By on June 26, 2017

The third-generation Toyota Hilux pickup (called the “Toyota Truck” in the United States) was a legend of reliability and frugality well into our current century, and plenty of small motorhomes were built on its sturdy platform. You’ll still see them occasionally today, but the skin-crawling ickiness of tenth-owner RVs tends to mean the end comes quickly when they wear out. Here’s one that took nearly 40 years to reach that point, now residing in The Final Campground: a self-service wrecking yard near Denver.

It hasn’t quite been everywhere, but this Dolphin has visited all of the West and Deep South, plus a whole swath of states between Colorado and the Atlantic.

This parking pass indicates this Toyota was in Alberta in 1988 when Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican Bobsled Team made a mockery of the Olympics achieved their triumphs.

Stick-on mailbox letters are magical things. We know from this that Carola owned this Toyota, and that she liked Led Zeppelin.

Inside is about what you’d expect from a billion-mile Colorado RV (I’m guessing the mileage, as someone had already pulled the instrument cluster before I got there): a stench of sweat, excrement, dust, and rodent piss, plus cannabis-dispensary stickers everywhere.

This is true.

The final owner of a vehicle like this generally tries to do some $1.99 spruce-ups.

Think this 20R still runs? I’ll bet it does. With 90 horsepower, though, this thing must have been a poky little puppy climbing steep grades.

Dolphins were built by National RV Holdings in Southern California. The company went out of business in 2007.

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22 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1978 Toyota Dolphin Mini-Motorhome...”

  • avatar

    This thing SCREAMS “I’m not allowed near schools”

  • avatar

    Carol had a ’78 Toyota motorhome, a can of purple spray paint and a dream. She stepped back to admire her handiwork. Okay, it wasn’t perfect. She’d meant for the storage box to read “Carol’s Toyota” but they didn’t have an apostrophe so she used an “A” instead. No matter. It was funky and personal. On the other side, “Led Zeppelin” informed people of her musical tastes and also served as a code for those in the know that free love and free pot may be available should they choose to venture inside the camper.

    The dream came to a soggy end on the third night when it began to rain heavily. Water poured in from everywhere! Carol rushed to the nearest Home Depot where she purchased several rolls of vapor barrier tape in a vain attempt to seal up the leaks. No dice. Trip ruined, Carol reluctantly heads for home where she promptly puts her little camper up for sale. Any potential buyers are immediately repulsed by the amount of work that will be needed to bring the camper back to usable condition. Frustrated at not being able to sell it, Carol finally decides to cut her losses and just get rid of the little Toyota.

  • avatar

    “I’m looking for a toilet, for a ’78 Dolphin.”

    – “Sorry, we had one, until the other day.”

  • avatar

    I remember seeing a couple of these as rolling meth labs fairly regularly on the I-5 and I-405 some years back. One caught fire during a daring run to escape the CHP and made it on the 11:00 news.

  • avatar
    Corey Lewis

    Stuck between a utility vehicle and a van – the exact correct place for it.

  • avatar

    …………. ewwww. That is all I can say. When a friend of mine acquired a 10 acre junk yard here on the Front Range, he was left about 5 of these to ” deal-with”. He had a local drifter / vagrant who he made a trade with, he could dismantle the campers and take what ever he wanted and stuff the rest in the dumpster, and sleep in the ones not yet dismantled. After about one year of working very slowly and selling the Aluminum panels and wire to a local recycler, he was left with 5 cab and chassis. The gross factor of these rigs was off-putting to say the least. Mouse pee, body odor and mildew was the common theme.

  • avatar

    I still see these all the time in the PNW. Especially in Seattle where there are a lot of people living out of them.

    My desk looks out over a parking zone where you can park for 72 hours for free. At any given time there is at least one Dolphin there.

    I guess this little rig couldn’t make the haul all the way out to the Dolphin promised land.

  • avatar

    I have fond memories of the Chinook equivalent to this my parents had when I was a kid.

    (Presumably a 2G Hilux with the same 20R engine.)

    Back in the late 70s, when they were new, and not all falling apart and decrepit.

  • avatar

    These have no business ever on a modern freeway.. They couldn’t even do 55

  • avatar

    The camper shell, in this case, is to this otherwise-worth-$500+ Toyota truck what a backseat full of McDonald’s bags is to a drivable-but-dented 20-year-old Sentra. I’m surprised some enterprising landscaper or scrapper didn’t buy it at auction for the opening bid and immediately tear off the Dolphin carapace.

  • avatar

    If the last couple of owners had spent the money they wasted on drugs on the Dolphin, it would be in pristine condition instead of rotted and grafittied, like the brains and bodies of Carol and her acquaintances.

  • avatar

    As a Delaware-born life-long Easterner, I find it unexpectedly gratifying that the owners got to The First State, but avoided NJ and NY.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if residents of NJ & NY are happy about not hosting their visit.

  • avatar

    Holly took off her apron for the last time and set down her spatula. This morning she turned over her last six-egg omelet and moved her last mountain of hash browns at Beth’s Cafe. Holly worked the graveyard shift, surprisingly busy especially around 1:30 AM when the young people filtered out of the night clubs and live music venues. On every table was a box of crayons and paper and people made drawings while they ate and discussed the awesome show they just saw. Many of these were quite artistic and Holly made sure the best of these were hung on the walls. Holly loved serving her young customers. Years ago she was one of them.

    Holly grew up in an ordinary middle-class suburb of Denver, Colorado. Her mom was a teacher and an artist, and her Dad worked for the railroad. In 1991 Seattle’s music scene became world famous, with Seattle bands on heavy rotation on MTV and article after article in Rolling Stone spotlighting the youthful, exuberant generation that made the city buzz. With no plan at all, Holly, now 21, packed up her Volkswagen Rabbit and headed west.

    When she arrived she found that apartments were rather expensive-$400 and up-but many people were renting out spare rooms. She found a clean, small room in a big Craftsman house in Wallingford, shared by the 60-year old lady owner and 3 other young people. The owner wintered in Mexico so they had the place to themselves for several months out of the year.

    They all became friends. Some moved out and new people moved in, but Holly became close with Emmett, a young hippie-like man a few years older who left Pittsburgh to follow the Grateful Dead all over the country until he wound up in Seattle and that house. In fact Emmett recommended Holly to the other housemates and the landlady.

    Together they introduced the somewhat introverted Holly to her new hometown, starting with salsa dancing at the Mexican restaurant down the street. Holly couldn’t dance a step and was reluctant to go, but they coaxed her out and she had a great time, after a few margaritas. Emmett and Holly went to all the cool places like Moe’s, the Off-Ramp, Sit & Spin, and the Crocodile; and the Bumbershoot and Endfest music festivals. Theirs was a platonic friendship, though truth be told Holly wished it could be more.

    Eventually everyone left the house for real apartments, including Holly. They all moved on with their lives, their careers, their relationships and families. Emmett got into the Seattle real estate market and made a fortune, and was married with two kids. She followed him on Facebook, but she rarely saw him anymore.

    But Holly didn’t really move on. Her bipolar disorder interrupted her degree program, her career path, and her long-term relationships. She painted a little, like her mom, after taking an art class at North Seattle Community College; and her paintings hung in a few indie coffeehouses in town. She even sold a few that way. She spent her 20s, 30s, and the better part of her 40s working hip but low paying jobs at bars and cafes; still living like she did like she did in her 20s in cheap apartments filled with thrift-store furniture and housewares. Although by now her disorder was mostly under control, it kept her from learning what the millennials called “adulting”. Still her lifestyle worked, until the city itself grew up and moved on.

    New luxury towers were going up like bamboo shoots, for the highly paid tech workers from Amazon and Google. They displaced the old Seattle-Bauhaus, Sit and Spin, the Funhouse-all gone now. In their place on the ground floors of these neo-Brutalist concrete and glass fortresses were exquisitely designed spaces serving artisanal cocktails and $15 bowls of gluten-free mac-and-cheese to people who still had their employee badges around their necks at 8pm on a Friday night. She looked in the window of one of these places, saw the good looking and fashionably dressed people in a low-lit room full of reclaimed wood and natural stone, then looked at her own reflection in the glass with her flannel shirt and faded jeans, then pretty much stopped going out after that.

    It began to dawn on her that she was living vicariously through the people around her. She always did; she never felt as hip as the artists and musicians she read about in the Stranger or eavesdropped on from the next table over. Facebook made this easier; she followed all the people she used to know, looking at their vacation photos, pictures of new babies, pets that passed over the Rainbow Bridge. But now she began to feel, at age 47 that she didn’t fit in with people her own age, let alone people in their 20s and 30s.

    She dreamed of travel, of upending her life and starting over. After all, she did it once before. She remembered Emmett telling her stories from the road and she dreamed about buying a cheap RV, paring her possessions down the the bare essentials, and going mobile.

    One day in mid December the decision to move was made for her. Her landlord informed her that her rent was going up to $1500 a month. For a small one-bedroom in a ’60s building in Fremont that was never updated. That was the going rate for a place like that. Holly could never afford the rents anywhere in the city anymore.

    “F#@% this $%& city!”, Holly fumed. “I am OFFICIALLY OVER this place! Tired of the $#!&*y rain, the traffic, the yuppies, everything!”

    Holly looked on Craigslist for a small RV to travel the country. “I haven’t even seen the Grand Canyon”, she said to herself. Most of the vehicles in her price range weren’t a good value; too much money for RVs that were old and in poor condition. On a lark, she checked the FREE section where she got a lot of her furniture and there was the ad: “FREE RV 1978 Dolphin Toyota mini motor home. Ran when parked. U tow.”

    She called the number. Carol Ann and her husband, both teachers, bought it new and toured the US. She told Holly about the 1982 Worlds Fair in Knoxville, TN, and the 1988 Winter Olympics in Alberta which they went to in their first year of retirement. They spent their retirement touring the South and Southwest to escape the bleak rainy winters of Western Washington. After her husband died she travelled alone for five more years. The Dolphin had been sitting for three years at Carol Ann’s half acre down in Auburn.

    “Does it run?” asked Holly. “I haven’t tried to start it up. Tell you what, I’ll tinker with it some and see if I can’t get it running”. Carol Ann was very accommodating; she had learned how difficult it is to get rid of a 30-year old non-running RV, even a free one.

    A few days later she called Holly. “Good news! I had a neighbor bring over a used battery and some fresh gas and dang it if it didn’t start right up! It’s still free if you want it.”

    Carol Ann picked Holly up at the Sounder station in Auburn and drove to her house, a ’50s rambler with a heavy blanket of moss on the roof. Out back, also under a heavy blanket of moss, was the Dolphin.

    Like a kid on Christmas morning, Holly looked over her prize. Tires looked a little dry, it smelled faintly like mildew inside she thought, but overall it looked like it could go to the moon and back.

    Holly was so giddy as she drove home in rush-hour traffic that she forgot about the expired plates. As she creeped along at 20 mph she thought, “I gotta get some new windshield wipers”.

    She began to have her doubts as the Dolphin bucked and wheezed and barely made it up the steep street to her building in Fremont. “She was right, I gotta have someone look at this.”

    She called Emmett. She remembered that Emmett had a clapped out VW Bus that he was always wrenching on, and he did some basic repairs to the house they lived in while the owner was away in Mexico. He was pretty handy with tools.

    Emmett rolled up in a new Mercedes SUV with a child seat in the back. “Long time no see!”, said Holly as she gave him a hug. It had been almost two years. She was pleased to see that he still had long hair, though it had gone grey.

    Emmett looked at the Dolphin and was appalled. When he opened the door the overpowering stench of mold and mildew and possibly rodent urine knocked him back on his heels and triggered an allergic reaction. The floor around the door was so spongy that he was afraid that it would give way under him, and the paneling was delaminating and sagging from the damp. It looked like it had been to the moon and back.

    “I’m going to drive to Arizona where it’s warm and dry and see the Grand Canyon and the Alamo in Texas and my folks in Denver and Graceland and…” “Ohhhhh, THIS again”, thought Emmett. He knew that there was no talking her out of it when she was like this, not right now. Then he thought that she might get stuck living in this thing on the streets of Seattle and his heart sank. “OK lets give this a going over.”

    On the phone Emmett asked her exactly what make and model the Dolphin and it’s running gear was, so when he arrived he had four spark plugs and wires for the Toyota 20R engine, some fuel filters, and a pair of new windshield wipers. He replaced the blackened and eroded plugs, changed the filters, topped off the oil, and tuned the carb mixture by ear until the 20R ran fairly smoothly.

    Together they wiped down the entire interior with a borax and water solution to knock down the mold and mildew and disinfect the place. “I learned this trick when I lived on that sail boat. Remember when we watched the Fourth of July fireworks on Lake Union?” She did. It was the last time the old housemates were together in one place.

    “How can I repay you for all of this?” “Don’t worry about it, it’s on me”. She looked at his Mercedes and thought that he could certainly spare it; then she hated herself for thinking that. As she hugged him goodbye, Emmett realized that he would probably never see her again. “Where are you going first?” “I think I should go visit my folks in Denver” “That’s a good idea,” thought Emmett. Maybe stay there.

    Holly packed the Dolphin with her clothes, her favorite books, and her art supplies, and put the rest of her stuff on the curb with a sign that said “FREE”, and listed it on Craigslist for good measure. She was surprised at how fast it was taken away. She painted the Dolphin in shades of blue, green and purple, her favorite colors, and taped over the joints and seams to keep out the leaks. She left Carol Ann’s name, or most of it, on the back in her honor; after all she made Holly’s new life possible with a free running RV and the words of encouragement, “Don’t worry about traveling alone honey, I did it and so can you!”

    She turned in her key, got her security deposit back, and climbed into the Dolphin’s over the cab bunk for the night. In her mind her journey had already begun.

    Next morning she climbed into the drivers seat and twisted the key. The Dolphin’s engine cranked slowly, caught and chuffed a little on one or two cylinders and quit. Holly ran the battery down trying to get it to start and run. She called Emmett in tears.

    “I’ll be right over.” On the way he thought that Holly’s vulnerability was appealing on some level. His wife was a high-profile attorney whom he met through his real estate dealings, and she certainly didn’t need him to come to her rescue.

    Emmett had the Dolphin towed to a repair shop owned by a friend of his. They changed the fluids, hoses and belts, set the timing and dialed in the carburetor with an exhaust gas analyzer until most of the 20R’s 90 horses were back in the corral. He even had them put in a new battery. The tow and the repairs were almost $2000.

    “How can I ever repay you?” “Just keep in touch, take lots of pictures. Maybe paint a landscape for me in Colorado.” They hugged goodbye once again, and Holly committed his warmth, his scent, the feeling of being in his arms to memory.

    Next morning Holly woke up to find a parking ticket on her windshield. “I’m entitled to 72 hours! This #@$% city!” She hoped that the Dolphin’s engine would start and carry her the hell out of here. She twisted the key with a little bit of pessimism, but the 20R sprang to life and settled down to a smooth, sewing machine idle.

    Holly drove the Dolphin to Beth’s for a big breakfast for old time’s sake, then when rush hour traffic eased she headed east on I-90. The Dolphin climbed Snoqualmie Pass like the Little Engine that Could, then it was smooth sailing across the Western plains, countersteering against the crosswinds until she made the climb to Denver.

    She arrived at her mom’s house a few days later. “Welcome home, it’s so GOOD to see you!” “I can’t stay for very long, maybe a week or so, then I gotta get back on the road.” She got reacquainted with her mom and dad; her mom showed Holly her paintings and told her that she even had a gallery showing, ok it wasn’t a major gallery but people liked her stuff and she sold a few canvases for a nice little bit of money.

    Holly hated to leave her aging parents again; who knows how long they have before they’re gone and isn’t it selfish of me to be in a strange city when they start needing someone to take care of them? She put that out of her mind for now, she had plans to visit Arizona and the Grand Canyon and the Alamo and Graceland and…

    After a big breakfast of eggs and hash browns which Holly cooked up for her mom and dad, she climbed into the driver’s seat of the Dolphin, twisted the key, and the 20R cranked slowly, caught and chuffed on 1 or 2 cylinders and quit, and that was that.

  • avatar

    I’ve been trying to find a decent condition one of these (or similar) for my sister to use as a mobile coffee shop/reading room. She sits interminably in parking lots while waiting for whatever class, performance, audition, or other event her performing arts genius daughter is at.

  • avatar

    I remember seeing these in RV shows back in the day, and wondered how the little truck would drive on the highway with a good headwind, or even with a hard wind hitting it from the side? Still, I also admired the idea of a small RV, touring the country with no schedule to keep. It is the Class B of its time.

  • avatar

    I’m about 50% certain someone bought this whole RV from the scrap yard and is turning it back into a pickup truck. It was posted on one of the Toyota pickup pages on facebook a few months ago I think. The only reason I think it was this exact RV is.. well you don’t forget a paint scheme like that.

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