The AK-47 of Trucks

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

The Toyota Hilux — known to Americans as the Tacoma — has a reputation as an indestructible truck. Top Gear put that reputation to the test:

The show’s producers bought an 18-year-old Hilux diesel with 190,000 miles on the odometer for $1,500. They then crashed it into a tree, submerged it in the ocean for five hours, dropped it from about 10 feet, tried to crush it under an RV, drove it through a portable building, hit it with a wrecking ball, and set it on fire. Finally they placed it on top of a 240-foot tower block that was then destroyed in a controlled demolition. When they dug it out of the rubble, all it took to get it running again was hammers, wrenches, and WD-40. They didn’t even need spare parts.

The Hilux was originally designed, says Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota’s design division in California, as “a lightweight truck with big tires on big wheels. It was meant as a recreational truck, a truck people could have fun with. They also have a really high ground clearance, which means they’re ideal for off-road work.”

They have always been built, says Hunter, as “body-on-frame” trucks: “There’s a rigid steel frame construction, and the body is fitted on top of that. That’s much stronger that most modern cars, where the body and frame are one. I would describe them as bulletproof. We get people who run them for years. There are 200,000 or 300,000 miles on them and they’re still going.”

And that’s why it has become the AK-47 of trucks:

“The Toyota Hilux is everywhere,” says Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and now a fellow of the Center for a New American Security. “It’s the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47. It’s ubiquitous to insurgent warfare. And actually, recently, also counterinsurgent warfare. It kicks the hell out of the Humvee.” Anecdotally, a scan of pictures from the last four decades of guerrilla and insurgent warfare around the world—the first iteration of the Hilux appeared in the late ’60s—reveals the Toyota’s wide-ranging influence. Somali pirates bristling with guns hang out of them on the streets of Mogadishu. The New York Times has reported that the Hilux is the pirates’ “ride of choice.” A ragtag bunch of 20 or so Sudanese fighters raise their arms aloft in the back of a Hilux in 2004. Pakistani militants drive through a crowd, guns high, in 2000. It goes on. Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq—U.S. Special Forces even drive Toyota Tacomas (the chunkier, U.S. version of the Hilux) on some of their deployments.

The militarized versions are known as technicals:

The truck even has a war named after it: the so-called “Toyota War” between Libya and Chad in the 1980s was dominated by fighters using the light, mobile Hilux. Indeed, Africa, says Kilcullen, is where the truck got its nickname as a fighting vehicle, “the technical.” “When [nongovernmental organizations] and the U.N. first went into Somalia,” he says, referring to a period in the 1990s, “they were not able to bring their own guards. So they got so-called ‘technical assistance grants’ to hire guards and drivers on the ground. Over time, a ‘technical’ came to mean a vehicle owned by a guard company, and then eventually to mean a Hilux with a heavy weapon mounted on the back.”

The Toyota is such a widespread and powerful weapon for insurgents, says Dr. Alastair Finlan, who specializes in strategic studies at Britain’s Aberystwyth University, because it acts as a “force multiplier.” It is “fast, maneuverable, and packs a big punch [when it’s mounted with] a 50-caliber [machine gun] that easily defeats body armor on soldiers and penetrates lightly armored vehicles as well.” It is particularly dangerous, he adds, against lightly armed special-forces operatives.


  1. Doctor Pat says:

    Actually that second picture looks like a Toyota Landcruiser to me.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Speaking of the Landcruiser and the AK of trucks:

    In 1941 the Imperial Japanese Army occupied the Philippines, where they found an old Bantam Mk II, and promptly brought it to Japan. The Japanese military authorities commanded Toyota to make a similar vehicle but to not model the appearance on the American Jeep. The prototype was called the Model AK and was formally adopted by The Japanese Imperial Army as the Yon-Shiki Kogata Kamotsu-Sha (type 4 compact cargo-truck ).

  3. Grasspunk says:

    I have a ’99 model called Rosebud. It doesn’t have the .50-cal so I doubt it would be much use against lightly armed special forces operatives, but it is good for carrying a load of hay, water, tools, dirt, or kids around the farm.

  4. Isegoria says:

    On your deathbed, you’ll surely rue your decision never to mount a .50-caliber machine-gun on your Toyota truck.

  5. AAB says:

    The US Dodge Weapons Carrier was one of the first civilian trucks used to mount a weapon on the back of it — a 37-mm AT gun. It was basically a 1940s version of a modern day Toyota + recoilless rifle.

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