04 Mar

Bruno the 4Runner

We bought a 2000 Toyota 4Runner with 4WD for the wild roads of Central America, and then named him Bruno. Bruno needs to be in top-shape for the trip because if we run into a bandido road block in Northern Mexico, Bruno needs to be able to pop into 4WD, run over the bandidos and smash through their road barrier without breaking a sweat.

This sounds easy. So how hard can it be to make a fifteen year old truck into a rock-solid bandido destroyer? It turns out to be really quite a lot of work. Bruno had 140k miles on him when he came under our wings, and I planned on simply following some online guides to implement some Bruno-improvements. Neither Amanda nor I have much mechanic experience. I’ve changed the oil in a car before by myself, and I’ve done some medium level motorcycle maintenance before.

Here is a view of Bruno in front of our rental house in Oakland:




We bought Bruno for $7500, and ultimately ended up paying $2500 additional in parts, and for the maintenance we could not do ourselves, $1000 in labor costs. By the end of it all, I would guess that 50 hours were spent working on Bruno. We did a lot of mechanic work in our front yard, and I’m sure our neighbors were getting tired of seeing Bruno jacked up on stands without his rear tires on.

First round of work:

  • New tires (ordered online, then took to tire shop to install/balance/alignment)
  • New lower ball joints (ordered parts online, then followed this excellent guide to install)
  • New radiator (ordered parts online, then followed this guide to do install)
  • New shocks/springs, apparently also called struts (ordered parts online, then removed the front assembly and took it to local shop to have them decompress old springs/shocks and swap in new ones and re-compress. The whole setup for the rear ones are much more difficult to do, so I had the dealership do those).

Everything was looking good. Then, upon having the rear struts done at dealership, they pointed out that the brakes should probably be done, the automatic transmission fluid drain plug was leaking, the rear axle seal was leaking, and the rear differential was making a whining noise.

What the!? Bruno… please tell us these are lies…

Second round of work:

This is when the real avalanche of work began. What exactly is an axle, and what does a differential do?

  • Front/Rear Brakes (difficulty: pretty easy) – ordered parts online, watched some YouTube videos, front brakes are easy, rear drum brakes are a bit more complex but still straightforward.
  • Rear axle seal (difficulty: medium) – ordered parts online, and followed this amazing guide to remove the axle shaft from Bruno. Took shaft to mechanic to have them press on new wheel bearing on the axle. Take back home, discover that they pressed on to incorrect depth, have to take back to them to get it fixed. After that was done, I changed the axle seal myself without the proper tool -much cursing involved-, then was able to re-insert axle shaft and finish by adding the gear oil. Slam dunk.

Bruno kicks me in the face:

  • Rear differential (difficulty: a very serious bummer) – first I had to watch this helpful YouTube video explaining how a differential works. Then took Bruno to mechanic to confirm the problem. Took Bruno home, put up on jack stands, removed back tires, had to pull out the rear axle shafts again after my previous axle seal fix, disconnect drive shaft, then pulled out the rear differential (also called a third member). This thing is EXTREMELY HEAVY. If you were laying on the ground and I dropped this on your chest, I’m pretty sure it would kill you. Or at least break a few ribs. We put it in a bucket and took to mechanic to have them “rebuild” the differential. In the end they recognized that a bearing had died in the pinion component, which was making the whine noise. Now fixed. Took back home and put everything back together.  Hurray! Job complete! All done, right? NOPE. After taking Bruno for a test drive, we discovered that I DID A SHIT JOB re-installing the rear differential and the gasket seal was leaking oil LIKE NOBODY’S BUSINESS.


We had to take everything back apart (third time removing the god-damn axle shafts) and then re-install the rear differential putting much more effort towards scraping off all the old crusted seal gunk and cleaning the seal area with brake cleaner multiple times before applying the new seal gasket. Sigh. Finally fixed. Super-thanks to my wonderful wife for doing 50% of the work on the second install, as I probably would have given up and accepted defeat without her.  What would I do without her?

 Bruno Gets Ready For Camping:

Now that Bruno is in top-notch mechanical condition, we need to add some camping modifications. Bruno is going to get:

  • A 12v fridge – We bought an Engel MT35F-U1 fridge which cost us $840. We could have gone for a lower cost fridge (a lot of people choose the Edgestar 43 Qt instead), but we wanted a very compact fridge to maximize our sleeping space. The best price we could find was at Compact Appliance – here is a sponsored link to the Engel MT35F-U1 listing on their site.

Engel MT35F-U1 fridge in 4Runner

Engel MT35F-U1 fridge

  • A dual battery system – This will power the fridge and charge our electronics. This project was complex, since electricity is super tricky. What gauge wire to use, where to put fuses and what size fuses. Took a long time to get figured out, since neither Amanda nor I are electricians. Huge thanks to liferemotely.com who had this guide on installing a dual battery system in a 4Runner. Below is a picture under Bruno’s hood. You can see in the bottom right of this picture is our auxiliary Optima YellowTop battery, which we ended up buying from Amazon. You can see a bunch of wires going back from the battery to the intelligent solenoid in the top right (the solenoid protects the starter battery from being drained by the auxiliary battery).


  • A sleeping platform – We were prepared to construct our own, but we found one on Craigslist for only $75. Touch down! Only had to make a few small adjustments. We’ll also be using an additional mattress pad on top of the platform for extra comfort. Underneath the platform is space for our kitchen & food bins, tools and camping gear.

Toyota 4Runner Sleeping Platform

Toyota 4Runner Sleeping Platform

Add some curtains, provisions for mosquito netting around the windows, and we’re pretty much ready to hit the road!