Jeff’s New Project, Part 1: 1981 Toyota Hiace


As I’ve mentioned a few times, my interests have been re-calibrating over the last few months. After realizing life is short and there are many, many vehicles to experience, I quickly sold my 1987 BMW 535is and set about acquiring a new project. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a 1981 Toyota Hiace. It is a rusty, tired grey market import that I bought out of a salvage yard in Tennessee after a chance encounter with the owners while visiting my in-laws. Before you roast me in front of a national audience, understand this: it’s likely one of a very few in the U.S., and mark my words, it will be a wicked surf wagon by this time next year. 


So, the story goes like this: my father-in-law and I visited this awfully nice fellow named Steve in Copper Hill, Tennessee. He’s got 11 acres of cars and trucks in his own private project paradise. Steve buys and sells cars but also buys vehicles for his own personal use. This Hiace was brought into the country with a service member stationed down in Panama, who near as I can figure it, purchased it new.  Steve and his wife used it for hauling kayaks before it suffered from rough running due to injection issues (at least that’s what we suspect). It is powered by the 2.2L “L” diesel engine, seen in the U.S. in limited form in the long-bed Toyota Hilux pickup, where the diesel motor was an option in the early 80s.


As you can see, the paint is quite chalky. While it was being unloaded in the rain, you could see the original colors shining through, so I suspect some level of cutting and buffing will bring it back. The Hiace is rare in the U.S. as it was never officially imported, but there’s a significant following for them, especially when kitted up as campers or surf vehicles. That’s the plan with this one once the running issues are sorted and the bodywork is addressed. The guys at Oxford Motorcars will be busy doing diagnosis and then it will head to the body shop for a fair amount of rust repair. As you can see, the sliding door tracks are a mess as is the rear tailgate, and the lower body sills have all been poorly repaired in the past.

Photo courtesy of

Here’s a shot of what the van looked like when new. The paint is damn near school bus yellow, and I do wish mine retained the original steel wheels and hubcaps. But this is what a project is all about, and I have to say, I was disappointed to not be able to purchase collector insurance from both Grundy Insurance and JC Taylor. Neither agency would provide coverage under the stipulation that it does not meet their definition of a collector car, nor did they feel that insuring a restoration project was acceptable. News flash: I bought my 1980 BMW 320/6 with no engine off of a farm and it was covered no problem! I think the insurance world needs to catch up to the new class of collectors like myself, but that’s a topic for another time.

Image courtesy of

Now, here’s the vision of what this could look like once finished. This is what got me hooked after seeing this Hiace for the first time. I love the idea of it dropped down just a little bit on some larger wheels, but I also like the idea of putting it on some knobbier tires with a set of white “wagon wheels” and a bull bar out front with some big Hella 500s! I’m a long way from those decisions but I do have a new front bumper on the way, as the log currently strapped to the front end just won’t cut it. I do realize there’s loads of work to do, but I can honestly say this project excites me more than my 5-Series ever did – and friends and family alike completely dig it. Looking forward to sharing the progress with you all, and if anyone has a recommendation for a collector car insurance company that won’t turn up their noses at me, leave their name in the comments below.


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  1. Puhnto

    I like it!
    (How big is it?)

    • whit rummel

      **It looks like it is LHD,if it is that’s a big plus and more rare than a RHD.**

  2. Jeff Staff

    Just over 14 feet long.

  3. stevee

    Both of us might appropriately be called car serial monogamists. Some people collect cars and keep ’em, some people buy and sell. All honorable folks. But our fun is in the hunt, and restoring and learning a story. Thus follows another treasure hunt. (My current is a ’51 Willys 2wd wagon). Keep it up, and keep telling the stories!

    • Jeff Staff

      You nailed it, Steve! It has its stressful moments, but I love finding out about something new and using it in ways I wouldn’t use other cars…at least I’ll know whatever I keep is something I actually like!

  4. doug6423

    I like it. I always wanted to do some custom work to my 15 passenger ford w/triton V10. Lower it, custom wheels & paint…etc…
    Go for it!! Keep us posted with pictures, please.

  5. Fred W.

    “Just under 7 feet long”

    Are you sure that’s not about 14 feet (169.5″)? An Isetta is 7.5 feet!

    • Jeff Staff

      Whoops – blame it my math conversion skills. It’s actually just over 14 feet.

  6. Rock On Member

    Have you tried Hagerty Insurance yet? That is who I use for my cars.

    • Jeff Staff

      I called Hagerty but their price was out of control. Near $500 for a vehicle that won’t see the road any time soon.

      • Bobsmyuncle

        I can’t imagine that you paid enough to warrant insurance for a year. Most of the cost is in liability not loss and/or damage.

        If it’s sitting in a shop their insurance should cover it.

        You might also get your home insurance to cover it especially if it ends up in your own garage.

      • Jeff Staff

        For now, it’s just on my standard vehicle policy that my wife and I insure our daily’s on.

  7. dj

    I like the brown one. I guess if I had it, mine would look a lot like it.

  8. Fred W.

    I thought Hagerty would cover it. Surprised at the price though, as my 66 Tbird is only a couple hundred. That dark brown is a nice color on the van.

  9. Jamie Palmer Jamie Staff

    Great project, Jeff! I think the surf wagon idea works, and I love the wheels on the brown one! I’m surprised Hagerty was so much–they’ve been very good to me. Even with locking storage? Can’t wait for the next update!

  10. Tony S


  11. Doyler

    This bring back memories. Good ones.

    When I was about 7 or 8 my brother was working for a painting contractor and they had the panel van version of this. I remember zipping around Dublin one saturday from job to job as he delivered paint to the various sites. It was a fun day.

    Got into a fist fight with the kid down the road over this. His dad hat a Litace, and I said the Hiace was better.

  12. Scotty Staff

    Congrats on the new vehicle, Jeff! I love it, how could I not?!

    And, I’m very, very jealous that you actually have a couple of shops that you trust, or more importantly, that will even take the time to look at vintage Japanese vehicles. Mpls/St. Paul is a black hole for anyone willing to even look at one of the wacky vehicles that I ask about having restored.

    I can’t wait to see your progress, thanks for sharing!

    • Jeff Staff

      Very fortunate to have Oxford. These guys specialize in vintage cars/trucks and will work on anything.

    • MH

      I live in Minnesota and I know a ton of places that specializes in Japan stuff.

  13. Fred W.

    Scotty, that attitude goes beyond just the oddball vehicles. The shop owner that works on my daily drivers (and has for 5 years) took one look at my ’66 T bird and said, “No thanks”.

  14. Jack Couch

    When you get it on the road, be careful of down hill curves. The one I had would lift the inside rear wheel, engine rev up, and when the wheel hit the pavement, it was a wild ride coming out of the corner. Sold mine after that trip in the Smokey Mountains.

  15. Fogline

    Seems likely this will be bulletproof once you get the injector issue worked out. I am jealous.

  16. Clinton

    Jeff- anything else cool at Steves place in Copperhill? It looks like a small town about 3 hours from me….

    • Jeff Staff

      Clinton, drop us a line via Steve has a LOT of stuff, but he doesn’t necessarily just treat it like a business where everyone can walk through. If you have something in mind that you’re looking for, he is happy to communicate over email to see if there’s a “match” before doing an in-person meeting. Very nice guy but also prefers to deal with serious buyers who know what they want.

  17. rusty

    Being a Grey import does that mean it’s RHD?

    If so a source of cheap parts can be found here In australia. But be aware we had so many of these types of vans be sure to indicate the exact part.

    At the time this was new I had a much older and smaller Mazda bongo Van for carrying my band gear and loved it especially after putting on the white wagon wheels .

    But before I could enjoy It too long a chance came to buy a Morris minor woody so the Bongo went Boing.

  18. Peter

    There’s millions of these in Australia, lots have been converted into campers. Some still doing delivery duties and in similar condition to yours. Good luck!

    • rusty

      As peter said they are numerous in Australia. So numerous Infact they had thought about mating them to replace our failing but once famous sheep industry.

      But alas before that could happen the hippy backpacker rental companies bought them all up and painted graffiti or physcodelic motifs on them thus destroying their golden fleece.

      Alas now only the lucky ones get to live their days out in a paddock like yours did. Many met their end in the great Chinese steel roundup and yet a few more work for their living until the grim ruster cometh.

  19. Kevin

    Interesting find and looking forward to progress photo’s. I buddy of mine is customising a Bedford van for his wife. New frame, chassis, and power train complete now body and paint. Excellent project. Kev

    • Jeff Staff

      Thanks Kevin. Will do my part to keep you all in the loop.

  20. Gerry Member

    Older ones are hard to find even here in Japan Have my eye on a passenger version though just waiting for the funds to be right

    My daily driver is the little brother to this (77 Lite Ace) only in truck form

    If you need help with specific parts let me know I can see what’s available here

    • Jeff Staff

      Gerry, I have some immediate parts needs. Please drop a line to and let’s get connected. Would love to have some help – need a driver’s side turn signal and some other bits. Thanks! -Jeff

  21. CJay

    We were at a junkyard looking for a set of wheels for my wife’s 1987 Bronco. When she says “What’s this? It’s cute!”. It was a 1970 Subaru 360. And it followed us home. You just never know when or where your next car is coming from.

    • Jeff Staff

      Exactly how it happened for me. Never saw this one coming! I love the Subaru, looks like a VERY complete example.

  22. redwagon
    • Jeff Staff

      I feel like that one affirms the wisdom of my purchase….then I see how un-rusty it is. ;-)

  23. chad

    Gee, I’m havin trouble finding prts for this very 2.2L. Dealer sez “obsolete” (natch!) & 1 after mrkt engine co. has no help either. Do I need to go over seas? OXFORD M.C.?

    • Jeff Staff

      Chad, you’re scaring me! Depends on what you’re looking for. I still see timing belt kits available on Rock Auto, but I did pony up for a used injection pump that I’ll likely still need to have rebuilt. I am having no luck on replacement fuel injectors, so I’m going to have to look for a source that will clean / refurbish them. I’m used to looking far and wide for parts, so yes, overseas sourcing may be necessary. Oxford is a great resource for advice and rebuilds but parts-sourcing is best left up to the customer in the interest of what you’re paying them for. If you are in the New England area, I’d be happy to make an introduction.

  24. chad

    “…If you are in the New England area, I’d be happy to make an introduction.”

    Amherst, MA to be exact. Not sure ur meaning but I can use all the help avail. for prts sourcing. 30+ yrs. ownership of a ’66 Bronco has been easy due to dozens of vendors/it’s large following; but this is foreign, rarer, etc.

    Thank you.

    (3rd ltr is an not an )

  25. RickyM

    Fancy some parts from Aus ?

    My mum’s 92yr old friend in Australia has only just sold his Hi-Ace camper but might hire it back next month for a road trip!

    Great van, Jeff. Good luck………

    • rusty

      Hey Ricky the location of this yard just out of Noosa makes me chuckle in reference to what I said above.

      Other than here (Noosa) there is only one other resting ground for these back packer / hippy rental vehicles and that would be just out of Byron Bay. HEE HEE.

      They made it there but they just wouldn’t start the day of departure.

      • rusty

        As an example of some of the backpacker vans at the time Google “wicked vans” in images to get an idea of the great graphics/graffiti. Mind you the earlier wicked vans of this period were a lot more hand done than later vans shown.

    • Jeff Lavery Staff

      RickyM – are in Australia by any chance? Wonder if you could help me secure some parts…I definitely need the turn signal lenses, tail light lenses, bumpers as well. Email us via and we’ll be connected. Thank you!!

  26. Kevin Brennan

    The bodywork isn’t really that bad believe it or not,we had them here in Ireland and I’ve seen far worse than that when they were 3/4 years old….they are a great van and sought after both here and in Japan…good luck with the project,but convert it to a petrol(gasoline)motor if you can…

    • Bobsmyuncle

      I’m not sure I’d trust the rust evaluation of a NON continental European!

      I’ve seen examples of what you guys are willing to restore, and it’s usually awe inspiring!

  27. chad

    nah, I’d go w/the diesel, that’s 75% of the reason to own it.
    Many here (W. Massachusetts, USA) even ‘vert them to soy oil
    (readily avail @ restaurants, cheep, orig. fuel of Mr. Diesel, environ. friendly…

    • Kevin Brennan

      Ye well even if it was pedal powered it would be cool…what a van..I love it!

      • Jeff Lavery Staff

        Thanks guys. Chad, ironically enough, I have a few relatives out in the Shutesbury area and they have a few friends who are running biodiesel…plan on talking to them once I get this thing running.

  28. chad

    fella who initiated the movement around here (2000) was pretty smart (went to Hampshire College & started it there or upon leaving).’S gotten pretty big (several installers here beside him) w/a huge biodiesel plant just completed in Greenfield. He’s moved on to Seattle or somewhere now tho (9 yrs. ago?). Shutesbury has a 60 member community that uses it.

  29. chad

    Like to C the p/u… must be a cabover model?
    This yellow van is better (2 me) than the brown – rd AND curb side doors.
    Just saw a 8 door early 60s econoline w/a I6 144 ci engine. Carb looked the sz of a sewer’s thimble (well, not quite).

  30. Jason

    Sweet looking van. I’ve heard of the Toyota Hiace, but I’ve never seen one in person.

  31. Car Nut Seattle

    Sweet looking van. I’ve heard of the Toyota Hiace, but for some reason they were never sold in the USA, so I’ve never seen one. I find it more attractive than the Toyota Van that was sold in the mid-late 80s.

  32. vitor

    Uau a diesel LH20 Hiace in the states! That was unexpected!
    Best of luck with your project

  33. Neal

    I’m sure some others will be jumping on here from the newer article link Toyota van, but how’s the progress on yours?

  34. Danton J A Cardoso

    Jeff, I had the same predicament with my HDJ-80. Hagerty’s was going to cover it, but hit the brakes when I told them I’m going to take it off road!! Liberty Mutual covered me, since I had all my import paperwork. Now, here’s the kicker, my insurance company, Allstate, called me a week after getting coverage from Liberty, with coverage, and even backdated all my policies to the same effective dates and expiries. Mind you, this is the same company that ceased covering grey market cars two years ago!!

  35. chad

    Not sure (geographic differences, vehicle differences & so on) but Commerce Insurance is my agent/insur co. and MAPFRE (the actual carrier) is one of the best (it’s international, continually expanding) anywhere. When shopping around (see vehicle in this post) several other co.s said “Oh, you got them, I’ll never be able to beat their coverage or price point!”
    BTW: how’s the prts search been?

  36. Vin

    The Hiace Toyota van is very rare to see in the US.. Toyota has market the Hiace mainly for other countries and still today as well… You would often see them on the islands using them as taxis or for other transportation..!! I myself have a 1987 Toyota Van LX AWD 2.2L for camping and a well kept bulletproof 1993 Toyota Land Cruiser 4.5L.i6.. which I Love driving everyday..!! And here’s the kicker..😉 I DO.. have Full Coverage on my vehicle with Allstate..!!!

    • VFRBoy

      Would love an update!
      I spotted a Hiace “VanWagon” in Melbourne (Aus) the other day – mid-80s vintage and a P-plate, much loved condition. Unfortunately driving so couldn’t snap a pic.

  37. chrlsful

    yup, update?
    1/2 way? finiched…oh, sold

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