How a custom-designed Hilux pickup truck made the Toyota 4Runner possible


  • The Toyota 4Runner is a versatile SUV that can serve different purposes, from daily driving to off-roading and towing. Its relatively simple mechanical setup does not detract from its popularity and appeal in the market.
  • The 4Runner was originally designed as a modified version of a Toyota truck called the Toyota Trekker. It was a success, selling about 1,500 units from 1981 to 1983, and eventually inspired Toyota to create its own SUV.
  • The 4Runner is highly capable off-road, with a four-wheel drive system that can handle any terrain. The body-on-frame design and continued improvements in engine and transmission options have made them incredibly reliable and durable, with older and newer models still performing well in off-road conditions.

The Toyota 4Runner is among the most powerful and versatile SUVs in the world. It has served many purposes for millions of people depending on what they need. It can be used as a daily driver, family vehicle, off-road vehicle, overland vehicle, tow truck, and many use cases specific to each individual’s needs. At this point, the 4Runner is one of the most desirable SUVs on the market despite its relatively simple but practical mechanical setup.

But the 4Runner didn’t start out that way; it was initially designed as a modified truck before becoming an SUV. Since then, Toyota has continued to develop the 4Runner while maintaining the intent of creating the 4Runner in the first place. With a reputation for reliability, off-road capability, and the ability to last forever, the 4Runner is ranked as one of the longest-lasting vehicles in the United States.

RELATED: The real reason the US won’t get the indestructible Toyota Hilux

It was originally known as the Toyota Trekker

Bring a trailer

The 4Runner started out as a modified version of a Toyota truck with a fiberglass skin on the back. This was not an idea put forward by Toyota, but rather an idea put forward by a Toyota dealer in Wisconsin. Jack Savro was a Toyota dealer based in Brookfield, Wisconsin, who had been selling Toyota vehicles since 1967.

The 4Runner was a vehicle suitable for the Wisconsin terrain but usability was limited when temperatures dropped to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. There was a need to combine the 4Runner’s four-wheel drive capability with the space of a regular car so it could carry up to five people comfortably regardless of the weather. Jacques Savro presented this to Toyota and they agreed.

Toyota sent short versions of the Hilux chassis and in partnership with Winnebago Industries, they converted these Hilux trucks into SUVs. Winnebago Industries was already an established manufacturer of mobile homes, so they were the perfect company for these conversions. The process involved removing the bed and rear cabin wall which were replaced with a fiberglass tub, non-removable canopy and aft hatch. The only added feature apart from the enclosed space was the rear seats that fold down to provide more luggage space.

This modified Toyota truck turned SUV was known as the Toyota Trekker, and it was a huge hit. About 1,500 Trekkers were sold from 1981 to 1983 which is not a large number but represents a 100% sell rate for this modified SUV. This meant that people wanted this car and this gave Toyota the push they needed to create an SUV of their own.

RELATED: The 10 Most Powerful Toyota Off-Road Vehicles Ever

The first 4Runner came in 1983

1986 Toyota 4Runner SR5 Turbo
Bring a trailer

The first 4Runner was introduced in 1983 and was similar to the original Trekker. It used a Hilux pickup truck chassis but this time it was manufactured in-house by Toyota. Since the 4Runner was new from the factory, the new bed and cab were better integrated to make it smoother than on the first try. The new rear panels were removable, had windows integrated into them, and had an additional roll bar structure to improve rigidity.

Aside from these changes, the first-generation 4Runner was largely identical to its Hilux-based minivan. It was even called the Hilux Surf in Japan because it was basically just a Hilux with an integrated body on top of a truck frame. It would continue to be sold as the Hilux Surf in Japan for four generations but dropped the name for the fifth generation. The rear suspension may sag slightly since no mechanical changes have been made to compensate for the additional weight. All 4Runners from this era were two-door SUVs just like the Ford Bronco and Chevrolet K5 Blazer that were its competitors.

The second generation was introduced in 1989 and was still based on the Hilux pick-up truck. But this time it was newly redesigned and looked like an SUV. It is now a four-door SUV with available two-door options and still shares identical mechanical parts. However, when the third generation came out, it was exclusively a four-door SUV with an all-new body and chassis built from the ground up. These changes elevate the 4Runner to SUV status, but it still retains the rugged looks and off-road capability that are still present in the latest generation 4Runner.

RELATED: 10 Solid Reasons to Buy an Old Toyota 4Runner in 2023

4Runners are very capable off-road vehicles

Red Toyota 4Runner driving off-road

The 4Runner is highly desirable for its off-road capabilities as speed was not associated with this vehicle. Its four-wheel drive system means it can handle any terrain and in any condition. Whether it’s snow, mud, sand or rocky trails, the 4Runner can handle it. In 1986, the first generation gained independent front suspension while retaining the solid axle rear end. This improved handling and comfort on the road while maintaining off-road capability and with the body-on-frame design, this SUV was unstoppable.

1986 was also the first year the term SUV was used, and it was used to describe every vehicle with characteristics similar to the 4Runner. The independent front suspension gave it a wider track which resulted in more room in the engine compartment and the 4Runner got a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that same year. This added more low-end torque to help the 4Runner access more power with ease.

1988 saw the addition of a new V6 engine that could easily fit into the engine bay since there was plenty of space there. An electric differential was introduced for the third generation which made off-road work much easier than ever before. For the fourth generation, the 4Runner has become a midsize SUV but has more off-road capabilities than ever before. It now had a new V-6 engine and an optional V-8 engine for the first time. This gave the 4Runner more power, torque and increased towing capacity, all of which complements its famous off-road ability.

RELATED: 10 Things That Will Make the 2025 Toyota 4Runner Better Than the Jeep Wrangler

You can’t kill a 4Runner

1994 Toyota 4Runner
Bring a trailer

Toyota is a brand that doesn’t like to change things easily, instead, they take what already works and see how they can improve it. The various engine and transmission options available for these SUVs have continued to evolve and improve over the years. This increased their durability and reliability to the point where people were regularly buying older 4Runners just to modify them and go off-road.

Most of the modifications were in the suspension lift and vehicle safety kits. The chassis, engine and transmission were mostly left alone and would be used mainly at slow speeds and could handle abuse. Senior 4Runners are regularly seen performing very well off-road and keeping up with newer vehicles with ease


This is the same for newer 4Runners as they still retain the body-on-frame design making them suitable for off-roading. But off-road, these trucks still don’t give up, as a 30-year-old 4Runner will start even when neglected. maximum speed It even demonstrated the resilience of these vehicles and their propulsion system by purchasing a Hilux for demolition. After several attempts and almost complete destruction, the Hilux was still alive and, with some repairs, was still drivable. This proved how strong and reliable these SUVs are.

RELATED: Here’s Why the Decade-Old 5th-Gen Toyota 4Runner Is Still a Good Buy

The 4Runner has been around for four decades

Four decades and five generations later, the 4Runner is still a solid, dependable midsize SUV. The growing popularity of SUVs has also seen a huge increase in sales of the 4Runner and it is positioned within the very competitive mid-size SUV segment which is a plus. Over 3 million 4Runners have been sold in the United States since 1984 which is a significant number and demand has continued to grow over the years.

Toyota 4Runner generations

Model code

Year of production

First generation



second generation



third generation



The fourth generation



Fifth generation


2009 to present

The newer fifth-generation 4Runner is the most capable because it still has the body-on-frame construction. TRD versions are now available with better off-road suspension and accessories such as a skid plate to protect the lower end of the engine. This generation has been in production since 2009 and has been updated over the years. However, this did not stop the demand for this car as the past six years have been the best-selling years. Recently, Toyota has made a range of new cars all built on a new platform with new engines. We expect to see a new 4Runner based on a new platform, new powertrain options, and better off-road ability to continue its legacy.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: