The Timeless Appeal of My First-Generation Toyota 4Runner

Among a convoy of modern off-roaders at the Aether Rally, my 1988 SR5 did more than hold its own — it proved it's still the one to beat

May 6, 2024 6:11 am
Our writer's 1988 Toyota 4Runner SR5 V6 Auto at the 7th Annual Aether Rally in Joshua Tree in April 2024
Can an '80s SUV with almost 300,000 miles on it still hold its own? You'd be surprised...
Keri Bridgwater

Before the SUV era truly arrived in the 1990s, the previous decade was considered a golden automotive age for tech and performance innovation, but also a radical evolution for trucks and their sport-utility-vehicle progeny. The 1980s saw the introduction and/or proliferation of classics that are still coveted today, like the Chevy K5 Blazer, second-generation Jeep Cherokee, Suzuki Samurai and, perhaps most importantly, the Toyota 4Runner. 

As the current owner of an ’80s 4Runner, there shall forever be a special place in my heart for the retro, tough-as-nails two-door SUV that still turns heads around town. And as I discovered at this year’s Aether Rally near Joshua Tree, there’s still a place for it among today’s latest and greatest off-roaders, too.

A 1988 Toyota 4Runner SR5 at the 7th Annual Aether Rally in 2024
The definition of aging well.
Keri Bridgwater

A Bulletproof ‘80s Classic

Introduced in 1984 and arguably over-engineered by Toyota with a solid front axle and traditional body-on-frame chassis borrowed from the Toyota Hilux, the first-generation 4Runner was basically a modified version of that pickup. (The one Top Gear tried to kill but couldn’t.) Its compact body and two-door configuration featured a removable fiberglass top over the rear cargo area, giving it hybrid truck-meets-SUV versatility. Built with off-roading in mind — the name alludes to its four-wheel-drive capabilities — and beloved by American buyers, the 4Runner soon became a best-seller. Originally equipped with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine paired with a five-speed manual transmission that produced around 100 hp, its toughness was legendary. 

Toyota later introduced a turbocharged version and a 3.0-liter V6 that enhanced highway and off-road performance and further broadened its appeal. A new, more upscale SR5 trim came out in 1988 with power windows, air conditioning, chrome wheels and a sweet period graphics package. Between ’88 and ’89, you could get an automatic transmission on the SR5, too.

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We found ours on Autotrader in 2012 — a 1988 4Runner SR5 V6 Auto, with around 230,000 miles on the clock and plenty of delayed maintenance — and bought it for $3,200. Apart from an ARB air locker in the rear differential and a paint job, it’s totally stock. Alas, since those early days over a decade ago, it has gone from a daily driver and making road trips to San Luis Obispo to weekend cruises around San Diego to sitting in the driveway with occasional discussions about its fate: my boyfriend reluctantly consigned to selling, while I argued the case for keeping it. 

Not long after our last conversation, I received a prescient invitation to attend the 7th Annual Aether Rally, a weekend gathering of adventurous souls hitting off-road desert trails around Joshua Tree and camping out under the stars. The Yota was destined to ride again.

The Aether Rally in April 2024 at the Pioneertown Motel near Joshua Tree
The Aether Rally, now in its seventh year, has grown from a casual group ride to a full-blown adventure weekend.
De La Calle

Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride

Discerning gearheads who like to travel (think hiking in Patagonia or heli-skiing in the Italian Alps) are probably familiar with Aether. The city-to-backcountry outerwear brand was built on the adventure-based, work-hard-play-hard lifestyle of its founders — as evidenced by the fact that their yearly rally started as a casual Sunday group ride up to Ojai with a handful of customers from their Los Angeles flagship in 2017. Since then, it has grown into a full-scale event held every spring at the Pioneertown Motel near Joshua Tree, complete with demo bikes, dinner, drinks and an afterparty at the Red Dog Saloon, and drawing experienced off-roaders and first-timers alike.

There was no official signage for the rally, but the AETHERstream (the brand’s on-the-go concept shop that’s a converted Airstream) was a dead giveaway. A friendly biker underneath the Pioneertown Motel sign directed me around the back to find a campsite on the grounds. When we showed up a little after 4 p.m., an array of Defenders, Range Rovers and G-Wagens were already packed in. Amongst the modern 4x4s was a 1986 Toyota Land Cruiser (restored by Corsetti Cruisers, as I discovered later) and a pair of vintage Scouts. Aether had also brought its crossover project car, the Alpine Alfa, a modified 1985 Alfa Romeo GTV6. 

People had come from across California, Colorado and beyond. One couple drove out from Los Angeles “for the vibes,” another duo came last-minute from Park City in their new Bronco. A cowboy cool hamlet since its Western-era heyday, Pioneertown and its namesake motel felt like a fitting backdrop for the Aether crew and their friends enjoying campfire hangouts and DJ sets.

Spirit of Adventure

The next morning, it was choose-your-own-adventure time: an 18-mile drive on Burns Canyon Road to Big Bear or the Mobil1 4×4 Off-Road Ride through Coyote Lake, a dry lakebed and dust bowl swath of Mojave Desert that climbs into craggy, boulder-strewn hills outside of Joshua Tree. I opted for the latter and lined up with over 50 off-road vehicles for the convoy along 29 Palms Highway through downtown Joshua Tree to the Sunfair Road turnoff. Aether co-founder Palmer West shared that while their early moto-only rallies in Paso Robles topped out at 30 attendees, over 250 people had shown up in Joshua Tree this weekend. 

There aren’t many opportunities for meaningful, guided adventures like this, which is really about exploring with friends,” West told me. “It’s laughter, good food, music and camaraderie. Riding and enjoying the outdoors in true Aether style.” He added that the event also serves as a great place to test new gear from the brand’s collection, such as the Mulholland Motorcycle Jacket he wore leading the moto ride through Joshua Tree National Park. Staples get put through their paces too — my Aura Vest and Legacy Crew not only kept me warm and stylish over the weekend, but now top my go-anywhere, do-anything travel pack list. 

Located two miles north of Highway 62, the designated BLM land of Coyote Lake offers miles of desert trails around its “shores,” with a good mix of terrain, including dunes the Aether Rivian — another of their branded vehicles, this one an EV — tore into. To my delight, it’s also where my 4Runner got some love from the Scout team, who it turns out had admired my ride from afar at the campsite the night before. I locked my front wheels and dropped into H4 before the group blazed a trail through a hilly rock section, the 4Runner easily picking its way to our lunch stop coordinates. 

Off-road vehicles gathered in the Mojave Desert for the 7th Annual Aether Rally in April 2024
Now that’s a good-looking pit stop.
Keri Bridgwater

Keeping a Classic

While the maintenance and off-roading challenges of a vintage 4Runner may deter some, its nostalgic charm is a draw for many. The Back to the Future 1985 SR5 Xtra Cab pickup might top the list for retro-collectors, but the first-gen 4Runner has been a fan-favorite since its release and a resurgence in popularity has seen the classic SUV leap from basic used-car status to a highly sought-after model for off-road enthusiasts, with prices averaging well over $20,000 depending on model year desirability, mileage and condition. 

But for those looking to buy new, after 15 years of updates and refreshes on the fifth-generation model, Toyota recently teased the release of its long-awaited redesigned 4Runner, which will provide customers with a whopping nine trims to choose from. At first glance, the front-end styling bears a striking resemblance to the Tacoma, with fender flares creating a wider stance; although Toyota fans will enjoy nods to the 4Runner’s first two generations (see: the power rear window and wrap-over glass in the rear quarter windows). It’s still a rugged, daily-driving SUV that will continue to be a hit with a new generation of adventure seekers. 

Tempting as a new sixth-gen might be — what with its modern tech and hybrid powertrain promising 326 hp — taking our old 4Runner for an off-road desert adventure with Aether only reinforced my affection for the truck and what it was still capable of doing. With nearly 296,000 miles on the original engine, it underscored that legendary Toyota reliability on and off the trail, but more crucially cemented my boyfriend’s decision not to join The One That Got Away club (the regret from selling his ’65 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40 when he joined the military still burns).

Instead, we’re going to pull the trigger on an engine swap or rebuild and a fresh ’80s TRD-inspired paint job — and that’s just for starters. Besides, nearly 40 years after being introduced, the first-gen still looks futuristic and, in my humble opinion, way cooler than any new release ever could.

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