Friday, January 1, 2016

Restoring & Improving our Hiace 4WD 2.8 Diesel Camper.

About 2.5 years ago we bought our 1994 Hiace 2.8 Diesel 4WD camper, using funds from the proceeds of sale of our previous 3.0 Turbo Diesel Hiace Regius 7 seater, which had served us well for about 3 years prior.

This Toyota built Hiace Cruising cabin had been recommended by a friend in the car trade who deals in these vehicles and so understands them well. He'd bought it here in Japan to send to South Africa for a potential customer, but the deal had fallen through so he offered it to me.
Having a young family in Japan it made a lot of sense. Staying in Ryokans and hotels is expensive because occupancy is charged per person rather than per room, which would explain why it's rare to see families stay away over weekends in such places... It made perfect sense to let the Regius go.
It had served us well as a vehicle for carrying materials when we were rebuilding our home - but now we didn't need it for that any more it wasn't as useful any more.

This is a picture of how the Hiace looks like today following a restoration that took nearly a year at a friend's paint shop in Chiba and more recent improvements, but I'd like to share it's story and an older sibling's, so this will also be documented for family including our children to enjoy someday....

It started out like this a couple of years ago and we used it for a total of around 15 camping trips including some longer ones. One trip (The above picture was taken on Shikoku Island) was a total of around 3,000km lasting 10 days with myself, wife, 2 kids & a medium sized dog!


When we got it there was rust on the bodywork, especially the back door, so I replaced it with a more luxurious & newer model's used one that was almost of the same colour. This included a better and more attractive rear light design, so that was pleasing but all the time the remaining rust bugged me as I really don't like rot on cars, it's a disease that spreads if left untreated. Something would have to be done soon!

Some friends, Carlos & his family borrowed it for a week too and enjoyed it immensely. So much that as they returned it they said they'd like one of these for themselves in the future!

Our best trip was in Shikoku after visiting my wife's parents 2 summers ago.
Amazingly it really wasn't hard to live with it as a family of 4 with a dog for 10 days - we could have lived like that for months! I had an old motorbike that had been stored at my wife's parent's place in neighbouring Shodoshima and a friend in Shikoku had asked to borrow it long term - so I agreed to ride it and leave at his place during our trip... Little did I know this would be an inspiration for further improvements....!


One morning whilst climbing some very twisty and small winding roads on Shikoku island at slow speeds, I noticed the temperature gauge was about to hit the red mark! Fortunately we were by a fast flowing river with beautiful clear water, so I coasted back down to a spot I'd noticed that would be good for swimming & whilst we took a dip to let the engine cool, we filled some bottles with water. It continued to consume a little bit of water throughout the trip, but I doubted the head gasket had blown, as these are known to be very robust engines that really aren't very stressed (Same as used in Hilux 4WD's and Hiace buses used on the African continent!) and the oil remainder black, typical of Diesel engines.
I was quite sure it was the radiator that was beginning to clog, as after around 100,000km Hilux Surfs (which used similar engines) would also tend to overheat from radiators not working efficiently...I could also see the radiator was weeping a bit of fluid when it overheated... We continued to use it like this for a few 1,000kms whilst having much adventure, keeping a weary eye on the coolant temp. As soon as it begun climbing beyond normal I'd stop and add more water. Such is experience from running old cars as a poor student 20 or so years ago (In those days I couldn't even afford a new radiator)!


Our daughter was particularly terrified whilst crossing a famous bridge in Shoikoko as it looked so weak, but I could see it was heavily reinforced with steel cables, but I was there to meet her half way and rescue her.

The locals in one of the higher altitude villages had a sense of humour. They stuffed dummies at the bus stop and local vegetable stall.


The camper's 4WD (With free-wheeling & lockable front hubs) soon proved to be a big plus, as it allowed us to camp where others usually wouldn't dare venture with a car!


And so its versatility begun to get under our skin. We wouldn't need to have a camp site to stay at since it's a small, discreet and self contained vehicle.
Not needing to get anywhere in particular for each night, enabled us to stop and explore beautiful places along the way. As my wife can also drive it we can cover long distances overnight whilst the other driver sleeps in the back with the kids.

Naturally we have a particular interest in traditional antique Japanese houses too. This delightful traditional village that still kept many of it's natural traditions was in Shirakawa-Go in Gifu prefecture. Some of these are around 300-400 years old!




Our favorite quick getaway quickly became Motosu & Shoji Lakes in Yamanashi prefecture for the beautiful views that would often meet us in the morning.


It doesn't have a toilet or shower, but we're not fussy. The wilderness is the natural place to relieve ourselves when in need and Japan has some lovely onsens, something my wife is very enthusiastic about each place we go.


With all the equipment it carries (The roof is very heavy as it needs to be sturdy & reliable when camping in strong winds!) it's a heavy and slow old thing, so getting up to high altitudes requires patience!

But the rewards are worth the trouble.


We also discovered it's pretty good in colder weather too, as the engine can be left on and there's a very strong heating in the back.


2 years ago, there was particularly bad snow in Tokyo just before Christmas, but with snow tyres the relatively high ride-height meant it wouldn't get stuck where others would. These pictures were taken on the worst night when we'd gotten past 2 jack-knifed trucks on the end of the up-ramp just before the Rainbow Bridge. It was strange to be driving across with nobody else in sight so we stopped in the middle and took these pictures. On the way home to Chiba as the snow melted there were HUGE pools of standing water and as I passed through some all the electrical warning lights would come on at once, then go off - but I made it home with no dramas.

And so with an array of happy experiences like these, I realised - this would be a vehicle we'd want to preserve, improve and use to take our kids away on weekends, until they are grown up, so it was worth investing in.


And so it went to Satou Masayoshi, who in his spare time worked on it to remove rust and restore the bodywork. Much of the lower panels had some corrosion, some of which had been repaired before, so it took him a while to get through it all. During this time he also discovered it was leaking oil badly from the sump, which had rusted through on a factory weld!


At around the same time, I had the opportunity to buy another one of these from our friend Mark. 5 years older, but very unusually in perfect & completely rust free condition. This was ideal as it enabled us to still go camping whilst our's was away being restored.

I advertised it on but had really wanted to sell it to my brother in Canada for what it cost, since he does a lot of travelling and climbing in Canada, but he was adamant he only wanted a 4WD one.... (which is very difficult to find in rust free & good condition!)
But in the end his decision worked out to the benefit of Paul Robinson, an old friend and ex-business partner who recently bought it instead to use in the UK & Europe in 2016 and beyond. So this 2WD camper is headed to Brighton & Hove (UK) soon. It served us well for a year and ran perfectly - so with a fresh service & minor fettling it'll be perfect for their planed tours this year.

Whilst the restoration progressed slowly, as is my habit (if not an illness or vice!), I researched and collected parts to further improve the Hiace for when it came back to us. This included a new radiator and sump, which would be essential.
I also bought 8 litres of the best quality spray-on rust preventative penetrating wax fluid I could find, some stuff used to prevent corrosion to aeroplanes, apparently - expensive, so it's probably good. The googled comments I found seemed to indicate it would stop rust dead in it's tracks. Rust usually comes back, even when repaired in my experience, but I hope it'll slow it's return. I'll just keep having it repaired from now on whenever it rears it's ugly head.

The rest of the modifications weren't essential, but desirable, bearing in mind the use we plan for it.
For me - driving this van is boring, as it's so slow - and the driver's seat wasn't very comfortable for long trips, so a plan was hatched. This also included a 2,100W Twin amplifier 14 speaker smart (hands free) sound system using a Parrot Asteroid Smart head unit with integrated (hidden) reversing camera complete with LED lighting (So the ugly reversing mirror could be removed By Satou San whilst fitting a new roof spoiler!) - and concealed speakers & sub woofer.

The amps are neatly located behind the drivers seat and the sub between the passenger (front) seat and existing TV / DVD cabinet. Speakers are all high powered and of good quality (Kappa Infinity), with excellent Sub & speaker towers by Jennert,
This new sound system was properly wired in, complete with sound insulation and all wiring properly terminaled and soldered, etc. I see enough badly completed wiring in my work that I have to remove & put right to not make spaghetti when it's not meal making time!
And so this system took 3 days over weekends to run all the wiring carefully, but works very well now. Clear and rattle free.
I have no intentions of blasting sound with crazy bass levels, it's about clarity of sound reproduction and no distortion, it's a pleasure to hear music whilst on the go now - and to be able to select music by saying the band's name or call someone without picking up the phone or pressing buttons.

Whilst I was at it, I also wired in remote central locking and had keys specially cut, then modified them to fit inside the key remote - so it looks like a factory original single key with remote control on now. Fitted a better electronic toll collection machine, hard wired the mini Garmin Navigation unit & the dash camera too. I like attention to the little details & prefer to do things well and once only!



I also fitted a used Recaro Driver's seat & Nardi steering wheel I'd rescued from Skyline GT-R's along the way and added a new shift knob & dashboard facia,
Deep dish (period) Watanabe R8 wheels (15 x 9J + 0 & 15 x 8J + 13) were specially ordered and I even had centre caps adapted to fit the rear wheels and red Watanabe logos made too. Naturally there's stainless steel Watanabe matching wheel nuts too. A wide arch kit with wider tyres gave the car a much better stance. These were fitted by Satou San complete with rivet nuts. He used mild steel bolts, so I replaced them with stainless steel allen bolts from


I also found & fitted a  sliding door wide hinge kit (So there is clearance with the rear arch as the side door slides open).

Having enjoyed having a bike to ride whilst camping in Shikoku so much (The roads were amazing, but the bike is very old, but low mileage!) I also found a Mototote bike carrier in the U.S. which could be used in combination with a tow bar kit to carry a lightweight bike on board, so that too was ordered. The carrier is a bit wider than the van, so with the towing lights (not shown) I'll modify the harness so there's orange marker lights too. The reversing camera is especially useful for when carrying a bike. I haven't used it yet (It's too cold to ride in mountains during winter and dangerous if there's ice, etc). but I'm sure it'll be great.
So that resolves the frustration with being on beautiful roads but being unable to enjoy them whilst driving the Hiace, as my wife can drive and I can ride! Will also be able to take the kids aboard as we have special harnesses to keep them safe, they fell asleep on the green bike above several times (riding slowly in front - so I could support them), but whilst awake they loved the experience....
Our daughter already rides a 50cc mini MX bike on the beach and our son will too, just as soon as he can touch the floor when sitting on it!


The original roof vent didn't have an electric fan, which would be useful when using the kitchen, so the old one was cut out and a larger reversible direction fan assisted vent was fitted in it's place. It sits a little taller, so we have to be mindful of the increased height when considering entering car parks now. I also found some new unused (They're long since discontinued by Toyota) side visors for the front doors and a very cool custom air intake vent for the engine (Located just behind the driver's door.


I  went as far as finding suitable itallic chromed matching "TRD Sportivo" & "Diesel" rear badges and having custom-made decals for the sides. , since this vehicle had originally been built by Toyota Technocraft as a dealer supplied car.  

The gauges got LED white back-lighting too. At 131,000km, I had the timing belt changed by Toyota and at the same time the sump replaced.
Changing the radiator had been a 2 afternoon job that pretty much consumed a weekend. It's located in the nose of the car, facing downwards and required removal of a lot of stuff to get to, so I didn't want to do more. Their labour rates are cheap, all things considered - and although they didn't want to take on the job on something this old and tried to make excuses so I should go elsewhere,, being Toyota they couldn't really say no. So I stood firm, booked the car in and waited 3 weeks. Finally it no longer leaks fluids and the engine will remain reliable for a very long time to come.

I still have a few jobs left to do, such as fitting braided brake lines and uprated pads (For safety not speed!), new bushes and some rare brand new Bilstein rear shock absorbers (Bilstein are excellent shocks which will improve ride at the rear. I will also raise the rear leaf spring ride height, as carrying a bike on the back tends to raise the front through leverage of carrying around 260kg or so with the carrier & motorcycle combined. There's a lot of overhang when carrying and I want to avoid it beaching itself on steep ramps, etc!


Aside from already fitted LED lighting and concealed speakers, sub woofer., etc. The interior will remain pretty much as original. I expect it'll keep getting marked and damaged from a family with 2 young children, but that's OK. It still all works fine including the stove, fridge, etc! Not bad for a 24 year old camper, but then it was built by Toyota, so it's to be expected I suppose.


Upstairs sleeps 2 and downstairs allows standing room for the kitchen area when the roof is up, which takes a few seconds to do. The table downstairs can also stow away to turn into either an 8 seater mini-bus, or another double bed with curtains for complete privacy.


As another recent improvement & modification I fitted HID headlights and spot lights.
The spots are too bright for use with oncoming cars, but will be useful for getting off-road at night.
I also plan to fit an aerodynamic roof rack at the front (We carry a telescopic ladder to get to the sleeping quarters upstairs so that'll allow access) to carry my bike gear in 2 boxes. This is so the interior isn't cluttered inside. There's a stainless steel exhaust on order and a brand new Toyota front pipe waiting to be fitted too. When I do the substitution I'll also use the opportunity to do that intended chassis rust proofing, rear shocks, bushes, brake hoses & pads too. Should be a day's leisurely work as eaxh job is fairly simple to do.
Yesterday I lso ordered a large van cover from the U.S. via ebay, as I want to keep the paintwork pristine and unmarked for as long as possible.

Inside there's a complete box of kitchen & dining equipment for 6 people, table, chairs, BBQ, snorkelling gear and even a hammock tent carried + a very large awning & 2 large independently charged batteries with mains adaptor, water tanks, etc. (Factory fitted)

Finally it's just about ready for the use as intended. Just a few more tasks to finish but I can see the end of all the hard work at last & I'm quite pleased with the results.

Looking forward to more trips now in 2016 and beyond!

No doubt we'll update more on our camping adventures in the future.