Are classic Toyota pickups the next big thing?

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If you’ve been reading our valuation articles, then you know that Japanese classics are hot. You could be excused, however, for not knowing that the next big thing is—you read it here first—classic Japanese pickup trucks.

Toyota and Nissan have sold small pickups since the late 1950s. Not in any large numbers however. And, the United Auto Workers (UAW) aimed to keep it that way. When Europeans slapped a punitive 25 percent tax on American chickens, we responded with a 25 percent tax on imported potato starch and brandy. This trade war was an opportunity for a deal between President Johnson and the UAW, which added imported pickup trucks to the already bizarre list. Thus, the infamous “chicken tax” was applied. Due to the exchange rate, German trucks like the Microbus-based VW pickup disappeared almost overnight. But for a while, Japanese car companies were able to absorb the tax hit.

Manufacturers also found inventive ways to avoid the tax. Chevy LUVs and Ford Couriers, built abroad, were imported without beds as commercial vehicles and Subaru created the BRAT by placing two seats in the bed of a small pickup thus creating a passenger vehicle. The first Toyota 4Runner was simply a Hilux pickup with a topper shell and back seats.

The Toyota Hilux, more commonly known simply as a Toyota truck, is basically the Chevy C-10 of Japanese trucks. Good-looking, reliable and rugged, 4-wheel-drive equipped Hiluxes are so favored by insurgents around the globe, that U.S. Hellfire missiles could probably be programmed to destroy them on sight.

Outside of combat zones however, the Toyota truck is probably best remembered as the lifted off-roader that Marty McFly finds shined up and waiting in his garage after returning to a slightly better version of 1985 than the one he left in Back to the Future.

It’s the version that tons of Gen-Xers wanted back in the day: Equipped with KC Daylighters, of course. Which accounts for the Toyota truck’s popularity as a collectible. Most have long since dissolved, too, which makes them rare anywhere in the U.S. but the west coast.

Consequently, trucks that the chicken tax and rust couldn’t kill are getting quite desirable. The most coveted are obviously 4-wheel-drive versions. Original paint and loud stripes are a huge plus, too. Trucks that were $8,000 or so a year ago are now bringing low to mid-teens like this listing from Bring a Trailer. Were it a brighter color, it might have brought $15,000, and this one was just a basic truck without the full McFly package.

Interestingly, the word hasn’t quite reached the most remote pockets of the vintage Toyota truck’s natural habitat—places like Medford, Ore., and Yreka, Calif., where vintage Toyota trucks still do regular duty tending illicit botanical projects.

Until sometime this summer, that is. A few more sales like the one above and word will spread. Then ‘80s-vintage Toyota trucks will begin showing up at auctions, festooned with every accessory imaginable, just like rich suburban kids wanted them. Prices will inevitably spike.

For now, we recommend scouring Craigslist in rural Northern California, Oregon and Washington. And if you’re already priced out of the market, you might consider looking for a first-generation Nissan Hardbody pickup (built in the U.S. to circumvent the chicken tax) or even a first-generation two-door Pathfinder. Other Toyota truck-based SUVs, like first-gen 4Runners, are already getting pricey. The secret here is that the second-generation 4Runner is nicer and better looking. Grab one with a rare five-speed. The upper limits of their lifespan have yet to be determined—a 200,000 mile 4Runner is just getting broken-in.

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Are classic Toyota pickups the next big thing?

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Modern affordable classics can be found in every price tier. Here’s where to start

I’ve been appraising old cars for a long time. If there’s one question I hear more than, “Why didn’t you do something more productive with your life?” it’s this: “What should I be buying right now, before the rest of the world discovers them?”

Ah, the great mystery. The truth is, there’s no golden rule. Sometimes it has more to do with the impact the car made when it was new than with production numbers, horsepower or good looks. Sometimes it’s the Toyota FJ40, and we “experts” are left scratching our heads.

If you’re looking to buy a fun classic before the summer, here are a few to consider, broken into three categories: under $10,000, under $25,000 and under $50,000.

I once knew a woman who wanted to own a Range Rover more than anything. With champagne tastes and a domestic beer budget, she shopped around and, based solely on looks, found a car she deemed a close second. She chose the Isuzu Trooper, because to her it was an affordable Range Rover. She wasn’t wrong.

Fast forward to today and the Trooper still looks good in its box-on-box simplicity. And compared to early Range Rovers, which are getting more expensive by the week, the Trooper continues to look better as a cheap collectible. You could fill a stadium with first-generation (1981–91) Troopers for under $5,000.

If that’s not your thing, then how about a Mazda Miata? Again, the sub-$5,000 market is loaded with them, but you can also find exceptional early Miatas for not much more. Look for the Special Edition cars, like the 1991 SE in British Racing Green with tan leather interior. Just 4,000 were made in that combo, and I regularly see them offered at or below $10,000.

Let’s go domestic for my under-$ 25,000 pick, with a supercharged SVT Mustang Cobra. Specifically, the low-production “Terminator” Cobra built in 2003 and early 2004. You’ll find them in great colors like Competition Orange, Screaming Yellow and the funky, iridescent Mystichrome.

Terminators are still available for less than $25,000, though one with low miles and no modifications might push the price up. There are fewer 2004s, and they typically go for more than the ’03s, so look for early cars first.

For my under-$50,000 pick, I’d go with the 1989–99 BMW 8 Series, a car that has been much maligned among collectors but really gained steam in 2016. Talk of the E31 840 and 850 always brings up the fact that they are complicated and full of era-specific electronics — and they are.

Looking at it from the other side, however, they’re handsome, capable and fun to drive. They’re also radically different looking from any other BMWs before or since. Available with either a V-8 or V-12, they came equipped with manual or automatic transmissions.

You can absolutely find these cars for under $25,000, usually with lots of miles and more than a few owners. I’ve seen them for under $10,000, too. But let’s aim for the top of the market here — the low-mileage, five-speed cars. Your target price is somewhere from the high $30,000s to the low/mid $50,000s. Note that 25-year-old Euro-spec models will be available here soon, so you might be able to expand your search beyond our borders. Just act quickly — with fewer than 31,000 built, the great examples are getting harder to find, and you do want the best in an 8 Series.

No matter what your budget is, buying the best you can afford is never a bad idea. Just do it before someone else does…

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