The 1990 Toyota Sunrader camper van

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At 11,542 feet above sea level, Hoosier Pass south of Breckenridge, Colorado, is not the place to be to drive an unfamiliar motorhome, especially in the middle of a snowstorm. But alas, that’s where I ended up just two hours after I bought an unseen 1990 Toyota Sunrader sight on Craigslist in the fall of 2014 from a retired Air Force pilot named Bill in Colorado Springs. I had to do 1,100 miles to get home to Verdi, Nevada, and although I sent $ 12,000 to a complete stranger after only seeing a dozen photos of the rig, that seemed like too much. good deal to let it pass.

Hope it wasn’t too good to be true.

As soon as we got to Bill’s place after he picked me up from the airport, I laid eyes on the Sunrader and knew it was a big score. Not a scratch or dent, only 68,000 original miles, every accessory and device in working order, and an interior that looked fresh from the factory, it took a bit of self-control to play it cool and contain my excitement. As a bonus, Bill drove the entire vehicle to make sure it was ready for the trip home.


Miniature house on wheels

Although at times it was a white punch that went through the Hoosier Pass and the Vail Pass in near whiteout conditions, the Sunrader came out of the Rockies before 2 feet of pre-Thanksgiving snow temporarily cut through the Interstate 70. It was an incredible feeling of freedom having a whole miniature house on wheels. Suddenly, I was no longer in a hurry to go somewhere. If I was tired or there was traffic, I could just stop and take a nap. Or I could hike up a secluded mountain road and camp in seclusion, which I ended up doing in Lamoille Canyon, deep in the Ruby Mountains, south of Elko, Nevada.

This 18ft fiberglass hull Toyota Sunrader on a 1 ton truck bed with a boat anchor 3.0 liter V6 (aka 3.slow) is an extremely rare bird, even rarer than the coveted Toyota Sunrader four-wheel drive manufactured between 1985 and 1988. With barely a dozen 18 foot V6-powered Sunraders, this is the most perfect habitable, affordable and reliable adventure platform that’s easy to drive and small enough to handle. park anywhere. And the “piece de resistance”: a full-size rear window for looking out while enjoying a soapy drink after the ride.

Equipped with a furnace, air conditioner, oven, stove, giant three-way refrigerator, two sleeping areas and a wet bathroom with shower and toilet, the Sunrader is much better than life in a van. convenience. There is nothing better than coming back from a wet and cold run and being able to take a hot shower inside. You can poop in the woods if you like, but having your own private toilet on hand is pretty nice, especially in the parking lot of a bike race when all the porta-johns are full. And guys, a word of advice, if you have a loved one and are looking for a minivan or motorhome, buy one with a bathroom. You’ll thank me later. I almost passed on a motorhome with a bathroom. I’m glad I didn’t, and so was my lady. It’s the clutch.

An all-terrain vehicle in the snow

Even though this particular Sunrader isn’t a four-wheel drive, I’ve taken it on many rough dirt roads that pretty much any other RV wouldn’t. For those familiar with South Usal Beach on California’s Lost Coast, the steep, narrow, washed-out dirt road of Highway 1 can be completely white, even in a pickup truck, especially when it’s wet. Thanks to its BF Goodrich off-roader and double rear axle with a ton of weight on it, my two-wheel-drive Sunrader made it to the south of Usal without a problem, providing a seaside home for the night. without a single neighbor other than a herd of Roosevelt’s elk. The Sunrader is surprisingly capable off-road in the snow, and it will go as deep into the bush as any two-wheel-drive van or pickup truck with a cabin RV.

Sunrager, Pantyraider, Moonraker, these are all nicknames my friends have given to this remarkable little piece of engineering. My lady, Swan John, calls her Bitty Bertha and gives her words of encouragement while driving to help her climb mountain passes faster, a practice most former Toyota truck owners are familiar with. But whatever you do, don’t call it a dolphin, an entirely different Toyota RV that was built with wood-frame construction that leaks versus tight-clamshell molded fiberglass. construction of the Sunrader. While the roof can’t leak, the windows certainly can, and after spotting moldy woodwork last fall, I had to rip off part of the interior and close the rear window. This is the only repair I have had on the Sunrader in 20,000 miles of ownership.

Gibraltar Rock Reliability

Since buying the Sunrader two years ago, we’ve already had dozens of amazing adventures, and none of them have involved a crash in the middle of nowhere. Since I own and work on four vehicles built in the 1980s (including three Toyotas), I’m not a fan of unreliable machines. I don’t see much character in a vehicle that continually breaks down when you need it most. I’d much rather spend my vacation on the bike than under the hood tackling the myriad issues that seem to plague many other adventure rigs. Since the Sunrader is a Toyota truck, the reliability of the Rock of Gibraltar is one of its many advantages.

And despite the 3.slow V-6 having notorious head gasket issues, the first mod I did after purchasing the Sunrader was to put Doug Thorley headers on it to remove exhaust heat from behind. the rear cylinders, the cause of its head gasket problems. Although this is a complete bitch that cleans the exhaust pipes around the two-wheel drive suspension, I’m sure there is now only one 18-foot V6-powered Sunrader in the world with Thorley headers. I only wish the Sunrader was as fast as it looks when the exhaust rumbles like a V-8 at a red light.

We don’t live full time in the Sunrader, but we spent two months last summer making a living from it. And at the end of that time, Swan John and I both agreed that we could have made a living from it. In the summer, we spend most of our days outdoors anyway. If we are in the Sunrader, we eat, sleep, work on the computer, or drive. Otherwise, we are in the great outdoors. Even in winter, the Sunrader is a great vehicle for skiers, as we spent many weekends at the Squaw Valley Ski Resort in Northern California, camping in the parking lot. For two people 6ft or less, the 18ft Sunrader is perfectly sized. You might be able to remove a small dog or a child, but no more than three people is too many.

With the exception of one night in Lincoln City, Oregon, we never knocked on our door in the middle of the night. Since we have an RV, I refuse to pay for camping. The only time I go to an RV park is in the dead of winter, when it’s nice to have shore power to run a more energy efficient electric heater at night. When looking for a place to boondock, we always look for public land – the BLM and National Forests are always good game; Just go up a dirt forest service road and find a flat spot. We have never had a problem or been hassled. If I can’t escape the mass of humanity and urban sprawl, I’ll look for an industrial park area with other RVs around.

I have a lot of friends with brand new vans, and let’s face it, they are damn sweet. But when you factor in how much they spent on their van versus what I spent on the Sunrader and then the quality of life of the Sunrader, I never felt the slightest hunger for a new minivan.

The Sunrader

  • 1990 Toyota Sunrader Classic 180-RD (Rear dinette)
  • 3.0-liter V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission
  • 14-inch BF Goodrich all-terrain tires
  • Doug Thorley heads
  • Custom cold air intake
  • Lexus LS400 Floor Shift Lever Conversion
  • SR5 Instrument Cluster Conversion
  • Recaro seats of a 1985 Toyota Supra
  • Rear view camera upgrade
  • Two 6-volt golf cart cabin batteries (longer life)
  • 21 gallon fresh water tank, 18 gallon gray water tank, 9 gallon black water tank

Future plans

Future plans include solar panels and a four-wheel drive conversion using a solid 1985 Toyota truck front axle and a five-speed manual transmission with a low-speed 4.7: 1 transfer case. A supercharged 3.4-liter V6 conversion from a late 1990s Tacoma could also be considered. But there is no real rush; this Sunrader is very powerful and quite powerful as it is.

Looking for one?

Built by Gardner-Pacific Corp. in Vallejo, Calif., between about 1979 and 1991, the Sunrader had several different models over the years, ranging from 14 to 21 feet in length, all using reverse-valve fiberglass construction. The 18-foot model is most desirable, built on the platforms of one-ton Toyota or Nissan trucks. Most 18-foot Toyota and Nissan Sunrader were equipped with carbureted or fuel-injected four-cylinder engines, with a handful of V-6 engines. 21-foot Sunraders with a V-6 are more common.

There are less than 20 18-foot four-wheel drive Toyota Sunrader models left, which are very hard to find and quite expensive. If you are a qualified manufacturer, doing a four-wheel drive conversion on a two-wheel-drive Toyota Sunrader is not too difficult or expensive and is well documented on the internet, as many Toyota rock crawlers have been converted to four-wheel drive. wheels. drive wheels of a two-wheel drive pickup.

The main thing to consider when looking for a Sunrader is 1979-1985. There has been a factory recall for this issue, so just make sure any Sunrader you look at has had the six-legged, fully floating rear axle upgrade. The other somewhat common problem with older Sunraders is that the front cabin’s wrap-around plexiglass windows tend to leak, causing the fiberglass roof to sag over time.

The 3.slow V6 isn’t known for its horsepower or efficiency, but its 150 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque are much better than the anemic but bulletproof 22RE four-cylinder that we find. in most Sunrader. Fuel economy with the V-6 is not great but respectable, varying between 12 and 16 mpg depending on conditions. The four cylinders are slightly higher at 16-19 miles per gallon. But if you get a four-cylinder, go for a manual transmission. The four-cylinder with automatic transmission is frustratingly slow.

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