Rav4 Crawler: Old Man Emu Suspension Lift

Dec. 03, 2007 By Justin Fort

The story is simple: small car-based mom-wagon trucklet finds life at 125,000 miles as a trail toy. Cheap, reliable, easy to fix and useful, we’ll find a way to make the first-generation Toyota Rav4 a good tool on the two-track in the spirit of the Suzuki Samurai. First things first – some ground clearance. Two ingredients – Old Man Emu springs, Old Man Emu shocks.

Trucklet for the trail?

The argument can be made there has been no replacement for the Suzuki Samurai, and that a true mini-truck with trail capabilities and fun crawlability built into the genes (with truck parts underneath and honestly minute dimensions) hasn’t been created since. Sure, a Jeep is a Jeep, but we’re talking about other things – vehicles outside the Jeep mold, more urbane and untested.

The flipside of the no-more-Samurai argument is the evolving off-road presence of car-based trucklets like the Toyota Rav4, Suzuki Sidekick, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and any other sub-truck tall-wagons that litter grocery store parking lots across America. Often available with all-wheel drive or, in a few cases, real 50/50 four-wheel drive, their every-driveway ubiquity and inexpensive parts-bin construction make them easy to own and repair, useful in daily driver capacity and, near the center of trail-use functionality, somewhat disposable.


[The Old Man Emu medium-duty suspension.]

We reached into craigslist,com, a grab bag of used trucklets, and pulled out a ’98 Toyota Rav4. All-wheel drive (with an OEM center locker), five-speed, 125K, $5000. One month and a set of Dunlop sand & snow tires later, we put it to use at the Tierra Del Sol Jeep rally east of San Diego, and to everyone’s surprise, it worked. We also learned a few things chasing Jeeps around the desert: Jeepers don’t like being followed by bone-stock trucklets, the Rav4 has about 80hp, and more ground clearance would help us worry less about the unshielded undercarriage.

Lifting the Rav4: Rocky Road & OME for RAV

It’s suspension we were after, something to give height to the footsteps of the Rav4 as it works the trail. Bonking around in the sand and rocks around Ocatillo Wells showed the first-gen Rav had impressive articulation, and eager approach and departure angles which put “real” trucks to shame, but it needed some overall clearance. It was surprisingly trail-ready for an all-independent suspended car-based wagon (Corolla platform with AWD Celica drivetrain – what junkyard goodies will we find?), but inches count.  We found Rocky Road Outfitters.

Rocky Road (www.rocky-road.com) retails a horde of hard parts for crawlers, including several versions of Old Man Emu spring & shock suspension kits for the Rav4. Turns out this trucklet is a popular off-roader in the Australian and Asian subcontinents (visit rav4world.com), where it can be had with a diesel and low-range. We wanted to keep it simple. With independent suspension all around, putting this Rav4 up could get pricey quickly – a $5000 beater does not need $3000 in suspensions. Rocky Road carried what they called a “Complete medium-duty suspension” OME kit, which added about an inch height in front and about an inch and a half in back, with far improved damper settings courtesy of ARB-based absorbers. Exactly: more ground clearance, more wheel well clearance.

Awfully Easy Suspension Install

We hit up a buddy for installation. With too much to do to take the time we’d need, Big “E” at Big “O” Tires La Mesa had the manpower to knock the spring & shock action out in an hour. Literally. Sergio, the resident import genius, was in and out of the whole job in 70 minutes, alignment included.


[It’s okay to secure the strut body in a vise if you’re gentle.]

Easy modifications on simplistic vehicles like the Rav4 make wrenching fun again, and after watching Sergio tear it up we were jealous we hadn’t done it at home like originally planned. With nothing specialized but a spring compressor (for the struts up front), he was in and out of the front in 20 minutes. Lots of room to work in the Rav4’s wheel wells meant that putting the trucklet in the air was just for a comfortable working angle – a few jack stands would have worked too. Old Man Emu uses the factory strut body for its one-inch kit, sending along a replacement cartridge with more travel and tightened damping over the OEM mush-sticks.


[The front suspension went right back together, no tricks.]

Factory bits like spring isolators, bump stops and shock boots were reused throughout, but we installed the supplied polyurethane shock bushings, figuring that some more firmness couldn’t hurt in a mushy unibody chassis. They came out a week later, too firm for government work (the original rubber bushings returning for Round Two). This trucklet needs a six-point cage soon, something to stiffen the body up instead of trying to do it at the corners. And a canvas roof…

bolt do it yourself

[The restraint/keeper comes off when you’re ready to bolt things together.]

The front strut & spring combo came out and went back as per the OEM recipe. Be sure to mind that the front hub doesn’t droop and damage other components when it comes free. During re-installation, we were careful to align the pillow mount just as it was removed. Amazingly, the original front strut cartridge was still good when we took it out. Make sure there is no play in the new cartridge when the keeper is tightened.


[The poly bushing might be too stiff for a rubbery trucklet.]

The rear shocks necessitated we use the factory rubber bushings. Other than that, it was by the book.Using two wrenches on the top of the rear shock absorbers eases the removal of the top nut.

The Old Man Emu kit uses a nylon locking nut in place of the double-nut arrangement in place from the factory. A jack under the bottom of the rear shock kept it under control once the top nut was loosed

You’ve got to align a vehicle after doing suspension work to make sure your wagon roll straight, and we set the Rav4 back to the OEM settings. All the better to drive on the freeway with, as this bucket does triple duty – bringing people to class, snowboarders to the mountain, and off-roaders to the trail. Next week we’re giving the tires a hard look. Time for something a little more aggro, a little more luggy.  Thinking Goodyear MT/R, perhaps some Rubicon take-offs.


[Up an inch and aligned, the lifted Rav4 drives better than stock.]

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