On CC and elsewhere, the paternity of the SUV has usually been attributed to the Jeep Wagoneer, and rightly so. Perhaps that makes the Range Rover the mad spinster aunt, who had a tryst with a wealthy Swiss benefactor (a.k.a Herr Monteverdi) to gain extra doors and fully become a proto-SUV. So what does that make the Series 50 Land Cruiser? The Mother of All SUVs? I’m not sure how I’ll be able to substantiate that, but stick with me here.
The Jeep Wagoneer came out in 1962. The Range Rover was launched (with two doors only) in 1970. For its part, Toyota’s FJ55 Land Cruiser hit the Japanese showrooms in the summer of 1967. Philosophically, these three proto-SUVs are pretty much identical, taking the existing 4×4 technology, enveloped in a stylish wagon body with a few car-like creature comforts within. Jeep introduced V8 engines, A/C, power accessories and automatic transmission to this new niche – something of a ‘60s revolution. The British and Japanese were a bit slower to adopt all these things on their cars in general, so the Range Rover and the FJ55 Land Cruiser started off as less plush than the Wagoneer, to say the least.
However, things improved with time: the Range Rover eventually became the Chelsea chariot we all know and, presumably, love. Toyota’s FJ55 had some of its rougher edges smoothed as well. It started life with a three-on-the-tree sans synchronized 1st gear, drum brakes all around and few optional extras, but it gradually gained a fully-synch’ed four-on-the-floor (and an optional autobox), front discs and factory air. But it’s fair to say, looking at this impressively original JDM car, that even late model FJ56s never departed from a rather utilitarian feel, more akin to a Corolla than a Crown.
Engine-wise, Toyota used the 3.9 litre 6-cyl. Type F mill seen in the off-road Land Cruiser since the early ‘50s. This engine, which looks a lot like the Chevrolet Stovebolt Six, was first seen in 1948 on Toyota trucks; 20 years later, by the time it was fitted to the FJ55, its output was 125-130hp.
In January 1975, the engine was updated to the 2F version. The Land Cruiser thus switched to the “FJ56” designation, but strangely that was on the JDM only, though the improved engine was put on export models as well. In Japan, the 2F produced 140hp from its 4230cc (but only 135hp in export models) and gained a reputation for being a superb fit for the Land Cruiser. It was rugged, easy to work on, with enough torque and good will to climb any mountain and ford any stream.
This new engine heralded a series of small changes on the Land Cruiser’s body. This started with the deletion of the front vent windows and bigger turn signals in late 1975, which are strangely absent from our feature car. In 1977 came new wing mirrors and new taillamps, which became vertical and placed much lower than before.
Pity about that last change – the original taillamp design had a bit of a Studebaker feel to it, whereas those newer ones look more anonymous. The last visible change were the windshield wipers, which went all black in 1979. Since our feature car doesn’t have those, I make it a ’78.
Another plus point for the Toyota was that it offered two tailgates: one was a pickup-like bottom-hinged affair with an electric window and the other, as seen on the car I found, was a set of van-like double doors. Either design works, but the latter is better suited to carrying extra passengers in the rear, as some Land Cruisers were fitted with two sideways seats in the cargo space, much like the long wheelbase Land Rover wagons. The Toyota has a slightly smaller wheelbase than the LWB Landie (270cm vs. 277cm, respectively), but space utilization is far superior in the Japanese car than in the older British one.
Other than that front end, the only strange thing about this Series 50 Land Cruiser is that I found one at all. These things were mechanically bulletproof, but rusted pretty badly and survivors are not all that common. They were not really meant for the JDM: in Japan, the FJ55/56 was too big to have much impact on private sales, though a number of government operators (including many fire departments) found these to fit their needs. It was in the same displacement and size category as the Toyota Century, but with considerably less snob appeal. There was no Diesel option and fuel consumption was pretty high, which did not help matters.
These were clearly designed with the US market in mind, and that is where many of them went, along with a few others, such as Australia, the Middle-East and Africa. Toyota made decent enough business with them, I suppose. The last FJ56 was put together in July 1980. Not sure how many they sold, but it was enough to encourage them to design a new generation, the series 60, which became a worldwide hit.
Of course, esthetics are eminently subjective, but the FJ55/56 did not earn its “Iron Pig” nickname by accident. These are the looks only a mother could love – or sport. In the proto-SUV family, the Wagoneer was the big daddy, the Range Rover was the kooky auntie and our Land Cruiser was the matronly materfamilias. She was the one you could depend on, got you home no matter what and never went to pieces on you. She just was not very good at applying makeup or at wearing a cocktail dress.