Decades Later, Another Ride in a Bright Red Toyota Pickup


My very first new car was a 1985 Toyota pickup, back in the days before “Tacoma” was nothing more than a city in Washington. It had no bumper, no radio, crank windows, a back window that wouldn’t open, no airbags and a four-speed manual transmission.

I loved it.

It was candy-apple red, and after plopping in my own stereo I traveled what used to be Route 66 from Los Angeles past Chicago and into Milwaukee.

This week, I was back in Los Angeles and found myself in another red Toyota truck, this time a 2009 Tacoma Double Cab 4×4 V-6.

The ways in which this truck differed from mine cover almost every inch of truck:

  • My truck was a four-speed manual; the 2009 Tacoma was a five-speed automatic, for which my (much-older) knees were entirely thankful.
  • My pickup sat pretty low to the ground. It rode only slightly higher than the 1974 Buick Century I drove while in high school in Southern California, though it was high enough to improve the view. The Tacoma rides really high — higher, in fact, than a Tundra from a couple of years back that I passed on the Pacific Coast Highway.
  • Speaking of the Tundra, and apropos not at all of differences with my old pickup, I spent the day watching rolling California clichés: a bright pink Volkswagen New Beetle convertible rolling down PCH, a Ford Ranger with pool-cleaning supplies laying out in the bed, and a woman in a very expensive Mercedes refusing to let me into the right lane while holding her cell phone in one hand and a Starbucks cup in the other.
  • My pickup could only be had with a bench seat, while the Tacoma is a double cab with seating for five. Its front bucket seats are waayyy more comfortable than that bench ever was.
  • My ‘85 pickup was incredibly light, which is probably why I enjoyed the 100-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline-four-cylinder engine so much; even though it was only four cylinders, it was larger than most compact cars’ engines, and it had enough oomph when tacked onto a very, very light frame and a manual transmission. That light frame came to bite me in the butt, though, when I rolled it in the snow outside Rochester, Minn., on a very cold night in January 1986. Still, it was very durable, with most of the damage to the truck coming at the hands of the tow-truck driver who dragged it across the road before righting it.
  • The Tacoma’s 236-hp, 4.0-liter V-6 offered a lot more power than my ‘85 truck did, especially when charging through Kanan Dune Road, which leads from Malibu through the mountains. I’ve made that drive hundreds of times over the past 25 years, and even though the Tacoma rode high, I didn’t feel much sway or loss of control; it gripped the road pretty well and didn’t leave me feeling like I’d lose my lunch.
  • The biggest difference between the two? For the price of the Tacoma (roughly $31K), I could have bought – get this – six of the Toyota pickups I bought in 1985. That’s right — the out-the-door price was a mere $5,200. Of course, it didn’t have anywhere near the level of safety that today’s Tacoma has, but I definitely miss that cheap kind of entry-level truck.

Of course, everything from the fit and finish to the interior materials to the size and quality of the tires has come a long way since 1985. That era was very much the early days of “pickups as everyday cars” for many Americans. While pickups had long been popular in California, lots of people I met in the Midwest assumed I was some kind of farming student when they saw me in my ’85 Toyota.

Even though I’m not likely to park another pickup in my driveway anytime soon, listening to classic rock while driving that new Tacoma with the windows down, past the places I first knew when I was in high school, was a blast. Just seeing that bright red paint job was enough to take me back.


Latest expert reviews