References to the “DNA of a brand” is a long overused cliche, and perhaps finally on the way out. But it can be a valid consideration, depending…In thinking about Toyota and its early genetic roots, one might well conjure up images of the first Corona, or the Corolla, whose modern descendants (Camry/Corolla) still reflect the basic mission of their ancestors. But isn’t the true Urquelle of Toyota’s reputation its legendary reliability and durability? Well, the following historical tidbit may cement the idea of where I’m going: in 1965, the year this FJ40 Land Cruiser was built, it was Toyota’s best selling vehicle in the USA as well as the rest of the world outside Japan. This is the car that Toyota sent out to conquer the world. And this well-worn original example typifies it better than any other I’ve ever seen: it’s literally exuding ruggedness through the pores of its patina. How many folks has it sold on the 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 as soon as I spotted those hubcaps. All the ones I’ve usually seen 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 this. I found it 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 spent its long life in the mountains. The Rockies and the Sierra Nevada are where the FJ first cut its well-hardened teeth in the US; an appropriate testing ground of 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, and gave Toyota the orders to essentially reverse engineer it, but not to make it look like a copy The KA (above) was the result. As best is know, few were ever built or used in the war. And it did use Toyota’s engine (a four) which in turn was based on a Chevy.
1951 is when the true Land Cruiser DNA first replicated itself. Admittedly influenced very heavily by the Willys Jeep and perhaps even more so by the 1948 Land Rover, the Toyota BJ series spent several years evolving before it went 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 before. With its new moniker “Land Cruiser”, Toyota placed its ambitions in it, an set its sight on global expansion. Toyota’s very early efforts at importing the Toyopet sedan into the US had not been successful, so the Land Cruiser was sent out to prove its mettle. Mission Accomplished: the LC found a loyal following in the most difficult terrains of the world, and nowhere more so than Australia, which quickly embraced it, and eventually Africa, where the LC slowly pushed the Land Rover aside. Around about 1960, the BJ morphed into the definitive FJ as we see it here.
Let’s spend a few minutes paying our respects to the legendary F-Series engine that powered Land Cruiser from 1955 all the way through 1992, quite a run. Especially so, since 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. And the F reportedly was also built under a license from GM, although not quite so precisely. Its block was loosely based the old GMC six, and the head on the gen2 “Stovebolt” six (1937-1962). Unlike in the B engine, corresponding Chevy parts (generally) aren’t interchangeable. But it sure looks familiar.
A long-stroke torquer, it was eminently suitable for the tasks that any LC owner could throw at it, all the way into the nineties, 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, if you’re crossing the Kalahari. Ironically, many of them have of course have long made way for a real Chevy small block V8.
Now there’s one thing that Toyota didn’t copy from either the Jeep or 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 fifty. Perfect for winding Hwy 1, or the forest roads that branch off from it.
My seminal off-road memories are also part of my first hitchhiking adventure, and 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 we could stay at. I didn’t have to mull that proposition over long. And I had plenty of experience packing up my old Boy Scout backpack quickly. Unfortunately, that “someone” turned out be her love interest, not me; I was just the traveling escort to 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 road-less sliver of sand some twenty-five mile long. I had never been there, just 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 fifteen years later.
He was heading all the way to Chincoteage Island at the south end, and returning that way via Virginia. So somewhere about half way down, in the last light of day, I hopped out, and 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, now quickly darkening. So what did I do? I hopped in the dunes, spread out my sleeping bag under the stars, I 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 foot steps. I opened my eyes to see a handful of the 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 never quite felt that emptiness again. Nevertheless, I do 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 just find its niche off-roading though; in Iowa City in the early seventies, they were the vehicle of choice for the hip young guy. The kind of guy who probably also ended up hauling his kids in a big Land Cruiser perhaps until fairly recently, when he might have traded it in on a Prius. It’s an interesting arc: the two vehicles that most represent Toyota’s DNA then and now.