The notion of an automotive barn find usually conjures up visions of dodgy trips up muddy country paths and into decrepit shacks, followed by a black mold discovery in what’s left of your chosen vehicle’s upholstery and the eventual adoption of a litter of opossums in the trunk. It’s worth considering, though, that with heavy vehicle concentration in and around our major cities, there must be more barn find cars out there that are not parked in literal barns, but rather hiding in plain sight.
For example, here’s the one-owner, 51,000-mile 1989 Toyota Cargo Van I bought in LA for fifty dollars.
As my diecast model retail business, Model Citizen, has grown I’ve found myself in need of a reliable cargo hauler for taking heaps of miniature cars to the many events on my vending schedule. Of course, having an affinity for the old and the Japanese, as well as a desire for something offbeat to help set the Model Citizen brand apart from less enthusiast-focused model car dealers, I was already drawn to the Toyota Van as a potential candidate.
Made in the 80s
Those who weren’t around when these Dustbuster-shaped workhorses first appeared on our shores in the 1980s might not understand the appeal, so perhaps an historical introduction is in order.
Though ubiquitous cargo and people haulers in Japan since 1970, the Toyota TownAce and LightAce vans weren’t sold in the United States until 1983 (as 1984 models). Known only by the moniker “Van,” they were part of the new wave of so-called “minivans.” At the time, the American motoring press was fixated on Chrysler Corporation’s groundbreaking entries into the segment, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, which earned praise for their practicality and supposedly “car-like” front-wheel-drive handling properties.
By contrast, the U.S.-market Toyota Van was nothing more than what it had always been abroad: a rear-and-occasionally-all-wheel-drive microbus with a cab-over, mid-engine layout. Where the Chrysler vans were familiar and accessible, the Toyota was quirky — and the sales figures reflected it.
However, those who opted for the Chrysler twins missed out on the true beauty of the Toyota: its double-wishbone front suspension offered a livelier driving experience than the soft Mopar wagons, and its modern 4-speed automatic was a substantial cut above the antiquated 3-speed found in the Detroiters.
Despite this, the Toyota Van never approached the sales dominance of the Chryslers, though it handily outsold similar models from Mitsubishi and Nissan. Still, Toyota continued to offer its compact hauler until 1990, when it was replaced by the more palatable Previa.
Unlike ChryCo’s offerings, however, the popularity of the Toyota Van has only grown over the years. In the first two decades that followed its discontinuation in the US it was prized by service-industry professionals, as legions of contractors, landscapers, couriers, and caterers came to depend on the vehicle’s nimble urban maneuverability and indestructible 4Y engine. Consequently, when these Vans can be found today, they often have north of 250,000 miles, and usually bear the scars of hard living.
More recently, though, they have found a cult following among #vanlife hipsters, who treat them as a sort of rolling yurt, much as their baby-boomer parents used Volkswagen buses in the 60s and 70s, with all manner of nomadic lifestyle mods.
This automotive gentrification has had the effect of elevating Van prices to previously unthinkable levels, with common asking prices of over $3,000 for high-mile beaters, and nearly $10,000 for very good, lower-mile examples. In this environment, finding a quality van at a reasonable price is a challenge. Which makes the discovery and acquisition of my Cargo Van border on the miraculous.
As Model Citizen is a budding enterprise, I do some work for a media company in west LA from time to time to help pay the bills. It was on my very first visit to their offices a few years ago that I spotted a dirty white Toyota Cargo Van tucked into a dark corner of their underground parking garage. It was covered in a substantial amount of grime, though the tires were still mostly full of air. It didn’t exactly look abandoned, but rather, extremely underused.
Moreover, it did not fit in with the bland assortment of Mercedes and Lexus models preferred by the media company’s staff (or the Hyundais preferred by their underlings). Upon each subsequent visit to the building, I made a point of glancing at the little white Van. It was always parked in the same spot, seemingly never driven, looking for all the world like a forgotten Tomica that had suddenly become full-sized.
One day, my gaze lingered long enough to notice an assigned parking placard hanging on the wall in front of it. After a whole year of admiring the Van from afar, I finally went in for a closer look to see who owned this dusty jewel. Turns out, the Van belonged to the very media company that I worked for. How could I have missed this?
Taking a long-overdue pass around the Van, I was astonished by what I found. Though obviously showing cosmetic wear consistent with having been used as a company vehicle, the van was in unusually good, original condition. Its dashboard showed no cracks. The vinyl seats were not shredded, as one might expect from a workhorse. Best of all, through the grime of the driver’s side window, I could just make out the mileage on the odometer: just a hair over 51,000. If my curiosity was piqued before, it was positively burning now.
Get in the Van
A few discreet inquiries around the office about the van’s provenance led me to the mailroom director, who revealed that it had been purchased brand new by the company in 1989 to serve as an archival document hauler. The decision to go with a Toyota rather than a competing marque seems to have been as simple as someone knowing someone else who had one and loved it (so much for corporate bureaucracy).
Over the intervening 28 years, the van had seen sparse use almost exclusively between the West LA office and the archive facility in Van Nuys, and had never once been parked outdoors overnight. Despite its abandoned appearance, it was still driven weekly and reportedly in excellent running condition. As my poker face began to crumble, the mailroom director sang sweet music into my ears. “You know,” he said, “We’re probably going to get rid of it soon.”
Heart racing, my next stop was the office of a finance executive, who would be responsible for dispensation of company property. At first baffled by the notion that anyone would be interested in this dirty old cargo hauler, eventually she agreed to notify me when they finally decided to let go of the Toyota. As it was a “fully depreciated asset,” she felt confident they’d sell it for not much money. I swallowed hard and made an offer.
“Would $300 be enough?”
“Oh yeah,” she replied without hesitation.
Months passed. I bugged my contact in Finance about the Van as often as I thought I could get away with. During that time, I learned from my buddy in the mailroom that the Van had stopped running, likely due to a failed alternator. In light of that, they were probably just going to donate it to charity and have it towed away.
Determined not to let this rare specimen fall to such a fate, I ramped up my efforts to get a deal done, but another hurdle arose. The title had been long lost, and the task of securing a replacement was assigned to the company’s offsite and extremely indifferent Facilities team. Frustrated, I resigned myself to watching the van slip away.
A few months later, I resolved to make one last attempt. Touching base with Finance, I was informed that a replacement title had been secured, and that I was welcome to come buy the Van that very day.
“Should I bring you a check for the $300?”
She chuckled, and then leaned in to whisper perhaps the greatest words I had ever heard: “Dude, just bring me $50 and get it out of here.”
On the Road
Papers were signed the next day, and suddenly I was the owner of a highly original, extremely dirty, and immobile 1989 Toyota Cargo Van. The usual buyer’s remorse was nowhere to be found, perhaps because at $50 there was virtually no way I could end up underwater on this deal. That said, there were still questions. Was a new alternator really all that would be needed to get the van back on the road, or would I have to have it towed home to linger in project-car purgatory?
With the help of JNC’s editor-in-chief Ben Hsu, a new alternator was procured and installed in the van the next afternoon. With a twist of the ignition key, I had my answer: the van fired up with only the slightest hesitation, the 4Y-E purring away behind my head, no lights on the dash.
Small puddles of oil and coolant on the garage floor meant that some repairs would be on the horizon, but for $50 plus the cost of a new alternator and battery, I was on the road in the new Model Citizen hauler that afternoon.
Since then, following the necessary replacement of some cooling system bits and a few other minor repairs, the Van has become a common sight at car shows across California, where its 155 cubic feet of cargo space open to reveal a cornucopia of highly-detailed model cars.
So, what’s the lesson in all this? With the mainstreaming of Japanese nostalgics, it might feel as though “all the good ones are gone,” or at least the bargains. Well, maybe they’re not. In fact, they might be all around us, underused and unappreciated in corporate parking garages. We don’t have to wear hip-waders or fight off angry owls to uncover barn-find J-tin. We just have to go underground.