By on April 20, 2011

Here in North America, Toyota’s marketing wizards figured out that a vehicle name that sounds like “Master Race” would be something of a liability, so they put in a bunch of grueling all-nighters and produced… the Toyota Van Wagon. Not so fast, said Volkswagen, claiming that the name sounded too much like “Vanagon,” and Toyota lopped off the “Wagon” to create a van name so boring that we still can’t quite believe it ever existed: Toyota Van.

Despite the terrible name (why couldn’t we have had Toyota Space Vans, as Europe did?), the Toyota Van turned out to be an excellent machine. Cockroach-grade indestructible with car-like manners, you’d think the thing would have sold like crazy on these shores.

The mid-engine layout ate up a lot of interior space, however, and Chrysler’s minivan was so much better suited for American tastes that sales of the Toyota Van were mediocre at best. Today, you still see them in use as work trucks, as is the case with this example I found parked on the Denver street. Californians might also see an Audi-powered race version in the near future.

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19 Comments on “Down On The Mile High Street: Toyota MasterAce...”

  • avatar

    Back in my days as a climbing bum I thought that this was the ultimate crag ride. True 4WD, locking hubs and reliability a Syncro could never touch.

  • avatar

    Why are there 2 shifting sticks?

  • avatar

    This van was a piece of crap.
    It floated and tilted like a Disneyland tea cup.
    It rusted faster than a non-galvanized coffee can, which seemed to have been the basis for the sheet metal of this thing. This van was tinny like a cookie cutter. The interior was nothing less than polyester mouse fur covering seats that you would have expected to be able to fold up and take to a baseball game. Flimsy.

    It was rear drive. So, not only did it ride like crap, it had no traction. So, to keep drivers alive, Toyota put 4WD on them.

    The engine was great, however. It is a Toyota truck with a great engine.
    It has the world’s lousiest van body however.

    It didn’t sell because it cost more than a Caravan, didn’t have FWD, wasn’t road hugging, didn’t have a nice interior, too high to easily step into, wasn’t roomy behind the wheel, wasn’t quiet on the road, had an engine bay impossible to service, and it had an obsolete dated design because Toyota, like GM and Ford, just threw a van body over a small truck and tried to pass it off as some kind of minivan.

    I had a part time job at a Toyota dealer at the time they were trying to sell these things. I know. This van sucked.

    • 0 avatar

      One tiny clarification: they weren’t based on a compact truck like the Astro/Safari or Windstar; they were a shrunken version of Toyota’s larger buses.

    • 0 avatar

      They were pretty pricey when new, but the 4WD versions are still sought after here in Deliverance county.  Plenty of room for banjo-hauling in the back.

  • avatar

    My parents had one of these.  In many ways, it was an excellent vehicle, though I think mostly because a) it relieved the familial pressure resulting from cramming three kids in the back seat of a Corolla, b) it served me as drunk bus/concert transport/impromptu shaggin’ wagon throughout my teenage years, c) it was probably the easiest car on the planet to parallel-park (it has a wheelbase shorter than the contemporary Tercel.
    It was, however, spooky as hell as high speed.  That wheelbase, combined with the height, made it vulnerable to crosswinds in a way I’ve never known before or since.  I was blown a lane and a half over on the skyways in Burlington and St. Catharines.  It was also pathetically easy to spin.  Oh, and it was slow, especially when loaded with the crew of a men’s heavy eight.
    I really miss that car, though.  It went when I was T-boned as someone ran a red.  Probably just as well it was the passenger side (and it was only me) as crash safety wasn’t so hot.
    Yeah, the Chryslers were better in every way except reliability.  You got, maybe, three years out of a Magic Wagon before something expensive grenaded.  You had to try to kill these.

    • 0 avatar

      I forgot about that short wheelbase.  Those things had the turning radius of a Big Wheel.

    • 0 avatar
      Diesel Fuel Only

      I, too, have heard about their execrable handling and tippyness.
      My pop had a Dodge Caravan when I was a teenager, it was the first vehicle I drove on an interstate.  Good power and not too bad to drive, but the tranny fell out at 45,000 mi.

  • avatar

    At least downunder they were called “Tarago” Twin sticks, hi-lo range? economy/power?

  • avatar

    In my neck of the woods (France/Portugal), this was called the Toyota LiteAce and at least half of them were panel vans, little brothers to the bigger Toyota HiAce.

  • avatar

    I bought one of these in ’85 because we needed space and it was a Toyota (i.e. reliable) and the Chrysler vans were a mess at the time. Their transmissions self destructed all the time.

    I completely concur with the problem with crosswinds. It was really scary. Of course if you had a head-on collision your legs would be crushed in order to protect the engine.

    The only good thing about it was that we could put the kids in the 3rd row when they cried a lot and they weren’t as loud.

    Right after we sold it someone stole it from the new owner… so at least two people wanted one, I guess.

  • avatar

    Despite the terrible name (why couldn’t we have had Toyota Space Vans, as Europe did?), the Toyota Van turned out to be an excellent machine.

    On what planet? The 4WD was definitely a plus, but a very high premium price. Terrifying and under powered on the highway, rear-wheel drive in a front-wheel drive age, the mid-engine idea in a van went away with the 60’s and 70’s child molester vans, and if you ate an order of small McDonald’s french fries and left the container on the floor, the salt would rust out the entire vehicle.

    The heart was indestructible, the package it was wrapped in was utter, complete crap.

  • avatar

    I worked for a company that bought one of these to augment the E150 we used for deliveries.  Compared to the Econoline, the Toyota was a Ferrari.  With nothing in the interior but the front seats and some mouse hair carpet, it was quick enough to get out of its own way and the handling was entertaining if not confidence inspiring.  Ours had a 3-speed auto with OD, and it ate trannies like candy, probably because we often loaded it with about a thousand pounds of equipment, and then drove it like madmen when it was empty.
    I took a shortcut home a couple days ago and drove past a house that had 4 or 5 of these in the driveway.  Almost stopped for a picture.

  • avatar

    “Toyota Van”, while not exciting, is a perfectly good name.
    Look how many Hiluxes they sold as “Toyota Pickup”s – and how nobody in North America (apart from enthusiasts and immigrants) knows what a “Hilux” is.

  • avatar

    I think the successor to the Toyota Van was the Previa, which had a sleeker bullet exterior shape.  Also had the Toyota virtue of reliability but was relatively underpowered and pricey compared with the Mopar Minivans, so Toyota didn’t sell a whole lot of them in North America. 

    Of course, the Previa’s successor was and is the Sienna, and that became a winner in the market place. 

  • avatar

    I had one of these.  I bought a 1984 and drove it for 6 years.  I absolutely loved it.  A few clarifications.
    -Toyota, for whatever reason (lower import duties?  Additional volume of manufacturer?) had two passenger models.  One was strictly a passenger van and had coil springs on the rear, and the other was based on a cargo van and thus had leafs in the rear.  Mine was the coil model.
    -The 5 speed manual model I had drove like a VW bus IE two settings for the gas pedal, on and off.
    -Mine had the trailer towing package.  It would tow 3500lbs.  It towed better than my 1989 S-10.
    -Had front and rear air.  The condenser was as bigger than the radiator!!!
    -Finally had wife tell me to sell it after she observed that below the factory plywood floor the metal floor had rusted away 100%.  Still miss it..

  • avatar

    “Californians might also see an Audi-powered race version in the near future.”

    Aha! I first heard of this thing well over a year ago, but forgot about it when it never surfaced… and finally, it’s official!

    Oh, and there were a few of these in my small New Hampshire town when I was growing up – they seemed to be silver and light brown, perhaps occasionally white or light metallic blue, just like most Toyotas of the period. This being New Hampshire, I haven’t seen one for several years – though I’ve glimpsed a Maxima wagon and the first second-generation Accord that I’ve seen in many years in the past week, so maybe one of these vans is next…

  • avatar

    Ah, the Wonderwagon…I’ve always liked the look of these things. Anyone know if the 4WD model was available with the dual sunroof and refrigerator like you could get on the LE version? That would be a fun adventure machine.
    Years ago my dad drove one that belonged to a friend of his; apparently the cabin became uncomfortably hot after a few miles because of the engine’s location. I can see that becoming rather annoying.

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