Retro, compact 4WD Toyota campers are as desirable today as Sophia Loren was back in 1956—the curves, attitude, bone structure, and heritage are what drive us wild about this legend of yesteryear. The old Toyotas aren’t too shabby either, while some are cooler than others.
The Sunrader “micro-mini motorhome” was manufactured by the Gardner-Pacific Corporation and featured a fiberglass-shell construction. Available in either 18-foot or 21-foot models, a 4WD configuration was introduced in 1985. Compact, reliable, and dependable, the Sunrader was, and remains, a popular camper, with standing room for those under 6 feet tall, and equipped as standard with a bathroom, dinette, and cab-over bed. A prime example will fetch top dollar on the secondhand market, and there is no shortage of demand; finding an affordable and well-maintained Sunrader is a science. Sometimes, if you are handy and patient enough, you can find a vehicle with the potential to achieve its former glory.
Bradley Enlow is not a technician by trade, but this is the third vehicle he has built. His dad was a mechanic, and for as long as he can remember, he loved to tear things apart to decipher their engineering before restoring them to a working condition. Brad, as he is known to his friends, who is currently living on the road full-time after a forced life change and the sale of his business, bought the pitiful Toyota Sunrader in Dana Point, California, back in 2019. At some stage, the old Toyota was employed as a billboard at a camping spot on the beach in Oceanside (it still has faint font markings showing through the paint). The old Toyota has been obstinately brought back to life—rightfully, passionately, and with great character.
Brad started this project with the goal of being on the road in two years, but, as is par for the course with this type of restoration, the project took almost three years to complete. Brad had his hands full when he started on the 2WD 1982 Sunrader—incomplete with a gutted, sparse body driven by a weak 22R motor and electrics worthy of a Series Land Rover. He knew that money well spent in the right places is very important and a great mindset for a DIY project. Mechanical upgrades were the priority, and he doubled the resale value of his project by upgrading to 4WD with parts from a scrapped 1996 Toyota 4Runner. He then installed a 4Runner rear locking differential, 3.4-liter motor, and automatic transmission, grafted the shifter tunnel to use the 4Runner shifter, and swapped in a 1985 Toyota gear transfer case using Marlin crawler adapters. The Sunroamer may be a beautiful Frankenstein, but she is still a Toyota.
The retrofit continued with a solid axle swap, an IFS hub conversion, and a wise upgrade to Tundra brakes and calipers to handle the 33-inch Wildpeak AT3W tires, with a planned upgrade to Method grip lock wheels for safer air downs on this heavy rig. Gears are 4:56 with a high pinion limited slip in front and an E-locker in the rear. The suspension setup consists of effective custom Alcan springs and Fox smooth body reservoir shocks with custom valving and progressive SumoSprings for the rear. A modified Hellwig 2500 HD Ram sway bar cancels any body roll. For recovery, Brad equipped the blue beauty with a SmittyBilt winch, GoTreads (which he also uses for leveling), and a kinetic rope.
With the vehicle re-engineered and mechanically sound, the painstaking restoration and modification of the body began with fiberglass upgrades and repairs. The front windows were removed (as they can be a liability), and the vehicle is more functional without both. L-mounting tracks support the awning and a removable shower tent, as Brad did not want anything mounted permanently to the fiberglass shell.
A common mistake in vehicle builds is to overload the vehicle with attractive but heavy wood flooring and furniture, unnecessary luxuries, and piles of gear. Simple is superior when outfitting a camper, and the greatest luxury in a small camper is space. Brad was naturally very concerned with weight, and all the cabinetry is lightweight pine and cedar. The vehicle is further insulated by the Warm Window insulated shade system and curtains. Brad plans to spend time traveling to colder climates and has installed a Grizzly Cubic mini wood stove and a diesel heater, making him the envy of all overlanders everywhere he goes. Multi-talented Brad did all the welding, woodwork, fiberglass, conversions, and sewing. A warm, cozy nest was beginning to take shape, but there were still a few modifications to be made, dragging the 40-year-old vehicle into the present.
Brad plans to travel far and wide, and no matter where he and Lilly find themselves, they will spend enough time in an area to soak up the surroundings.
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