Outfitting Our '02 Tacoma for a Real-World Baja Bash
If there is one thing we love, it is the spontaneity of a good wheeling trip. It usually starts with an inkling of an idea, progressing to an itching visualization, and ultimately an all-consuming obsession. If we have a rig that runs, it's a just-add-gas-and-go thing. But when the obsessive draw is to the backcountry of Baja, where the distance between services is measured in days, a back-forty beater won't cut it. Such was the dilemma after a phone call from some buddies for an all-dirt, south-of-the-border bash. The problem: Just two weeks prior to departure our tired old rock rig in the garage was experiencing the slow end of an engine swap. In an instant, our grocery-getter Tacoma became the focal point of our fixation and the impetus for the Two-Week Taco.
Not to be a pavement-pounding disco-mobile with electric tush warmers and headrest-mounted DVD monitors, the Two-Week Taco needed some huevos. The goal: to maintain, if not improve upon, the Taco's stock on-road mannerisms and aptitude for 80-mph highway running (we mean 70 mph in California), while at the flick of a switch (yes, automatic hubs and factory electric locking rear diff), be capable of assaults on high-speed whoop-de-doos, a rocky two-track, or a mired mud bog; a tall order for any rig.
We bought the truck on Craig's List for five grand under Blue Book, already sporting a Leer canopy and Yakima racks for our kayaks. Scrounging the back forty for stuff we already had produced a set of 33-inch Pro Comp XTerrains on fix-'em-with-a-hammer 15x8 steel wheels, a CB radio, a Quick Air II compressor, and a Warn winch from another rig we bought cheap. But the cheesy stock suspension would have to go, and you can't bolt a winch to the paper-thin chrome thing the factory calls a bumper. The problem? Dinero. We just couldn't head to our local wrecker to dig up some heavy-duty coilovers and a winch-mount bumper. A check on Craig's List and eBay yielded what we were afraid of-nothing. We would have to step up to the plate.
Border minus 12 days: With the clock ticking, we made a call to Randy Ellis, owner of Randy Ellis Designs and an authorized Donahoe shop in Phoenix. By noon, we were high-footin' it to Phoenix. Check out the next few pages as we morph our grocery-getting Tacoma into a real-world, trail-worthy rig.
While there are some really good aftermarket lift kits available, some are just that: lift kits. And then there are hockey-puck spacers which raise the ride height but do nothing for the bounce-your-head-through-the-window stock springs. For Baja's backroads, the Two-Week Taco required a purpose-built, application-specific suspension system-one whose genetic fiber is born from off-road racing, but with a penchant for highway cruising. We chose Donahoe Racing, a midsized manufacturer with big-time racing roots. The Donahoe system is not exactly the cheapest method of gaining some altitude under your crossmember, but when it comes to blazing down our favorite trail, the suspension was not the place we wanted to cut corners. That said, we opted for Donahoe's whole tamale: heavy-duty front coilovers, full replacement springs out back, and remote-reservoir nitrogen rear shocks.
With several decades of building custom racecars for the likes of Rod Hall and Walker Evans and a family racing history dating back to the mid '70s, Donahoe didn't start making consumer suspensions until 1999. We talked with company founder, Kreg Donahoe, whose convictions regarding the quality of his product ride the crest of his every statement, and he said, "We may never be the biggest, but then again, we don't build lift kits, we build suspension systems. Our focus is on the quality of travel, not the quantity." By applying our racing experience and thousands of hours of R&D, the one question we continue to ask ourselves is, "Is this as good as it can be, and would I run it on my truck?"