They sped by us in a rage as we reached the top of the hill and approached the first passing lane we’d seen in the last 30 miles. On steep inclines with a fully loaded camp setup, my van tops out at just over 25mph. I’ve come to appreciate the “going nowhere fast” ethos that many van owner’s adopt, but the Tesla Model X behind us likely didn’t share the sentiment.
Unemployed and stuck in my college town, I decided to finally invest in a camper—a “pandemic van” as some have come to call such a thing.
After some searching I landed on a 1986 Toyota that was literally just called the “Van" in the North American market (also called HiAce in Japan). It’s the second generation with Toyota’s 4-YE engine—the same one long used in Toyota forklifts. These vans have been informally dubbed the "working-man’s VW" by enthusiasts, since they escape the price gouging of other, more recognizably trendy rigs, and will keep spinning forever if taken care of well. It’s not uncommon to see these vans pushing 300,000 or 400,000 miles on the original engine. And they have an incredibly active support-community of enthusiasts and DIY mechanics sharing advice on how to keep them on the road.
With next to zero mechanical experience, I gave my van a full tune-up, fixed some pesky leaks, and replaced a good chunk of the suspension components. The global shutdown served as a good excuse to spend everyday lying in the driveway covered in grease, fumbling through socket sizes, and staining the concrete with transmission fluid (sorry Mother Nature).
My particular van is the “Luxury Edition,” with a built-in ice maker and dual sunroof. Only the latter of the two still works, and, thirty-five years after it’s time on the dealership lot, nothing about the van would really qualify as luxury by most standards. The seats are worn down, the dash is cracked to shit, the carpet is stained, the interior door panels are held on by duct tape, and there’s not even a semblance of air conditioning. Though the engine doubles as a seat warmer, and the out-of-order ice maker holds a six pack just fine. It even fits a full size mattress in the back, if you're willing to build a bed frame, as we have.
As we pulled up to a beach far enough north that the air smells like eucalyptus and redwood, the van started to live up to its "Luxury" distinction once again.
Our maiden voyage was to “somewhere north,” so we chugged through the upper half of California’s Highway 1 towards Gualala and Point Arena. It was a test of the van’s reliability, but also a quest to find and experience joy in a time that was so lacking. The heaviness of the pandemic didn’t disappear—we were frequently faced with reminders like the headlines on newspapers we picked up from local markets to use as fire-starters—but we found a balance that allowed joy and mourning to coexist.
The van handled it’s first real trip with no issue, and I found deep satisfaction in knowing how and being able to fix and maintain it with my own tools in my own space. Owning a 35-year-old car has its drawbacks, of course, but it also seems to fulfill something that had been missing from my life and has opened up new potentials for my travels and lifestyle.
I’m not going to tell you to dump your savings on a vintage Toyota, but if you’re looking for encouragement: I just did, and I don’t regret it one bit.
Scroll on for more 35mm film photos from Nash's inaugural trip north with his 1986 Toyota Van.