Original Toyota Land Cruiser a workhorse
The only thing the well-equipped FJ Cruiser that Toyota sells today shares with the original Land Cruiser produced more than 40 years ago is the name.
However, it was the one sport utility vehicle that helped put the automaker on the map and created a worldwide following for this durable little truck.
From its bare-bones beginnings, the Land Cruiser has slowly but steadily evolved into a cushy, king-size off-roader. More recently, Toyota recognized the popularity of the Land Cruisers of old and introduced the FJ Cruiser that carries many styling influences of the original.
But where did it come from?
The Land Cruiser's humble origins actually mirror that of Volkswagen, Citro‘n, Fiat and others that struggled to return to business after years of armed conflict. Before World War II, the company we know as the Toyota Motor Company was called the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, which had developed a fledgling automotive division back in 1933.
However, as part of the United States plan to revitalize Japan's post-war economy, Toyoda (the revised spelling of the name would come later) was encouraged to manufacture a vehicle that could travel throughout the country, including mountainous and hard-to-reach areas where roads ranged from barely passable to practically non-existent.
By 1953, the first Toyota Jeeps, named for the vehicle they were blatantly patterned after, rolled off the assembly line, destined for the Japanese National Police Reserve Forces. After the initial run of 300 units, pressure by the Willys company, which owned the rights to the Jeep brand, forced Toyota to change the name. Thus the Land Cruiser, a handle that was inspired by the British Land Rover 4x4, was born.
Over the next few years, Land Cruisers were also being exported to a number of neighboring countries throughout Southeast Asia as well as Australia and Russia, providing a much needed source of hard currency for the reborn automaker.
Although maintaining a Jeep-like appearance, the Land Cruiser featured some important improvements that made a big difference, including a longer wheelbase, softer suspension and a more powerful six-cylinder engine.
It is these primary characteristics that ultimately charmed North American buyers when Toyota's global distribution network was extended to this continent in the early 1960s.
In fact, from 1961-'64, the Land Cruiser, sporting more modern and distinctive sheetmetal, was the only Toyota you could buy in the United States.
As the backbone of Toyota's vehicle sales, the Land Cruiser quickly gained a reputation for ruggedness and comfort at an affordable price. No longer mimicking the Jeep, its long nose and horizontal grille gave the Land Cruiser a look all its own and its 135-horsepower straight-six motor proved advantageous compared to its military-style competitors, such as the Jeep CJ and Britain's Land Rover that both made do with two fewer cylinders.
Early imported Land Cruisers were equipped with three-speed column-mounted manual gearboxes, but were soon changed to four-speed transmissions with floor-mounted shifters.
By the mid-1960s the Land Cruiser lineup included both hard and soft top models (FJ40 series, which is where today's FJ Cruiser name comes from) as well as the long-wheelbase FJ45 pickup. Of the three, the most distinctive was the hard-top version that featured wrap-around rear corner windows and two removable rear seats mounted sideways over the wheel wells.
At that time, a diesel-engine model was added to the lineup, which became a popular choice in the Japanese home market since it was taxed at a much lower rate. Diesel-powered Land Cruisers were also shipped to North America but, despite their added torque, were not particularly popular here.
Amazingly, despite the almost constant evolution of Toyota's passenger-car lines, the Land Cruiser received only modest mechanical and content updating throughout its 24-year life span before it was withdrawn from service in 1984.
Brand loyalty, however, knows no bounds and these original Land Cruiser beasts of burden have achieved cult status among 4x4 fanatics who, with the assistance of numerous aftermarket suppliers and restorers, keep the original Land Cruiser flame burning bright and the prices of used versions high.
The current FJ is a tribute to this, although it will be tough to match the popularity of the original and what that vehicle meant to a country.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.shiftweekly.com by clicking the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.