Home » Toyota Gave Us Diesel Pickups For Five Short Years, Then Took Them Away Forever

Toyota Gave Us Diesel Pickups For Five Short Years, Then Took Them Away Forever

Forgotten Toyota Diesel Ts
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Toyota does a roaring trade in trucks in North America. The Tundra and Tacoma sell hundreds of thousands of units a year in the face of stiff competition from domestic automakers. Toyota achieves this every year despite completely ignoring an entire segment of the truck market: diesels. But it wasn’t always this way!

Once upon a time, your local Toyota dealer would have happily handed you the keys to a diesel pickup. In fact, they’d have been handing you the keys to a diesel Hilux. Back in the 1980s, that wasn’t even controversial!

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Today, such trucks are now expressly forbidden from the United States. If you asked for a diesel Toyota pickup, you’d be laughed out of the dealership! Instead, let’s dive back into a time when Huey Lewis was on the radio and Betamax still had a shot against VHS. And, most importantly, when Toyota was just getting its feet wet in the world of diesel pickups.

1982 Toyota Trucks Drums
Longbeds represent!

Take The L

The 1970s was a time of change for the auto industry, particularly in the US. Today, we know it as the Malaise Era. Cars and trucks were suffering as ever-more restrictive smog equipment robbed engines of power. More relevant to the average consumer, though, were gas prices. They were bad enough at the best of times and hit wild peaks when the Iranian Revolution spawned a major energy crisis in 1979.

Automakers were not ignorant to the changing winds. Smaller, more efficient cars began to steal sales from larger models, and imports became a serious force in the US market. In the quest for greater fuel efficiency, engineers pursued all kinds of routes. Diesel was one of the most promising. Diesel engines could offer efficiency, as long as customers were willing to make the trade off for somewhat lazier acceleration. The late 1970s saw diesels come to passenger cars and to pickup trucks alike. Most notably, Chevrolet threw a gas-derived V8 diesel in its trucks to very little success, while Dodge fared a little better in its pre-Cummins years.

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1984 Toyota Trucks
The Toyota L engine, as used in the 1983 Toyota Pickup. Note the big “L” on the cam cover.

At the time, Toyota had much the same idea as its US-based rivals. 1978 saw the launch of the new third-generation Toyota Hilux, and just a year later, diesel power came along. The Hilux would receive the L engine, which Toyota first designed in 1977.

1983 Toyota Truck Yellow

1984 Toyota Truck Diesel Brown

Diesel Badge
Special badging denoted the diesel models.

Simply designated the L, the engine was water-cooled with a single overhead cam. Toyota lauded the engine for its “quiet running” nature, thanks to its fabric rubber timing belt, along with its viscous clutch-type cooling fan and oil pan baffles. It also scored underhood sound insulation to further quiet things down.

In the Hilux, the L engine delivered 62 horsepower and 93 pound-feet of torque. This compared relatively poorly to the standard 20R gasoline engine, with the 2.2-liter engine offering 90 horsepower and 122 pound-feet of torque in comparison. In fact, the gas engine was shared with the Toyota Celica of the time, making it a racehorse compared to the diesel unit.

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1983 Toyota Trucks Cc
Who doesn’t love that special diesel decal? The sporty SR5 trim was available with a diesel for a short time in the early 1980s.

North America did get the Hilux back then, but it was simply titled the Toyota Pickup in the US. It would take a couple of years for the oil burner to filter through to the US market, where it arrived in 1981. It was initially available as a 2WD truck in the Long Bed Deluxe trim, with a five-speed manual transmission.

Toyota’s first diesel truck didn’t make the same mistakes as some of its rivals. The engine may not have been fast, but it was relatively reliable. Key to this point was that Toyota included a water separator in the engine design, with a warning light if water levels grew too high in the fuel sedimentor. Toyota also covered cold-start concerns, with dual heavy-duty batteries providing lots of juice for the glow plugs and starter.

1982 Toyota Pickup Diesel Ad2

 

The Japanese automaker even capitalized on General Motor’s own failure, perhaps out of a desire to avoid the bad name diesel had gotten from the disastrous Oldsmobile V8.

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Plus, the Toyota diesel was designed from the ground up as a diesel engine, not converted from an existing gasoline engine like the General Motors diesel. Another key point to remember: Toyota has been building diesel engines for over 20 years!

-Toyota diesel truck brochure, 1981

Fuel economy was a mighty 31 mpg or 38 mpg highway. This was in an era when the standard gasoline model was getting closer to 20 mpg, so there were big savings to be had. Zero-to-60 mph times are hard to come by for the diesel, but “glacial” would be a good estimation. The gasoline models were achieving the sprint in a leisurely 13.3 seconds in 1980; the diesel was probably closer to 20 seconds, if not longer.

Toyota eventually expanded the lineup. By 1982, you could purchase a diesel truck in the sporty SR5 trim, and by 1983, with four-wheel drive. The trucks remained slow, but they did the job well enough that Toyota decided to continue pursuing diesel into the next generation.

Combona2
Toyota didn’t make the same mistake as some of its rivals. It gave the trucks the equipment they needed to run a diesel engine right.
Combona Scaled 2
The diesel truck got a full double spread in the 1982 Toyota Trucks brochure. 

 

Take Another L

The next generation of Pickup landed in 1984 with a slightly squarer design. With it came a new generation of diesel power in the form of Toyota’s 2L engine. It could be had on both two- and four-wheel-drive models from the outset.

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Don’t get confused—2L was the designation, not the displacement. In fact, Toyota wound displacement out to 2.4 liters on the 2L engine. The basic 2L would deliver a healthier 75 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. This measured up against the basic carbureted gasoline engine, the 100-horsepower 22R. The new 22R-E was a little further ahead, which achieved 106 horsepower with the aid of electronic fuel injection.

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The new 2L diesel retained its fuel economy advantage. For two-wheel-drive models, where the EFI gasoline engine was achieving 25 mpg, or 33 mpg highway, in the new Pickup, the diesel could do 35 mpg, 44 mpg highway.

Toyota then took things up a notch, introducing the 2L-T. The new turbo-diesel engine increased power to 84 horsepower and 137 pound-feet of torque. It was still down on power compared to the best EFI gas engines in the Toyota pickup, which had reached 116 horsepower by 1985. However, it was drawing level on torque, with 137 pound-feet of torque compared to the EFI gas engine’s 140 pound-feet in comparison.

1987 Toyota 4x4 Truck
The 2L-T engine in all its glory.

Toyota’s turbodiesel came to the party a full five years after International Harvester’s awesome effort. It didn’t have a huge amount of power, but it was still a welcome boost over the naturally aspirated engine.

Regardless, by this point, the diesel was falling out of favor with Toyota’s American arm. Early on, the diesel models got a full-page spread in the brochures. Now they were relegated to small photos tucked in the corner and a note on the specifications page.

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1986 Toyota 4x4 T3
Okay, check this out. This is wild. Here’s a truck listed on Toyota Canada’s site as a “1986 Toyota 4×4 Truck.” Note the 2.4D turbo badging, denoting the turbodiesel 2L-T engine. 

 

1984 Toyota Trucks 04 2
Time travel back to the 1984 brochure. This looks like the same truck with exactly the same hay bales in exactly the same scene. However, it’s got different wheels, no turbodiesel badging, and it has mudflaps fitted. Keep in mind digital editing was in its infancy in the mid-1980s. Does that mean Toyota paid someone to airbrush all those details for a 1986 press picture? That’s a TON of work!

It’s clear Toyota wasn’t pushing the model hard, perhaps perceiving it was no longer of great appeal to the broader customer base. By the 1980s, gas prices had eased, while the memories of GM’s awful diesels were still fresh in the minds of many consumers. While Toyota’s diesel engines were competent, they lacked the raw grunt that would come with the larger turbodiesel engines that were just around the corner.

Toyota’s gasoline engines had closed the gap in fuel economy, too. In 1985, the Pickup’s gas EFI engine could do 23 mpg, or 27 mpg highway. The diesel would score 31 mpg, or 34 mpg highway, while giving up 41 horsepower in the process. The turbodiesel only gave up 32 horsepower, but also only scored 30 mpg, whether in the normal or highway EPA cycles. Likely, this was down to the turbodiesel’s gearing and power curve, which may have kept it on boost at highway revs. This would have negated the usual mileage boost in highway driving.

You Only Want What You Can’t Have

Toyota dropped the diesel in the US by 1986. Though it happily continued on elsewhere, Toyota would never bring a diesel pickup back to the American market.

The final nail in the coffin was the death of the Hilux itself. While the mid-sized truck has gone on to legendary success around the world, it wasn’t seen as the right truck for American tastes. The Toyota Pickup, as it was known, would hang on in the US until 1995, when the Toyota Tacoma took over instead. It was engineered with a greater focus on comfort and more car-like handling, given the particular tastes of US customers. Where the Hilux was seen as a work truck in most of the world, Toyota wanted something for Americans who commonly used their trucks as personal vehicles.

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2007 11 Diesel1
Perfect for causing small earthquakes as you drive up to a meeting with the local Home Owner’s Association. 

Toyota’s US arm didn’t forget about diesel entirely. 2007 saw the development of the Toyota Tundra Diesel Project Truck. It was thoroughly American through and through, with the engine-swapped “1-ton” truck debuting at the 2007 SEMA show.

2007 11 Diesel6 1500x1004
Just get a tractor and a semi-trailer at this point, seriously.

The concept truck had a customized suspension front and back to build a properly heavy-duty towing setup. It came complete with a 24,000-pound fifth-wheel trailer hitch from Reese, and dually rear wheels to handle the load. It rocked Alcoa brushed aluminum rims that told the world this thing was all business.

Under the hood, Toyota had squeezed a massive 8.0-liter Hino turbodiesel truck engine. It had 260 horsepower and a mighty 585 pound-feet of torque, which were serious numbers for the era. The six-cylinder donk was originally designed for massive commercial trucks with gross vehicle weight ratings up to 35,000 pounds. That kind of grunt makes sense if you’ve got an insanely heavy fifth-wheel trailer hanging off the back of your rig. The engine sent power to a Meritor rear end via a heavy-duty 5-speed manual from Eaton.

8226440
The hefty Hino was simply too much. It typically served in full-size commercial trucks, not regular pickups.

A diesel Tundra may have appealed to some, but the concept did not make serious waves at the time. It wasn’t really a serious build for Toyota by any means. The Hino drivetrain was simply not a reasonable fit for the Tundra, however cool that might have been. It also came out just before the Great Recession hit, and at a time when even established automakers were struggling to get their diesels to meet new stringent EPA regulations.

Diesel Toyota pickups are still a big thing on the world stage. Australians especially love a Toyota turbodiesel, when they’re not choking on their own exhaust, anyway. It’s the same story in South Africa, and many other countries besides.

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For America, though, it’s an entirely different matter. Toyota has said no, and it’s been saying no for quite some time. You shall not have a Hilux, and you shall not have a diesel truck. You had your chance for five short years, and you missed it. You’ll use gasoline forever more, and no other fuel. And you’ll like it! With the electric wave looming ever larger and Toyota’s pickup sales remaining strong, don’t expect that to change any time soon.

Image credits: Toyota

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EricTheViking
EricTheViking
22 days ago

The perk of living in Germany is the wider range of model and engine choices. That included Toyota Land Cruiser (J200) with 4.5-litre twin-turbo diesel V8 engine (1VD-FTV). I had an opportunity to drive one and was amazed at its grunt power and acceleration. It could cruise at 220 km/h on the Autobahn quite easily and comfortably.

A several years ago, my brother talked with a registered importer in Colorado who specialised in importing and federalising the Land Cruiser (J200), including the ones with diesel V8 engine, and other Land Cruiser variations. They claimed that Toyota had already certified this aforementioned diesel V8 engine for the US market, making it easier for them to obtain the EPA certification without modifications.

The US Toyota dealers had been clamouring for this diesel V8 engine for a long time, but Toyota refused to buckle…

lastwraith
lastwraith
22 days ago

Man, those trucks are so good looking.
Why do we only get bloated behemoths now? It can’t all be safety reasons.

Andrew Wyman
Andrew Wyman
22 days ago
Reply to  lastwraith

There is one of these gas models that is a daily driver down the street from me. It is beautiful in it’s blue paint. I am happy every time I see it there.

Mikan
Mikan
22 days ago

I’m very curious, Lewin – you’re the Australian correspondent who knows your Holdens and (Aussie) Fords, but then you can seamlessly switch to writing like this from an American perspective. Do you have some background in the US, or are you just really well-read about American car history/culture?

Ben Chia
Ben Chia
22 days ago
Reply to  Mikan

I was wondering this too.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
22 days ago
Reply to  Mikan

It helps that Australia and the North America are more similar to each other than either are to any other country, in the context of cars.

Matthew Thomas
Matthew Thomas
23 days ago

Lucky to own a Canadian spec BJ42 and a JDM 1hdt 80 series. Keeping forever.

RC
RC
23 days ago

I would actually contemplate buying something new if Toyota released a turbo diesel hybrid. It’d be heavy, but it’d deliver on range/power/reliability requirements.

Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
23 days ago

The design detail of the extended cab glass reaching lower than the cab glass was a nice touch.

ProfPlum
ProfPlum
23 days ago

A relative had an ’84 2wd long bed diesel; I had an ’84 Xtra Cab gas 2wd. Both had manual transmissions and while my gasser was quicker off the line, his diesel was more practical with the long bed and got amazing mileage.

I used to borrow it for the long bed and once got 47-48mpg unladen on the highway. I’m sorry I didn’t buy one.

Badroadrash
Badroadrash
23 days ago

Bought a 1986 Toyota 4×4 new. At the 75k mark the damn transmission needed repair. We owned our own repair shop so I did my own work. Yanked the transmission and took it apart. Needed new bearings and 2nd gear. Discovered that the transmission was for a diesel engine. Had a 22RE in it. Toyota had to order my parts. I was shocked to say the least. But that transmission lasted to 350k when I finally got rid of the truck.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
23 days ago

I remember those Toyota diesels being rejected by at least one person I know because if you buy a Toyota, you’ll have to replace two batteries instead of one when it’s time to change them. And they absolutely must be eating batteries to need two of them from the factory!

You can bet that Toyota marketing didn’t do anticipate that!

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
23 days ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

Absolutely. Forget the savings on fuel you get from driving tens of thousands of miles at double the MPG! Two batteries!

Never assume your consumer will be logical.

Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
23 days ago

I would assume consumers will not be logical.

DONALD FOLEY
DONALD FOLEY
21 days ago

I wonder they used a 24volt starter, as is used on Mercedes Streeter’s RTS.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
23 days ago

I know that performance was abysmal on the 80s trucks, but the MPG was terrific, gas or Diesel. Best you can get today on a non-hybrid pickup is maybe 21mpg.

Baja_Engineer
Baja_Engineer
23 days ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

on 2WD trucks yes it was. But I owned a mid 80s Nissan truck with extended bed, 5spd and 4WD. The pokey 100hp twin spark carbureted engine never broke more than 15 city / 18 hwy. When I replaced it with a 30 yr old full size truck I was amazed it got the same fuel economy city and about 10% better on hwy. But my uncle’s 87 Ranger 4 cyl 2WD would get mid 20s all day long and my dad’s 89 2WD long bed with the 2.9 V6 was not far behind

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
22 days ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

The 3.0 Duramax, the last diesel half ton, apparently delivers as high as like 30mpg highway, like the EcoDiesel before it, and i assume the 3.0 Powerstroke was similarly efficient.

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
23 days ago

These ad photos serve to remind me that I was indeed very wrong last week when mentioning that I had no recollection of Japanese pickups in the ’80s coming factory equipped with whitewall tires.

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
23 days ago

When the 25 year import rule comes up, most people salivate over the various Nissan Skyline generations. Not me. I want a 90’s Toyota Hilux Diesel 4×4 with 4-doors, a manual transmission, and a solid front axle. That’s my dream truck. Whenever I see a video of some crazy terrorist with an RPG in the back of a pickup, it’s always one like that, so I know they’re out there.

Someday…

M0L0TOV
M0L0TOV
22 days ago
Reply to  Angry Bob

I think about the Nissan Patrol with the straight six diesel. Those things can create bonkers numbers.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
23 days ago

I had a friend in high school who had one of those diesel Toyota pickups. His dad owned a construction company and the truck was part of his fleet, but nobody wanted to drive it because it was so slow. It was one of the turbocharged ones, which I know because my friend pointed it out whenever possible, but good golly was it still slow. It was also not very reliable, though that may have been a byproduct of construction workers beating on it followed by a high schooler beating on it.

JDE
JDE
23 days ago
Reply to  Squirrelmaster

reliable is relative to whether you could get it to start. Internationals actually had a starting fluid tube built into the dash to make those Nissan Diesels go when it was could or the thing had not been started in a while and the things were out of prime.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
23 days ago
Reply to  JDE

Starting was less of an issue, as this was Houston, so no cold to worry about and lots of diesel trucks also meant bad fuel was relatively uncommon. It was mostly just parts failing. My memory is hazy, but just during our senior year it went through at least one turbo, a head gasket, radiator, and a clutch (the clutch was most definitely the fault of my friend), plus a bunch of other little things like a window track replacement, interior trim falling off, and constant wheel bearing replacements. Again, a lot is probably attributable to the hard life it had led, but I remember the truck having maybe 70,000 miles on it, likely less. I think the only reason they kept it was his dad loved Toyota pickups and he could write off most of the repairs as business expenses.

Pat Rich
Pat Rich
23 days ago

Toyota diesels in the US have been a interesting debate at Toyota corporate for a while. When Toyota decided to develop the 300 series Land Cruiser they did a world tour in the 200 series to give the engineering team real world experience and access to buyers in different markets to find out about their needs. When they rolled through the US with their 1VD-FTV powered 200 series one of the biggest questions they got was when a diesel was coming. Apparently they were a little shocked as they had no idea there was any apatite for diesel in the US.

Around the time of the Tundra one ton concept Toyota was also experimenting with the cummins 5.0 V8 that they was shopping around when RAM turned down the engine. According to my source they were looking at HD tundra applications, but found the engine low on power, noisy and harsh and lost interest.

The reality is that Toyota would need an EXTREMELY compelling reasons to bring a diesel to the US market and they didn’t have one. They knew they weren’t going to be taken seriously in the HD truck market and they didn’t really want to invest there for relatively small sales. Even the Tundra is barely on the sales radar compared to the big 3.

Even in Diesel markets these days like yours (Aus) they are starting to ask serious questions about the viability of diesel long term. With gasoline hybrids offering similar benefits for less money and with the increasing costs and complexities of diesel engines hybrids are looking better all the time.

We will never see a light duty diesel engine Toyota in the US again and I don’t think it will be that many years before they phase them out completely.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
22 days ago
Reply to  Pat Rich

Interestingly, according to the registered importer who specialises in Land Cruiser, Toyota had already certified the diesel V8 engine for the US market. They were able to obtain the EPA certification without modifications.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
23 days ago

“You asked for it, well eff you, Toyota!”

V10omous
V10omous
23 days ago

I remember seeing that Tundra dually at auto shows, but the 8 liter Hino would not have been very competitive in that 2008 timeframe.

LMM Duramax – 365 hp, 660 lb torque

6.4 Powerstroke – 350/650

6.7 Cummins – 350/650

I have no doubt the motor is capable, but detuning power for longevity doesn’t sell HD trucks to consumers (as opposed to fleets).

JDE
JDE
23 days ago
Reply to  V10omous

you would have had to compare it to the Nissan Titan 5.0 diesel XD. That one at least had the Cummins name to give it some street cred before reality set in and the EGR systems and overall poor design kicked in and buried that thing. Also 08/09 was a huge economy downturn. the big three were just about to release the half ton diesels that would have arguably been pretty decent for that time frame and all of that was put on hold at the same time roughly.

Baja_Engineer
Baja_Engineer
23 days ago
Reply to  JDE

Hard to compare it to the Titan XD Cummins since that truck was almost a decade away from being sold.

Martin Ibert
Martin Ibert
23 days ago

The two hay-bale trucks have more differences: the TOYOTA lettering, the bed lip, the lock on the fuel door … I am not sure this was airbrushed.

HonkeyfromtheCIA
HonkeyfromtheCIA
23 days ago
Reply to  Martin Ibert

The plain version is the original photo. The additional details were added to make the top photo. It’s all within the realm of 80’s tech. It’s done with a transparent photo overlay similar to how traditional cartoons were made. The lighting is also “warmer.” An applied filter helps hide the photo contrasts.

10001010
10001010
23 days ago

Back when “cut and paste” literally mean cutting something physical and pasting it somewhere else.

Tbird
Tbird
23 days ago

Thanks for this. I cannot deny this the same photo, just was not aware you could do so much alteration pre-Photoshop era. Even the top bed rails are very different. Kudos to the artists behind this.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
23 days ago

I don’t miss that type of work at all.

It’s funny how some young people skilled at image editing have no idea where the idea of layers and filters come from.

Dan Manwich
Dan Manwich
23 days ago

That Tundra dually seems so wrong but also so cool.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
23 days ago
Reply to  Dan Manwich

Looks just so wrong from here.

Musicman27
Musicman27
23 days ago
Reply to  Dan Manwich

If it’s something to knock Ford down a couple of notches, I’m in.

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