If you wanted a lesson on how to pull yourself up by the bootstraps in the face of extreme adversity, Japan in the late ’40s and early ’50s was the place to get it. Their society was devastated on a level so deep it literally had to be remade from the ground up. It was far more than just dealing with the results of the major loss of population and infrastructure from the war. After decades of indoctrination by a totalitarian regime, the Japanese people had to completely change their way of thinking—about themselves and their place in the world. It was a remarkable feat that reforged the country identity and helped lead Japan into a leading position in the manufacture of cars and SUVs.
In 1951, Toyota, a car company that would eventually grow into worldwide dominance, had an 18-year history building motor vehicles. By the late ’30s, like most of the Japanese motor industry, Toyota’s automotive output had been diverted to war production, which continued until the war ended in 1945. Toyota returned to producing commercial vehicles not long after the war ended, but it was an uphill struggle with so much damage to infrastructure and manpower shortages. Like many companies at the time, it was a “produce-or-die” moment. When a call went out in 1950 for the design and production of a home-built 4x4 utility for the Police Reserve Force (predecessor to the current Japanese Defense Force), the Toyota Motor Company answered.
The design work began in August 1950 with a prototype available for tests by January 1951. The designers had been charged with using as much existing hardware as possible, so the platform began with the chassis of SB-Series 1-ton truck. The SB was a compact 4x2 with a 995cc four-cylinder engine and a 94.4-inch wheelbase. Toyota retained that wheelbase and used the chassis as-is, more or less, converting the stout 9.3-inch ring gear rear axle into a front driving axle with the addition of closed knuckles and Tracta Joints and a simple, single-speed transfer case. If you are starting to scratch your head pondering how much help a single-speed T-case connected to a 995cc engine would be off-road, stop. Toyota got out the big guns to power the new right: its B-Series 3386cc (206.6ci) six-cylinder engine. With 85 hp and 156 lb-ft of torque, it was reckoned to have more than enough grunt without a low range, especially when combined with 4.11:1 axle ratios and the 5.53:1 First gear in the transmission taken from the same truck as the B-Series engine.
The B-Series engine dated back to 1938 and was developed for the prewar 1 1/2-ton–model GB, a truck used extensively by the Japanese Imperial Army that pretty much a license-built Chevrolet. Yes, the legend is true! The source DNA for the legendary Toyota Land Cruiser six was none other than the Chevrolet “Stovebolt” of the mid-’30s. While the engines remained similar, the Toyota-built engines diverged as unique changes and upgrades were applied over many years.
The body resembled the wartime jeep, a vehicle the Japanese loved as much as anyone, and it was boxy for simple manufacture with minimal tooling. Because it had a longer wheelbase than the jeep, it also was a bit roomier. Some of the extra room was eaten up by that long six under the hood, and the rest was designated as cargo space, so the driver was a bit cramped by Western standards. Because it was intended as a military utility vehicle, it had a soft top and very spartan features. So what did they call this new little buggy? The Toyota code was BJ, but it was officially called the “Jeep.” It’s long been assumed the “J” in the BJ designation was for “Jeep.” That can’t be proven 100 percent by any paperwork we have seen, but it remains a logical conclusion.
You can guess there was some trouble over Toyota’s use of Jeep. It came to a head in 1954. A July 3, 1954 edition of the Toledo Blade summed it up with the headline, “Jeep Trick.” It outlined Willy’s protest and that Toyota was working on a new name. This is one of the most interesting and humorous faux pas in automotive history, even though it was purely an innocent mistake. It was a language barrier incident, pure and simple, with Toyota thinking of “jeep” as a noun describing a type of vehicle, which it was. When capitalized and trademarked, as Willys did in 1950, it becomes an infringement case. It never went beyond a legal nastygram from Willys and a subsequent apology from Toyota. Managing Director Hanji Umehara probably didn’t know he would make history when he coined “Land Cruiser” for the replacement name on June 24, 1954. He was surer it was a first shot across the bow of Land Rover, whose strong markets in Africa and Australia Toyota would gradually take away.
Despite a test that took it to the 6th Station up Mount Fuji, a feat that had never been accomplished by a motor vehicle to that time, the Police contract for the Toyota “Jeep” was not immediately won. The first went to Willys, but by 1953, a subsequent contract was awarded to Toyota and the first 298 production BJ “Jeeps” rolled off the line and Toyota became a main supplier to it’s own military forces.
The early Toyota BJ was built in several styles: a cowl-and-chassis for conversion to a fire appliance, the standard utility/touring type, and one set up for a radio. You see some later models with a long tail extension for expanded cargo space, and you also see some with special-purpose bodies. The standard BJ was designed for police and military-like use and was configured accordingly. The BJ was available to the civilian market, but it appears sales were minimal in that venue. More inroads were made commercially, where they were sold to government agencies and companies needing a light 4x4. Production of the BJ continued into 1955 with few major changes.
The BJ Land Cruiser was supplanted by the 20-Series in 1955. The much more refined and civilian-friendly 20-Series had the new F-Series 105hp 3.9L six-cylinder, a significant upgrade of the B-Series engine. The 20-Series marked the beginning of Toyota’s pursuit of export markets, which would lead to U.S. imports starting in 1958. A version of the BJ remained in the lineup through 1956, called the BJ-25. It was slightly more civilized and stylized but left the lineup after 1956.
The Toyota BJ, whether you call it a “Jeep” or a Land Cruiser, was a cornerstone vehicle for Toyota and holds a pivotal place in four-wheel-drive history. They were never imported into the U.S., and you aren’t likely to see any running around. Less than a handful made it over here, which now rest with collectors. The BJ holds the record for the first production short-wheelbase, compact 4x4 to have a six-cylinder engine,
The Details:1051-55 Toyota BJ
Engine: 207ci inline-six (Toyota Model B)
Power (hp): 85 @ 3,200 rpm
Torque (lbs-ft): 156 @ 1,600
Bore & Stroke (in.): 3.3 x 4.0
Comp. Ratio: 6.4:1
Transmission: 4-speed, Toyota
Transfer Case: 1-speed, Toyota
Front Axle: 9.3-inch ring gear, Toyota
Rear Axle: 9.3-inch ring gear, Toyota
Axle Ratio: 4.11:1