Vintage Land Cruisers Prove Why Toyota’s Off-Roader is Iconic

November 01, 2019 by Jerry Hirsch, @Jerryhirsch

No automaker in the U.S. market has a better reputation for reliability than Toyota. It goes back to the Japanese automaker’s entry into the U.S. with a vehicle so unlike its popular Camry and Tacoma models of today that few consumers could, or would even want to, drive it now.

Back in 1958, Toyota’s first year in the market, it sold a single Land Cruiser from an old, former Rambler dealership in Hollywood, Calif. The company also sold 287 underpowered and forgettable Toyopet Crown sedans. But it was the Land Cruiser, which shares a name but nothing else with a current model, that set the tone for Toyota’s U.S. sales.

Developed in the early 1950s, this first Land Cruiser was an FJ20 series based on a military vehicle. Toyota planned to call it a Jeep until Jeep said, “Excuse me, that’s a trademark violation.” A Toyota executive then dubbed the all-terrain vehicle “Land Cruiser” because of its ability to drive over almost all surfaces.

BONE-JARRING

That four-wheeler first sold in the U.S. had a bone-jarring ride, a result of its body on frame construction and rugged truck leaf spring suspension. The 3.9-liter inline-six engine produced 105 horsepower and 189 pound-feet of torque. Small by today’s standards, those numbers were respectable at the time. The FJ20 Series had solid front and rear axles, a fold-down windshield and a clunky three-speed manual transmission.

Toyota made the Land Cruiser the foundation of its export strategy. Sales gained traction in South America and the Middle East. The automaker figured it was the best vehicle to establish a reputation of toughness and brought it to America.

Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser

The U.S. version of the FJ40 featured an inline six-cylinder gasoline engine that produced 125 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque, more than any of its contemporaries. (Photo: Toyota)

FJ40 LAUNCHED LEGEND

By 1960, Toyota had introduced an updated Land Cruiser, the FJ40 Series.

The FJ40 was more polished and launched the iconic two-box, angular styling that turned the Land Cruiser into an off-roading cult classic, akin to the Land Rover Defender. A wraparound rear window and two-tone paint job gave the FJ40 a touch of rugged panache. Short overhangs improved clearance, and a two-speed transfer case boosted off-road capability. The U.S. version featured a new, inline six-cylinder gasoline engine that produced 125 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. While mousey compared with today’s SUVs, those numbers meant the Land Cruiser packed more than contemporary rivals. The powertrain still included a three-speed manual transmission.

U.S. sales began in 1960. Toyota sold more Land Cruisers than any other model for the next five years. But by 1965, the Corona sedan – a fuel-sipping, budget car – supplanted the off-roader as the automaker’s best-seller.

COOL AND QUAINT

Those who go off-roading in modern Jeeps, Toyota Tacomas and Ford Raptors would be surprised by the FJ40’s combination of capability and primitiveness. The FJ’s toughness and charm emerged during a recent drive in the semi-desert scrub near Salt Lake City, Utah. Toyota and the Land Cruiser Heritage Museum in Salt Lake City hosted the event.

The FJ40 is both cool and quaint. A drive in a 1977 model found it could easily handle dirt, steep inclines and rocks, but only slowly. By 1977, the vehicle came equipped with a 4.2-liter six-cylinder engine that produced 135 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque. That’s just a notch better than the 1960 vehicle. The four-speed manual transmission is workable but notchy. The steering play is huge. It takes more than a quarter turn of what would be considered an oversized steering wheel to make an impression on the heading. Ground clearance is 8.3 inches, slightly less than the latest Subaru Outback station wagon.

Production of this model ran for a generation – 1960 through 1983. But the FJ40 has a charm that few other vehicles ever achieve. Sliding into the driver’s seat feels like they being in an Indiana Jones movie or skippering a Disneyland Jungle Cruise boat – on the actual Amazon. It’s the off-road equivalent of driving a vintage Porsche at the Laguna Seca Raceway.

In the late 1970s, the Land Cruiser started at around $6,000. But that was still a spartan SUV with neither air conditioning nor power steering.

Toyota FJ55 Land Cruiser

The Toyota FJ55 Land Cruiser (Photo: Toyota)

GROWING THE RANGE

Changing consumer preferences and Toyota’s growing stature in the U.S. auto market prompted the company to launch a larger Land Cruiser model. International Harvester’s Travelall and Jeep’s Wagoneer found success mining a burgeoning market for a combination people mover and tough utility vehicle.

Toyota launched the Land Cruiser 55 Series wagon model in 1967. Designers grew the wheelbase by 16 inches to accommodate workable rear seating for a family. The styling was more in tune with the late 1960s. It was equipped with an improved version of the 3.9-liter, six-cylinder engine. Market segmentation helped sales.

Toyota sold its 100,000th Land Cruiser globally in 1968. By 1973, it had crossed the 300,000 mark. Toyota sold its 10 millionth Land Cruiser earlier this year in Australia, the vehicle’s largest market. To this day, Toyota believes the Land Cruiser’s reputation for durability positioned its passenger car line to grow quickly globally. It calls the off-roader its first brand halo vehicle.

UPGRADE

To keep up with the growing competition, Toyota gave the 40- and 55-series Land Cruisers the 4.2-liter, six-cylinder engine that Trucks.com drove in Utah. It upgraded the vehicles with a 4-speed manual transmission.

A six-mile run in a 1977 FJ55 up Little Cottonwood Canyon to the Snowbird ski resort above Salt Lake City proved an arduous affair The Land Cruiser didn’t allow driving beyond third gear. The climb was too much for fourth gear. Even with the accelerator pushed to the floor, the truck struggled to touch 40 mph. This was a slow but steady affair. It was also noisy. Toyota didn’t put much effort into deadening noise intrusion in its early off-roaders. It’s also hard to know how our ride might have performed 40 years ago. The Land Rover Heritage Museum says all of its vehicles drive onto the display floor on their own power. The ones that go on excursions are those in the best condition. But although we were enjoying a “vertical tasting” of Land Cruisers, they are machines, not wine. Age takes its toll.

BIGGER LAND CRUISERS

As the SUV craze took hold in the U.S., Toyota replaced the Land Cruiser 55 Series with the all-new FJ60 Series in 1980. The idea was to merge more comfort into the vehicle’s rugged capability. It stopped selling the flagship FJ40 in 1983 and killed that version entirely a year later. The global market got the Land Cruiser 70 Series, but that never made it to the U.S.

Toyota FJ60 Land Cruiser

The Toyota FJ60 Land Cruiser (Photo: Toyota)

The FJ60 had the same length as the 55 but was almost 3 inches wider to provide interior comfort. A longer wheelbase also helped. It had the same engine. A drive from the mountain to Salt Lake City found the power wanting on a major highway. Part of the problem is that the new FJ weighed almost 7 percent more than the model it replaced. But the power rating was the same. Toyota identified the problem. It gave the 1988 version a new 155-horsepower 4-liter engine. The automaker also tackled the cabin with a new dash and upgraded interior.

Ground clearance was 8.1 inches, which is a touch close compared with the better off-road vehicles today.

THE MODERN ERA

Despite its history and tradition, the Land Cruiser’s simple, practical architecture grew obsolete, thanks to technology advancements. Toyota replaced the old architecture with a ground-up redesign. The automaker launched the Land Cruiser 80 Series in spring 1990 as a 1991 model.

Toyota FJ80 Land Cruiser

The Toyota FJ80 Land Cruiser (Photo: Toyota)

A significant improvement in ride quality came with coil springs for the front suspension. The vehicle no longer felt like an antique. Toyota installed a full-time 4-wheel-drive system that could be used in all conditions, including dry roads. But a locking center differential still gave the new Land Cruiser off-road capability. Next came amenities such as leather-trimmed seats, air conditioning and an upgraded sound system. The vehicle got airbags and anti-lock brakes. A modern, more powerful engine came in 1993. The 4.5-liter, six-cylinder produced up to 212 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque.

The subsequent Land Cruiser 100 Series, introduced in 1998, offered more luxury and power. A drive on Utah’s highways found the 100 handling like a luxury truck. While it can go off-road, this is clearly not its first purpose. The Land Cruiser had become a high-end people mover, still capable of traversing the dirt roads and remote reaches of a ranch but also suited to drive to a five-star Michelin restaurant.

Toyota Land Cruiser 100

Toyota Land Cruiser 100 (Photo: Toyota)

The same philosophy extends to the current 200 series, which now sells for close to $90,000. Perhaps the closest vehicle in Toyota’s U.S. lineup to the original Land Cruisers is a 4Runner with an off-road package. Although it’s a low-volume vehicle – Toyota will sell about 3,000 in the U.S. this year – it’s still a moneymaker. But it would be nice if Toyota would take that iconic name and heritage and wrap it up in a smaller off-road utility vehicle that could compete with the Jeep Wrangler and the new Bronco that Ford is about to relaunch. That’s the Land Cruiser’s real home.

Jerry Hirsch September 11, 2019
Jaguar Land Rover is bringing a newly designed Land Rover Defender back to the U.S. after more than a 20-year absence.

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