The Land Cruiser Story

Celebrating the toughest 4x4 of them all

How do you sum up in one word a car that has achieved the status of legend the world over – durable, rugged, reliable, unbreakable? The Land Cruiser is all of these and more, but somehow these statements still fail to convey how, for over 60 years, it has set the benchmark for impenetrable quality – a car built to survive the most testing places in the world.

Like a hardened soldier, the Land Cruiser was born in the unforgiving environment of war. When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, the United Nations and United States came to the aid of the South, and Japan played the role of supply base, it being a U.S-occupied country.

Soon after, Japanese auto manufacturers were commissioned to supply a compact four-wheel drive to the U.S military, and with its prior experience of building trucks for Japan’s own military during the 1940s, Toyota was well placed to respond and would go on to receive a large number of orders from the allied forces.

The original

By January 1951, five months after design began, Toyota had produced its first prototype. Utilising existing Toyota hardware, the prototype consisted of the chassis from the Type SB one-ton truck and power from the large 3.4-litre Type B petrol engine. Due to the popularity at the time of the Willys Jeep (a favourite of the occupying forces), Toyota chose to call its new prototype the Jeep BJ (B for Type B engine, J after the leading Jeep 4x4).

In July of that year, test driver Ichiro Taira completed a test run (under the supervision of officials from the National Police Agency) that saw him navigate a BJ all the way up to the No. 6 checkpoint of Mount Fuji – a feat only achieved previously on horseback!

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In July of that year, test driver Ichiro Taira completed a test run (under the supervision of officials from the National Police Agency) that saw him navigate a BJ all the way up to the No. 6 checkpoint of Mount Fuji – a feat only achieved previously on horseback! The test run proved the ability of the BJ, and the car was adopted as a patrol car for Japan’s National Police Agency in August of that year.

It took a further two years for the BJ to be declared ready for full-scale production, by which time other government agencies and energy companies had already placed orders. It was after its first full year of production, in 1954, following claims of trademark violation from the Willys Company, that the BJ was renamed. The 4x4 would now aptly be known as the Toyota Land Cruiser…

A civilised change

Four years after the first prototype was shown, the second Land Cruiser (Series 20) was readied in November 1955. A slight evolution on the outside, under the skin there were big changes as it morphed from utilitarian military machine to comfortable civilian carriage.

With still recognisable ‘BJ’ roots, the Series 20 proudly showed off softer body-lines that incorporated integrated headlamps and a more spacious cabin. Ride comfort also improved with new front and rear leaf springs soaking up the bumps, while vibration in the cabin was reduced by new rubber suspension bushings.

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The short wheelbase was made shorter again for improved manoeuvrability, while a new long wheelbase derivative, with its higher loading capacity, allowed for an array of distinct body styles that included multi-seat cabins and pick-ups.

Under the bonnet, a new cast iron F-series engine was introduced that offered the driver 23% more power than the outgoing model. A development of the B-series engine that was first seen in 1948, this power unit would be fitted to Toyotas until it discontinued in 1992 – an incredible engineering achievement that goes down as the longest-serving of all our engines.

As a result of continued military acquisitions from around the world, the Series 20 would make an impression for many as the first Toyota to arrive in their country. The sales success of the Land Cruiser in export sales was clear to see in 1957, as 32.8% of all Japanese vehicle exports were the rugged 4x4.

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Life starts at ‘Forty’

The third-generation model, the Series 40, entered the market in 1960 and this iconic model would go on to traverse rivers and navigate rock-strewn roads for 24 years, and garner the nickname of ‘The Forty’.

With a reputation flying high following the success of the Series 20, the priority for Toyota engineers at the time was to ensure The Forty maintained the winning formula while making noticeable improvements and clever refinements all round.

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Like the previous model change, revisions to the exterior styling were subtle to say the least. Features included more rectangular wheel arches and indicators positioned on the front wings, but the most memorable change was the addition of a lozenge-shaped surround that framed the headlamps and radiator grille.

One of the biggest changes came with the offering of three final drive ratios – Full, Economy and Moderate – depending on the type of terrain owners encountered. A three-speed manual transmission was carried over but now included a transfer case that reduced the overall ratios to provide a total of six forward gears; three for the road and three for off-road.

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In 1967, the ever-increasing demand for the carrying capacity of station wagons led to the introduction of the new FJ55 derivative with its increased (2,700mm) wheelbase, fresh styling and car-like comfort.

In addition to its load-lugging ability, one standout feature of this model was its choice of bottom-hinged tailgate (which could be pulled open when its glass window was rolled down) or out-swinging double doors – offering a solution for everyone’s tastes.

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Latterly, in 1980, the 55 model would be replaced by the bigger and more spacious Series 60. In a now hotly-contested segment of the market, the engineers focused on improvements in ride quality and a more luxurious interior with its soft touch interior fittings and split front seating (instead of a bench).

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A new era

After 24 extremely successful years (29 years if you count the original Series 20) of the largely unchanged Series 40, 1984 heralded the arrival of a new Land Cruiser – the Series 70 – a car ready for the modern world.

The engineers felt a clean-sheet approach was needed with the new model, a car that was entering a vastly more competitive arena, where the demand for recreational vehicles was on the increase.

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The decision was taken to offer the new Land Cruiser in two formats: Heavy Duty providing a robust, workhorse for those that needed toughness at the expense of creature comforts; and Light Duty for more comfortable motoring with friends and family over long distances.

Still recognisably a Land Cruiser, Heavy Duty models were characterised by square, heavy-gauge steel bodies with an angular windscreen sitting on top of five wheelbase configurations and a wide array of engines.

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Although not widely different to look at for the casual observer, the Light Duty models had a slightly softer look to the front with more rounded wheel arch extensions and grill and bumper styling. Three wheelbases were offered along with an engine line-up consisting solely of four-cylinder power-plants.

In 1990, to counter strong competition from the likes of Mitsubishi’s Shogun model, the Light Duty was clearly separated from its tougher brother with a new identity: the Land Cruiser Prado. It would continue in production until it was replaced by a new iteration – the Series 90. However, the Series 70 (Heavy Duty) would continue as it was, receiving its first major change in 2007, an incredible 23 years after the first one rolled off the production line.

There are countless stories of epic journeys that people have undertaken in their Land Cruisers. One that stands out involves husband and wife Paul and Brigitta Bohlen Jüni who took their Series 70 on an globe-trotting adventure, circumnavigating the world covering 63 countries and 280,000km. Why was there only one car for them that was up to the challenge?

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Comfort is key

In 1996, the new Series 90 was launched to provide the Land Cruiser range with a clear distinction for customers who wanted the high-driving authority of a 4x4, but without impacting comfort and driver enjoyment.

An eye-catching new look featuring a rising belt-line, large plastic bumpers and a choice of three-door and five-door body shells maintained the Land Cruiser ‘go-anywhere’ attitude but in more rounded and modern attire.

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A new rack and pinion steering gave the Series 90 a more car-like feel, while new independent front suspension provided a ride casual drivers now expected, without sacrificing any off-road ability.

Meanwhile the Station Wagon, or Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV)-derived model that started with the Series 50 in 1967 and evolved through 60 and 80, was now being updated with the Series 100 in 1998.

Very much the luxury offering within the Land Cruiser family, the new car offered improved 4x4 performance and state-of-the-art active suspension all the while cocooning its occupants in a sumptuous interior of wood trim and leather upholstery. The perfect choice for those customers who wanted the comfort of an executive car but with a commanding perspective – the Land Cruiser 100 offered the perfect perch to view the road ahead.

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Cruising into a new century

Despite a relatively short and successful six-year period where the Series 90 notched up over 760,000 sales, in 2002 it was time for a Land Cruiser for the new century: the Series 120.

Launched under the spotlights at that year’s Paris Motor Show, the new model was packed full of technology. Featuring the world’s first electronic hill start assist system (for maximum traction on slopes) and a downhill assist system (to maintain control descending a steep slope) along with improved structural rigidity for improved manoeuvrability, stability and quietness – having been dubbed internally the New Traditional 4x4 – the new Land Cruiser was ready for anything.

For the first time in its history, this new model’s exterior styling was penned outside of Japan at Toyota’s ED2 design centre in southern France. Maintaining the Land Cruiser’s long-standing functional and rugged DNA, the new look was leaner and less prone to ageing than any model seen before, its flowing headlamps and vertical grille giving it a clean but strong stance.

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While still feeling tough and robust as you would expect, inside things were equally smooth with an organically shaped dashboard that flowed from the climate control and audio screen into an S-bend in the centre-console.

In 2007, the larger Series 100 SUV was replaced with an even longer and wider Series 200 that, with its redesigned separate frame structure, offered drivers increased comfort, durability and collision safety. Fitted with the world’s first Crawl Control feature, the Series 200 could automatically maintain a low speed as it traversed rocks and sand.

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Since the event’s first staging in 1979, the Dakar Rally (formerly the Paris-Dakar Rally) – a race that pits man and machine across some of the most demanding terrain in the world – has proved to be a challenge the Land Cruiser relishes: more Toyota Prados have been entered into the rally by private competitors than any other car since the rally’s inception, a clear indicator of the vehicle’s unwavering dependability.

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The latest chapter

As total sales of the Land Cruiser approached six million, it was time for Toyota to re-energise the Series 120 to stay ahead of the competition. The important new Series 150 was launched in 2009 and would be available in over 178 different markets around the world – how things have changed from those early days of Land Cruiser sales.

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ED2 in France led the design update and the end result gave the smaller model a family resemblance with design traits from its recently launched bigger brother (Series 200) being successfully incorporated. The more muscular look also comprised a right-hinged rear door, for the first time, that contained a top hinged window that could be opened independently.

Inside, the curves introduced in the previous model’s interior were replaced with a more angular and robust design. In addition to the functional new dashboard with its improved quality and feel, came a new Pre-Collision-System that would warn the driver of an impending collision before braking the car to avoid contact.

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Other new features included the Crawl Control from the Series 200 and a new Multi-Terrain Select System that gave drivers the facility to match the vehicle’s settings to the terrain – if you were crossing a beach you would select Sand, or Rock for more treacherous and technical terrain.

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And so there we have it, nearly 65 years of history and over 6.5m sales and the Land Cruiser is still going strong. From its humble beginnings as a warzone necessity to a multi-purpose SUV that can handle the dangers of any shopping mall, as the Land Cruiser powers it way through yet another decade it maintains all the attributes which it became known for in the first place – perhaps the reason why so many people hold it so dear. Sometimes the only word that will do it justice is simply… quality.

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