Toyota FJ Cruiser: A Retrospective

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Last week, AutoGuide.com reported that Toyota plans to kill off the FJ Cruiser after the 2014 model year. It’s not surprising on a number of fronts: it’s been on sale since 2006 with only minor changes along the way, and its dismal fuel economy doesn’t fit with the race to meet 2025 federal fuel economy standards, especially with such little return in terms of sales volume. If it is the FJ Cruiser’s swan song, it’s a good time to reflect on what the FJ meant to the Toyota brand all these years.

1951 to 1954: The BJ Prototype

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Toyota’s light utility vehicle first arrived at the behest of the United States government, which was looking for a light utility vehicle for use during the Korean conflict. In 1951, Toyota debuted the BJ prototype. The BJ was larger than the Jeep utilized by the US Military, and featured a more powerful 3.4-liter six-cylinder engine, compared to the F-head four that powered the Jeep. The early prototype had four-wheel-drive, but didn’t feature a low range.

In 1951, Toyota test driver Ichiro Taira drove a BJ prototype to the sixth stage of Mount Fuji, prompting the Japanese National Police Agency to order nearly 300 for production.

BJ Mount Fuji

Production officially began in 1953, and Toyota delivered three versions: the BJ-T or “Touring,” the BJ-R equipped as a radio car, or the BJ-J, featuring just a cowl on the chassis, which would later be fitted with a fire engine body.

The name Land Cruiser appeared in 1954, at the suggestion of Toyota Managing Director Hanji Umehara.

“In England we had another competitor; Land Rovers and Jeeps,” Umehara wrote. “I had to come up with a name for our car that would not sound less dignified than those of our competitors. That is why I decided to call it ‘Land Cruiser.’”

1955 to 1959: The 20 Series

20 Series

In 1955, the second generation “20 Series” Land Cruiser appeared, with more stylish bodywork and longer leaf springs for a more compliant ride. The 3.9-liter inline six connected to a three-speed gearbox for more power, but the transfer case still only featured high range.

In 1957, the FJ35V arrived with a station wagon body similar to that of the 109-series Land Rovers. The wheelbase was five inches shorter than the Land Rover, but the larger engine was an advantage. That same year, Toyota began building the FJ25/FJ28 in Brazil, the first time Toyota would build a vehicle outside of Japan.

1960 to 1984: The FJ40

1960 FJ40

In 1960, Toyota launched the third generation of the Land Cruiser, wearing more familiar bodywork that the later FJ Cruiser alluded to. The engine was an all-new version of the 3.9-liter inline six, still mated to a three-speed manual with synchros on second and third gear. The transfer case got a much-needed redesign, and finally featured a low range. In Brazil, the name changed to Bandeirante, and was powered by a Mercedes-Benz-supplied diesel engine.

By 1965, the FJ40 would be the best-selling Toyota in America, allowing the manufacturer to surpass 50,000 vehicles worldwide. For the next ten years, the FJ40 soldiered on, essentially unchanged from 1960. In 1974, a new 4.2-liter inline six arrived, and then the following year, the FJ40 got the same disc brakes as the larger FJ55. From that point until Toyota stopped importing the FJ40 to the United States, the truck was largely unchanged.

1990 to 2003: The Rugged Youth Utility (RYU)

FJ Concept

With the success of the YJ and TJ Jeep Wranglers throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Toyota Product Planner Dave Danzer and VP of Sales and Operations Yoshi Inaba were hot to develop a competitor. A skunkworks project at the California NUMMI facility tested the feasibility of a Brazilian Bandeirante body on cheaper, more accessible Toyota Tacoma suspension and chassis.

Calty Design and Research (Toyota’s California design center) hired Chrysler’s Bill Chergosky – who had designed the amazing Dodge Copperhead concept – to lead the development of the “Rugged Youth Utility” (RYU) project. The final touches to what became the FJ Cruiser went to 24-year-old Jin Won Kim, a Seoul, South Korean native who moved to the United States in 1989. Kim had recently graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena before joining Calty Design Research in 2001.

2003 to Present: FJ Cruiser

2009 2011 FJ Cruiser

The FJ Cruiser debuted at the 2003 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The critical response was overwhelming, especially when you consider how strong the field of concept cars was in 2003. It was the same year that Cadillac showed the Sixteen, and Dodge showed the outrageous Tomahawk. It felt like the FJ Cruiser would do as much to resurrect Toyota’s image as a manufacturer of fun vehicles as the Z had done for Nissan in 2001.

RELATED: Cadillac Sixteen Concept

The production version of the FJ Cruiser arrived in Detroit two years later at the 2005 edition of the NAIAS. The production version looked just as appealing as the concept, but to keep costs low, some of the wilder interior amenities (removable flashlights, fold-flat front seats) never made it to production.

In its first year of production – 2006 – Toyota sold 56,225 FJ Cruisers in America, but over the last few years, Toyota has struggled to sell just 14,000.

There’s no official word from Toyota regarding the demise of the FJ Cruiser, or whether a redesigned FJ Cruiser is on the drawing board just yet.

PHOTOS: 2011 Toyota FJ Cruiser

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