Mike Czajkowski’s 2016 IFS Tacoma Rock Crawler

Some people say it is about the journey. Others will say it is about the destination. I prefer to see both come together and tell a story. A story that may or may not end. When it comes to stories in the off-road world, Mike Czajkowski’s 2016 Toyota Tacoma has one to tell.

There are some names in the off-road world that have reached the pinnacle. Either through performance, innovation or both; those names are etched on the mantle of off-road greatness. One of those names is Marlin Czajkowski. Famously known as Marlin, he is considered the godfather of rockcrawling. Marlin developed what became known as the “Marlin Crawler” while wheeling around the Sierra Nevadas east of Fresno, California.

Mike Czajkowski’s 2016 Tacoma has seen many changes since he took ownership of it two years ago.

Where It Began

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The motive behind the Marlin Crawler was that when Marlin began rockcrawling, Toyotas were underpowered and under-geared. In 1994, that all changed when he developed the Marlin Crawler. This invention took final drive ratios from around a measly 56:1 to 200:1. At the time, 70:1 was commonplace. Anyone who is into crawling knows what kind of advancement this was to the world. When Marlin finished building the 1980 Toyota pickup, it boasted a jaw-dropping crawl ratio of 2,158:1. It was with this development that Marlin was able to cement himself as a founder of rockcrawling. Now, 20 years later, the Fresno-based Marlin Crawler is at the forefront of Toyota off-road performance. Being located in Fresno also allows for the company to drive to the nearby, famous Sierra Nevada mountain range and test their products.

Here we are, over 20 years later and Marlin’s son, Michael Czajkowski, has come along to carry the torch for the Marlin Crawler brand. A 1981 Toyota HiLux pickup served as Michael’s initiation into rockcrawling. Several years ago, though, Michael had a dream. Michael’s dream came to him after seeing the release of the third-generation Tacoma. Now, anyone who is anyone can agree, this new generation of Tacoma is downright sexy. In fact I have one in my driveway and my wife graciously allows me to drive it once in a blue moon!

Mike with the flagship of Marlin Crawler fame

The Foundation

Michael set the bar kind of high for what he wanted in the Tacoma. The plans for the Tacoma were for it to be the new flagship vehicle for Marlin Crawler products. Unfortunately, there were a few snags along the way. In just the recent past, it was not all that difficult to get a vehicle with a manual transmission. These days, though, things have changed. All Michael wanted was a 4×4 Tacoma with an Access Cab (shorter wheelbase), manual transmission and electronic lockers. The hunt began and Michael reached out to dealers spread from Sacramento to Los Angeles; no luck. But some outside-the-box thinking saved his dream. Michael had to ditch the e-locker requirement, which was no big deal, but a phone call to Dallas, Texas struck oil. After waiting eight months (261 days, to be specific) and an airplane ride halfway across the country, Michael had his truck.

Over the last couple of years, Michael has poured blood, sweat, tears, and family history into this pickup and has positioned it to be the new generation that will carry the Marlin Crawler flag across the country. As it stands now, this newest torch-bearer for the Marlin name is an IFS, triple transfer case beast sporting a 580:1 final drive ratio. With 48 forward gears and 8 reverse gears, Michael can crawl through just about anything.

This triple transfer case setup reaches new “lows” for modern-day crawling ratios.

Behind the Build

When it came to suspension, Michael kept the original IFS front setup. The IFS versus straight axle debate has raged for years. When it first began, thinking was IFS was good enough for the go fast trucks in the desert, but it could not hang in the rocks. Then a little race in the California desert spurred new research and development.  Even thought the debate still rages, IFS has come a long ways since the early days of rockcrawling.  For this, an All Pro off-road long travel kit was mounted to the front of the Tacoma’s frame. All-Pro Off Road is another Fresno based company that has helped innovate Toyotas to the top of the pack in rockcrawling.   The rear retains the stock leaf spring configuration with the addition of All Pro springs. Fox Shocks handle the damping duties on all four corners.

In the last couple of years, as the pickup has gone through its transformation, tires have changed. It currently rides on 40-inch Cooper Discover SST Pro tires. 17×9 ATX Chamber Pro II beadlock wheels are home to the tires. The tire and wheel combo tips the scales at 133 pounds each.

Even with the suspension modifications, the Tacoma still retains a low stance. Combined with the big tires, some body modifications were necessary. The Tacoma’s fenders were trimmed, which allowed for a lower stance and bigger tires. Mike also improved the rear departure angle by bobbing the bed. Mike had custom tube bumpers mounted to protect the body from rocks. On the sides, All Pro Off-Road’s Extreme Duty APEX Rock sliders protect the body from the rocks. Overall, the body modifications not only added to the Tacoma’s appearance, but its performance as well.

This is one Tacoma that can tackle just about anything on the trail.

This Tacoma, appearance-wise, stands out in the crowd. Yet, in the rockcrawling world, appearance tends to take a back seat to performance. With his the legendary lineage, Mike went to work as soon as he could on the drivetrain. Even though the pickup did not come with electronic lockers like he had wished for, Mike was able to overcome that obstacle by installing ARB Air Lockers. Another obstacle drivetrain-wise was the gear ratios in the differentials. When Mike first took possession of the Tacoma, the lowest gear set he could get was 4.88:1. Although the ratio was not optimal, it was not so far outside of the box that it affected performance. Just a few months ago, Mike received a set of prototype 5.29:1 gears to try out.

580:1 Is Just A Number, Isn’t It?

Anyone who is anyone that has had more than just a passing interest in rockcrawling over the years knows the name Marlin Crawler. It is because of this lineage and subsequent life that Mike has the knowledge and experience to create a rockcrawler out of a vehicle that most people would not associate with the sport. With that in mind, the first transfer case setup that found its way underneath the body was a dual case setup. This first setup had a crazy final drive ratio. When a second Marlin box was mated to the first two cases, the magical ratio of 580:1 was reached. Mike kept the stock 3.5-liter V6 powerplant under the hood.

What Does The Future Hold

The story of Mike’s 2016 Toyota Tacoma is far from over. As of this writing, the Tacoma is getting ready to go back into the shop for some upgrades that will add more sizzle to the steak. One of those plans includes an IFS setup that is made specifically for rockcrawling Toyotas. The Tacoma is also set to receive a rear bumper that is more conducive to rockcrawling. This Tacoma has come a long way from the factory. The journey it is making is breaking new ground in the off-road world and the best thing is, the journey continues.

The truck that started it all and the truck that continues the tradition.

About the author

Stanley Harper

An Oklahoma native, Stanley started in off-roading with a Chevy K5 Blazer. He now lives in California, where races and trail rides let him have fun and hone his photography.
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