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We Drive Five Vintage Land Cruiser SUVs with Toyota

Historic Off-Roaders Come Together in One Brilliant Convoy

Following a 6 a.m. wake-up call, whiffs of gasoline mingled with musty, aging upholstery and crisp Utah air are as good a pick-me-up for the senses as anything else. Even in the pre-dawn light, our fleet cuts an impressive (if slow) path down I-80 just west of Salt Lake City. Nestled in an easy 55 mph in the right lane, we watch traffic take its time moving around us, with workers in vans, families in SUVs, and commuters in compact cars gawking obviously at our lineup of vintage Land Cruiser SUVs. Supplied by the Land Cruiser Heritage Museum in Salt Lake City, the freeway parade consists of a 1977 FJ40, a 1977 FJ55, a 1984 FJ60, a 1991 FJ80, and a 2004 UZJ100—five stellar SUVs with one legendary pedigree.

1977 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ55

Our first taste of Toyota off-road greatness that day came in the form of a 1977 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ55, the company's first true foray into four-door SUVs. Nicknamed the Iron Pig, the FJ55 is powered by a 4.2L I-6 that produced 135 hp and 210 lb-ft when new, and although this example is more than 40 years old, it feels like most of those ponies are still in the stable, ready to ride.

The gearing of the four-speed manual transmission (with a shift lever as long as a broomstick) isn't quite able to keep the SUV at freeway speeds, although we saw an uneasy 75 mph on one downhill stretch. But the engine's impressive, low-revving torque means the FJ55 can cruise all day long at 60 mph, even in headwinds and going up hills.

But we didn't come all this way to drive a vintage Land Cruiser on pavement. Turning off Highway 73 at Five Mile Pass brought us to a patchwork quilt of off-road trails that are wide enough to enjoy these museum pieces without endangering their impressive cosmetic and mechanical condition. And while the Land Cruiser FJ55 showed its age somewhat on pavement, here in the dirt it feels almost modern. In spite of its solid front and rear axles and four-corner leaf springs, the FJ55 offers an impressive amount of "cush" over rough terrain, and the fully boxed frame provides a stout platform for the wagon body. Every one of us who drove the FJ55 remarked at how pleasant and easy it was to drive, especially relative to the cruder FJ40.

1977 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40

Speaking of that most legendary of Land Cruisers, there's so much to love about the FJ40. This 1977 model features the same 2F engine as its FJ55 station wagon counterpart, boasting the same 135 hp and 210 lb-ft. And saddled to a lighter vehicle, the engine indeed feels sprightly and zippy (though the transmission's short gears limit cruising speed in the same way).

Also limiting highway comfort is the FJ40's 16-inch-shorter wheelbase than its contemporary. While the FJ55 feels like the vintage Land Cruiser it is, the FJ40 feels like an oxcart by comparison. And yet, as soon as the pavement yields to dirt, the FJ40 comes alive under your hands and feet. Those nimble proportions make trail turns a cinch, even with four-wheel drive engaged. The vague and slow steering, which requires constant correction on the highway, insulates the driver's arms from kickback off-road, easing fatigue through simple engineering.

Perhaps due to its nimbler proportions, the FJ40 rides more roughly off-road than the FJ55, but there's no denying the SUV's easygoing charm.

1984 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ60

The advent of the 1980 60-Series Land Cruiser was the end of an era for the off-road family. The FJ60 replaced the FJ55 as Toyota's off-road "station wagon," and in 1983, the company stopped selling the FJ40 on our shores. That meant that all Land Cruisers sold in the U.S. from 1984 on were luxury-minded family trucksters, no longer the rough-and-tumble, removable-roofed playthings they were before. But our time in the 1984 Land Cruiser FJ60 proved that while the SUV family grew and became more comfortable, it also poured on capability and ruggedness.

The Land Cruiser Heritage Museum's 1984 FJ60 again features the same 2F straight-six engine as the FJ40 and FJ55 we drove. Weighing about 200 pounds more than the FJ55, the 1984 Land Cruiser is a bit less responsive to full-throttle blasts. However, it's far more tractable on-road thanks to excellent gearing of its four-speed manual gearbox. Solid axles and leaf springs can be found front and rear, but as with its predecessor, this vintage Land Cruiser offers plenty of on-road comfort and off-road flex.

One of the best things about the FJ60 (and most cars built before 1995 or so) is its incredible visibility. Narrow pillars all around and a low beltline make it easy to spot obstacles off-road or place the truck in traffic. And it could be down to service history or mileage (most of the museum's collection were privately owned vehicles that were dubiously modified or maintained), but the FJ60's steering felt tighter and more accurate than we were expecting. It's just a honey of a machine.

1991 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ80

What a hilarious machine this FJ80 is. While its FJ55 and FJ60 predecessors felt more controllable than expected, the 1991 Land Cruiser we drove was an exercise in revisionist nostalgia. Boasting a fuel-injected 4.0L I-6 that was first found in the FJ62, a model we didn't drive, the FJ80 has to haul around 4,500 pounds of mass with just 155 hp and 220 lb-ft on tap. And paired to the engine is a relatively lethargic four-speed automatic transmission, making passing and merging maneuvers all but impossible. Once up to speed, the FJ80's smoother aerodynamics worked in its favor to maintain speed easily. Unfortunately, its brakes also seemed to have read the same memo—preserving momentum is a bad goal for brakes to have. Stopping distances were abysmal, which was comical in the parking lot and kind of scary on the open road. We're going to chalk that little foible up to age.

However, it's clear that when the FJ80 was first introduced for the 1991 model year, Land Cruiser owners were genteel folk who nevertheless demanded the best in off-road excellence. Solid axles are found under the smoother bodywork, although they are suspended by coil springs up front instead of leaf packs.

Full-time four-wheel drive with a selectable low range ensures good traction in all conditions. A locking center differential comes standard on the FJ80, and front and rear lockers were available. In our experience with the 1991 Land Cruiser, it offered a plush and posh ride on-road and all-but-unstoppable capability on the trail. A new 4.5L I-6 came on board for 1993, improving drivability significantly thanks to 212 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque—so equipped, this generation is known as the FZJ80.

Its interior is a 1990s triumph of near-perfect Toyota ergonomics, wrapped in rugged (but beautiful) woolen cloth upholstery that has us wondering why we ever decided leather was a good idea. Fold-up third-row jump seats expand passenger capacity to seven, with sliding windows back there to alleviate claustrophobia and carsickness (we tried the seats out and loved them).

So while it was surprisingly slow when we wanted it to be fast and surprisingly fast when we wanted it to be slow, your editor couldn't help but avoid the temptation of 1990s childhood wistfulness and add the 80-Series to his bucket list of vehicles. It was just too charming.

2004 Toyota Land Cruiser UZJ100

While the 1991 FJ80 ushered in coil springs to the Land Cruiser line, it was the 1998 100-Series that brought modernized comfort to the brand. Land Cruiser-first independent front suspension used torsion-bar springs, while the solid rear axle was now hung underneath coils instead of leaves. The 100-Series was also the first LC to eschew an I-6 in favor of a powerful 4.7L V-8 (codenamed UZ). 1998-2002 models used a four-speed gearbox and put out 230 hp and 320 lb-ft, while 2003-2005 models boasted five speeds and 235 hp. The V-8 received variable valve timing for 2006 and 2007, boosting output to 275 hp and 332 lb-ft.

On the road, this 2004-vintage Land Cruiser is as easy to drive as just about anything out there. The unit we drove had been painstakingly maintained by the Land Cruiser Heritage Museum, so it featured soft, supple leather and an immaculate exterior that look surprisingly modern. In fact, the only thing that might keep a passerby from thinking it was new is a dated navigation system and a lack of active driver-assist technology.

Even on the twisty, winding roads leading from Salt Lake City to Brighton, this vintage Land Cruiser handled well, offering moderate body roll but excellent control. Even if it doesn't set anyone's hair on fire, the 235hp V-8 boasts more than enough power for daily driving, and caning it results in a mellifluous roar from the exhaust. On-road comfort is first-rate, with a natural, upright seating position in the first two rows and a velvety-smooth ride from the contemporary suspension.

Off-road, it's as capable (if a bit less rugged) than its predecessors, thanks to a locking center differential, narrow proportions, slim overhangs, and commendable ground clearance. The full-time four-wheel-drive system again features a selectable low range, and there's plenty of articulation to keep all four wheels planted. For many, the 100-Series Land Cruiser is the sweet spot in its family lineage, offering the comfort and control of many modern SUVs without sacrificing any off-road capability.

Which Is Right for You?

Look, if a Land Cruiser—any Land Cruiser—is in your budget, you're a lucky person. The legendary FJ40 is the most collectable of this lot for a reason. It's delightful, simple, and undeniably fun to drive. The rarer FJ55 boasts improved drivability without sacrificing one ounce of vintage Land Cruiser charm and delight. The FJ60 (now enjoying a healthy collectability uptick in value) is less crude and more refined, but its spacious wagon body still rides atop a rugged and easy-to-maintain chassis.

The FJ80 and FZJ80, with their coil-sprung suspension, add some modernity to the Land Cruiser while still maintaining world-beating capability off-road. And the UZJ100 is modern, spacious, luxurious, and rugged, a nearly perfect daily driver for someone who needs to get off the beaten path every few days.

And with lots of hard-baked Toyota reliability in each generation, picking between these five is all-but-impossible. Your author would probably pick an FJ55 or FZJ80, but if you're buying a Land Cruiser, you can't go wrong.