Toyota Week Finale: 1980 Toyota FJ40 – A Victory Lap for a Trailblazing Upstart


We started our CC Toyota Week with an FJ40, and we shall end it the same way (unless, of course,  someone follows up with another finale).  Paul Niedermeyer gave us his usual excellent treatment of the FJ40’s history with his piece on one of the early versions (CC here).  This FJ is one of the final versions, and will give you a different focus.


Carmakers are a lot like people.  But you knew that.  Why is it that some can have the idea first, but not run with it the way they should.  Others seem to have it all together, yet make a botch of things and drift into irrelevance.  Some are born with a silver spoon in their mouths, but never venture beyond their own neighborhood.  And others start with very, very little, and through hard work and determination, parlay a modest start into complete domination.

Take the Willys Jeep.  By the end of World War II, Jeeps were on almost every continent, either as surplus or as active military vehicles.  In 1945, who was positioned better than Willys to take the gospel of lightweight, durable all wheel drive out to the less developed places in the world to become the Model T of the postwar era all across the globe?


True, Willys was a small company that was not any too overcapitalized.  However, its 1954 merger with Kaiser could have changed that.  Particularly with Henry Kaiser’s deep pockets and his company’s significant presence in Argentina and South America.  The American Jeep should have slowly grown, inching out across the less developed world.  It was basic and hardy.  And, if the open-air CJ proved a little too basic, the postwar all-steel station wagon should have proved just the thing.  But alas, the civilian Jeep was not victorious as its military ancester had been.  So far as I am aware, the Jeep steel wagon (cancelled in the U.S. in 1965) was never built overseas.  Why not?  Good question.

Infrastructure and good supply lines were instrumental in helping to win a world war, but these things would be in short supply in terms of the Jeep organization getting a dominant foothold outside of the US.  The defining four-wheel-drive vehicle of the postwar years?  Yes – in the USA.  But elsewhere, Jeep was more hit and miss.


Then there was the Land Rover.  Others here are more knowledgeable about the Land Rover than am I, but it would seem that the Land Rover also had a good start following the war.  Add in the fact that it was built by a country that still had some claim (albeit a shrinking one) to being a worldwide empire.  Into the 1950s, there were still British subjects worldwide and British infrastructure (both governmental and commercial) to support them.


Unfortunately, as capable as the Land Rover was and as far-flung as its organization was found, it would not become the dominant force that it should have become.  Whether it was quality woes, or the lack of capital, or that it took its world leadership position for granted, I cannot say.  What I can say is that while the Land Rover still maintains some presence in remote outposts the world over, it is not the indispensable player that it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

I must throw in here the case of the International Scout.  International Harvester is such a fascinating company.  Before and during the Second World War, it was one of the largest, most vertically integrated manufacturing companies in the world.  After the war, it certainly had resources aplenty to throw at its truck unit, and did so when it introduced the Scout in 1960.  International certainly had no shortage of experience in building trucks, having done so since at least 1907.  But was there ever a company with “International” as a part of its name that had so much of a focus on its domestic market?


The Scout was certainly a latecomer (though not compared to the Toyota), introduced as a 1961 model.  It was certainly a capable vehicle, and both simple and durable – two qualities absolutely necessary for a world vehicle.  However, the International Scout was really the American domestic Scout that, like many residents of its Fort Wayne, Indiana birthplace (including your author), seldom if ever ventured outside of the U.S.  While the original Scout might have been quite suitable for Africa, South America or the Austrailian outback, it never became much of a presence there, certainly in comparison to the other players in this tale.  Then, by 1980, the biggest company of them all was on hard times.  The big truck lines were saved to live another day, but the Scout line (and all consumer-grade vehicles) were history.  I suppose International could not be blamed for picking the low-hanging fruit of the large American market, but that strategy carries risks as well, as International discovered.


Wait – isn’t this Toyota week?  So it is, and now we come back to that little company that took a larger view.  Was there a product less appealing to the Japanese domestic market than the original Land Cruiser?  Japan is (and was) a small island nation that is quite densely populated.  Toyota tried sending its best sedan, the Toyopet, to the U.S in the late 1950s, which produced one of the larger automotive sales flops of that decade.  So, even though the Land Cruiser was not a big seller in Japan, this would be the vehicle to plant Toyota’s flag elsewhere in the world.


Toyota would start with a top quality vehicle that contained the best features of the Jeep, the Land Rover and even the Scout.  But, Toyota would go farther, with a level of quality in design, parts and assembly that would be unmatched elsewhere.  And fortunately, Studebaker had abandoned the use of the Land Cruiser name after 1954.  Add in an attentive dealer and parts presence that went most places where the little Land Cruiser went, and the result is now everywhere for all to see.  Once the Land Cruiser blazed the trail, more civilized models would follow all over the world.


This particular Land Cruiser is one of the later ones, 1979 or later (Wiki says that 1979 was the first year for air conditioning).  I am picking 1980 just to make a point.  By that year, AMC, International Harvester and British Leyland were all foundering in the United States (and elsewhere, for that matter).  For the American companies, that lazy reliance on the huge American market would have a downside when the bottom fell out of the American economy.  Toyota, on the other hand, was flourishing as never before.  When the first purchaser of this yellow Land Cruiser brought it home, it was certainly the oldest design of any of the top four wheel drive vehicles offered for sale.  It was also likely one of the most expensive.  Yet out of all the others (and the Bronco, and the Blazer, and the Ramcharger) this was the one chosen, just like all of those other yellow Land Cruisers offloaded from ships in ports on every continent.  This one is still with us, a bit rusty perhaps, but still providing all weather transportation to a college student a generation (or two) removed from the earlier purchasers of these machines.


I guess the car business can be like a sports team.  Some teams have the recruiting, or the raw talent, or the benefit of a favorable schedule.  But the ones that win the championships tend to be the teams that focus on the fundamentals, and do the little things thoroughly and well.   In 1960, who could have imagined that within twenty years, Jeep, Land Rover and International would become also-rans in the worldwide market for tough, back-country transportation?  Each of those three companies had a much easier path to domination of this market, yet it was Toyota that took control of the game.

As people here (and elsewhere) got richer and fatter, the Land Cruiser has grown in size, comfort, performance and expense.  Sadly, the world seemed to be outgrowing the FJ40 by the 1980s (though it stayed in production in Brazil until 2001.  Jeep – that could have been you!)   There are some who wonder if the modern versions have lost some of their edge, but the Land Cruiser remains at the top of the pecking order almost everywhere.  Personally, I like these old, basic models.  But as rugged as these are, in a certain way, these were always one of the most civilized outdoorsmen of them all.  Certainly the most successful.  And a fitting end to Toyota Week.