The Surprising History of the Toyota Land Cruiser

Toyota Land Cruiser


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Toyota Land Cruiser

Cruising Into History

Originally created for the military in the Far East, the Toyota Land Cruiser has evolved into a status symbol for well-heeled buyers in the West. It originally borrowed heavily from the American Jeep and British Land Rover, but soon set itself apart as a highly capable and purpose-built off-road machine wrapped in luxury, comfort, and style. Backed by Toyota's legendary reliability, the Land Cruiser now enjoys a loyal cult following and a place among the greats in world automotive history. While the 200-series Land Cruiser was discontinued after the 2021 model year, Car and Driver says it might continue its stealth existence as the Lexus LX.

Related: 17 Things You Didn't Know About Jeeps

Portrait of Toyoda Sakichi
Wikimedia Commons

1933: The Japanese Auto Industry Emerges

In 1933, Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, a textile company founded in 1926 by Sakichi Toyoda, expanded to include an automotive division. That division would become the Toyota Motor Corp., which today is the undisputed largest manufacturer of cars, trucks, and buses in Japan.

Related: Japanese Cars That Changed the Game

1951 "BJ" Series

1951: Toyota Answers a Call to Arms

In 1950, Japan's National Police Reserve Forces and the U.S. military occupying the postwar country requested a simple but capable off-road utility vehicle. They wanted it to be built locally as simmering trouble began to boil over in nearby Korea. On Aug. 1, 1951, Toyota delivered the Jeep BJ, a tough, four-wheel-drive Jeep-like vehicle with a 3.4-liter six-cylinder engine that delivered 75-horsepower and checked all the military's boxes. It was the prototype for what would become the Toyota Land Cruiser.

Related: 19 Awe-Inspiring U.S. Military Vehicles

Mount Fuji

1951: The BJ Climbs Mount Fuji

The Toyota BJ was not the only durable and functional military vehicle — it faced stiff competition from the U.S. Jeep and the British Land Rover. The BJ put a mountain of distance between itself and the competition in July 1951 when Toyota test driver Ichiro Taira made it to the sixth of 10 checkpoints on the way to the top of Japan's 12,388-foot-high Mount Fuji. No motor vehicle had ever made it that far.

Related: 25 Epic Off-Road Adventures Across the U.S. and Canada

Korean Armistice Agreement
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Archive Photos/Getty Images

1953: The BJ Comes Home From War

As the end of the Korean War was signaled in 1953, Toyota realized a booming civilian population might love the BJ in times of peace for the same reasons the military loved it during wartime. The mighty little vehicle was adopted for civilian use and went into production that same year.

Related: 19 Most Trusted Toyotas of All Time

Willys Jeep

1954: The BJ Gets a New Name

During World War II, the Willys-Overland company created the Willys Jeep for the U.S. Army. The Jeep became an icon for the war that, like the Toyota BJ, proved readily adaptable for civilian use. Although the history of the word "jeep" is murky and disputed, Willys-Overland trademarked the name. In response, Toyota changed the Jeep BJ to the Toyota Land Cruiser in June 1954.


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Series 20 Land Cruiser

1955: 20 Series Debuts

The first widely distributed civilian Land Cruiser was the Series 20. Still a bare-bones machine that favored function over form, it featured a more powerful engine and an improved suspension. The more stylish, roomier 20 Series also added station wagon and pickup truck model options.


The headquarters of Toyota Motor Sales at 19001 Western Avenue, Torrance.
The headquarters of Toyota Motor Sales at 19001 Western Avenue, Torrance. by Coolcaesar (CC BY-SA)

1957: Toyota Heads to Hollywood

On Halloween day in 1957, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. was formed. Toyota's first headquarters in the United States was in Hollywood, California, in what had been an old Rambler dealership. The Japanese auto industry now had a toehold stateside. The Land Cruiser would soon follow — well, one would, at least.


Toyota Crown First Model
Toyota Crown First Model by Taisyo (CC BY-SA)

1958: An American Buys a Land Cruiser

The year after Toyota's U.S. division set up shop in Hollywood, the Japanese automaker began selling cars in the United States. In 1958, Toyota sold its first 288 vehicles on American soil. Among them were 287 Toyopet Crown sedans and a single Land Cruiser. The lone Land Cruiser was reportedly sold to a school teacher in Long Beach, California, and now sits in the Land Cruiser Heritage Museum in Salt Lake City (though others have also claimed to possess the first and only 1958 model).


Toyota Landcruiser FJ40
Toyota Landcruiser FJ40 by Jeremy (CC BY)

1960: The World Meets the 40 Series

Two years after that first American early adopter made history by buying the country's very first Land Cruiser, Toyota changed the game when it unveiled the FJ40, known formally as the 40 Series. Angular, boxy, and outfitted with folding seats, a folding windshield, a flat roof, and the now-famously unbreakable F engine, it was a truly formidable off-road vehicle, although one that was minimalist in terms of passenger creature comforts. It would be the bestselling Toyota through 1965, when the Corona finally snagged that title. 

Toyota 1967 "55" Series

1967: Families Fall for the FJ55

Toyota released the 50 Series in response to growing consumer demand for bigger vehicles that were as capable as Land Cruisers, but roomy enough for families and stuff — suburbanites were now catching on the platform's potential. The 50 Series gave the world the FJ55, the first true Land Cruiser wagon, which is listed next to the vaunted Jeep Wagoneer as one of the earliest pioneering SUVs.

Related: 29 Classic Station Wagons We Miss From Childhood

Toyota 1980 "60" Series

1980: The FJ60 and the 1 Million Milestone

In one of the most consequential years in Land Cruiser history, 1980 first saw the arrival of the 60 Series — launching the modern era in Land Cruiser's lineage and instantly rendering the FJ55 and all those that came before as relics for enthusiasts and collectors. The FJ60 was a powerful and capable off-road vehicle, but this Land Cruiser was outfitted with more comfort and features, including air conditioning and separate passenger seats instead of long padded benches. Also that year, Toyota produced its 1 millionth Land Cruiser. 

Toyota 1989 "80" Series

1990: Land Cruiser Evolves Into the SUV Era

When the U.S. market began shifting toward an insatiable appetite for SUVs, the Land Cruiser was perfectly positioned to adapt. The 60 Series that dominated the '80s was replaced by the 80 Series, which featured a more rounded and modern look, a greatly improved suspension, full-time four-wheel drive, and a more powerful engine. The tradeoff for that last upgrade, however, was that the beloved and historic F engine was now a thing of the past. It was here that Toyota began offering higher-end amenities that moved the Land Cruiser toward luxury territory.

Related: 30 Most Iconic SUVs of All Time

Toyota 1998 "100" Series
Wikimedia Commons

1998: Land Cruiser 100 Series

The Land Cruiser's modern evolution into a large, powerful, luxury SUV that held true to its off-road lineage took shape in the late '90s with the arrival of the 100 Series. Bigger, roomier, and more refined, the Land Cruiser was now competing with the highest-end luxury SUVs on the market in terms of style and comfort, while still outperforming on the trails.

Related: 43 Most Over-the-Top Trucks You Can Buy

Toyota Land Cruiser Prado
Wikimedia Commons

2003: The Prado Gives Birth to Greatness

In between the 1998 Land Cruiser 100 and the 2008 Land Cruiser 200 was the smaller Land Cruiser Prado. Based on the in-between 150 Series, it was more obscure than its cousins in the major series and now isn't even available in the United States. The Prado, however, served as the blueprint for not only the fourth-generation Toyota 4Runner but also the Lexus GX 470 SUV and later the ultra-luxe Lexus GX 460.


Toyota 2007 "200" Series

2008: The Land Cruiser Takes Its Modern Shape

When people think of a Land Cruiser today, the 200 Series likely comes to mind. As it had been doing since the 1980 release of the 60 Series, Toyota added comfort, class, and style along with high-tech features such as collision avoidance — all without diminishing the Land Cruiser's heritage as an off-road warrior. When outfitted with a huge 5.7-liter engine, it became the high-end Gen-3 Lexus LX.


Land Cruiser 40 series decades later

2018: Six Decades of History in the United States

In 2018, Toyota hit the six-decade anniversary of selling its very first Land Cruiser to a now-unknown buyer in the United States. One year later in Australia, another unknown person drove home from a dealership inside the 10 millionth Land Cruiser ever to roll off the assembly line.

Related: 50 Most Popular Cars of the Past 50 Years

2020 Land Cruiser Heritage
Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

2020: Heritage on Display

Land Cruiser released its Heritage Edition in 2020, starting at just a hair under $90,000. The ultra-luxurious and ultra-capable special release, which serves as an homage to the nameplate's history and a vision for its future, was available only in black and white — Midnight Black Metallic and Blizzard Pearl, to be specific.


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