Jim Hughes started off rockcrawling in a 2000 Toyota 4Runner. It was extensively built to take on tough trails and then perform daily-driver duties during the week. Soon the 4Runner’s sheetmetal became the limiting factor in what trails Jim would take it on and still keep it straight and clean. Around this time, Formula Toyotas were gaining popularity for being a simple and cost-effective tube buggy built for rockcrawling. They were a very capable recreational and competitive rockcrawler with their own class.
A Formula Toyota is a tube chassis that is manufactured by Hendrix Motorsports. It is built to be welded directly to a 1986-1995 Toyota truck frame and use a Toyota drivetrain. Jim was sold on the concept after seeing several builds and videos of F-Toys in action and knew it was exactly what he wanted to tackle the extreme trails with while staying true to his Toyota roots.
Jim bought a donor truck, a 1989 4×4 long bed, to start the process of building his trail machine. Lacking the time and fabrication skills, he worked with Brett Porter to build his Formula Toyota rolling chassis. This would be chassis number 81, and it would be built within the specific set of competition rules. The chassis was raised off the frame slightly and raked with the front being lower to allow more headroom for Jim and keep good visibility over the front hood tubes. This build is filled with subtle details and amazing fabrication work that is mostly covered up under panels and skidplates.
Once Jim received his rolling chassis, he got to work installing all the parts he had accumulated for the build. The engine was pushed back in the chassis allowing for better weight distribution. Hiding behind the custom-made grille in the space formerly occupied by the radiator and engine is a Warn 6,000-pound winch. The front crossmember is built lightweight with dimples for additional strength. It also serves as the mount for the front leaf springs.
The front axle is a Toyota 8-inch from a 1983 truck and features a Sonoran Steel truss, Front Range Off Road knuckle ball gussets, and Trail Gear weld-on differential protection. 5.71:1 gears that have been cryogenically treated are used in the diff along with a Toyota ELocker. The external ELocker mechanism is protected by an Inchworm skidplate. The brakes have been upgraded with parts from a 2000 Tacoma for additional stopping power. Thirty-spline Longfield axles send power to the wheels via IFS locking hubs with Longfield chromoly internals and ARP hub studs. Trail Gear four-inch leaf springs are used up front.
The engine is a Toyota 22R-E fuel-injected four-cylinder from his donor truck and modified with headers and an intake. The factory steering box was retained and modified to power a Trail Gear hydraulic ram using steering studs and arms from Trail Gear as well. The hydraulic assist steering makes it easy to steer the big tires in the rocks. The front shocks are 14-inch Bilsteins with remote reservoirs. The stock brake and clutch master cylinders were retained, keeping the budget aspect of the build in check.
The rear Trail Gear five-inch springs are in-boarded to 29.5 inches, the maximum allowed by the competition rules. In-boarding the springs gives the axle more leverage to flex. A traction bar was built to keep the IFS-width Toyota 8-inch axle in check and prevent spring wrap, a common problem with spring-over-axle configurations while rockcrawling. The diff is filled with 5.71:1 gears and an ELocker just like the front. A skidplate was also welded to the differential housing to deflect rock hits away from the expensive gears and locker. Jim installed rock lights in strategic locations for those nighttime excursions on the trails.
The rear leaf spring shackles are a work of art. Brett built them from 0.188-inch steel and then reinforced the bolt holes with additional material. The shackle sides are tied together with a curved and dimpled plate and they were completely TIG-welded together. The rear bumper and crossmember is also a thin plate that was formed and then dimpled for strength. The taillights are recessed into the rear body panel out of harm’s way.
In the rear of the F-Toy is a 17 gallon RCI aluminum fuel cell with an external E2000 fuel pump and Optima RedTop battery mounted down low to help with the center of gravity and weight distribution in the chassis. Above the fuel cell and battery is a gear rack that provides a secure location to tie down the cooler and tools. Out back, 14-inch travel Bilstein shocks are also used for dampening duties.
From the front seats, Jim has an unobstructed view of the front tires. This helps him put the tires exactly where they need to be while crawling over rocks. The five-speed transmission and dual Toyota transfer case shifters are within easy reach. The rear case uses a 4.7:1 low-range gear set which gives an approximate overall crawl ratio of 240:1! The dash is simple with a row of switches and a few Auto Meter gauges to monitor the vitals. Jim used a Monster Harness built by Offroad Solutions to wire the dash, engine, and accessories.
The PRP Competition Pro seats keep Jim comfortable on the trail all day, while the rear PRP bench seat allows his family to come along on trips as well. The steering wheel is removable to allow for easy ingress and egress.
Keeping with the all-Toyota theme, Jim sourced a set of 17×7.5 factory steel wheels from a FJ Cruiser. He then added weld-on beadlocks from Total Metal Innovations which increased the bead mounting width to about 8.5 inches wide. 37-inch BFG Red Label Krawlers are mounted to the wheels and, thanks to the sticky tread compound, provide excellent traction in the rocks.
We caught up with Jim during the Chile Challenge in southern New Mexico. His Formula Toyota buggy worked great on the extreme rated trails, going wherever he pointed the front tires. The leaf-spring suspension was very stable even when Jim lifted a front tire on several occasions. Judging by the scratches and dents on the F-Toy’s panels, we think Jim made the right decision on stepping into a purpose-built rockcrawling buggy and saving his 4Runner and its sheetmetal for the easier trails.