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The Toyota Dolphin: Nostalgic Memories of My First Camping Adventures

Like many of you, we grew up camping with our families. Long before our fifth wheel, Class A, or truck camper, I traveled the road in a 1984 Toyota Dolphin.

While it may not have been the most comfortable ride, it did the job. It helped my family make some unforgettable memories.

Today, I want to travel back in time and share the Toyota Dolphin with you, as well as examine the legacy of these iconic campers you’ll still occasionally see on the road. Grab your Tamagotchi and slap bracelets; we’re teleporting back to the late ’80s and early ’90s.  

My First Camping Memories Were Made in a Toyota Dolphin

Every summer, without fail, my family would go camping. My dad, mom, brother, sister, and I would climb into our 1984 Toyota Dolphin Class C Motorhome and embark on a new adventure to one of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s amazing state parks.

child riding in an vintage motorhome
My family driving our Toyota Dolphin to our next campground adventure.

Our family of 5 fit snuggly but comfortably in the simple, no-slide Dolphin. My siblings and I slept horizontally on the bunk, while my mom and dad each had a bunk/sofa on the main floor. I honestly hardly remember much about the Dolphin itself, just the good times, smores, and campfires we had while camping. Just goes to show that you really don’t need the biggest RV to make some big memories.

Even after the Toyota Dolphin stopped running, we used it for camping out with friends in the backyard. When I met my future husband, Tom, in 2008, he rebuilt the roof and lived in the old Dolphin for a summer. It all must have made a lasting impression, as Tom and I sold our house and hit the road in an RV full-time in 2015.

Repairing Toyota Dolphin
Tom renovating his first RV: my family’s old ’81 Toyota Dolphin motorhome.

What Is a Toyota Dolphin?

The Toyota Dolphin is a tiny, self-contained, Class C motorhome. It’s approximately the same size as the modern Class B Sprinter van, just a little wider and more squat. It was made by the Dolphin Camper Company, and is referred to as a “Toyota” Dolphin because it sits on a small Toyota truck chassis with a dually rear end. The over-cab sleeping space makes it more usable. The Dolphin introduced the world to the concept of “micro-mini” motorhomes.

It was fuel-efficient, small, and reliable. This made the Dolphin a trendy option for those looking to pack up and take a family road trip.

Fully renovated & remodeled 1986 Off-Grid Toyota Dolphin Tour

When Was the Toyota Dolphin Made?

Production for the Toyota Dolphin ran from 1976 to 1997. The Dolphin Camper Company produced them in Sun Valley, California. What separated these campers from the rest was their craftsmanship and warranty. These campers carried a lifetime warranty to the original owner for anything Dolphin manufactured. This differs significantly from the warranty horror stories we see and hear about today.

Over the years, the Dolphin Camper Company evolved the vehicle. They grew their brand and the size of their rigs. However, in 1986, the company changed its name to National RV and started making Class A “Dolphin” motorhomes as well. The Class C Dolphin reign ended in 1997, but many of these iconic RVs can still be seen roaming the roadways today. The brand served as the entry-level rig in their line of Class A motorhomes.

Over the next decade, National RV Inc. experienced various financial challenges. They filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November 2007 and laid off their staff of approximately 600 employees.

Toyota Dolphin off-roading
There is nothing more nostalgic than your family’s childhood motorhome you went on camping adventures in.

Toyota Dolphin Specs and Features

The first Toyota Dolphin sat on a Toyota Strong Cab and chassis. Its 2,189 CC engine cranked out a lackluster 96 horsepower. At less than 20 feet long and weighing 4,600 pounds, it wasn’t built to impress. 

In the early 1980s, Dolphin Camper Company began offering the V-6 and V-8 versions that sat on a Ford F-25 chassis. However, they continued to offer the 2.4L gasoline Toyota version. In 1985 and 1986, they expanded the lineup and jumped from four floorplans to six and then nine. They also began offering a slightly larger 24-foot version.

Their features included everything you could need to live comfortably on the road. They came with 20-gallon water storage tanks, a heater, and a refrigerator. Their large kitchens, full bathroom, and generous sleeping spaces appealed to traveling families. They weren’t perfect, but travelers made them work.

Pro Tip: Walk down memory lane and check out these 9 Coolest Blast-From-the-Past Vintage Motorhomes.

What Did Owners Love About the Toyota Dolphin?

While their features and capabilities may be severely lacking compared to today’s market, owners loved the Toyota Dolphin. Let’s look at a handful of things people loved about this tiny home on wheels.

The Unique Look

I can spot a Toyota Dolphin from a mile away. They have a very distinct, even somewhat goofy, look. We often joke that they look like a turtle carrying too big of a shell. If you’ve seen one, you know what we’re talking about.

The cab portion of the camper looks incredibly tiny compared to the living space. It makes you wonder how a small vehicle can haul such a massive load. 

Compact and Maneuverability

Until the 1980s, the Dolphins were all under 20 feet long. Even when they expanded, it was only an additional couple of feet, which put them at a maximum of 22 feet long. Their compact size made them convenient to get in and out of campsites and parking spaces.

Even today, those who continue to use them enjoy the flexibility they provide. They may not be ideal for off-roading, but you can park them in almost any state park campground. However, we’ll warn you; people will want to check them out.

Fuel Efficiency

One of the things that people love about these campers is their incredible fuel efficiency. They typically would get around 15 to 16 miles per gallon. While this may not sound great for mileage, you have to consider that many motorhomes get single-digit MPGs. For its size, it was a respectable amount.

However, the Toyota Dolphin only had a 17-gallon fuel tank. You would need to find a gas station every 200 to 250 miles. However, if you were traveling on the historic Route 66 or some other exciting road trip, it was pretty easy. There was lots to see and do; it was just part of the adventure.

Versatility

The Toyota Dolphin came in various floorplans over the years. Dolphin Camper Company wanted to create the perfect rig for their customers. They changed or added to floorplans yearly to improve their versatility.

Today, owners love that they can customize them to their liking. They’re easy to modify and accommodate various lifestyles. Would it be easy to live in them full-time? Absolutely not. However, taking them to a music festival or other event can make for a comfortable and memorable experience.

Durability and Reliability

Like many Toyota products, their engines are durable and rarely experience significant issues. Many owners proudly state they have more than 200,000 miles on their Toyota Dolphins. That’s a lot of traveling and seeing the country.

Durability and reliability are critical for a road trip vehicle. The last thing you want is to experience a catastrophic issue. However, it’s vital to remember that these are antiques. So while they may have a solid reputation, it may be challenging to track down parts when something eventually goes wrong.

Resale Value

If you’ve walked onto a dealership lot lately, you may have experienced sticker shock. However, if you purchased a Toyota Dolphin in the late 1970s, you would have paid less than $10,000. However, the 1980s saw the prices double during the decade. What was initially $13,000 to $14,500 became $25,000 to $26,500.

If you’re searching for a Toyota Dolphin today, it won’t be as cheap as you’d think. We searched RV Trader and only found a single listing. It was a 1991 model with 83,000 miles. The owner was selling it for $9,500, which shows that, like any RV, they depreciate, but they’re still worth something even a few decades later.

Toyota Dolphin driving on dirt road
Many families made priceless memories in a Toyota Dolphin.

The Problem With the Toyota Dolphin

While the Dolphin helped many people visit incredible places and make priceless memories, it had a significant issue. One of the biggest problems is that it was notoriously underpowered. Getting up a hill or even a mountain pass could be challenging. Sometimes it felt like we were never going to make it.

While the small engine was great for fuel economy, it didn’t produce enough power to ascend a hill quickly. Depending on the incline, pulling over to let your engine and transmission cool down is necessary.

Another issue was when Dolphin extended the overall length. During the mid-80s, the longer length pushed the vehicle’s chassis past its half-ton capacity. Many owners began to experience rear axle failures. They issued a recall, and the manufacturer added a second set of wheels for some models. From then on, they used an upgraded safe axle to avoid any issues.

Did Toyota Make Other RVs?

Now, Toyota didn’t make the Dolphin and doesn’t have an RV manufacturing division of its company. However, some RVs use a Toyota-made chassis. Occasionally, Toyota has been known to get more involved in particular projects, and not just the Toyota Dolphin.

Don’t forget about the Toyota Chinook, Sunrader, or their collaboration with Winnebago. The Toyota Hiace Campervan is a trendy option outside the United States for conversion projects.

However, if we had to pick our favorite Toyota RV, it’s Tacozilla. It is a one-of-a-kind custom camper Toyota built. It’s a way of tipping their hat to the Toyota Chinook. When it comes to incredible conversion projects, that’s about as good as it gets.

Pro Tip: We took a closer look to uncover Are Toyota Tacomas Really as Good at Overlanding as They Say?

FULL TOUR OF OUR 1988 TOYOTA DOLPHIN OFF-GRID CAMPER VAN || COMPLETE GUT AND REBUILD

Remembering Where It All Started in a Toyota Dolphin

Even after traveling several hundred thousand miles in an RV and sitting around hundreds of campfires, I still love it. There’s something special about the adventure, experiencing new places, and making unforgettable memories. Whether it’s in a Toyota Dolphin or one of our many other campers, I’m thankful for every chance we have to go camping.

Do you have any fond memories of older RVs? Let us know in the comments! 

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About Tom and Caitlin Morton

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for Hwy.co and an Arizona travel guide.

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Richard

Sunday 30th of July 2023

We got a 1988 Dolphin in 2013 and have traveled in it a lot. We've taken many 6-8 week trips to the SW, and in 2022 a 68 day trip to Alaska.

Marty

Friday 28th of July 2023

Rented one on Kauai back in 1985… fun times

Not So Free

Friday 28th of July 2023

I remember reading about people replacing the original rear end with a narrowed Ford 9" rear. Apparently the factory rears were a weak point.

Doug

Friday 28th of July 2023

Nice article. They were and still are amazing RVs. My wife and I bought our neighbors 1988 Dolphin 3 years ago for $5,000 that only had 44,000 original miles. Everything works and it still runs like new. Put on new suspension air bags. Handles like a dream. Even the air conditioner works! I've added a dc to dc charger/controller and a 2200 watt inverter. With engine idling, we can make Kerig coffee. Solar next. We've taken our grandson to wilderness areas in New Mexico. I'm retired and in my 70s and will be taking the" Enterprise" as my wife named it, to California for a 10 day mountain biking trip. We have the Dolphin parked in our driveway and have had at least 20 people wanting to buy it, even though there's no for sale sign.