The birth of a legend

January 28, 2018 @ 10:01AM

IF you like going off-road in a 4x4, then you have to thank the American military. More specifically, you have to thank Willys-Overland for its winning proposal for a lightweight transport and command vehicle.

Willys’ proposal won over Bantam’s and Ford’s ideas because it looked good and had a powerful engine. Good looks and brute force was the deciding factor because all three vehicles had similar off-road capabilities.

They all had similar capabilities because when the United States military asked for proposals, Bantam was the only one that could come up with design and prototype within the 75 days stipulated by the government.

Bantam was a small company and it did not have the financial capacity for producing the large numbers that the military would order, so its design was sent out to Willys and Ford, and they came up with copies.

Willys had the best engine and the soldiers liked the way it looked, so it won. Even Willys was not big enough to build the thousands that were ordered, so some of the vehicles were built under licence by Ford.

The origin of the Jeep name was not so clear; some suggested that it was simply the generic name used by army mechanics to refer to any new untested vehicle that came their way. It’s as good as any story because there is no real alternative explanation for the name.

The history of the Land Cruiser started when the Japanese military found a Bantam MkII at the Philippines and sent it back to Tokyo for evaluation.

When the military called Willys to submit its ideas based on Bantam’s plans, all three were called for trials and Bantam upgraded its original machine and called it the MklI.

Toyota was told to analyse the vehicle and reverse engineer something similar and change the exterior look to make it their own and that was how the BJ and FJ military vehicles were born.

The BJ series took part in mountain trials for Japanese law enforcement in 1951 and won praise after climbing higher than any vehicle before and the National Police Agency ordered 289 units and made it their official patrol vehicle.

In the late 1950s, Toyota began developing civilian versions of a go-anywhere vehicle. The result is the iconic J40 series that we now know and wish we have one.

Still remember Toyota’s television advertisement for the Land Cruiser in the early late 1970s that used Dikir Barat music? It showed a really muddy logging trail and a vehicle getting stuck being rescued by a Land Cruiser.

I couldn’t find the original Malay version, but if you want to watch the English version, which sound a bit like the Dukes of Hazzard or Smokey and the Bandits, it is available on youtube.

Most of the vehicles we see in Malaysia are either the short wheelbase version or pick-up trucks. Some said there were wagons of the five and three-door varieties in the country, but they were so rare that I had never spotted any.

We knew that the long-wheelbase wagons, which were built on the pick-up truck chassis, were sold in Malaysia because it was featured in the television commercial.

Throughout its 24-year model life span that ended in 1984, the Land Cruiser came with a variety of engines, which ranged from a 3.0-litre diesel to 4.2-litre petrol units that were originally bolted on to three-speed manual transmission, before being upgraded to four-speed in 1974 and five-speed in the last year of production.

If you are looking for one, even an empty shell will cost you a fair bit. Even rusted hulks is expected to cost RM5,000 to RM10,000 while those in running condition would be a step above that.

Clean examples that require little work will be RM30,000 to RM40,000 while those that are really clean will fetch more than RM50,000.

Modded versions are harder to price simply because what is one man’s cake is another man’s poison, but usually they are modified for serious mud play, and if the type of off-roading you do suits the modifications, then it is easier to find a common ground.

Some people are just looking for body, frame and engine to restore, so modifications have no value. For those are looking to have real fun with their cars, modded ones may just be up their alley.

A Toyota Land Cruiser poster.
Brochures for the FJ40 and FJ43 series.
The BJ40’s came in a choice of hard top, vinyl top, pickup and station wagon body styles.