September 25, 2018
The classic 1973 Land Cruiser FJ40 gets a modern makeover without destroying its essential nature
How many of us lucky enough to be long-time owners of 40-series Land Cruisers, first-generation Broncos, Series II and III Land Rovers, and other classic four-wheel-drive vehicles imagined they might one day be worth 10 or 15 times — and sometimes more — their original sticker price?
I certainly didn't when I bought my 1973 FJ40 — with just 20,000 miles on the odometer — from its original owner in 1978. I paid $3,500, which I thought a bit steep. At the time, it was a practical as well as an emotional choice; there were more luxurious and faster 4x4s around, but none with the reputation for reliability and toughness of the Land Cruiser.
That reputation was well-deserved.
40 years and 320,000 miles later, that FJ40 has yet to fail, minus a few dead batteries, to start and get me where I needed to go. I'm not aware of another individual vehicle with such a record. The trustworthy nature of the Land Cruiser served me well in explorations of the United States and Mexico, as my guide vehicle towing a trailer loaded with boats and equipment when I led sea kayaking trips, and as a plebeian daily driver when I did house repair and remodeling while struggling to build a freelance writing career.
However, no matter its durability, it remained a 1973 vehicle, with 1973 technology, comfort, and safety built in. Drum brakes on all four corners, simple lap belts for driver and passenger, sealed-beam headlamps (outdated even then), a points-style distributor, a three-speed transmission with a non-synchro first.
As it became clear this was going to be a long-term relationship, I started wondering how I could update the Land Cruiser without destroying its essential nature (i.e., no Chevy V8/auto transmission swaps). Over the course of the last three decades, I've managed to improve many components, and I've discovered that a lot of them have corollaries to other classic models. I've also added carefully considered extras to keep it a practical choice for hunting and camping trips. The result is a vehicle that gets comments (and offers) everywhere it goes and still earns its keep.
The first thing to address was safety. The drum brakes actually worked fine — as long as they weren't wet. I remember hitting the pedal after my first modest creek crossing, and there weren't any brakes. It took 30 yards of frantic pumping to regain the slightest hint of slowing. Towing a 21-foot sailboat to Mexico revealed some issues with fade.
Fortunately, later FJ40s came with front disc brakes, and it's possible to simply swap in a newer axle (making sure the diff ratio matches). In my case, I installed a swivel-housing-out Wilwood disc kit onto the existing axle, which transformed my stopping performance. So if two discs are good, wouldn't four be better? Sure. I found a kit for the rear axle that used (of all sources!) Chevy Monte Carlo calipers. Four-wheel disc brakes on a '73 Land Cruiser? Only high-end sports cars had such sophistication then.
Another addition solved two issues at once. A full front roll cage gave the Land Cruiser's occupants better protection in the event of a rollover and provided an anchor point for a pair of three-point shoulder/lap harnesses. A brace of head restraints from a later 40 went in at the same time (oddly, in '73 the factory seats came with the holes but not the restraints). I'd already replaced the sealed-beam headlamps with halogen units from Hella, so in terms of safety, my Land Cruiser was now in a different universe.
Wheels, Suspension, Transmission
Over the course of 40 years, the wheel and tire combination and suspension underwent several mutations, from the original factory 15-inch wheels and hubcaps (given away — big mistake) to then-de-rigueur white spokes and Armstrong Norsemans to a set of factory 16-inch split rims, tubes, and 235/85 BFG All-Terrains when I was guiding in Mexico.
The romance of being able to break down a tire and rim to repair punctures wore off quickly — every puncture meant complete disassembly, when a quick plug would have fixed most issues on a tubeless tire. A set of alloys followed, with larger 255/85x16 BFG Mud-Terrains (which cost me exactly one mile per gallon; significant when you're starting with 16 mpg).
By this time, I'd decided the 235/85x16 BFG All-Terrain was the perfect choice for my needs and located a set of non-split-rim 16-inch steel wheels from Japan that would take the factory hubcaps. Perfect size and perfect retro look. Fuel economy went back to 16 mpg, and the unfashionably narrow tread eases turning with a manual steering box.
Meanwhile, a Rancho suspension, which served admirably for years, gave way to an Old Man Emu setup with a two-inch lift — just right for the tire combo — and the improvement in the ride was astonishing. Articulation improved as well, augmenting the 40's innate backcountry ability, and I augmented it still further with an ARB locking rear differential, activated by an ARB high-output compressor mounted in the engine compartment. The compressor is also fitted with an air chuck for inflating tires. If 4WD and the locker can't get me out of a tight spot, the Warn 8274 winch up front, loaded with Viking synthetic winch line, almost surely will.
Over time I'd become adept at double-clutching to manage that non-synchro first gear, but then I got a chance to buy a used factory H41 four-speed transmission and transfer case. This gave me an all-synchro box with a lower first gear, which beneficially lowered my crawl speed in low-range four-wheel drive, although the top gear remained the same on the road.
Cargo Hold and Cockpit
Meanwhile, many nights camping while exploring and guiding had given me some ideas on how to make the most of the limited cargo area in the back of the 40 (the sideways S.W.A.T.-style factory rear seats were long gone). I fabricated a deck from Baltic birch plywood that extended across the back at wheel-well height and carpeted it. The gain in useful area was stunning, with the bonus of a lower level that proved perfect for tools, spares, and camping equipment. I installed nearly a dozen of the oddly named but excellent Canyon Dancer tie-down rings around the perimeter of the upper deck, using the Land Cruiser's stock top-to-body bolts as anchor points. (I'm surprised at how few travelers adequately secure cargo that would become lethal missiles in the event of an accident.) Just ahead of the deck is a full-width storage box that holds an auxiliary battery to power the fridge, plus a bottle jack and spares.
The flat deck gave me the space to mount a custom-fabricated baffled 15-gallon stainless-steel water tank on the passenger side, with a gravity-fed tube that exits into the wheel well and out through the back fender to a tap. A shutoff at the tank precludes a passerby from mischievously opening the tap and draining the supply. Ahead of the water tank, on a repurposed CO2 tank bracket mounted to the roll cage, is a refillable aluminum propane tank that holds the equivalent of six one-pound disposable canisters and will run my one-burner stove for a month or more. There is space and tie-downs on the driver's side of the deck for an ARB fridge/freezer. Thus, within the 40's 90-inch wheelbase, I have a generous water supply, cold storage for fresh food and drinks, and bulk cooking fuel, with plenty of space left for gear.
With so much self-sufficiency on board, I needed to augment the Land Cruiser's modest 16.4-gallon fuel tank. A small fabricator in New Mexico called Stout Equipment (now sadly defunct) made a full-width rear spare tire rack that incorporated a dual jerry-can mount. Previous poor experience with the common Blitz can convinced me to spend the extra on genuine NATO jerry cans with perimeter-welded (rather than crimped) construction, and a cammed cap that simply won't leak. They've been my standard fuel container since. The same can is available in a lined water configuration, so on trips that don't require much extra fuel I can carry extra water without compromising interior storage.
Up in the cockpit, the Land Cruiser suffered from a lack of secure storage, with a generous but unlockable glove box and a small open center console. I had a local fabricator make a 12-gauge-steel safe that fit precisely under the driver's seat; it's big enough to hide a full camera system plus a handgun or two. I replaced the center console with another fabricated unit that is both much larger than the factory one and lockable. One of the best modifications I've made was to replace the rather pointless and crack-prone padded dash panel with a Dashman dash box, which replicates the size and shape of the original but is a steel storage unit with a full-width locking lid. Brilliant. Lastly, I fabricated a shelf that fits across the front of the roll cage above the windshield; on this I mounted an Icom two-meter radio, an external speaker, and the controls for the ARB compressor and diff lock.
Like most vehicles, the 40's stock backup lamp was poor, so I mounted a 100-watt Cibie fog lamp on the Stout Equipment rack; it gave me better reversing light than many people have in front. Recently, the Cibie gave way to modern technology in the form of a tiny but equally bright Baja Designs S2 Sport "work and scene" LED lamp, which draws a paltry 12 watts. While I was at it, I replaced the powerful but power-hungry front IPF 125-watt halogen driving lamps (which performed well for 15 years) with a pair of Baja Designs XL-R Pro LEDs. The result is more light and a 50,000-hour service life, and each lamp draws only 40 watts.
Over the years I've added a score of other improvements: a later-model electronic distributor, a modern fuse panel, a modern clutched engine fan, later-style (quieter) one-piece doors, a drop-down tailgate, LED interior lighting, and, earlier this year, a meticulous engine rebuild from Land Cruiser maestro Bill Lee of Bill's Toy Shop in Farmington, New Mexico. One thing that remains original is about 90 percent of its paint, which still shines up nicely despite 45 years of Arizona sun.
There are still a few upcoming projects. For example, adding "Lizard Skin" acoustic/thermal lining on the floor to cut down on drivetrain noise and heat. A friend has located a NOS (new old stock) H41 transmission and later-model split transfer case. And I'm currently researching LED headlamps.
So has my FJ40 made a full leap into the 21st century? Hardly. It's still a boxy, noisy, slow beast compared to, say, a new 4Runner. Sixty miles per hour is a more or less comfortable cruise speed, but even at that a stereo is pointless. It doesn't ride as well, it's not as economical, and its crash protection is still antediluvian compared to crush zones and air bags. But those "disadvantages" coerce my wife and me into treating our journeys differently. Instead of aiming at a spot 600 miles away and blasting to it on the freeway, we look at a map and wonder what we can discover between here and there. That has led to many experiences we would have missed in a faster, more comfortable vehicle.
Besides, remember that $3,500 I paid? Current NADA "high retail" on a 1973 FJ40 is $58,900. Do you think that 4Runner is going to be worth 15 times its sticker price in 40 years?