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.