Many people interested in Toyota Van’s need a helpful resource when shopping around. It can be intimidating to buy a Van due to their age and uniqueness. Below is a comprehensive guide for potential buyers. Find something missing? Please comment below to have additions made to this guide!
About the Toyota Van
The Toyota van was sold by Toyota as the “HiAce” overseas for decades prior to being sold in the US. Its known in the US as the “Toyota Van” or “Toyota Van Wagon.” Outside the U.S they are named “TownAce” (Canada / Latin America / Africa / Some parts of Europe / Asia) In Australia, they are known as Tarago/SpaceCruiser. For detailed information and specifications, visit the Toyota HiAce Wikipedia entry.
The United States received the first shipment of Toyota vans in late 1983 and the last around 1990. The Toyota Van had a mid-production refres, so can be divided in 2 categories: The 1984-85 models and the 1986-1989 models. Toyota decided to use as a 3Y engine in the first models, and later a 4Y engine. This is a stout, torquey engine built by Toyota’s industrial division most commonly found on their line of propane forklifts. Thanks to its industrial roots the 3Y/4Y Toyota Van engine will easily reach 300k miles or more with basic care and maintenance.
Toyota offered different types of van trims: the “Cargo” with a beefed up 1-ton suspension and no windows, the “Cargo” with windows, The “DLX” deluxe trim which had seats for passengers, but despite its name was very austere and had manual locks/windows etc. and finally the LE “luxury” edition, which is the highest trim and sometimes came with one or more moonroof/sunroofs, an ice maker, and more.
A 4WD edition of the van was also offered in 87-89 and those came in 2 different types; The Cargo and DLX trim, which is commonly a 5-speed transmission with a dual range transfer case (4Hi, 4Lo and 2Hi coupled with manual locking hubs), and the LE version which offered a push button 4wd with 4Hi (and usually coupled with automatic locking hubs.)
Which Toyota Van Should I Get?
The Toyota Van is an extremely versatile vehicle with the capacity to fill everyone’s needs, but if you’re looking for your own there’s some things to look for.
If the Toyota van is going to be used for work such as the famous Tim’s RV and his mobile RV repair business, or The Usonian’s custom furniture business, you probably want to find a cargo van since the suspension was built with heavy duty work in mind. These vans are excellent work vehicles, have leaf springs in the rear, can haul full 4×8 plywood sheets, and will haul more weight and better than the LE edition. However, if you are unable to find one an LE still work quite well and the seats are easily removable.
The LE edition is more for hauling people around and the rear seats make for a great place to sleep in when camping. Many people still opt to adapt custom beds which are more comfortable. There are some rare LE editions that came with a sunroof and moon roof which like to leak if not properly maintained, but make stargazing a great experience. Others have a built in icebox/cupholder in the front that keeps cold via the air conditioning system. This makes for a great place to stash stuff in the highly likely event your A/C doesn’t work. Captain chairs were also available in the LE edition of the vans in the mid row which were able to swivel 180 degrees and tilt back. They are a little more rare but very comfortable.
Think You Found The One? Inspect The Mechanicals
By now you have likely decided more or less what type of Toyota Van will work for you, so now the next step is to go shopping. When looking around at Vans, there are a few things mechanically that need to be known and inspected before buying.
The average Van will usually have somewhere between the high-100k’s to mid-300k miles, which combined with its age demands a close inspection. The Toyota Van was such a dependable, reliable, and cheap vehicle that unfortunately many of them were used and treated as disposable by their previous owners. While they tend to run and run with no problems, by the time they start getting to the 200k miles range, problems will begin to snowball and require a lot of work.
When you lift the drivers seat to gain access to the engine, you always want to take a cursory glance over the engine (try to have a flashlight on hand.)
Engine cover seal
The first thing you want to check is the rubber seal that goes around the bottom of the driver’s seat. This seals the noise, heat, and fumes of the engine, and is very important as you are sitting right on top of it. A seal in good condition will keep most of the heat, noise, and smells from the engine out of the cabin. This part is no longer available from Toyota, but it may be possible to fashion your own.
Valve cover gasket
Next, check if the valve cover gasket might be cracked. If it is, the result in the van “sweating” oil and making a horrible mess down the side of the block, which will burn when the Van is in operation. It will also require topping off the oil constantly. This is an easy problem to fix as the valve cover gasket is obtainable from Toyota, RockAuto, or a local parts store. It can be replaced cheaply and doesn’t require major mechanical knowledge.
Power steering pump
Next, start the van and turn the wheel from side to side. If you hear a creaking or chewbacca like groan most likely your van has a power steering pump leak (another common issue) which will undoubtebly lead to alternator failure (see next section.) The van can run with a leaky PS pump, and as long as you keep adding fluid you wont have major drivability issues, but its generally recommended that it be replaced at the earliest convenience. The cost of a new pump will likely be around 100-150 dollars and will require a little more mechanical knowledge but mostly proper tools and time.
Next, the alternator. A leaking power steering pump unfortunately resides directly above the alternator, dripping fluid in and all over the alternator. It will cause your alternator to fail rapidly, since the leaking fluid gums up the alternator badly. A bad alternator will manifest itself with what Van owners call the “christmas dash.” Simply, all of the dash lights will go on and their brightness will vary depending on revs of the van. A bad alternator will also lead to dead batteries.
Many owners simply decide to change alternators and cant be buggered to fix the PS pump so they fabricate a sort of alternator shield (some out of sheet metal, some have even used tin foil as a temprorary solution) that sits above and protects the alternator. It is strongly recommended to always use the original Denso alternator. You can have them rebuilt by a competent local shop, or buy one new/rebuilt unit. Those “lifetime” units from the auto parts store will fail, and you don’t want to be constantly replacing it and deal with the pain of being stranded in random places (especially in the middle of a trip!) The price will probably be around 140 dollars (it will be less to rebuild your existing unit however) and this will require medium mechanical knowledge and some tools. On 4WD models, it takes an extra dose of patience because there is less room to maneuver the alternator in and out of the engine compartment. It’s a very tight fit but can be done!
This is the single most important thing you want to check in your van. The cooling system plays a crucial role in these vans and is usually very neglected by previous owners. Issues are compounded by the nature of the design, as air flow into the “hump” where the engine resides is much less than a traditional vehicle. If a van has overheated in its lifetime, it can lead to major repairs like a head gasket replacement.
Check the condition of the radiator by looking for green/bronze marks which indicate leaks. Check the fan clutch by try turning the engine fan by hand when the engine is cold, and listen for a roar when the engine starts. If you are able to stop the fan from spinning while the van is running, or it keeps spinning after the van has been turned off and keeps spinning freely then it will need to be replaced.
Check the sensors on the radiator fill neck, and verify they are properly connected. Check the condition of the coolant at the fill neck by taking off the cap and looking down the orifice. If it the coolant is dark brown it reflects a badly neglected system. If you dont see any coolant, the system is running low on coolant, so verify there is coolant in the overflow tank. If that is empty too, then the system is critically low. By now you should be getting a pretty good idea of how well the Van has been maintained by its owner.
If the van has an automatic transmission, pull the transmission dipstick to check the fluid level and color, as well as smell it. If the fluid is reddish the system seems to be in good order (but may have been flushed.) If the fluid is dark or black, this indicates the transmission has not had the oil replaced in a timely matter. If it smells burnt it may indicate that the transmission has major wear and may need replacing soon. Always get in the van and drive it. If you feel a jerk or a thud when you change the selector from park/neutral to drive/reverse it may indicate wear or a worn shifter cable. Drive the van through all of the gears by taking it up to highway speeds. Press the overdrive button and try to hear for grinding/buzzing sounds.
In manual transmissions, check that the clutch feels firm and engages gears correctly, bearing in mind the clutch on these vans is surprisingly soft. A good way to see the condition of the clutch is to take the van for a drive and then stop and put the van in reverse. If the van grinds or has trouble engaging reverse you may need to replace the clutch down the road. This isn’t a terribly expensive repair as it is a fairly common replacment on high mileage manual transmission vehicles, but its good to know about.
Lastly, when driving the van, see if the steering wheel stays straight or if it pulls to a side. Pulling badly in either directions shows it may need an alignment. Also be conscious of the condition of the shocks, but keep in mind that a cargo van has stiffer shocks when compared to an LE. The previous owner may have also installed shocks with stiffer spring rates/different valving. Worn shocks will manifest in a lot of bounce and have difficulty daming the rebound over bumps. Brake and see if the van pulls to a side, and try the emergency brake. The van should have a somewhat stiff e-brake and should stop the van when in drive and at idle, or keep it from rolling when parked on a small incline with the gear in neutral.
Mechanicals Check Out? Inspect Cosmetics
Take a good look at the van body, and check underneath the van as well. Depending on the location, or where the van has spent its life, theres a good chance it could have some rust. Typical spots to look for are on the wheel wheels and along the windows (especially the rear window in the tail gate.) The van is slightly susceptible to rust since there are little channels inside the body meant to drain water, which with time get blocked and accumulate water. If rust is present (unless its major rust along the drive train underneath) its not a safety issue doesn’t affect the driveability, but could make a good point to get a better price. Especially since body work is time consuming and expensive.
Inside the van you may notice that the dash is cracked, which is common but may be a cosmetic issue for some. Check glove box and center console operation and condition. Check steering wheel operation and seat sliding/reclining functionality. Check interior lighting and window operation.
See if the front air controls are non-functional or very hard to operate. If so, this is due to the spider mechanism which may need lubing, or may be broken (many times it gets frozen up and people pull on them too hard trying to move them and it breaks.)
Check the condition of the seats. The seats/carpets may be stained and worn due to the age, but make sure to look underneath for rust or signs of water damage underneath the carpet.
Turn on the air and see if the blower motor works properly. If it makes a humming sound it probably will need replacement soon. This is a big job as you have to remove the entire dash. Removing the dash isn’t terribly hard but it is a pain and time consuming.
If you are lucky enough to have a sunroof and/or moonroof (or multiple), check to make sure that they don’t leak and that they slide open and close smoothly.
Lastly, here are some simple and universal tips for dealing with the owner/registration/paperwork.
Check the title of the van to see if its clean title or salvaged. Expect to see salvaged titles since insurance companies like to total our vans from small bumps due to their very low value (in their eyes at least, priceless to us.) A salvage/rebuilt title isn’t the end of the world, but requires more research. Plus a clean title is nice to have and helps resale potential. If the van has a current registration, check when it expires, or if its out of time, call the local DMV ahead to find out the amount of back fees owed. You don’t want to buy a van for 700 only to find out it owes 5 years of plates and its not been in non-operable state. A small amount of research into the legal status of the vehicle can save a potential massive government bureaucracy induced headache later on!
If you live in a state where smog is a requirement, see if the owner has the smog certificate and examine it. If the van passed with flying colors it indicates the van is in good running condition, however if it barely passed, or failed as a gross polluter, expect to put some work into it to get it to pass smog. Also check the rear bumper, tailpipe, and door for excessive soot or black dirt, it may indicate a van thats running richly.
Feel out (not up) the seller and see if he/she will agree to list a lower sale price on the title. In most states if you tell DMV that you paid 100 bucks or more (try like 250, it looks better) you’ll have to pay a lot less taxes. If on the paper its classified as a gift, expect to pay more since DMV figures you got a car for free and they might as well make money for it. DISCLAIMER: I am not endorsing these activities but they are merely common knowledge for used private-party car buyers.
By now you have throughly inspected your van and should have the information to make a decisive offer to purchase it or not. The biggest key I always tell people (and that I learned from my dad) when buying a Van or any vehicle is: don’t get emotionally attached the the car. This is such sound advice. You will always be able to find another one! I was totally ripped off on mine because I was too attached to the striping and appearance, and because it was the one I first saw on a YouTube video that made me fall in love with these vans. Fortunately I am passionate about working on cars, so I was able to make lemonade out of lemons (a very expensive lemonade I might add) but most people don’t have that level of energy or commitment to dedicate the time and money to fixing the mistake.
If you do end up purchasing one, congratulations! I hope you have a great time with your new van and use this site often. I strongly recommended registering at the ToyotaVanTech forum, and engaging in the wealth of discussion and knowledge that exists there.
Thank you for visiting and please contribute to this site by using my Amazon links, joining in the discussions in the comments, sending feedback via the contact page, and following Space Cruisers on instagram!
Credit attribution to future_spiegel of Toyota Van People