Alto de la Mina, Colombia — Once upon a time, trucks were trucks. All you got was a metal box with some seats and rudimentary controls; a thing to be battered, broken, and fixed repeatedly. Adding 4-wheel-drive was just a way to abuse these glorified carts in the gnarliest terrain imaginable.
Land Rovers and Jeeps may have been the first offroad vehicles, but that great co-opter Toyota did a hell of a job building something that was similar to the originals, only better. Purists, I expect to read your objections in Kinja, but I'm sticking to my guns here. As far as trucks go, the Toyota FJ-40 is a bad motherfucker.
(Full Disclosure: I wanted to drive an FJ-40 so badly, I talked a Colombian coffee farmer into letting me drive his. Well, in truth, I rescued a bunch of Colombian archaeology students from their professor, who nearly rolled the thing off the side of a mountain. So I really didn't have to beg; they asked me to drive it.)
Toyota Land Cruisers have been used by everyone from Colombian coffee farmers (and Colombian farmers of other stuff, too, presumably) to Afghan rebels. Anywhere people need tough, reliable trucks, you'll find them. They're basically U.S. Army Jeeps squeezed through another design process. The Imperial Japanese Army inherited a Jeep in 1941 when the U.S. Army retreated from the Philippines, and the rest is history. Toyota got a few more pieces to the small 4x4 puzzle when the U.S. Army paid them to build Willys Jeeps for the Korean theater in the 1950s. So I guess we can't accuse them too harshly of ripping off American design. They did, after all, do a bang up job with their interpretation.
This '81 FJ-40 was purchased new by its current owner's uncle, and judging by its condition, he hasn't been shy about using it for just about everything. Even though old Willys Jeeps are the primary mode of transport in Colombia's Zona Cafetera, there are a lot of these old Toyotas interspersed.
Like Jeeps and Land Rovers of the same vintage — just before both marques turned their attention toward the plush, much more bloated SUV-style vehicles for which they're now famous — FJ-40s are as simple as a truck can possibly be without being a Ford Model T pickup. But they do what they do well, and as long as rust doesn't kill them (don't worry, they're not as bad as thin-skinned Toyota cars from the '80s that have since rusted into a fine red dust), they'll last forever.
Again, apologies to the purist crowd, but I think these things are marvelous with a Chevrolet 4.3 V6 swapped in for the antiquated original straight-six mill. Others may not agree, but there's something about that combination of more power, better economy, and greater ease of finding parts that makes it a more attractive option. Then again, some of the Brazilian-built FJs were sold with Mercedes-Benz diesel engines (although those were designated HJ). So you could pretty much put any drivetrain you want in there.
If it looks like a cross between a Jeep and a Land Cruiser, that's probably because it is. Master copy artists that they were (are?), Toyota got the proportions right here, and built something that is both attractive and tough looking. Although they didn't feel the need, as truck makers do now (most likely to overcome the cushiness of their trucks) to add an extra manly-looking gargantuan grille that ends up making the truck look like a 'riod freak. Toyota kept it simple, and the look stayed the same for more than two decades.
They tried, and failed, to bring back that look with the FJ Cruiser. Has anyone ever driven one of those? Trying to see around that massive A-pillar on curvy mountain roads is impossible. They also have that uniquely modern quality where they look cheap and expensive at the same time. By that, I mean cheaply made (lots of plastic) and expensive to fix.
You won't find any of that on an old FJ-40. Even the later model I drove was the most basic duct tape-fixable setup you can find anywhere.
It's noisy and no frills, but everything you need is there. And by that I mean seats and controls. This truck has no air conditioning, and the heat has two settings: off and unbearably hot. But Toyota was good enough to offer roll-down side windows, so it's all good.
Don't expect neck-snapping acceleration from an FJ-40. Even though this 1981 model benefitted from an upgrade from the previous 3.8-liter straight six, the 4.2 coughed out a measly 135 hp. Torque was pretty respectable at 210 lb-ft, so with these engines, acceleration is less of a consideration than pulling power.
I had no problem driving up a steep, rocky incline in four wheel drive, and the thing did ok on Alto de la Mina, Colombia's hard roads, too. My guess though, is that it's performance in a freeway passing lane would be somewhat less than stellar.
Like most old trucks, this one's lucky to have disc brakes in the front. They work, and that's about all you can say about them.
When you're offroading, ride doesn't matter, right? With beefy leaf spring packs front and rear, the ride isn't cushy, but at least you can be reasonably sure they won't break while you're bashing the truck through loose rocks in Afghanistan or whatever. Plus, if you break a spring shackle, there are Parking Lot Mechanic ways to jimmy that sucker back into action.
Hahahahaha! Ok. I'm done. It's tall, heavy, and leaf sprung. It's a truck, so it handles like a truck should. The steering is vague so when you do turn, the truck only moves after you've moved the wheels about 180 degrees.
The one I drove had been run into a huge rock or something, because the alignment was so bad my arm got tired from holding the wheel. While I was driving down hard tarmac, I let go just for a thrill. The truck swung hard to the left and I almost crashed into an old Chevette which was rusting into an embankment.
As long as you make sure it's full of oil, the gearbox on an FJ-40 probably won't give you too many problems. They're strong, deliberate, and have a shifter handle reminiscent of an old tractor. Perfect in all respects for a truck.
What can't you do with an FJ-40? You can load it up with as much stuff or people as you want, cross rivers and mountains with it, tow stuff, and even park it in reasonably sized parking spots without too much of a problem. You'll look really cool doing it, too. Everyone from farmers to African warlords have relied upon FJ-40s. I think it's safe to say that based upon the demands they place on them, they're pretty damned usable.
It's a Jeep, but not a Jeep. It's a Land Cruiser, but not a Land Cruiser. I'd say the unmistakable Toyotaness of it, plus its tough-as-nails truckness, gives it a lot of character.
If you want to collect FJ40s, you'd better get on it. Prices have crept up over the past decade or so, so people are asking close to $25,000 for restored, numbers matching trucks. If you're looking at one of the rare pickup or station wagon versions, expect to pay even more than that. But you can still find deals here and there if you look around. Plus, there's always to odd barn find (I've actually seen a lot of these trucks hanging out in old barns over the years). For all it's deficiencies, the Toyota FJ40, even the beat-up one I tested, is a badass truck.
1981 Toyota FJ40
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston