(first posted 8/19/2013) A reference to the “DNA of a brand” is a long overused cliche, which is perhaps, and finally, on the way out. But it can be a valid consideration when thinking about Toyota’s genetic root; one might well conjure up images of the first Corona or Corolla, whose modern descendants (Camry/Corolla) still reflect the basic mission of their ancestors. But isn’t the true Urquelle of Toyota’s reputation legendary reliability and durability? Well, the following historical tidbit may cement the idea of where I’m going: When this FJ40 Land Cruiser was built in 1965, it was Toyota’s best selling vehicle in not only the U.S., but everywhere else outside of Japan. It is what Toyota sent out to conquer the world.
And this well-worn original example typifies it better than any other I’ve seen: it literally exudes ruggedness through the pores of its patina. How many folks has it sold on the Toyota brand over its long life? Hang on for a longish, bumpy ride as I recount the history of the FJ and my own initiation into the cults of off-roading, hitchhiking and Toyota.
I knew right away that this was a particularly old FJ when I spotted those hubcaps. The others I’ve seen usually have a different dog-dish with a cut-out for the front hubs. I’m not sure exactly when the switch was made, but it probably was fairly soon after. I found this one in a hiking trail parking lot on the coast, and the young couple that owned it were enjoying the 360-degree views on a drive down from Portland. It had recently been relocated from Colorado, where it had spent a long life in the mountains. The Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas are where the FJ first cut its well-hardened teeth in the U.S., an appropriate testing ground for its toughness.
I decided to reacquaint myself a bit with the origins of the LC, and here’s the tweet-length version: according to legend (repeated by wiki), the Japanese Army got its hands an early American proto-Jeep, the Bantam MK II, in the Philippines. They ordered Toyota to essentially reverse-engineer it without making it look like a copy. The KA pictured above (which used a four-cylinder Toyota engine based on a Chevy design) was the result. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, few were ever built or used in the war.
Nineteen fifty-one is when the true Land Cruiser DNA first replicated itself. Admittedly heavily influenced by the Willys Jeep (and perhaps even more so by the 1948 Land Rover), the Toyota BJ series spent several years evolving before going into actual production in 1953.
But its trial by fire was an assault on Mt. Fuji, and the BJ went higher than any vehicle ever had previously. Giving it a new Land Cruiser moniker, Toyota placed its ambitions in it and looked toward global expansion. Toyota’s very early efforts at importing the Toyopet sedan into the U.S. had not been successful, and so the Land Cruiser was sent out to prove its mettle. Mission accomplished: the LC found a loyal following in the world’s most difficult terrain, nowhere more than in Australia, which quickly embraced it, and eventually in Africa, where the LC slowly pushed the Land Rover aside. Around 1960, the BJ morphed into the definitive FJ that we see here.
Let’s spend a few minutes paying our respects to the legendary F-Series engine that powered Land Cruisers from 1955 all the way through 1992–quite a run, especially considering it was based on GM six-cylinder engines first designed in the Thirties. That alone may be something of a record. Anyway, the F’s predecessor, the B engine, was a license-built metric version of the original Chevy six dating from 1929; in fact, the F is often reported, although not quite so certainly, as also being built under license from GM. Actually, its block was more loosely based on the old GMC six, and the head on the Gen-2 “Stovebolt” six (1937-1962). Unlike the B engine, corresponding Chevy parts (generally) aren’t interchangeable; nevertheless, it certainly looks familiar.
A long-stroke torquer, it was eminently suitable for whatever task an LC owner could throw at it, all the way into the 1990s when it finally got fuel injection. And although the old Chevy six has a terrific rep, Toyota’s persnicketiness with material and production quality probably give the Toyota version the edge when you’re crossing the Kalahari. Ironically, many of them have long made way for a real Chevy small block V8.
Now there’s one thing Toyota didn’t copy from either the Jeep or the Land Rover: the shifter. Yes, that’s a column- mounted “three-on-the -tree”. Later versions had a four-speed stick in more familiar territory. With its stumpy torque curve, the extra gear probably wasn’t missed that much. Well, actually, I remember the owner telling me this thing is geared mighty low (high numerically), and doesn’t really like to go much over 50 mph–perfect for winding Hwy. 1, or the forest roads that branch off from it.
My seminal off-road memories are part of my first of many hitchhiking adventures, and they involve an FJ. It was the summer of 1970, and a pretty young lass I knew at Towson High suggested we hitchhike together out to Ocean City, where she knew someone with an apartment where we could stay. I didn’t have to mull over that proposition over very long; sadly, “someone” turned out be her love interest, and I was just the traveling escort who would safely deliver her to his bedroom.
I grabbed my pack, walked out and headed south, on foot, until I hit the turnoff to Assateague Island, a roadless sliver of sand some twenty-five miles long. I had never been there, just had heard about it. This was my first time savoring the freedom of the open road without an itinerary or a plan. I headed down the sandy road, and shortly before it ended, an open, red FJ40 stopped and its driver offered me a ride. Things were looking up, even if it wasn’t a girl behind the wheel.
He stopped when the road ended, lowered the air pressure in his tires, put it in low range and we hit the sand. It was an exhilarating alternative to Tish, and probably a more memorable one. I had never experienced the freedom of off-roading before, and it planted a seed that I finally harvested when I bought a Jeep 15 years later.
He was heading all the way to Chincoteage Island, at the south end, and would return that way via Virginia. So somewhere about halfway down, in the last light of day, I hopped out. He drove off, leaving me to hear the distinctive murmur of the Toyota six pushing against the soft sand. And when the sound of the six was finally drowned out by the surf, I was all alone, in the middle of an island, the day now quickly darkening. So what did I do? I hopped in the dunes, spread out my sleeping bag under the stars, pulled out my trusty Craig audio cassette player/recorder (the iPod of the times), and filled the vast empty space of the wilderness preserve with…Led Zeppelin! Being completely alone in the world is not actually all that appealing to a seventeen-year-old.
In the gray wee hours of the morning, I was jolted out of my slumber by footsteps. I opened my eyes to see a handful of wild ponies ambling just a few few feet away, their hot, horsey breaths blowing puffs of steam in the cool pre-dawn air. I suddenly realized I wasn’t really alone anywhere, and I never really felt that emptiness again. Nevertheless, I generally prefer sharing nature’s solitude with the right companion.
Well, I’ve managed to get seriously off-track here, but then, that’s what vehicles like the FJ are all about; the freedom to take the road (or beach) less traveled, although I can’t but wonder if Assateague Island is still open to vehicles. But then, that’s what the West is for.
The FJ didn’t only find a niche off-roading, though; in Iowa City in the early 1970s, they were the vehicle of choice for the hip young guy–the kind of guy who probably ended up hauling his kids in a big Land Cruiser perhaps until fairly recently, before trading it in on a Prius. It’s an interesting arc: the two vehicles that most represent Toyota’s DNA, then and now.