A little little, a little big

Welcome to our new home at previadiaries.com

First, I have to thank whoever left this pullback 3rd Generation Previa on my doorstep since the last update. It has lights and sounds, how cool is that!?


Thank you kind stranger!

Much of this past summer and fall were dedicated to resolving a brake issue on TRO (“The Red One” for new readers) wherein the brakes didn’t really stop the van.

As I mentioned here, it began with a burning smell emanating from somewhere on the van.

I did some investigating and found that the right front caliper was seized tight, and that smell was burning brake pad. I replaced that caliper and took the fresher pads and rotor from TGO to install at the same time.

I bled the brake and it was spongy, so I bled the whole system. That’s how I found out two things:

  • the hoses (of which there are 7) were pretty dry and cracked, and likely expanding with fluid pressure
  • The rear brakes weren’t working at all.

In went TGO’s rear brakes, which were in surprisingly good shape (big thanks to Jason M for helping out with this), and new hoses throughout.

I bled the system again, and still the pedal went right to the floor.


I stared at this diagram for days, trying to chase down the leak. I put in TGO’s master cylinder, replaced a couple of sections of line that refused to come out without a fight, and inspected other attachment points to no avail.

This was without a doubt the most upsetting mechanical bind I’ve ever dealt with, it made me doubt myself and question everything. It made me angry and frustrated. Instead of the magnificent feeling of accomplishment that comes with fixing something broken, this seemed an insurmountable challenge. I was pouring time, money, and effort at what felt like a sinking ship. I started to doubt it would ever work properly.

I decided to take Jason’s suggestion to go down the line and block it at all the connections using this neat line blocker he rigged up.

Finally, that led to some progress.

This rubber box to the left holds what’s called the “Load Sensing Proportioning Valve”

You can read about the basic idea of proportioning valves here, but the distinction on a “Load-Sensing” valve is that it can detect how heavily loaded the vehicle is and change the brake balance accordingly.

If the vehicle is riding lower as a result of more weight, an arm is pushed upward which in turn raises the amount of brake force sent to the rear wheel. It’s a clever solution to the problem of vehicles with such a wide range of potential weight on board.

You may recall, TRO was lowered, and in keeping with much of the other work the previous owner did, it was haphazard.

As far as I can tell, they didn’t bother disconnecting or adjusting that delicate arm, they just dropped the weight of the van on it. While the rear brakes were seized, a fragile stasis had been created. By reintroducing movement and replacing the chunky style fluid, I had brought to light a leaking valve.

I ordered a new valve from a Japanese parts vendor after triple checking compatibility (Japan’s Estima has a completely different rear suspension arrangement than the US one) and when it showed up I got to work extracting the old one and installing the new one.

After a few more bleeds and some tightening, I finally had brakes again.

Next time on previadiaries.com, the #weepreviadiaries post.

Thanks for reading

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The Why, on trying harder

After a fruitless last local search in Houston, #eggquest was ultimately a bust and I’m back on a plane.

I was struck by the number of Toyota Siennas available for sale and in a moment of desperation, I considered pursuing one of those options.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the Sienna, it’s well made, comfortable, and capable, but despite serving as the Previa’s replacement in North America, they couldn’t be further apart.

The Sienna represents concessions to convention. It subscribes to the American minivan archetype, one of vehicles with front transverse mounted V6 engines, carlike hoods, and FWD. The Sienna caters to market demands, and for all its competence, it lacks whimsy. It fills the need to counter the substantially similar Caravan, Odyssey, Quest, and Sedona, but it doesn’t inspire.

There’s a charm to endeavors that shoot for the moon with thoroughly lateral thinking.

Chrysler’s “invention” or at least reinvigoration of the minivan segment left many manufacturers scrambling to put something competitive in their NA lineups. Toyota’s Master Ace came as the “Van,” Mitsubishi’s stalwart Delica was brought over as the, uh, “Van,” and Nissan brought their C22 Vanette as well, though with a larger engine that led to an unfortunate tendency to self immolate. The Nissan was also sold here as “Van,” time constraints really cramp creative naming opportunities. Domestic offerings also came, with GM’s Astro/Safari and Ford’s Aerostar (Aerostar!).


These rushed-to-market efforts were hastily adapted to the demands and tastes of the North American market, and were largely unsuccessful, but they offered crucial education in what would actually sell. This means the next wave was largely more uniform in adherence to the prototype described above. Nissan’s Quest, Ford’s Windstar, GM’s Dustbuster vans. They all went to front wheel drive with engines mounted up front, usually a corporate V6.

Toyota’s Previa was different.

This was a time when a bubble economy bolstered Toyota was relentlessly pursuing the best solutions, cost be damned. It stuck to a mostly forward control layout, which maximizes space utilization in a given footprint, taking it even further with an inline 4 cylinder engine mounted on its side in the previously underutilized space under the driver. That 4 cylinder engine, the 2TZ-FE, only existed for the Previa, with application specific design elements like dry sump lubrication and the SADS arrangement for auxiliary systems, which lived under the short hood.


Rather than the parts bin marauding that typified GM of the era, Toyota’s products of the late 1980s and early 1990s prioritized making the best possible product, even if it meant more SKUs. It’s the same line of thinking that resulted in the first generation Lexus LS400, and the Lexus-like 3rd generation Camry and 7th generation Corolla.

The Previa was still a distinctly Japanese van, arguably the last one that came to the US. The 2nd row of seats could face backwards for easier conversations, some examples had a dashboard mounted food heating/cooling box, the seats could be turned into a bed for car camping. There were two moonroofs on non-roof rack equipped examples. Aesthetically, it invoked dreams of ground-bound spaceships without being gimmicky.

It should be noted that the design was actually originally half American, CALTY designer David Doyle is credited as one of the original designers, but it was a bold Toyota that greenlit it in its radical form.

Tragically, this sort of design bravery isn’t necessary rewarded, especially in a market as practical appliance minded as US family cars. The Previa was never fast, even with the supercharger added in 1994 to sate V6 power appetites. The Previa was available only with rear or all-wheel drive, but never front drive. The visionary look was polarizing. Probably the biggest blow, though, was pricing.

When it debuted in 1991, the base MSRP ranged from around $14,000 to about $22,000, which was comparable with a contemporary Dodge Caravan but exclusively Japanese production meant it was hit hard by currency fluctuations and in 1997, its last year of import, the base Previa was $25,228. to the Caravan’s $17,815.

It was right around this time that Toyota started “decontenting” across its lineup.

The Sienna debuted for the 1998 model year with a front transverse mounted V6 engine, a carlike hood, and FWD. It was a handsome van, with plenty of power and Camry underpinnings. It was made in Kentucky, which meant it could be priced against domestic minis. It did better in crash tests than the short nosed Previa and as expected, it was a sales success. It continued to get bigger and more powerful, current iterations have up to 266 hp compared the the Supercharged Previa’s 161hp. If I needed a minivan to suit the usual minivan needs, I would get one in a heartbeat.

But it’s not a Previa.

Compared to the Siennas listed on Craigslist, the few Previas that are still in circulation are starting to get priced with a rarity premium. As I’ve found, the ones that are left are often in rough shape, and most worth a look get sold quickly, a testament to their nascent cult following.

If the good Previas have all dried up, the nearest equivalent is probably not the Sienna but the VW Vanagon, which also eschewed convention with a rear mounted engine, creative interior layouts, and sometimes a kitchen sink.

But I’m hoping they haven’t. I want to believe the preserved Previas are out there, and I’ll keep looking. For now, I’ll try addressing TRO’s current suspension and coldstart issues.

There’s still plenty of Previa to Diarize.

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The way plans change

“Well maintained”

“Good Tires”


Craigslist is fraught with the hazards of subjective interpretation. Here I am in Houston to check out a 94 RWD S/C with a miraculous 92,000 miles and sadly, not all was as it seemed.

There was a recent oil change, that much is true, but a cursory inspection by me, as well as a more comprehensive inspection by Colony One Auto Center revealed quite a bit amiss.

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-That awesome rear moonroof had substantial hail damage to the big expensive glass

-The cruise control stalk was unusable since it was taped on

-The tires were so dry rotten I wouldn’t trust them for 20 miles, much less 2000

-Brake fluid, PS fluid, and ATF were jet black and likely original, and the cooling system was filled mostly with water

-Due to a destructive radio theft at some point in the last 20 years, the dashboard had quite a few cracks and ill fitting panels

-The wipers, which on Previas include the windshield sprayers, had been replaced with off spec, worn out units which didn’t have the necessary routing, though that was moot because…

-The pump on the spray bottle was dead too

-The substitute radio (of unknown origin) was shoved into the now vacant hole without being wired or even being secured in place

-All 4 shock absorbers needed replacement

And finally

-The A/C needed a charge

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These issues weren’t necessarily individual deal breakers, especially in light of the fact that the body really was straight and basically rust free, and the interior was clean, but I needed a car that would survive the drive back home, which wasn’t this van in its current state.

I offered the seller what I felt was reasonable and left me enough to fix/change what was necessary, but that was half their original asking price, and they politely declined. Their original asking price was Blue Book for their van in “excellent” condition, which would be delusional. We were at an impasse.

It was a bummer.

More thoughts tomorrow.

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A new beginning: #Eggquest

I had a good 2 month streak going there with updates, but I know, it’s been 5 months since then.

The brake issue on the red van became a source of great consternation, and while it was ultimately resolved, it took much longer than I expected. I didn’t want to write an update until that happened though, which meant a whole lot of dead air. Some other issues were addressed though, and I’ll try fitting those into a later update, but this post is coming from Houston, Texas.

Why Texas? Some background:

There is an axiom when buying cars, especially old ones, which says not to buy someone else’s project. When I bought TRO, I didn’t heed this advice.

It does run smoother now, the door opens, and is no longer pleather lined, and the brakes only stop the car when the brake pedal is applied, but it’s still pretty rough around the edges, lowered, and set up with a senselessly loud exhaust.

While none of these things are impossible to fix, it’s a lot of work to do on a van that does still have rust looming throughout (including some previously unnoticed patch jobs by previous owners), and assorted “improvisations” underneath. Now I realize I probably wasn’t the first to make this realization either, more on that in a bit.

In the back of my mind, I thought “I do love driving these vans, but these modifications are wrecking the waftability I know this one was once so good at, and I don’t know if I can deal with the next heartbreak this one has in store.”

One day at work, rocket powered mountain goat Sean McCarthy (above) mentioned that he was looking at new-to-him cars in Texas and said that I should take a look too.

I clicked the Houston CL search box, it autofilled to Previa (smart computer) and I hit enter.

I found an S/C with the rare in New England double moonroofs, and miraculously low mileage. Best of all, being a Texas car, no rust. Also, it’s white, like an egg.

It’s even got the OE LE “Kirby” wheels.

I got a Carfax subscription and confirmed it really has had one owner. I also took the opportunity to check TRO’s history and found it has had at least 6 owners, some for less than 3 months. Groan.

I got in touch with the seller, did some due diligence, and booked a flight.

Now I’m at a TX motel arranging for inspection and collection tomorrow. If all goes according to plan, I’ll buy it and start driving back to MA later that day. Follow the hashtag #eggquest on Twitter and Instagram for updates, and the fastest info.

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IACV transfer and beats

Supercharged Previas like mine have an extra 25 hp out of the factory compared to the naturally aspirated variants (135 vs 160), but along with that power boost came a bunch of extra complexity beyond the nearly inaccessible supercharger itself. There’s a different radiator with extra holes, and those extra holes go to extra plumbing elsewhere. All this extra plumbing means more hoses to breakdown over 20 years, which means the coolant in these vans often ends up, as Chris Plummer pointed out, “looking like assbarf.” I decided to put a Mr. Gasket clearview fuel filter in the coolant line leading to the IACV to see if TRO had the same problem. Photo Mar 28, 17 56 44

Indeed it did.

A side effect of the filthy coolant is a tendency for these vans to end up with a high idle. Basically, the IACV (idle air control valve) judges whether the engine is cold by the coolant temperature, and if it’s cold, it raises the idle until the optimal operating temperature is reached. A narrow opening leading to the sensor can get gunked up pretty easily with the black flakes of hose that made their way there in the filthy coolant, and as a result, the IACV never actually senses the temperature of the coolant and never thinks the engine is up to operating temperature, resulting in a wacky high idle. Photo Mar 28, 16 18 28

I had already cleaned out black flakes (which were really more hamburger colored in this case)  and rebuilt the IACV on TGO and didn’t actually get around to posting about it, but it gets a second chance since it’s going in TRO. While TRO already had some black flakes in the crucial T-junction, TGO hadn’t so I knew the dysfunction must have lived deeper down. I ordered a new gasket for it and got some carb cleaner, which you know is the good stuff since it’s banned in California, and got to work. While I can’t explain the chemical reaction that made this goop happen, it had definitely happened long enough ago that it wasn’t easy to get it out.

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After some elbow grease and probably a lot of inhaled carb cleaner, I got the valve clean, and put it back together, which seemed to help, if not resolve the idle issues.

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Elsewhere in the van, a new issue developed, namely that the front right brake was refusing to release its grip on the rotor. While there was a burning smell at times, I just figured it was the valve cover gasket, which is not an uncommon issue on Previas. On a particularly humid day, it became clear in an acrid cloud of smoke that the burning smell was coming from that sticking caliper. Because this issue opened something of a Pandora’s box, and as of yet is technically unresolved, I will devote an entire post to that later on. In this idle time between brakes that were always on and brakes that were never on, I decided to turn some attention to the inside of the van. When I bought TRO, it came with a bunch of extra parts, as well as an aftermarket head unit, a Jenson with a touchscreen that, while not technically period correct to the van, is from an era when an in-dash touchscreen was a novel idea (remember that?). Photo Apr 26, 9 26 36

This head unit also has a number of input options for both audio and video, which made me think that not only should I install the head unit, I should connect a Sega Genesis to it in order to properly and period correctly pimp my ride.

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The dashboard dis-assembly itself was straightforward, especially with detailed instructions from Crutchfield, which they helpfully sent along with the wiring harness for it… Then I found out about the “Premium sound option” that my van was equipped with. In 1995, this meant a CD player (Premium), an external amp (Premium!), and a subwoofer in the back (!!). This also means that when the original head unit is pulled out, the connector looks nothing like the one that comes on most Toyotas, or the wiring harness that I had ordered, and in fact is the one used in Lexuses (like I said, Premium!). It took a long time to figure this out, since there are extra connectors back there too, that seemed to be connected to nothing (?).

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I found a a Lexus wiring harness at a small audio shop in Hadley, and respliced everything, now including the pre-amp outs on the headunit. While everything connected together at this point, there was still a problem. The premium audio connection behind the head unit connects to a Fujitsu Ten (Eclipse) amp under the glovebox, which is slick, but proprietary, and gain can’t be adjusted, resulting an an awful hiss. More research revealed that the proper way to connect aftermarket headunits to Toyota Premium Audio equipped vans is to bypass the whole thing and connect to the speakers after the amp. When I took apart the glovebox and got under the right side of the dash, I found the amp and unbolted it from its bracket and it was indeed the standard Toyota connector on the back of the amp. Sorry I doubted you, Crutchfield.


I pulled the head unit out of the dash and put it on the passenger side footwell to see what happened when I connected directly. It plugged right in and worked great, with no hiss, which solved one problem, but introduced another. I couldn’t leave the head unit just hanging out on the passenger side floor, but it had to connect to something about 2 feet away with about 6 inches of wire. While I could have just spliced in a whole bunch of wire, I was concerned about the number of wires and the likelihood of getting at least one of the connections wrong, so I decided to try something different.

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Since the connection I was working with at this point was the standard fit on most Toyotas, I went to the junkyard down the street, and ripped wiring harnesses out of a couple of crashed Corollas. I mapped the wire colors (they’re different behind the dash) and connected the male end of one harness with the female end of another to effectively make an audio extension cord. I snaked it in behind the dash, connected one end to the speakers and the other to the head unit, taking the opportunity to put in some TGO interior parts that were in better shape, crossed my fingers, and powered on.


Sort of. While the stereo was now working with no hiss, it was not responding well to video input. But all was not lost, thanks to my factory service manual. More on that next post, as well as adventures in polymers.

In a van unrelated note, devoted PD reader and owner of the most famous balls in NECX Ryan Kelly’s family is going through some tough times and I encourage you to contribute to the GoFundMe that was set up to help them with medical bills, if you haven’t already.

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By the bowlful

What have I been doing for the last 2 months? The answer may surprise you!

Or it may not, if you follow me on Twitter or Instagram.

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The sacrifices of TGO have begun, as it has given up a few parts to TRO for the greater good of the Previa world.

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First, the grotesque door panel came off TRO to be replaced by the thankfully stock and luckily color matched TGO panel. While I was at it, I also replaced the power door lock switch (which only worked in the unlock direction) as well as the stick which connects the interior door handle to the latch mechanism. As I had previously theorized, it was creepily absent.

At this point I’ve developed a skill for quickly removing Previa door panels without breaking them (resume builder!) so I decided to replace the power lock switch on the left door as well, which had only worked in the lock direction.

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As an aside, I now know how I would replace “the li’lest lightbulb” which resides inside that switch, though hell if I know where I would find such a thing.

Despite the newly functional power locks, the rear hatch still refused to lock, which I suppose is better than refusing to unlock, so I decided to investigate.

I opened up the hatch and unbolted things til the latch mechanism came out. Once it was out, but still connected to the wires, I hit the lock button at door, and it moved. I hit unlock and it moved again. It was puzzling, since it certainly didn’t work when it was all together.


I took the mechanism out of TGO to study how it operates and I found the whole apparatus clever and fascinating enough to bore to tears everyone I could find by explaining it.

Ultimately, it became clear that while the lock mechanism was working properly, a servo mounted on its own bracket behind was simply too tired to push with enough force to move the lock to its second detent. I installed the servo from TGO’s lock, reattached everything, including the wire with Japanese writing on it, Sealed up the plastic shield (good as new) and the power locks were once again locking at 1995 levels.

You done good, servo. That’ll do. Sorry I accidentally stepped on you after removal.

So remember those gold “Drifz” (ugh) wheels with the low profile tires? I noticed a slow leak from the right rear pretty much from the time I picked up the van. I assumed it was a hole in the tire…

Most of my readers are in the Northeast, but for those who aren’t, our roads generally make such low profile wheel/tire fitments ill advised, mostly because they’re liable to get cracked on a pothole

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As luck would have it, Kwicksilver Wheel Repair, right down the street, was able to weld it up for $100, which is definitely less than the price of a new wheel, even if it is a “Drifz” (ugh).

In the next post, we’ll cover a few mechanical fixes, enhancements, Big Audio Difficulty, and where’s the fire? It’s in my wheelwell!

‘Til next time.


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Beta Previa

Beta Previa, herein “The Red one” or “TRO” is a 95, just like TGO, but it’s an All-Trac, so it has 4WD, and it’s got swiveling captains chairs instead of a bench in the second row, allowing for twice as many captains as TGO.

It’s also seen a few modifications by the previous owner, or likely, one owner before that. It’s been lowered, considerably in the back, and given gold wheels that looked like Rotas to me, but are actually by the painfully named “Drifz.”

The lower plastic trim and bumpers, grey from the factory, have been painted black and the hood has been debadged, if not completely deglued.20140329-145927.jpg

The front also houses some (somewhat surprisingly) well executed xenon lights behind smoked lenses.


The most perplexing modification speaks to a mismatch in ambition and means. As the seller explained, the owner before him wanted to completely customize the inside and outside of the van to match, to create something like this.

Sadly, it appears life got in the way, and he only got as far as this one door.20140329-145856.jpg

Seemingly by design, the interior door handle isn’t functional, but I don’t want to think about the unsavory implications of a front door that only opens from the outside

There was also a sticker on the back that Yahoo answers tells me is an apparel brand that concerns parents, and while I took it off, it left enough adhesive residue to reappear with rain and road salt.


TRO has a cold-air intake setup, as well as a fully custom (hacked together and loud) exhaust that sounds ridiculous on a van so adept at dulcet highway cruising.

There are a few other mechanical issues to address, including a seized right front caliper, much like the old van, and a leaky valve cover gasket (another repeat), but the corrosion situation is considerably better on this new van, the engine’s younger, and the heater works.

Let the progress commence.

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