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  • Ross Ballot

The five first steps of a new project

So, you’ve acquired a new vehicle. Congratulations! That’s an exciting, potentially very fun, possibly very expensive, thing to have done. Adding a new vehicle (or replacing one that you’re “done with”) is almost always a source of joy and excitement for an automotive enthusiast. It always brings me happiness, though perhaps the same can't be said about my wallet. After dailying a Miata for the last sixteen months I was looking to add a four-by-four to my stable. Specifically, a 4Runner with the 4.7L 2UZ V8. So when my podcast co-host decided it was time to sell his, it was a no-brainer. But taking on a new project isn’t as simple as “acquire new vehicle.” It’s also a major responsibility, and carries other not-as-fun tasks along with it. What’s involved? I just went through this. Again. Follow along as I recount the steps...

Preemptive / Preliminary

First things first, you have to decide what kind of project to take on, and subsequently what this vehicle will be. Decipher your wants and needs. Pick a purpose (It may change). Choose what’s optional and what’s a non-negotiable. Things like wheels are easier to swap to suit your taste than, say, the model’s optional bigger engine. Also, assuming money is a factor, set a budget. Then, do some research. Internet forums may have declined in popularity in the age of Facebook communities, but they still can prove a good resource for well-informed information specific to the model you’re looking at. Last, if possible, perform a PPI prior to taking ownership of whatever vehicle you've honed in on.

This was an easy step for me. I knew I wanted a V8-powered 4Runner. I knew I didn’t have a problem modifying it later on. I had already done plenty of research and knew plenty about 4Runners from owning my prior two, a 2005 nicknamed the Stormtrooper and a 2018 that I sold after less than a year of ownership. A PPI would have been great but I trusted my friend to provide an honest report, and trusted the 4Runner’s famous reliability. It all fell into place very easily.

Step 1

Once the vehicle is yours, put it on your insurance policy. Call your provider or use the app; whichever, make sure it’s covered. Next you’ll need to go about registering it with your local DMV and have the corresponding inspection(s) done (assuming your state requires such). Of course, those last two need not apply if it’s going to sit on jack stands for the first portion of its time in your care.

Adding a vehicle to an insurance policy is extremely easy these days. With Geico, my provider, it’s as simple as punching some info into their website (or app) and voila, the vehicle is insured. Registering is a bit more complicated given the need for an appointment at the DMV in CT, but my visit set an all-time record that will never be beaten and I was in-and-out, plates in hand, inside ten minutes of my arrival. I should have played the lottery that night. It already felt like I won.

Step 2

Change the fluids and freshen it up. More likely than not there has been some deferred maintenance. You likely don’t and never will know everything about the life this vehicle has lived, so it’s best to start fresh. It’s easy to get carried away and dive right into modifications, losing sight of the fact that this is a used vehicle, but it needs to be taken care of. I always start by changing the oil and cabin filter. Doing so provided peace of mind that two of the most basic and beneficial things for the vehicle’s health and your own have been taken care of. Next, inspect the other fluids. How’s that power steering fluid look and smell? Has the transmission fluid ever been flushed? Is the coolant in decent shape? Flush and replace every fluid you can manage. The vehicle will thank you.

For my 4Runner, I’m starting with the basics. Oil change. Coolant. Power steering fluid. Spark plugs. Cabin filter. Engine air filter. Then we’ll go from there.

Step 3

Drive it. Get a baseline for how it acts on the street, and translate that into a list of what needs attention. How do the brakes feel? Does it track straight? Transmission shifting well? Put some miles on the vehicle. If it was sitting prior to your buying it, driving it may reveal some things that need attention. Or not. Hopefully not. Either way, driving it in the state and general condition upon which you took ownership is always a good thing. Aside from working out what bugs there may be, it also gives you an indication as to how it drives, acts, and exists in its most basic form. Assuming it’s relatively stock, that is. This also gives you an appreciation for how it was designed, engineered, and built by the manufacturer. It also may point you in the direction of things you want to address first, or modifications that may be more important and desirable than you initially thought.

I noticed right off the bat that the front brakes pulsate slightly, and there’s a slight hum from the front left. Wheel bearing? Perhaps. The truck tracks straight, or at least straight-ish, and the front end does feel pretty tight overall, but an alignment may be in order. I’m chalking the vibration at about 65 MPH up to the tires needing to be balanced, especially the left front. All pretty minor.

Step 4

Make it your own, but don’t go crazy right off the bat. Modifying a vehicle is a ton of fun and acquiring a new-to-you project can serve as your own canvas on which to show who you are. Before doing anything mechanical, I still let my juvenile side run free and throw a few stickers on whatever it is I’ve brought home. It’s a small thing but it puts some of your personality on the otherwise blank slate and helps make it yours. From there, let the mods fly. Tires and brakes are always a good place to start, but waiting to do the tires may be a wise call if suspension changes are in order and clearance (or ground clearance) are concerns. And it’s always fun to change the exhaust and give it some vocal personality sooner rather than later.

For me, I quickly realized that a tiny corded speaker isn’t going to work for long. A new head unit has jumped to the top of the list. After that I’ll probably look to headers, to remedy the notorious exhaust manifold tick, and a proper exhaust system to let the V8 shine. Suspension and off-road armor will follow, along with tires and possibly wheels should the budget allow. The key here is budget, or at least value. A great suspension kit might be $2500, but a decent one at $500-750 provides much stronger bang-for-the-buck. And with an older truck, value is key.

Step 5

Stay on top of things, and enjoy it. Make it your own. Do things. Go places. Drive it. Enjoy it. Having and owning a vehicle you’ve lusted after is nice and all, but it’s what you do with it that not only really makes it your own, but that makes the experience worth it. Sure, you can sit with your feet up and admire it in your driveway. But that won’t make it yours. That won’t create a bond between you and the vehicle. That won’t build memories. What will is going places and doing things with it, and sharing those experiences with the others in your life. Do with your project what you intended for it, and allow others to enjoy that as well. Make it own own, and paint on that canvas what you imagined. And more.

I’ve had my newest-to-me 4Runner just over a week and have already put 150 miles on it. Not much by any means, but enough to get to know it. It feels like an old friend, though decidedly nicer and less broken than my last 4th-gen 4Runner. I’ve already had my wife and brother drive it and they both reported back that they like it. But now the real fun starts. Going places these days isn’t exactly the easiest, but when I do, and when we do, it’ll be in this truck. We’ll pile on the miles just like we’ll pile on the memories. It might be a project, but the real project is building those memories together and with the truck as a backbone for them all. Bring it on.

Hi, my name is Ross. I write primarily for and co-host the Off the Road Again Podcast. As you can guess, I’m an off-road enthusiast/self-proclaimed expert and an ever-improving amateur autocrosser. I currently own an NC3 Miata Club PRHT and a 2005 4Runner Limited V8 (my third 4Runner in five years; yes, I have a problem).



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