The author in his glorious used Tundra
The author in his glorious used Tundra
The author in his glorious used Tundra (Chloe Crespi)

My Mission to Find the Best Truck of All Time


At some point in every adventurous life, you need to pursue something completely trivial with such single-minded focus that it nearly drives you mad. Allow me to explain.


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A 2006 Toyota Tundra floated above us on a hydraulic lift. Next to me, a hirsute mechanic named Cliff, who was wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt and carrying a nine-millimeter pistol in a hip holster, aimed his flashlight at a suspicious bulge on the frame. “That’s where they patched it,” he said, pointing to a rectangular piece of steel that had been welded across the original material, epoxied, and then painted to match. “If it were me,” Cliff said, “I’d run from this vehicle as fast as I can.”

This was the third truck I’d run to—and from—in as many weeks, the latest flop in a long, madcap 2020 mission to acquire my dream rig: a legendary first-generation Tundra, or FGT in forums. Cliff, who owned a small garage in eastern Pennsylvania, had agreed to a last-minute prepurchase inspection after I’d tracked down the truck at a used-car lot nearby. I’d convinced myself that this was the one: a sweet burgundy-colored four-wheel-drive double cab with just a smidge over 100,000 miles on it. I hastily arranged a trip; first-gen Tundras were in high demand, and you had to move fast when good ones turned up. The dealer was asking $14,500, a fair price by current market standards if the truck was everything it appeared to be. But it wasn’t. It was a turd—a Turdra.

To understand why I was so willing to venture out into COVID country on a series of fool’s errands, hoping to nab a 15-year-old, mass-produced Toyota, you need to understand a little about the original Tundras. Produced from 1999 to 2006, Toyota’s first full-size pickup was designed to compete with juggernauts like the Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado in America’s burgeoning truck market. Fast-forward to 2020 and pickups were outselling cars for the first time in the U.S. Ford’s F-series pickups have been the top-selling vehicle here for the past 39 years.

From the start, the early Tundras enjoyed a warm reception, though they never outran the popularity of Chevy, Dodge, and Ford. It wasn’t until 2007, when the supersize second-generation Tundra replaced the original, that the FGTs began to acquire a cult following. Toyota was already famous for its 4x4s; classics like the FJ series, Land Cruisers, and 4Runners were coveted by enthusiasts. After their short production run, FGTs quickly joined the ranks of those vehicles, distinguished for their reliability and longevity. Using a basic body-on-frame design, with a sturdy 4.7-liter V-8, the drivetrain worked so well that it was used in several other Toyota vehicles, including the Sequoia SUV and the Lexus GX470.

By today’s standards, FGTs are small for a full-size pickup, but that’s partly what makes them so desirable. In 2015, responding to the monster sizing and pricing of new trucks, the website Jalopnik said of the FGT, “[It’s] an inexpensive pickup truck that’s capable, comfortable, seats more than two, fits in your garage and gets vaguely reasonable fuel economy: that’s the dream.”

Before their popularity mushroomed (thanks, Jalopnik!), you could find used first-gens in good condition for less than $10,000. By 2020, low-mileage FGTs in mint condition were going for twenty grand or more.

My obsession had taken hold years earlier, in 2005, when I purchased a used 2002 Tundra access cab with 80,000 miles on it. I didn’t identify as a truck guy; before my Tundra, I drove a 1992 Volkswagen Vanagon, and before that a Honda Civic hatchback. But a pickup made sense in Santa Fe, where I live. These were more innocent times, before trucks morphed into deadly bro-dozers, lumbering symbols of toxic masculinity and climate Armageddon. Even then, the dark side of truck culture was not lost on me—I’d been coal-rolled and bombarded with beer bottles by truck-driving idiots while riding my bike—but back in the mid-aughts, pickups signified very little beyond a certain degree of utility and rugged performance.

I bought the ’02 almost by accident, after showing up at a local dealer in search of a Tacoma, the Tundra’s ubiquitous little brother. But Tacomas were popular and therefore spendy; pound for pound, the Tundra was a better deal. It was roomier, peppier, and had a 76-inch bed that was perfect for everything I did: skiing, mountain biking, camping, and hauling stuff home from Lowe’s.

The reasons for Toyota’s durability are something of a mystery, but some devotees point to kaizen—an overarching philosophy that informs Toyota’s manufacturing process. Kaizen means “continuous improvement,” and it shows up in specific manufacturing details, including high-quality parts and precision engineering. But the larger idea, as Jeffery Liker wrote in his 2003 book The Toyota Way, is to “make incremental improvements, no matter how small, and achieve the lean goal of eliminating all waste that adds cost without adding value.”

“It’s a nice truck, but I didn’t realize I’d get so much interest,” Denny said. “I’ve had calls from Wyoming, Colorado. And you’re in New Mexico!” He didn’t want to take a deposit. I told him I’d be there the next day.

The approach worked so well that, in the 1980s, General Motors partnered with Toyota to learn how to implement the kaizen principles, a program that would improve vehicle quality and help the American automaker bounce back from bankruptcy. I knew none of this when I acquired my ’02, but kaizen would bear out on the road. Fifteen years and 200,000 miles later, my Tundra had been stolen once and totaled twice—the first time by some jackass who pinched it out of my driveway and took it on a three-week joyride before dumping it in a parking lot, the second when I hit a deer while doing 60 on a county road at night near Telluride, Colorado. Despite the abuse, the Tundra always burst to life when I turned the key.

I plunged into the FGT forums seeking advice on improvements, geeking out on long threads about gear ratios, cold-air intakes, and cat-back exhaust systems. I ogled photos of museum-quality Tundras that owners had coddled over the years. I learned about limited-edition models like the T3, a silly marketing collaboration tied to the release of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

The deeper I dove, the more battered and neglected my buggy looked. My regular mechanic assured me I’d get to 400K if I kept doing regular maintenance. But who knew? Owning a truck with nearly 300K was like having a grandparent who was over 100: you were grateful, but there was no way to tell how much time remained. Years? Months? Days?

I couldn’t bear the thought of selling it. So at 275K, I doubled down, dropping thousands on a tune-up and repairs, a lifted suspension, Method wheels, and some aggressive Toyo A/T III tires. But the fixes felt temporary. As the pandemic summer of 2020 arrived, I was cooped up, locked down, and spending way too much time on auto sites. Soon I couldn’t shake the notion that there was only one thing better than owning a first-gen Tundra: owning two.

This kind of all-consuming gear lust was not uncommon in my world. As a kid, I remember coveting a Powell-Peralta “Bones” skateboard, my first severe obsession with a piece of equipment. In the late eighties I fell hard again, this time for my first real mountain bike, made by Reflex—a brand better known for ski poles. By today’s standards, the bike was crude: it had no suspension, dropper seatpost, or tubeless tires. But at the time, its bonded aluminum frame was state of the art, right down to the hot-pink and blue paint job. Living up to expectations, that bike unlocked a world of adventure and a lifelong passion. I rode everywhere I could, discovering new trails, seeing new places—experiences that continue today, albeit on a slick long-travel 29er.

Good gear was a passport to freedom, and it inspired and emboldened a lot of people to do things they might not have done otherwise. One friend skied part of Kilimanjaro on a pair of Big Foot snow blades. Skiing is illegal on Africa’s tallest peak, but the boards were light and easy to conceal. I once pedaled across Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley for an extremely sketchy story assignment, in part because I was able to fit a disassembled singlespeed into a large suitcase and bring it with me on a flight into the country.

In the past few decades, stuff has become lighter, stronger, more reliable, and better looking—a Golden Age of Gear. Innovations in materials and design have accelerated in every direction, along with information, reviews, and availability. Plastic telemark boots? Yes, please. A backpacking stove that weighs only a few ounces? Hot diggity. Jackets that are waterproof and breathable? Gimme. Cursed with titanium taste on a chromoly budget, I was forever hunting for deals.

As more high-quality equipment became available, my fixations increased. When spending time outside is a priority, all discussion leads to the things you carry, or that carry you. My friends and I could blather for hours about the perfect ski-touring setup or what to pack for a two-month expedition to Nepal. Years ago, in the heat of a messy breakup, an ex-girlfriend told me I was going to die alone with a garage full of gear. As a fifty-something who’s never been married, that declaration sometimes feels prophetic.

For my part, I was philosophical. I think about my relationship to gear the way certain people describe the four stages of fly-fishing. First, you simply want to catch a fish. Then—stage two—you want to catch a lot of fish. In stage three, you want to catch a really big fish, and in stage four, you want to catch the difficult fish.

First-gen Tundras are the difficult fish. And while a pickup truck might not be your thing, something else probably is: that perfect pair of running shoes, a custom surfboard, a backpack that fits like an Italian suit. The expert’s pick, the quiver killer.

“The asking price was $10,900. Yoiks!”
“The asking price was $10,900. Yoiks!” (Chloe Crespi)

After I charged into my FGT quest, it didn’t take long to fixate on its final edition, made in 2006. Every couple of years during the FGT’s six-year run, Toyota refreshed and improved the vehicle, and by the last year of production, it boasted extra horsepower, a five-speed transmission, a slightly larger cab, and cosmetic changes like a more stylish grill. I was smitten.

I spent a few weeks trying to find a 2006 Tundra in New Mexico that met my criteria: four-wheel drive, double cab, under 150,000 miles, and a clean accident history. My budget was $15,000. I called a car broker to help me track one down. “Good luck,” he said, laughing. “If you find one, let me know!”

I learned quite a bit from off-roading friends and online forums like TundraTalk.net and ExpeditionPortal.com. Most important, I taught myself how to research a vehicle’s history. The National Insurance Crime Bureau, a free site, will vet whether a car has been stolen or reported as a salvage vehicle. But the real gold is a clean Carfax report—no accidents, regular maintenance—which was always enough to widen my eyes.

Despite the Tundra’s solid rep, it wasn’t immune from problems, and FGTs had a big one: the frames on some model years were particularly vulnerable to rust. The exact reasons were unclear; some people suggested that Toyota had sourced an inferior grade of steel from China, but Toyota was vague and the criticism was unconfirmed. Whatever the case, the corrosion could become so severe that the chassis would fail completely. The issue was part of an expensive recall, when Toyota offered to replace the entire frame of rust-riddled FGTs under warranty, a program that cost $3.4 billion.

In the early days of my search, I had no trouble finding used first-gens for sale online, though many had mega miles, a salvage title, or some other problem. I developed a routine to help me sort through the most robust sites, like Autotrader, Cars.com, Craigslist, Edmunds, and my favorite, AutoTempest—which scanned several used-vehicle sites at once. For weeks I called sellers, only to learn that the truck I wanted was already gone. Once, I located a promising vehicle at a dealer in Indiana, but it sold while I was talking to the salesman. “Sorry, man!” he said. “This was one of the best ones I’ve seen.”

In July I found a beautiful black ’06, with Limited trim, at a tiny dealer outside Kansas City. The price was high—$16,500—but I was willing to pay. The salesman was cool and chatty and agreed to take a $500 nonrefundable deposit if I could be there in 24 hours. He said he’d had “a ton of calls,” and sent me photos of the truck, which looked extremely promising. I convinced my girlfriend, Madeleine, to drive me to KC—an easy sell, since we hadn’t left our home since March.

When we arrived the next day, the Tundra looked great, until I crawled underneath, where I found a thick layer of paint hiding a rusty frame. I was crestfallen. The dealer said he felt bad I’d driven all that way and gave me back my deposit. Bottom line: a fruitless 40-hour round trip.

Things got worse. The next viable FGT turned up at the end of August, in Milwaukee. Leather! Sunroof! Heated seats! This time I flew—plane tickets were cheap, and somehow I’d convinced myself, during the pandemic’s slight summer lull, that flying was safe enough. But that effort ended in failure as well when I showed up and confronted yet another rusty rig.

While sulking in Milwaukee, I found another prospect—the ill-fated burgundy Tundra—a two-hour drive north of Philadelphia. I went to Philly on a nerve-racking flight full of young bros who didn’t seem to get the mask rule. Never mind that I didn’t have a plan—how would I get my rental car back to Philly if I bought a truck?—I was convinced I would bring home the prize.

I started to wonder if my Tundra Derangement Syndrome was even about the truck. In my pre-pandemic life, I’d traveled frequently. But the lockdown and isolation seemed to have a compound effect, generating a type of stress that I hadn’t been aware of until I was on the road again, moving through apocalyptic cityscapes with shuttered restaurants and deserted streets.

Tacomas were popular but the Tundra was a better deal. It was roomier, peppier, and had a 76-inch bed that was perfect for everything I did: skiing, mountain biking, camping, and hauling stuff home from Lowe’s.

When I finally returned to Santa Fe, defeated and depressed, I self-quarantined in a small rental property I own in town. I took a drive-through COVID test as a precaution, and the next day woke up with a sore throat and body aches. By that night, I was convinced I had the virus. I felt terrible but also guilty and scared. Had coronavirus not closed down the planet, my efforts would have been merely impulsive and foolish. Now, in the middle of the biggest international crisis of my lifetime, it was downright dangerous.

Madeleine, with our dog, Max, dropped off food and supplies, and we gave each other teary looks through the back-door window. I felt too crappy to stand there long, and I put my hand against the glass to say goodbye. It seemed entirely possible I might never see them again.

The next morning, I lay in bed blinking myself awake and felt… fine? I’d slept hard, and wondered briefly if this had all been a bad dream. Clearly not: when I checked my phone, my test results had arrived. I opened the e-mail, heart racing: negative. Temperature: normal. Whatever I’d had, it wasn’t COVID-19. I made a sound, a kind of squeak, and texted the good news.

Later that day, reclined on the couch and still tingling with a deep sense of relief, I did what I’d conditioned myself to do for the past three months—I went online and refreshed all my searches for a 2006 Tundra.

I was scrolling idly when I came to a new listing on Autotrader: a silver 2006 Tundra with (only!) 153,482 miles, posted by a private party in Kentucky. “Garage kept, all maintenance done with records,” the ad said. “Great vehicle. I’m only selling because I’m retiring and want a new one.” The asking price was $10,900.

Yoiks! I sent a note through Autotrader, with low expectations. About 30 minutes later I got a short reply: “Here’s a link to the Carfax.” He gave me his number and told me to call him if I had any other questions. The Carfax looked legit and clean. I dialed, and the man answered.

His name was Denny, and he patiently fielded all my questions. He sent me photos of the undercarriage, which looked immaculate. “It’s a nice truck, but I didn’t realize I’d get so much interest,” he said. “I’ve had calls from Wyoming, Colorado. And you’re in New Mexico!” He didn’t want to take a deposit. “It’s kinda the first person to show up,” he said. I told him I’d be there the next day.

No one, including me, thought this was a good idea. On the plane, an N95 mask clamped tightly to my face, I tried not to second-guess what I was doing, the rashness of it, the risk I was inviting on myself and others. I felt fine, but among my many pandemic deep thoughts was a dawning awareness of how distorted reality had become, how willing I was to believe whatever narrative I wove in my own head. Chasing this dumb vehicle was like watching a runaway train, only I was a passenger, not a bystander.

I met Denny and his son-in-law in a motel parking lot near the airport, where I’d arranged our rendezvous. And there it was: the silver Tundra, detailed and gorgeous. I crawled underneath and scanned the frame with a flashlight. There was hardly a blemish. I took it for a drive, appreciating the throaty growl of the V-8. I lifted my hands from the wheel for a moment and it tracked straight. I stomped the brakes and it came to a swift, smooth stop.

By six the next morning I was contouring the Ohio River as I headed west out of Louisville, signed title in the passenger seat, fiddling with the stereo controls. The world seemed miraculous and in shambles all at once. Forty-eight hours earlier, I had been shivering alone in my bedroom. Now I was merging into traffic, sunshine strafing the asphalt, hot coffee in the cup holder, marveling at my luck. It was as if my old truck had been reborn—it was the same color inside and out, but younger, cleaner, quieter, more powerful, which I guess is what I wanted all along. I floored it, just for a minute, bursting onto the highway before settling back down to the speed limit. I had a long drive home. I was going to savor every mile.

Lead Photo: Chloe Crespi