Project Update: 1981 Toyota HiAce

It’s been a while since I shared any information about my 1981 Toyota HiAce (but I sure have been yapping about it in other posts!), so it’s time I provided an update. For anyone unfamiliar with it, you can check out a prior update here; a few things are different, namely that blasted Subaru is gone and now the HiAce runs, stops and steers with ease. I’ve now driven it for the first time and have a new appreciation for vehicles with a little thing called horsepower. I’m also getting quite an education on global logistics and the importance of a good network. 

As you can see from these photos, about the only difference visually is the addition of a set of very period-correct Work Equip wheels. And, also visible is the very tired bodywork, including the filler-filled tailgate (more on that later). But in the last few months, the guys at Oxford Motorcars in East Providence, RI have done a full brake service (drums all around); re-engineered the front drag link to accommodate the only new one I could find, from a RHD HiAce; sorted out the cooling system and fitted a rebuilt radiator; and installed a rebuilt diesel injection pump, which was serviced by Becs Pacific. It now runs very well, but it is also incredibly slow!

And that’s OK. I primarily envision this as a vehicle to drive in places where the traffic is already slow, or around campsites once the interior is sorted for sleeping quarters. My big lesson is all of this is that the only region with ample supply of spares is Australia, where many of these second generation HiAces are still running around or are in parts yards. That’s where I sourced this authentic bull bar, or “roo bar”, as they’re called in Australia, which will someday grace the front of my van. The other big issue as you can see is the rear of the van: the tailgate is so rotten it didn’t make financial sense to rebuild it. So after procuring the roo bar, I asked the yard in Australia (Hi-Way Auto Wreckers, if you find yourself needing van parts!) if they had any tailgates.

Sure enough, they did! It was said to be free of any bondo or previous repairs and looked impressively straight. We did the deal and the next step was getting it to the U.S.; that’s where the wonders of Facebook stepped in. Now, I’m no fan of social media, but this was essentially the only way I was going to find a network of folks who could help me out. I posted a few times about the possibility of an individual or company helping with the crating and shipping of the tailgate, which is no small feat. After a few go-rounds, I connected with the owner of a very cool company called Custom Coaster Converions, which imports JDM vans and buses (and other neat vehicles) and provides DIY kits for converting the interior of your van into a fully-fledged camper. He’s also quite savvy at crating up large items, it turns out!

So here’s my VIT – Very Important Tailgate – just picked up from the local shipping depot. My next move is to coordinate with my virtual colleague on also grabbing some spare windshields for insertion into the crate, as they’re still sold new in Australia (and I will *never* find one in the U.S. should a rock take out that big, flat windshield). I’m also hoping to work with Hi-Way on jamming some bumpers into the mix, just so I have spares that would otherwise be costly to send by themselves. This whole project has been an exercise in research and patience, as I’ve never gone to these lengths to source spare parts and make connections – but it’s all working out well so far. Next update will be when this diesel-powered HiAce hits the bodyshop. Thanks for reading!


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  1. Scotty Gilbertson Staff

    Fantastic update, Jeff! It’s so cool that you found a source for parts, no matter which hemisphere they’re in. I hope everything arrives intact, it’ll be interesting to hear how that whole logistics thing came off. Keep the updates coming.

  2. Andrew not amember

    A Question out of curiosity/jealousy , are you too busy too successful or not technically proficient that you would pay a shop to do brake service? Congratulations on finding an almost non existent part and getting it to the U.S. I might have to relent and get onfacebook

    • Jeff Lavery Staff

      Successful is purely subjective but I do work a corporate desk job and have little time do work on projects when I get home. I’m also fairly inept when it comes to mechanical jobs, but I’m a really fast typer!

      Fair question and I wish I had talents that let me do more work myself, but between the nature of the job (fixed, long-ish hours) and an infant at home, it’s just easier to pay someone else at this point.

      When I was single and had one project car stored in a rented garage (with no electricity) 5 miles from my apartment, I actually did turn a wrench or two. Funny how life works out that way – now everything is at my actual house with a nice garage attached and I have no time to work on them.

      Like 2
      • Tony Carter

        Jeff, just as a matter of interest, look up ‘Mitsubishi Delica’ on the Web, the 2.8 litre turbo diesel 4X4 is an absolute ‘rocket’ from Japan, I owned one for 4 or 5 years and was always amazed at the ‘get up and go’ these things have, along with the fold down swivel rear seats that make a bed, sound system and electric everything including the auto curtains and TV screens, moon roof and split A/C system. Might be your next project ?
        Tony, Australia

  3. Beatnik Bedouin

    These are great little vans, Jeff. Glad you were able to get a decent tailgate, as they’re really prone to rusting away to nothing. A buddy of mine, over here, used to have a body shop and I would pop in to help him install replacement tailgates on Hiaces whenever he needed an extra pair of hands.

    The Toyota vans of your vintage actually quite nice to drive, if a bit leisurely. I’ve done a lot of kms in them in NZ over the years I’ve lived here.

    Perhaps a late-model Japanese import turbo-diesel would be an option, as far as additional power?

    The ‘roo bar is a cool addition.

    Look forward to your next instalment.

    • Jeff Lavery Staff

      Hey there. A motor swap is always in the back of my mind, but I’m going to live with this one for a while. I’m sure there’s a later turbo-diesel that would drop in since the later generations retained the under-seat setup.

      I’m somewhat relieved to hear I’m not the only one with tailgate issues. My current one is rotten to the core.

      • Concinnity

        The 1UZ V8 fits, and was fitted into some ambulances in Japan. Though not offered as ‘factory’ they were converted by Toyota Technocraft, (TRD is part of this company). Based on the next generation van after this, which is essentially a facelift of this model, it can’t be hard to fit.

    • Jeff Lavery Staff

      Concinnity – holy hannah that is AWESOME. Bad thoughts, expensive thoughts entering my head!

      Like 1
  4. Jamie Palmer Jamie Staff

    Can’t wait for the next installment, Jeff!


    I sense you are going the camper VW Westie route here.

    I am sure you are aware. There is a very real custom van subculture in Japan where the HiAce reins king. I am looking forward to some of them makinng their way here to the US. 1993 JDM vehicles are already being advertised so I’ll sit back.

    BTW The Work wheels are an awesome and very correct addition. Bravo.

    • Jeff Lavery Staff

      I am leaning that way. There’s a bit of a “van rush” right now with the whole lifestyle thing, but I can’t stand showing up to a meet with the same vehicle as everyone else. I’d love to get some basic storage / cooking / cleaning accommodations inside and one of those hip new “pop-up” camper tops for the roof. Long ways away but that’s the dream.

      Thanks for comments. The wheels were a total longshot but they worked out well. Not much in that bolt pattern and a 14 inch diameter.

  6. Gerry Member

    Great to see progress
    Even though I live in Japan my relatively small island section of has very slim pickings for parts for older cars. The Japanese version of cash for clunkers made many of these disappear. I’ve also had to resort to using rock auto and some Aussie sights to try and track down normal wear parts for my daily which is a 1977 Toyota Lite-Ace truck. I’m still on the look out for a parts van for you for small stuff I can take off and mail though haven’t forgot about you just haven’t found anything to report.

    • Jeff Lavery Staff

      Gerry, I am honored that you remembered me and my need for parts. I have full faith that I’ll hear from if you spot a HiAce with good parts! Thanks for reading and reaching out. -Jeff

  7. Solosolo KEN TILLY Member

    Hi Jeff. Did you try South Africa when you were looking for parts as SA has gazillions of them running around as mini taxis? The general public never bought them because it would have been stolen within a week, at the most, to join the taxi fraternity. They all have four cylinder petrol engines and can stay with freeway traffic even when loaded with more than 16 people. Don’t know how as none of them have turbo, but they do. The old, sixteen seater is never scrapped but rebuilt as it can easily accommodate up to 20 people. (and their luggage!)

    • Jeff Lavery Staff

      Ken, I have heard the same. The trouble is connecting with people / parts yards down there. Australia has a vibrant eBay page which makes the process easier. I suppose I should dig around Facebook for a South African-based enthusiast group. But to your point, if most of them are being used by couriers, it may be tricky to find the type of folks I need as far as helping with the odd requests. Will investigate nonetheless. Thanks!

      • ljd

        Hi Jeff. I am a South African that lives in the States. Seeing your Hi-Ace, is memory back to childhood, and as Ken has said, seeing a million of these as minibus taxis. There should be a lot of parts in SA. I would start by using gumtree and searching there. Good luck and nice project.

      • Tony Carter

        Jeff, if you need help finding parts or info, get in touch, I live in South Australia and have a friend who owns a ‘Toyota only’ wrecking yard in Adelaide.

    • Jeff Lavery Staff

      Tony, if you’re still reading – shoot an email to and put something in the subject line about “Jeff / Toyota parts” and it will find its way to me. Very interested in making the connection. Thanks!

  8. chad

    Congrats, continued luck (and easier work).
    I got a small (1$) pressure cooker part from OZ and the shipping was way over the prt cost!

    • Jeff Lavery Staff

      Chad – yeah, you sort of have to ignore those voices of rational thought and just remind yourself you’re not going to find it anywhere else. Fortunately the exchange rate works in the US’ favor.

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