It should be clear by now that I am a huge fan of the Toyota Tacoma. It is one of America’s best selling vehicles, and for good reason. It’s great on-road, off-road, towing, hauling, and whatever else you can throw at it. We have covered the overall history of this truck before, as well as the third and second generations, but where did the Tacoma start? Here is a look at the start of one of America’s best selling mid-sized trucks.
In 1968, Toyota rolled out the Toyota Hilux. It was a small pickup truck with a small 1.5L inline-four making a small 76 horsepower matched with a four-speed manual transmission, and it couldn’t pull much. This sounds laughable by today’s standards, but that was pretty average for small trucks at the time, especially imports. This, in America, became known as the Toyota Truck.
It was a good and reliable truck. Decade after decade, it got facelifts, more engine options, better suspension upgrades, more power, and so on. It remained true to its form though: it was a basic pickup.
In the early 1990s, Toyota noticed that the North American market started to demand more from what it drove. Market trends had been shifting away from trucks being only for work, to work and daily drivers. Some people also just wanted a truck as a daily driver and nothing else. Seeing this, Toyota figured it would make the most sense to ditch the Hilux (in North America), and start with something new. In February of 1995, this new creation called the Toyota Tacoma graced the public.
Toyota wanted to focus and capitalize on this market. Designers and engineers had to design something that mastered handling, driving comfort, and safety over utilitarian nature, but still, be useful off-road and for being a truck. Toyota wanted to come up with a name that suggests what they wanted this truck to have: strength and power all around, in any setting. They settled on “Tacoma,” which is the Salish Indian word for the mountain that provided water to their tribe. The mountain name was later changed to Mount Rainier.
Development of the idea started in 1989, and the design work started in 1990 at Calty Design Research in California. The design was from Kevin Hunter who has been with Calty since 1982, and still designs the Tacoma to this day.
When released, there were three engine options: a 2.4L and 2.7L four-cylinder, and a 3.4L V6. They got 26, 20, and 21 MPG respectively, and 142, 150, and 190 horsepower respectively. Four-speed automatics and five-speed manuals were available, depending on the model, two or four-wheel drive, and cab size. Extended cab models featured a 6-foot bed while crew cab models received a 5 foot 5-inch long bed.
Public reception was initially well-received. By this point, Toyota had well beyond made a name for itself in the US market. It was a household name, and “Tacoma” was on its way to becoming one as well.
As the years went on, stylistic changes seemed to start off few and far between (the biggest facelifts being in 1997 and 2000). Toyota was focusing more on constantly improving and developing enhanced performance and safety features, and they did so very well.
A big mechanical change came in 1996 where the spark system changed to coil-on-plug design. The second biggest mechanical change came in 1997 when longer rear leaf springs were added. Both helped the truck tremendously in their own ways.
In 1998, Toyota offered the TRD Off-Road package on select models. Today, TRD is synonymous with performance. In 1998, it allowed the Tacomas to bolster a locking differential, and an aftermarket TRD supercharger could be added to the 3.4L V6. That brought the horsepower up to 254. This was quite impressive for a V6 engine in the late 90s.
The PreRunner model was also released that year. An upgrade from the base model, but a two-wheel-drive version of the four-wheel-drive model. You could add the TRD Off-Road Package to it as well. At this point, packages, options, and all-around “giving the customer the ability to get what they want” was really starting to take root, which is what the Tacoma is known for today.
In the year 2000, the S-Runner trim package was released. This included different shocks, bigger wheels, and a manual transmission.
Bonus History: The S-Runner sales tailed off rather quickly, and the truck was redesigned and rebranded as the X-Runner. Remember that this was when sports trucks like the F-150 Lightning were all the rage. While they were enjoyed by some, the buying masses disagreed. The only “version” of these trucks left now would be the TRD Sport, which focuses most on daily driving, but still leaves the Tacoma an actual truck.
One major downside to this generation (1995 to 2000) was poor rustproofing. This led to a recall of about 800,000 trucks in 2008. Some frames were so bad that they had to be replaced. Later, about 150,000 models from 2001 to 2004 were recalled due to spare tires detaching from the vehicle.
All in all, sales were very good for the first generation, mainly with young buyers. At the end of the generation run, sales surpassed the Nissan Frontier and Dodge Dakota, but the Ford Ranger was still ahead in the compact truck class.
In 2000, work began on the second generation of Tacoma, which came out in 2004. This gave the first generation of Tacoma a fantastic nine-year run. These trucks can still be found on the roads and in the wilderness today, they paved the way (and rock crawled the way) to the stellar fit, finish, and performance that we know and love today with the Toyota Tacoma.
Generation 1.1 - Courtesy of Consumer Guide Automotive
Generation 1.2 - Courtesy of AutoBlog
Generation 1.3 - Courtesy of AutoBlog