It’s easy to get lost in the gloss of high-budget bug-out builds. These home-built machines seemingly have the capability of General Dynamics’ finest, and they have the price tag to match, too. But in all honesty, you don’t need to take out a second mortgage to build a capable bug-out ride. All you really need is the right platform, a few bucks and a solid build plan.
- RELATED STORY: Vehicle Review: 2 Prepper Bug-Out Rides
The cheapest way to start a bug-out build is to begin with something cheap, simple and reliable. Something damn near impossible to break, but when it does, it can be fixed with just a good whack of a hammer. What you want, then, is a Toyota Hilux.
A certain British motoring show made a very popular film highlighting the Hilux’s indestructability. You may have seen it on YouTube. Those of us who came of age during the Reagan era, however, know the truck best from its appearance as Marty McFly’s dream ride in Back to the Future. What few realize, though, is that this iconic ’80s machine also underpins the ride you see here – a first-gen 1986 Toyota 4Runner.
The unbreakable nature of these first-gen 4Runners makes them highly sought after in the off-road community, and better yet, these bulletproof trucks can be bought dirt cheap. Mike Penhall, owner of OC Armory and the bug-out ride you see here, picked his up for about a grand.
For that price, it wasn’t a show queen, obviously. This truck had seen a hard life, boasting more than 300,000 miles on the odometer, and its fuel-injected 22RE four-cylinder engine required a new head. But Penhall was drawn to the Toyota, as it was beat-up enough to justify the extreme militarized makeover. Thanks to its proven components, it took just under $6,800 in repairs and upgrades, a little elbow grease and 12 months to transform the 4Runner into the badass ride you see here.
Since these first-gen 4Runners are basically pickup trucks with a factory-mounted camper shell, Penhall ditched the removable hard top and replaced it with a durable cloth unit from Softopper. Much lighter than the factory shell, this upgraded soft top uses all the factory mounting points, making it easy for Penhall to switch between weather-sealed comfort and open-air access. As you can see by the pictures, you can already guess why that latter feature is important.
But first, let’s talk about that cage. Penhall enlisted the help of Steel Nutz in Murrieta, Calif., to custom fabricate the full external cage you see here. Built to take a beating, this exoskeleton helps ensure that an errant boulder or rollover won’t put a premature end to an outdoor expedition.
The themes of “budget” and “durable” extend to the paint job as well. Those of us familiar with the performance car world know it as a “rattle can” paint job, meaning it was done quickly and economically with a few cans of spray paint – Krylon Camouflage, in this case. Penhall chose its Khaki color, as it’s unreflective, blends into the desert environment that he frequents, and can easily be found at most any hardware store. The spray can makes paint touch-ups simple with little prep or cleanup.
Since Penhall picked up this truck with the intention of transforming it into a mobile weapon platform, he initially wanted to equip it with a full-fledged, center-mounted turret capable of carrying a .50-caliber “Ma Deuce.” However, doing so would go against the budget-minded nature of the build. Steel Nutz and Penhall opted for a more wallet-friendly solution, fabricating a top center gun mount, plus the ancillary mounts seen around the truck that can take everything from the aforementioned .50 BMG M2 to a 7.62x51mm-chambered M1919. It all helps make this truck capable of packing enough firepower to ensure that no one messes with whoever’s inside – should shit ever hit the fan, of course.
4Runners have some serious off-road prowess right out of the box, and these early ’80s examples are no exception. Penhall’s truck being a 1986 model, it still has the factory independent front suspension. A solid straight axle would be the dream here, but making that conversion would blow the budget. Still, with its upgraded shocks and bushings – installed by the guys at 4 Wheel Parts – this 4Runner is no slouch on the dirt. You won’t find a lift kit underneath this Toyota, but with its 31-inch Pro Comp All-Terrain tires and 14-inch steel wheels – also chosen for their budget-minded price – Penhall still has the ground clearance and terrain-clawing grip he needs.
Get inside this 4Runner and you’ll find that the cabin is nothing but business. Even when new, these trucks didn’t offer much from the factory, but Penhall stripped out the interior save for the folding rear bench seat. The original front Toyota cloth-covered buckets were tossed and replaced with some weather-resistant, clearance-priced Jeep seats found at a local off-road shop. Penhall fabricated custom mounts to fit these into the factory location, ensuring that he and his front passenger would stay securely in place.
And like every project car, this 4Runner is an always-evolving work in progress. In fact, Penhall and his buddy Joe G. from Hanlon Auto Center added the winch just in time for this article’s photo shoot. The idea was to give the truck winching capabilities front and rear without breaking the bank. To keep the cost down, they made a single winch pull double duty by mounting it to a modified tow hitch so it can be moved from front to rear by simply attaching it to a receiver hitch as you would a trailer. A $100 receiver hitch picked up from Walmart was welded up front onto the truck’s frame. The Harbor Freight winch, rated for 9,000 pounds of line-pull capacity, is powered by a lengthened power cable that extends from under the hood and is long enough to reach all the way to the back of the truck.
Penhall’s future plans for this truck are modest. The front windshield needs to be replaced (we’re sure that the concussive force of .50 BMG being shot from just above contributed to that as much as age and rock chips – First World problems are a heck of thing), and he’d like to have the factory Toyota seats (well, their sliding mechanisms at least) back in the truck. The bed and interior will also be coated to further increase durability, providing a mean look at the same time.
- RELATED STORY: Chevy’s New Tahoe Police Patrol Vehicle
Penhall’s truck has almost everything you need and nothing you don’t. It shows what most anyone can achieve with a solid plan, a few dollars and weekend wrenching. The total he spent for the truck, including the 4Runner itself, fixing its busted head, and its upgrade parts came out to $7,839 – not a bad price tag for a mobile gun and bug-out platform in our book. How ever you chose to to build your budget rig, it’s good to know that if we do end up living in a Mad Max future, Penhall, his 4Runner, and hopefully your own bug-out rides will still be going strong.