Legions of enthusiasts can debate for hours over what is the most iconic street legal off-road machine. But more than a few will say it’s the modern 2006-2014 Toyota FJ Cruiser, or its spiritual predecessor the 1960-1984 Toyota Land Cruiser J40. But how did a company best known today for sensible daily drivers like the Corolla and Camry get into the business of building rigs for off-road enthusiasts? And how did those 4x4s evolve to become the legends they are today?
A Military History
Toyota began building post-World War II 4x4s in 1950. The Toyota BJ and FJ soft-top off-roaders were used in service during the Korean War, which ended in 1953, and as a patrol vehicle in Japan. In 1954, Toyota sought to grow the commercial sales of these rugged rides. The line was renamed Land Cruiser, a takeoff of the Land Rover name used on 4x4s made by the Rover Company in England. The second generation J20 and J30 1955–1960 had a more comfortable suspension and a better array of equipment.
In 1960, Toyota introduced its J40-generation Land Cruiser. Built to be slightly larger than Jeep’s post-War CJ, it was a traditional body-on-frame utility vehicle. It could be had in two-door, four-door, and pickup configurations. Paired with either a diesel-powered inline-four or a gas or diesel inline-six, the J40 earned a reputation among some off-roaders as being a robust and capable machine. After the J40 went out of production in 1984, however, the Land Cruiser name continued on as an increasingly more luxurious SUV.
With the Land Cruiser evolving into a vehicle more on par with the high-end Range Rover than a humble Jeep, more traditional off-roaders who preferred Toyota 4x4s began driving 4Runners and Toyota Pickups. In the mid-1990s, however, some employees within Toyota in Japan longed for the small 4x4s that had developed a cult following. By the early 2000s, Toyota had developed some prototypes. And in 2003, it introduced to the press and public the FJ Cruiser concept at the Detroit Auto Show.
The brand-new FJ shared some components with other 4×4 Toyotas. It featured design cues similar to the ones seen on the J40, such as boxy lines and a flat grille. Additionally, it had a shorter-than-average wheelbase, which is conducive to being more maneuverable off-road. When it went into production for 2006, the FJ got a lot more power than the J40 (which never had an engine that made more than 135 hp). It now packed a 4.0-liter V6 putting out 239 hp. This would increase to 260 hp by 2011. In addition to its off-road abilities, the FJ also attracted the attention of enthusiasts who liked its unique styling and all-around usability. “It’s a solid, functional true SUV that looks awesome and is a joy to drive!” said an FJ Cruiser owner on Toyota FJ Cruiser Forum.
Land of Opportunity
Like all cars and trucks that generate enthusiasm, the FJ became a blank canvas of sorts that enthusiasts began to modify and personalize between adventures. Toyota did, however, make one critical mistake in its design of the FJ; one that robbed an otherwise viable competitor of serious bragging rights. Its tight wheel wells make it a nightmare for lift and tire upgrades, which is off-putting to many off-road fans. In any case, some truly impressive FJs do indeed exist.
During the peak of FJ Cruiser production, an impressive mix of updated Toyota 4x4s were commonly on display at the SEMA show in Las Vegas. Highlights through the years include a striking door-less blue FJ that looks ready for an African safari built by Warrior Products, a green rock-crawling special build by Ultimate Adventure, an urban-assault vehicle by Xtreme, and even several custom-made convertibles. It continues to be a visually unique machine that’s difficult to overlook in traffic.
FJ Cruiser, Still a Fan Fav
Although new FJ Cruisers were no longer sold in America after 2014, the FJ remains a vehicle with a passionate following.
“The FJ Cruiser is hands down the best rig I have ever owned in my entire life,” says another FJ forum member. “[It’s] not my first Toyota either; it is my fourth. I have no dislikes. The 4.0 V6 is powerful, and I do not have a problem seeing out of it…due to blind spots. [It’s got] a rubber floor, no carpet, no leather seats, [which is the] perfect combo for off-road/camping!”
While the 4Runner is once again the more off-road capable brand-new Toyota SUV for the masses, it wouldn’t be surprising to see another iteration of Toyota’s beloved small SUV again in the future. Perhaps by then it will sport hybrid or electric technology that is both conducive to fuel economy as well as the tough demands of the trail or mud.