words: Wes Grueninger

The Germans have this word — echt — used to describe something that is genuine, typical, the real thing. Echt Beatles would be, depending on your point of view, either Rubber Soul or Sergeant Pepper. For Toyota, the decision is easier. Echt Toyota can only be the FJ40. Built for 24 years, the FJ40 served as Toyota's beachhead to new markets, developed the company's reputation for reliability, and kept Toyota afloat in the U.S. for five years when the FJ40 was the only vehicle it sold here.

The FJ40 shuffled off towards the sunset in 1984, but Toyota wasn't going to let its rugged off-roader slip quietly into trivia answers. With the launch of the FJ Cruiser in 2006, Toyota aimed to yoke its present to its past and capture the spirit of its bygone off-roader. But is there some shared DNA, some shared purpose, which unites the FJ Cruiser and FJ40? Or is Toyota's thoroughly modern truck just riding the latest wave of retrofuturistic nostalgia?

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The introduction of the FJ40 in 1960 was the culmination of Toyota's history to that point. Founded in 1937, the company was building a variety of industrial trucks using its Type B engine — essentially a Chevrolet "stovebolt" inline six copied so meticulously that parts were interchangeable. When the Japanese government asked Toyota to design a compact 4x4 for its police forces in 1951, the company responded six months later with the Jeep BJ, a Type B-engined, Jeep-type vehicle. The police were impressed and ordered 289 Jeep BJs for patrol cars, but when the bottom fell out of the Japanese economy in 1953, orders for any outstanding vehicles were canceled.

Unable to rely on government contracts, Toyota began redesigning the BJ for retail sales. A steel roof was added, as were removable doors with roll-down windows, and available air conditioning. The new Type F engine, a 3.9-liter mill with 105 horsepower, superseded the old Type B engine. Toyota's Managing Director, Hanji Umehara, was enamored with the name Land Rover, so the truck's moniker became Land Cruiser to lend it more dignity. The new Land Cruiser FJ25, as it was known, had a stamped steel dashboard with identical holes on both sides, to which the glove box or speedometer could be fitted — a sign that Toyota's ambitions for the Land Cruiser extended overseas to both right- and left-hand drive markets. Inside Toyota's headquarters, the "Land Cruiser Strategy" was born — a plan that would use the Land Cruiser as the first product into new markets, allowing the truck to create an established name that Toyota could use to sell passenger cars.

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Over the next few years, the Land Cruiser was introduced to Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia, but the first Land Cruiser FJ25s didn't arrive in the United States until 1958, when exactly one was sold. The FJ25 soldiered on until 1960, which turned out to be an oddly fortuitous year for Toyota. It was the year that Toyota's disastrous passenger car division retreated from the U.S., but it was also the year that Toyota introduced its new and redesigned Land Cruiser FJ40, which would remain on sale in the States. The FJ40 saw the introduction of elements that would forever be equated with Toyota's iconic 4x4 — its wraparound rear windows, white-painted roof that kept the interior cool, and round headlights with a prominent Toyota badge in the grille. For its use in the FJ40, the Type F engine saw its horsepower bumped to 135, and the previous four-speed transmission was replaced with a three-speed manual and a two-speed transfer case, for six total forward ratios.

When it was introduced, the Land Cruiser FJ40's prodigious torque meant it could get away with a 3.70 axle ratio for highway driving. Where the Jeep CJ5 and International Scout would top out around 55 mph, Toyota listed the FJ's top speed at a lofty 85. The Toyota's 18.5-gallon gas tank, compared with the CJ's 10.5-gallon version, gave it an impressive cruising range. "The necessity of carrying jeep cans of extra fuel just doesn't occur on paved roads, not even out west," wrote W.R.C. Shedenhelm in the October 1964 issue of Sports Car Guide.

Actually getting the FJ40 up to that cruising speed, however, was another matter entirely. With a three-speed transmission, what little acceleration was available was still nothing spectacular. In March of 1964, Motor Trend clocked an FJ40 from 0 to 45 mph in 12.0 seconds, and a full 22.3 to 60. The FJ40's quarter-mile time was the same as its 0-to-60.

To slight the FJ40 for its lack of acceleration, though, is to miss its point entirely. With solid axles and a ladder frame, the FJ was designed to browbeat stubborn terrain into submission. "Charging across the desert at 50 mph, blasting through dry sand washes, or clawing its way up rutted, rocky canyon roads didn't bother the Land Cruiser," was how Motor Life summed up the truck in September of 1959. "It never even moved the temperature needle past the normal mark." Motor Trend agreed, noting that, "Rugged, body-twisting back roads gave all components of the Toyota a good workout, but the car was always equal to the job."

Inside, the FJ40 took "Spartan" to new heights. Driver and passenger were invited to sit on seats that were nothing more than a thin vinyl cushion stretched over a steel spring frame, with a modest pad inserted between the two. That a radio and rubber floor mat were optional isn't surprising, but a heater, sun visors, and windshield washers not coming standard is. A dash-mounted grab handle engaged the transfer case's low range, and a trapezoidal instrument pod peeked out through a gargantuan 17.5-inch-diameter steering wheel that was cast out of black resin. Pull knobs strewn about the instrument panel operated the choke, headlights, hub locks for the four-wheel-drive, and the few concessions to comfort, such as an air vent. A protruding lever between the seats operated the parking brake — a brake drum, complete with shoes, mounted to the rear driveshaft.

Speaking of drums, the first FJ40s came with 11.4-inch cast-iron drum brakes on its front and rear axles. Once Motor Trend finished the laborious task of getting the FJ up to 60 mph, stopping it wasn't terribly hard, requiring only 164.5 feet, in spite of the Land Cruiser's 3200-pound weight and knobbly off-road tires.

Later models would come with disc brakes and more refined interiors, getting slight improvements to the truck as the years wore on. Worldwide production of the FJ40 Land Cruiser stopped in 1984, writing the last chapter in the FJ40's tumultuous history.

Or did it?

By the late 90s, Toyota had fully embraced the move to gentrified SUV/crossovers, and models such as the Highlander and RAV4 exemplified the brand's ability to spear the beige-metalflake bulls-eye of the suburban sport-utility market. For a company so averse to walking the periphery, Toyota surprised everyone when it unveiled the FJ Cruiser concept at 2003's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

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Drawn at Toyota's Calty Design studio, the FJ Cruiser was a shortened Toyota 4Runner SUV in FJ40 drag, with reinterpreted design cues of the vintage FJ integrated over the 4Runner's frame. The grille was reminiscent of the FJ40, with round headlamps and a centrally mounted Toyota nameplate instead of the corporate triple-oval emblem. The turn signals were offset into the prominent fenders, and the rear windows were curved over the FJ Cruiser's D-pillars, a nod to the wraparound back windows of hardtop FJ40s. The white roof cap was easily the concept's most recognizable carryover between the two models, while the upright windshield, with its visually distinct pillars, was designed to mimic the look of the FJ40's foldaway piece. Reaction to the FJ Cruiser concept was so positive that, two years later, Toyota put it into production.

Since it's based on the 4Runner, the FJ Cruiser has many of that vehicle's road manners. The steering is direct if a bit squidgy on account of the high tire sidewalls, and its five-speed automatic (a six-speed manual is available) shifts smoothly. The ride is a little jouncy, but not uncomfortably so. With 239 horsepower from its four-liter V6, the FJ launches to 60 in 7.8 seconds and its four-wheel discs haul the 4200-pound SUV down to naught in only 128 feet. There is always ample power for passing, even at speeds where there shouldn't be; at speeds where driving privileges are already imperiled and jail time would be unavoidable.

Off the pavement, the FJ Cruiser's independent front suspension and solid rear axle allow an impressive amount of articulation, so much that the 32-inch Bridgestone Dueler HT tires never rub, and with the transfer case in 4LO the truck has no problem cresting over rocks or trundling through ruts. Its standard frame-mounted rock rails and skid plates promise underbody protection from dangers seen and unseen. Four-wheel drive is engaged via a large control stalk protruding from the center console, not some weenie push button, although both full-time AWD and two-wheel-drive models are available.

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The truck is as chunky and purposeful inside as it is outside, with a clean dashboard housing egregiously oversized control knobs that Toyota says exude "tool-like simplicity," and a rubberized mat instead of carpet covering the floor. The seats are deeply padded and covered with rugged cloth. A twin-axis inclinometer shows how steep a grade the FJ Cruiser is attacking, and how far to the sides the truck is pitching while conquering off-camber hills. Cocooned inside the FJ Cruiser, with tunes pumping though the eight-speaker stereo, rock crawling can be accomplished without so much as a twinge of fear over spilling the caramel macchiato in the center console's deep, molded cupholders.

FJ Cruiser designer Jin Won Kim has said that the new truck "[plays] off of the heritage and spirit of the FJ40," and therein lies the rub: Cupholders would have never been included with the FJ40, where drivers with two functioning thighs made their own. Nor would electric windows and locks appear, even on the option sheet. To the diehard, the parsimonious FJ40 was a pinnacle of minimalist superiority that was simple and durable enough to survive the trails of Mount Fuji and the African bush with equal aplomb. The purists see the FJ Cruiser's front CV joints as an affront to decency, and its soft-cloth headliner as a sign of moral dereliction. But the door has closed on the era of the old FJ40, and there's no going back. Short of 4x4 shopping in a former Soviet republic, buyers will never again see the days when a carburetor feeds the engine and the bumpers are separated by only twelve feet. The realities of today's SUV market, where third rows are de rigueur and flip-down DVD screens are nice, require that even a pared-down truck like the FJ Cruiser have the comparatively large footprint and generous complement of standard goodies that Americans expect. The FJ Cruiser can't be a modern version of a FJ40 any more than a Chrysler PT Cruiser can be a modern version of a 1938 Plymouth business sedan; outside of some unifying designs and similar shapes, the basic definition of what makes up a vehicle in these classes has so radically changed that a simple update is impossible. And that's fine, because pining for points ignition and drum brakes is, in this case, like wishing for a return to the "good ol' days" but forgetting about Jim Crow, outhouses, and typhoid.

The FJ Cruiser concept started out as a simple design exercise — a way for Toyota designers to get in touch with the brand's past — that happened to catch on with the public. Far from a disconnect with its heritage, the new FJ Cruiser was a way for Toyota to acknowledge where it's been, even though it's impossible to ever re-live those days. It's a way of celebrating, perhaps even against their wills, those who took a chance forty years ago, on a unknown small truck from an unknown small manufacturer, and helped Toyota become what it is today.