Time Is Money: We Test a $200K 1981 Toyota Land Cruiser

Written by | Automobile, Featured

Keeping up with the increasingly powerful and computer-assisted automobile is serious work. It can dazzle our senses one minute and numb them the next. We’re not complaining; we just sometimes need to unwind with a hot soak in frivolity. Such as driving a custom 1981 Toyota Land Cruiser that costs as much as a new Lamborghini Huracán.

You read that correctly: The restored and lightly modernized FJ43 rig you see here—the top-spec Signature model from the Miami, Florida–based FJ Company—stickers for $210,900 with a handful of options. A rational purchase it is not. But iconic vehicles can captivate their fan base to the point of obsession, and the classic FJ Land Cruiser, most notably those built from 1955 to 1984, is nothing less than an off-road folk hero.

Old Becomes New

The FJ Company focuses primarily on rebuilds of the FJ43 and the even-shorter-wheelbase FJ40 Land Cruisers but also does work on the earlier 20-series and later 60-series models. Starting this year, the firm intends to sell up to 24 Signature-type trucks, for which our Matte Dune Beige test example is an early prototype. Think of it as a trail-ready alternative to a Singer-built Porsche 911, albeit with greater adherence to the original vehicle’s formula and at a somewhat less ridiculous price. We’ve compiled a visual tour of the roughly 3500-labor-hour resurrection process. All examples are built to order, with customizations starting with an impressively detailed and robust online configurator.

All of the company’s creations, from turn-key vehicles to contracted customer jobs, go through the same body-off restoration process at a 75,000-square-foot production facility in Bogotá, Colombia. The FJ43’s build quality and details are meticulously rendered and restored—such as the super-cool vintage Toyota badges that wrap around one of the rear corners—and its boxy, old-school charm is off the charts. While $200K buys you a 21st-century powertrain and a host of other updates not available on the company’s less expensive versions, make no mistake: This is an authentic, steel-bodied FJ Land Cruiser that, despite its enhancements, still drives with the woolly disconnectedness of an ox cart.

The Signature is underpinned by custom live axles front and rear with 4.10:1 gears and rides on 17-inch steel wheels wrapped with meaty 285/70R-17 BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A KM2 tires. Beefy Old Man Emu leaf springs and new-age Fox dampers at all four corners are good for about 2.5 inches of suspension lift above stock and have the compliance of a bridge girder; loading the FJ with a half-dozen adults—the four in back sit on two longitudinally oriented fold-up benches—greatly improves this off-roader’s normally jarring ride quality.

The low-revving 4.0 is all about torque (the fuel cutoff is at just 5500 rpm) and makes more than enough grunt for the FJ’s ancient steel ladder chassis. Hard launches are greeted with a squawk from the rear tires and a 92-decibel din at full throttle. (We avoided a more brutal four-wheel-drive start, as well as performing skidpad testing, out of mechanical sympathy.) Working through the gears, we saw 60 mph arrive in a respectable 8.5 seconds and the quarter-mile pass in 16.5 at 81 mph, making the Signature about as quick as a modern subcompact car.

While it’s possible to brush 100 mph with a tailwind, the violent airflow around the covered-wagon body is a reminder that old FJs are best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Employed as a daily driver, the FJ43 averaged just 12 mpg with us; the mostly uninsulated cabin resonates with a cacophonous 87 decibels of noise at 70 mph; and lofty step-in heights make for less than graceful ingress and egress.

Making a Statement

So, the FJ43 Signature isn’t very good to drive in the conventional sense. But that’s far beside the point for affluent shoppers with an FJ fetish and surely several other newer vehicles in the garage. If you want to stand out among a parking lot full of other $200K SUVs, the old-school Signature definitely does the trick. The FJ43 drew smiles and stares wherever it went, and its few modern conveniences add some worthwhile novelty to its entertainment. The FJ Company also is a full-service operation, with showrooms in Miami, Dallas, and Aspen, Colorado. All three locations can perform repairs under the included one-year warranty, and technicians will even do house calls, which was the case when our prototype’s radiator sprung a leak and needed to be replaced mid-test.

We would have enjoyed our stint even more, but our frigid midwinter drive revealed that the Signature is to Alpine transportation as Crocs are to snowshoes. Not only did the cold preclude us from rolling up the leading edge and the rear side panels of the standard canvas soft top (a hardtop is $5000 extra), it also exposed the tent’s many gaps that let air into the rustic cabin, as well as the ineffectiveness of the noisy Vintage Air HVAC system. Bundle up if you plan on taking your friends to the slopes. At least the supportive front Recaros and the rear bench seats are heated.

Additional standard highlights include a trailer hitch, a stainless-steel exhaust system, blindingly effective LED headlights, an Apple iPad Mini and JL Audio stereo embedded in the center console, a retro-looking gauge cluster with digital secondary readouts, dual 12-volt batteries, custom-made door mirrors and various handles and levers, and a backup camera that displays in the rearview mirror.

Although the optional ARB locking differentials ($3500), roll cage ($2000), and a heavy-duty Warn winch ($3500) mounted on a custom front bumper were notable extras on our example, we doubt that a truck this nice will ever see serious trail work. That may be a shame for some of the FJ faithful, yet the Signature fulfills its mission as a grand totem of adventuring coolness by simply tooling around town. Sure, it’s expensive, but you can hardly put a price on time travel.

Last modified: