Curbside Classic: 1988 Toyota Land Cruiser – Keeping The Faith

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This legend, casually parked around lesser cars, needs little introduction.  It is without a doubt, an icon, but somewhat unusually for a Japanese product sold in the US, its relationship with both its competition and its maker’s line-up is less than clearly defined.  In both its well-known, enduring qualities and its undiluted expression of its engineers’ intentions, the Land Cruiser has always been exceptional, with popularity remaining a secondary consideration.

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If SUVs are meant to impart a sense of adventure to mundane errand running, the more rustic Japanese SUVs of the 1980s and early ’90s are hard to beat.  Cars like the Jeep CJ at the time didn’t allow enough relief from the elements for most buyers, making it hard to fully enjoy the tippy, bouncy experience on a regular basis.  Smaller hardtop SUVs with off-road cred like the Jeep XJ were more compact and, in comparison, wieldy and refined.  While the Nissan Patrol was never offered in the US (until now, in Infiniti guise), I’ve experienced them overseas and loved every minute of it.  Looking good almost thirty years later, this FJ62 continues to bring the same whole-grain experience to a local group of college students who are likely even younger than I am, and even less clearly able to remember these cars.

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The draw of these classic Land Cruisers is the same viable-antique vibe that keeps the Benz W123 or Volvo 240 popular today, though this Toyota likely requires much less maintenance.  In a sense, it’s sad when you consider that the very capable Mitsubishi Montero and Isuzu Trooper II, which were cut from a similar (but smaller and cheaper) cloth as the Land Cruiser, are generally written off as old junk by the sort of fashion conscious, but not necessarily car-savvy people who embrace these trucks today.  Luckily, as such a rugged device, this rig is more able to deal with any such owners’ potential neglect.

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As I implied, it’s somewhat difficult to pin this generation of Land Cruiser down, at least in the US market.  Introduced as the FJ60 in 1980, it was a definite step upmarket, with power steering and A/C, but mechanically, it remained rather basic, with a solid leaf-sprung axle front and rear.  On the other hand, its departure angles were limited by its new role as a family vehicle.  The closest thing I can think to compare it to would be the Grand Wagoneer or the Suburban, but both were more plush.  This bodystyle most definitely represents a transition for the nameplate, marking the very beginning of its conversion into a Range Rover rival.

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The quad headlight mug identifies this as a facelifted 1988-1990 FJ62.  The leaf springs front and rear were made softer, and the powertrain was upgraded.  A fuel-injected 4.0 straight-six, a descendant of a Toyota interpretation of a Chevy design, replaced the previous carbureted 4.2 variant and put out 155 horsepower at 4000 rpm and 220 lb-ft of torque at 3000.  Its low revving nature made it perfect for the four-speed automatic which replaced the mandatory four-speed manual, and complemented the newly available power windows and locks.  Toyota was definitely late in civilizing the Cruiser and until the next generation bowed, despite its family friendly body, power steering, air conditioning and dual heater, it remained very purpose-built.

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As is the case today, the Land Cruiser was very different from the company’s mainstream North American offerings in terms of its engineering and market position.  The 4Runner and compact pickup which sold alongside it offered modern conveniences a bit earlier as well as more up-to-date technology, despite being cheaper.  And the same applied to cars like the Corolla, still an honest car in those days.  Toyota’s big SUV, however, was stocked in small numbers and only ordered by those in the know who really wanted one, soldiering on with proven technology even older than that employed by its already conservative stablemates.

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What sets the Land Cruiser apart from the other big utes was its combination of rustic mechanicals with a very well-finished Japanese aesthetic and ergonomic sensibility.  In terms of its looks and passenger accommodations, it was classic Toyota through-and-through.  I can’t help but be reminded of the Cressida wagon when I see the Land Cruiser, giving this rugged piece a degree of car-like user friendliness; note that this is different from the outright luxury promoted by the Anglo-American analogues I mentioned earlier.

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And it’s hard to see as much similarity between those other SUVs and the passenger cars made by same companies.  Even in the case of the Nissan Patrol, there’s not as much linking it stylistically to such cars as the Maxima or (non-US) Laurel wagons.  Toyota did an excellent job of establishing a brand identity, still mostly true today, and even the US-centric Camry in those days had to be dragged away from its Corona influence, distinguished as it was by gothic chromed door releases and faux dashboard stitching.  No wonder it took the next Camry to make a real breakthrough, and no wonder the launch of the original Lexus was seen as such a huge step.  Toyota was a very different company back then and in that sense, the Land Cruiser was the most solid expression of the their identity.

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While slightly less dear than the Cressida, this is what $20,000 bought you in 1988.  For reference, the Grand Wagoneer was $25,000 and the Range Rover, $34,000.  But even in those days of (relatively) cheap Yen, this sort of peerless quality did not come cheap.  Today, the Land Cruiser costs $79,000 ($3k less than a Range Rover); that price exceeds inflation, though even considering the change in buyers’ expectations, today’s version is much more generously spec’d.  This kind of pricing, of course, would not be possible for most other cars with a mass-market badge.  The Land Cruiser may sell in smaller numbers than the Lexus LS, but enjoys an arguably superior reputation and may even be built to a higher standard.  Thus, even with the establishment of a premium brand, it remains the top dog Toyota (except for the already-forgotten Lexus LFA).  Senior management have recently admitted to losing track of what made their cars great in the past, but if they are interested in more than lip service, they’ll take note of this Cruiser’s straightforward presentation and apply the same philosophy to the creation of all future models.

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Related reading:
1970 Toyota FJ55 Land Cruiser – You Haven’t Aged One Bit!1980 Toyota FJ40 – A Victory Lap for a Trailblazing Upstart