Frugal Four-Wheeler: Michael Cox’s ’91 4Runner

MICHAELCOX4RUNNERLEADART_1_edited-1Here at Off Road Xtreme, we always bring you top notch coverage of our favorite rigs, races and events. At first blush, the story you’re about to read is a tale of an awesome, home-built 1991 Toyota 4Runner that Mike Cox created on a shoestring. Dig deeper and it’s more than a story about a heavily modded Japanese SUV. It’s about a humble family guy wanting to live large and be a good dad to his wife and three small children. The vessel for all this is the aforementioned ’91 4Runner and it will take the Cox family on camping trips and exploration far away from the hubbub of modern urban life.

4RUNNER_012Cox bought the SUV for under $500 and with the help of a ’95 parts donor, he put this thing together for roughly $6000. In an era of million-dollar tract houses, $100 baseball tickets, and $50K Jeeps, Cox’s mechanical hacks, engineering chops, and hotshot Craigslist skills enabled him to deliver fantastic adventures and lifelong memories for his family without going broke or getting in debt.

Toyota was a heavyweight of the off-road set in the early ’90’s and the 4Runner really knocked them out with tough, Tonka truck styling and a reputation for durability. Produced from 1989 to 1995, the car quickly became a fixture in suburbia, campsites, and ski resorts across the country. A nice thing about these ’90s era rigs is that they are relatively compact and lightweight; hell, this rig doesn’t even have a roll cage. Look no further to a new Toyota Tacoma or 4Runner to see how huge and heavy the latest versions have become. Weight bloat is a common thing these days as 10 airbags, high-strength steel bodies, and 5-star crash rating come at a penalty.

Do-It-Yourself ‘Yota4RUNNER_081We caught up with Cox recently and did a walkaround of his blue ‘Yota to get the 411 on the build and backstory of the daily driver 4Runner you see here. He built the thing himself with skills honed from years of growing up in the off-road lifestyle. The mantra he used when building this rig is that it had to be cheap and usable. Check out how he reached that goal.

Based in San Diego, California, Cox is married with three young children (aged 5, 3, and 2 years old.) and is a four-wheeling veteran. He started out riding and tinkering with motorbikes in his youth and migrated over to truck and Jeeps as he grew older. A fan of Japanese 4X4s, his first rig was a 1998 Suzuki Samurai. He built the ’91 4Runner all by himself, taking roughly three to four months from start to finish.

As we all know, shiny late model 4WD rigs are expensive and awesome, but they can be bothersome as well. They’re so new and nice, it’s hard to go off-roading without worrying about getting a little scratch or scrape. Cox wasn’t having any of that. Coming out of a “pro-built” 2006 Jeep LJ Unlimited, he needed more room for the kids and a rig that could take some serious punishment, so he set out to find a rig that he could enjoy with his family without worrying all the time.

He hit pay dirt when he found the 1991 4Runner you see here on Craigslist for $475. It had a bad engine but the body was rust free and had a sunroof to boot. He poked around some more and found a “burnt up” 1995 4Runner that just happened to have a recently rebuilt 3.0 3VZ-FE six-cylinder motor. Not anyone’s favorite motor, but the “3.Slow” (underpowered and known to munch head gaskets,) was young, an easy swap and the entire rig was acquired for only $250.

Cox said buying two examples of the same generation of 4Runner was in the works right from the beginning. Having interchangeability between the two rigs would ensure that he would always have a backup plan if he needed replacement parts.

Cox swapped the motor into the ’91 and then parted out the ’95 with great results. He figured he made $1000 when the smoke cleared. Now that’s the way to finance a hobby when you’ve got a family to feed, house, and entertain.

The 4Runner is running chrome moly Trail Gear Dirty 30 front axles, TrailGear 5 inch leaf springs, Bilstein struts and shocks connected to a dual transfer case with “doubler”4.7 gears, a Detroit rearend with 5.29 gears and a 2002 Toyota E-locker up front. The rig rolls on a set of Maxxis Creepy Crawler 37×14.50x15s matched to Pro Comp 15×10 wheels with 2.5-inch backspacing that Cox scored on Craigslist for only $180 on a set of four.

If the wheelbase looks a tad long for this year of 4Runner, you’d be correct. Cox scooted the rear axle back three inches to smooth out the ride. The rear wheel wells were cut to accommodate new geometry as well.

Yotamasters provided the Cree LED lights and a new driveshaft. Cox says they are the go-to guys when it comes to Toyota as they know “everything about these trucks.”

4RUNNER_075

The rear body panels were cut out to allow the wheelbase to extend, providing for a smoother ride.

Cox utilized many Trail Gear parts, as he got roughly $2000 off suspension components by ordering a full package tailor made to his Toyota. TrailGear also sourced the front bumper as well, but when it came time for the rear bumper, Cox took things into his own hands, fabricating a custom solution by cutting off the factory receiver hitch and attaching his own mandrel bent assembly to it.

With a stock motor, rebuilt 5-speed tranny, and roughly 180,000 miles on the odometer, the rig has a lot of life left in it. The 3.0-liter motor will power the rig up to a whopping 55 mph top speed on the highway and returns single-digit gas mileage stats. A lot of the laziness on-road is due to the wheels and big tires, but that’s an age-old tradeoff. Cox says it steers and rides pretty well, especially since he just mounted the unbalanced tires and hit the road. He lucked out and said they were “fine” and didn’t need any more attention.

A cool feature Cox added was a heat exchanger under the hood. When connected to a marine bilge pump and a five-gallon bucket full of water, he can provide warm showers to his family by warming the liquid through the exchanger  When out in the brush, he says the water heats up to a toasty 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit and is a real luxury when out camping.

One cool addition to the 4Runner was the heat exchanger, which will pump out hot water when connected to a bilge pump and five-gallon water tank.

Cox says he took his wife and the whole family on the Rubicon at the end of August 2014 and they had four days and three nights out under the big sky. He and the family had a good time and said it was extremely enjoyable for everybody. This is the kind of stuff that the kids especially will remember for years to come.

4RUNNER_087So what’s next for Cox and his ’91 4Runner? He says he’d like to ditch the 3VZ-FE motor for a 3.4-liter 5VZ-FE to solve the horsepower issue once and for all. You could argue that a build like this is never done, as there are always things that need attention and tweaking.

The takeaway from Mike’s build is that a guy with some good scavenging hacks and a fair level of fabrications skills can join the off-road crowd at a just price point of around $6,000. It isn’t anything crafted to look bedazzling either, just a familiar shade of Toyota corporate blue, some lumps and bumps, and a thin film of sand and mud.

For all intents and purposes, this is the rat rod of the Toyota off-road world. For years, gearhead guys have watched rich guys dump hundreds of  thousands of dollars into a custom build and win races or take home an armful of trophies. Cox’s 4Runner is the antidote to that high-end off-road stuff.

Ditching all that state-of-the-art perfection is also freeing in many ways. No worries in a parking lot, no worries in the brush, and the kids can drop an ice cream cone or a soda can, no big deal. And the next stress-free, off-road adventure is just around the corner.

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About the author

Dave Cruikshank

Dave Cruikshank is a lifelong car enthusiast and an Editor at Power Automedia. A zealous car geek since birth, he digs lead sleds, curvy fiberglass, kustoms and street rods. He currently owns a '95 Corvette, '76 Cadillac Seville, '99 LS1 Trans Am and big old Ford Van.
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