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.
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.