The Weird History of Toyota’s RV Camper

By Kyle & Olivia Brady | Founders of Drivin' & Vibin' | We use affiliate links and may receive a small commission on purchases.

The Weird History of Toyota’s RV Camper

Since they first became popular in this country in the 1970s, Toyotas have always had a reputation for being some of the most reliable and dependable cars on the roads. And the same goes for their motorhomes.

Well, these compact classics didn’t actually roll off the assembly lines as motorhomes, and that’s part of what makes their story so interesting.

They started their lives as small Toyota pickup trucks and were outfitted with camper shells that were manufactured by outside companies around the United States. There were dozens of them, actually, including Winnebago.

Production of these classic Toyota RVs ceased almost 30 years ago, but there are still plenty of them still making the rounds. They have a big following from their loyal and enthusiastic fans.

Image Source: William Garrett on Flickr

First off, even though they are sometimes called “micro-mini motorhomes,” they seem surprisingly spacious inside, with lots of storage to boot.

Because they have a cab-over design (with the bedroom in the front and above the cab), Toyota motorhomes have an open area below that includes a fairly roomy living room (which can seat up to five people), a kitchen and even a bathroom. Many of them have a couch that folds out into a bed, so they can sleep up to four people.

Fuel economy is a big plus, with users reporting numbers in the 11-16 mpg range. (This might not sound so great to you non-RVers, but trust us, these are big numbers for a motorhome.)

They just keep on running, too, because of those Toyota engines that just don’t want to quit. It’s not uncommon to get 200,000 miles or more from an original motor. Also, they are easy for mechanics to work on.

Toyota motorhomes are easy to drive and maneuver. With a typical length of 18 to 22 feet, they even fit into a regular parking space. They are lightweight, too, so they don’t get bogged down easily in sand or gravel.

In fact, we like to think of these Toyota RV campers as C-minus Class RV. It’s the same concept as a B+ Plus RV (just coming at it from the Class C side).

The Toyota Camper Community

Another cool thing about being a Toyota RV owner is the fun sense of community it brings.

Not only do they honk and wave at each other on the highways, they ease into conversation at campgrounds and rest areas, too. There’s an active online presence as well. It includes forums and social media groups such as the Toyota Motorhome Club.

Owners share pictures and experiences and to troubleshoot solutions for common repairs or modifications.

Like all RVs, they have their drawbacks, though. Some common complaints are that the two-door cabs themselves are, shall we say, a bit “cozy”. And, they are low to the ground, too, with limited ground clearance.

Another strike against them is that their 4-cylinder engines are fairly underpowered, especially on hills. So, don’t expect them to break any speed records.

History of the Toyota RV Camper

There’s a big variety of Toyota motorhomes out there. It is believed that as many as 50,000 were produced between 1972 and 1994.

Companies ordered the Toyota truck without the beds and put their own campers on them.

Some of the more popular examples are the Toyota Chinook, the Toyota Dolphin and the Toyota Sunrader as well as the Winnebago Warrior. Others carry badges with more obscure names like Americana, Belair, Blue Marlin, Pioneer, Ranger and Slumber Queen.

Toyota Chinook

These early models were built in something of a partnership between Toyota and a California company. The company had previously converted other American trucks and vans into motorhomes.

The experiment with the smaller Toyota vehicle came about because of the oil crisis of the early 1970s. At that time, gas prices suddenly quadrupled, leaving Americans with a thirst for smaller cars and trucks with better mileage.

The first Toyota Chinooks were sold in 1973. They had pop-ups for more headroom and were built on a Toyota long-wheelbase half-ton truck chassis, powered by Toyota’s 18R motor with a standard rear axle.

Image Source: David Kent on Flickr

Toyota Dolphin

These were manufactured by National RV from 1979 to 1990. Many of them are so nice that they almost have what you could call a cult following.

The company was hit hard by an axle recall. The recall came about because some of the campers that were being produced were too heavy for them.

A 1985 review found online describes a 22-foot Dolphin Model 500 that offers a 775-pound payload capacity with full fuel, propane and freshwater tanks and options like roof and dash air-conditioners, cruise control and AM/FM stereo. “Even though the Dolphin is compact, it features a fully equipped galley. Built on a Toyota foundation, this micro-mini offers enough payload capacity to comfortably accommodate a small family.”

Image Source: William Garrett on Flickr

Toyota Sunrader

Made by the Gardner-Pacific Corporation, this one had fiberglass-shell construction and was available in either 18-foot or 21-foot models.

A four-wheel-drive version came out in 1985. That version also had a dinette in the rear as well as a large picture window.

The Sunrader Classic featured cedar closets with lights and optional upgrades such as 26-gallon gas tank and additional exterior storage.

If you’re looking for a motorhome, don’t overlook these classic Toyota RVs. They offer a lot of camper in a small package!

If they were still in production, they’d surely make our Best Small Class C RV list.

They’re tall enough to stand up in, have their own bathrooms, and can get you into some of the tightest camping spots. As we said, they are reliable and dependable, and they have a little something extra. They’re offbeat and retro and just have a certain coolness that separates them from the pack.

Sunrader Toyota Camper
Image Source: SoulRider.222 on Flickr

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1 comment

  1. D&V: Nice article about Toyota RVs. My pick of the litter was the Sunrader 4WD turbo.
    But: The axle recall was a mess: overloaded, the rear drive axle could fail [and did fail] leading to loss of steering stability, and rear braking, and acceleration. Many ended in unintended decelaration: opposing traffic. I have second hand personal experence: a doctor who worked for me sustained a significant head injury.

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