls of wisdom have been gleaned from this experience? It's good to dream big, but it's essential to mix those dreams with stark reality. There are only so many hours in a day to work on a project. Get to know the difference between a stretch and what's truly beyond your reach. In my case, one major vehicle project was a stretch, but two major projects were simply beyond reach. It's also best to conquer denial sooner rather than later.

After the Ranger project is finished (this is Project TrailRunner in Off-Road Magazine), I'll look around for another trail rig to build. In the mean time, I'll drive the 4Runner UNlimited on mild trails and sit shotgun in other peoples' rigs on the tougher routes.

Read on for the details about the foundations of the engine cage, the new owner, and the significance of paint.

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