Cruise Controlling: We Drive Five Classic Toyota Land Cruisers

After driving these old FJs, our lives will never be the same.

Aaron GoldWriter The ManufacturerPhotographer

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah—When Toyota held a press preview for the 2020 Land Cruiser Heritage Edition, it borrowed a bunch of vintage Land Cruisers from the Land Cruiser Heritage Museum to remind us of the history it was honoring with the new model. As a result, and somewhat incredibly, I got to drive five generations of classic Land Cruisers in one day. Here's what they were like.

1960-1983 Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser

Driving old cars can be a disappointment, as they rarely turn out to be as good as you hope, but the FJ40 was even better than I imagined. What sets the FJ40 apart is its delightfully mechanical feel—the whine of the gears, the metallic thrum of the engine, the clank as the clutch pedal hits the metal floorboard. The short gearing means there's plenty of shifting to be done, and both clutch and shifter have long throws but precise action. Tooling around the streets of Salt Lake City, I felt a oneness with the machine that few vehicles deliver. Of all the Land Cruisers here, this was by far my favorite.

The FJ is noisy but rides more comfortably than I expected given its short wheelbase. This particular FJ40 was a 1977 example with power steering, but there's still much wheel-twirling to be done, though the reward is a laughably small turning radius. Our off-road course was pretty lightweight—these are, after all, museum pieces—but it was clear that the FJ40 would be happy to surmount whatever obstacle we put under its tires, and all on pure mechanical gumption—no fancy electronics needed here, thank you very much.

1967-1980 Toyota FJ55 Land Cruiser

Cruiser fans call the FJ55 the Iron Pig after its homely styling, but I've always liked the look of these Cruisers, and was surprised to learn they were built right up to 1980. The FJ55 was designed with American (as well as Canadian and Australian) families in mind, landing in the States six years before the Chevrolet Suburban would start to offer four proper passenger doors. The mechanical bits are largely the same as the FJ40's, but a real back seat (and a bench up front) plus a plastic padded dash show Toyota's early attempts to make the Cruiser more comfy.

The engine of this 1977-built example was somewhat out of tune (at one point it backfired in front of the hotel, prompting the security staff to call the cops) and probably a bit pokier than most. Still, as I coaxed the FJ55 up the steep hill to the Snowbird ski resort—30 mph was all the old girl was willing to give me—I could understand why some Americans still didn't take "them furrin' jobs" all that seriously at the time. While slightly more airtight than the FJ40, the low level of refinement was similar. Off-road, the FJ55 is hampered by its long length and absurdly large turning circle. One can understand an unwillingness on behalf of hard-core Land Cruiser fans to embrace it, but for all its faults, I found the FJ55 strangely endearing.

1980-1990 Toyota FJ60 Land Cruiser

This was the Land Cruiser I was most eager to drive because it's the one the Cool Dads drove when I was a kid. Like the FJ55, the FJ60's styling was a few years behind the times even when new, but it had an appealing retro vibe before retro vibes were a thing. The interior is a model of 1980s modernity, with a well-organized dashboard and neatly striped fabric on the seats and door panels that mark the Land Cruiser's first tentative transition from agricultural tool to aristocrat.

But you don't have to look underneath at the solid axles to see that the FJ60 is still firmly rooted in the past: A manual choke lever is a reminder that the carbureted 2F engine under the hood is unchanged, the manual transmission lacks a fifth gear, and the part-time 4WD system has manually locking hubs. And yet for all its aged hardware, the FJ60 is much more civil than the FJ55. It's quieter, marginally quicker, and more comfortable, and the controls make much more sense. A taller final drive ratio brings serenity to highway cruising, though this particular FJ60 seemed happiest at a moderate 60-mph gait.

Toyota would facelift the car for 1988, with a de-stroked fuel-injected version of the F-series engine, an automatic transmission, and square headlights. At the time, this might have seemed like the Land Cruiser for the ages—but big changes were afoot.

1991-1997 Toyota FJ80 Land Cruiser

It's hard to think of '90s-eras cars as old. But with knowledge of history, it's easy to see that the FJ80 is a transitional model, one with wheels planted in the future as well as the past. With the Cressida on outs and the Avalon a few years away, the Land Cruiser was being groomed as Toyota's flagship. It looks the part outside and in, and the mechanical spec includes a standard-fit automatic transmission and full-time four-wheel-drive. Coil springs at all four corners are the Land Cruiser's first major concession to on-road civility.

And yet those coil springs are still bolted to live axles, and the 3FE engine in the 1991 model I drove is little more than a modernized derivative of the cam-in-block six found in the original FJ25. With 155 horsepower and 220 lb-ft of torque, is struggles with the FJ80's two-and-a-quarter-ton bulk. (For 1993, Toyota would fit an all-new 24-valve DOHC straight-six with a much more useful 212 horsepower.) But the ride is smooth and refined, and when Toyota decided to offer a softer-sprung Lexus variant (the 1996 LX450), the FJ80 slipped easily into the role. Driving the FJ80 felt like straddling the event horizon of a black hole: I could see the entirety of the past and future laid out before me. That, and I had my soul sucked into oblivion.

1998-2007 Toyota UZJ100 Land Cruiser

Of all the heritage Land Cruisers, the UZJ100 (named for its UZ-series V-8 engine) was the easiest to drive and the hardest to write about. This is the vehicle that set the pattern for the Land Cruiser's next two decades, and from behind the wheel it doesn't really sink in that one is driving a 20-year-old design. (Granted, it doesn't help that Toyota's brand-wide interior styling didn't change much for the better part of two decades.)

The UZJ100 made further concessions to comfort, including an independent torsion-bar front suspension, which the Cruseristi greeted as the end of the world. But the 4.7-liter V-8 makes a nice consolation prize. Its 235-hp rating seems pretty laughable today, but 320 lb-ft of torque gives the UZJ100 nice mid-range punch. Driving it is uneventful: It feels like a modern-day J200 that hasn't quite settled into its role as the rich kid. To appreciate this Land Cruiser, one must understand the value of its hewn-from-stone feel, a worthy selling point at a time when Land Rovers were known for shedding parts at random.

The J200 that succeeded it—read our review of the aforementioned 2020 Heritage Edition right here—worked hard to counter many of the criticisms surrounding the J100's suspension, including interconnected auto-disconnecting stabilizer bars (the Kinematic Dynamic Suspension System, or KDSS) and electronic Crawl Control. Land Cruiser aficionados are only now starting to appreciate the UZJ100, and perhaps its simpler, more mechanical nature will be part of its enduring appeal.

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