1991 Toyota Land Cruiser BJ73
A Rose Among Thorns
Like all countries, Spain has its charming towns and its less charming towns, and despite a melodic name, the little burg of Villanueva del Arzobispo is definitely one of the latter. A scruffy, working class village with little of the grace and deep history that typifies the province of Jaen in which it sits, it feels rough and tumble by comparison. Not dangerous by any means, and I am sure there are lovely things hidden around, but at 10:00pm on a moonless February night, I wasn't seeing any of them. I was in town to buy a Land Cruiser, and after an 8+ hour journey by bus and train to get there, I found myself wishing like hell that I was pretty much anywhere else.
The seller hadn't met me at the train. He had sent a friend, and when I asked for a hotel he nodded and dropped me off in a battered section of town in front of a building that looked anything but promising. The "Hotel" sign wasn't lit, and the front doors had a metal security grate halfway pulled down over the entrance, making it look more like an inner-city pawn shop than a comfortable place to sleep. Sketchy looking dogs were rummaging in a garbage bin across the street, and the only brightly lit thing in the area, a sidewalk vending machine, offered Coca-Cola, Fanta Orange, and sex toys. Resigned to my fate, I ducked under the half open gate and went inside.
I was less than pleased, but I sighed with only slight resignation. It's all about the car, after all, and I can put up with pretty much anything to find a good one. Especially for one night.
At nearly 11:00pm, the seller contacted me, and although it was late and I was tired, I asked him if we could look at the car that evening. I wasn't feeling particularly hopeful, and I kinda wanted to get it over with. He agreed, and swung by to pick me up in a new Toyota Aurus. We wound through the center of town into the outskirts, and eventually pulled into a dark industrial park and made our way through to the back, parking in front of one of the dozen or so nondescript metal garage-type doors. He got out, unlocked the door, slid it up, and walked in, hitting the lights.
Inside the expansive garage was nothing, absolutely nothing, except the BJ73 Land Cruiser I had come to see. The huge space was lit up like an operating theatre and the Toyota sat smack dab in the middle of the concrete floor. It looked, quite frankly, fantastic. It looked like the nicest thing of any kind in all of Villanueva del Arzobispo.
The seller, an elderly man named Jorge, had bought it new in Malaga where it had stayed almost all its life, but he had retired to Jaen and brought it with him. I crawled underneath and saw chassis rails in their original black paint, so clean I could have eaten off them. The engine was spotless, but "honestly" spotless, with no evidence of leaks but also no evidence of detail work to make it appear better than it was. The bodywork was straight and there was no damage or rust anywhere on the vehicle, but the silver paint looked like an older respray, and they had painted the removable top at the same time, also in silver. We would need to strip it and repaint it correctly.
A twist of the key in the door saw the central locking work perfectly, and climbing inside revealed a lovely, original interior. No tears in the upholstery, no cracks in the dash, no major stains on the carpet... everything just looked original, well cared for and gently used. I turned the key halfway and waited for the glow plugs to warm, and when the warning light went off, cranked it. The VM engine, with which I am very familiar, fired after just a couple turns and settled into a smooth, even idle. No smoke. No drama. Perfect.
This was exactly what I had come for. A rose among thorns.
The Legend Continues
If the early Land Cruisers look a little like Jeeps, that's probably because they were born out of a contract for Toyota to build the Willys Jeep in Japan for use by the US Military during the Korean war. By 1960, though, when the legendary FJ40 arrived on the scene, the design was very much Toyota's own, and the Land Cruiser had already begun to claim its place in the pantheon of world class adventure vehicles. Throughout the 1960's and 1970's, if you were an explorer or adventurer, anyone who needed to travel to remote locations and have a decent chance of making it back home again, you didn't really have many options when it came to selecting a chariot for your trip. Land Rover. Jeep. Land Cruiser. End of story.
In many ways, the Land Cruiser has always been the best of the lot, but unfortunately, the words "Made in Japan," now a symbol of excellence, were still more of a punchline in the USA during this time. Further, the sheer reach of the Land Rover brand, fueled by British outposts and territories all over the world, gave Land Rover owners a distinct advantage in terms of parts availability and servicing abroad, so the Land Cruiser had to fight and claw to make any headway in the field.
But make headway it did, and as more people became exposed to the model, experienced for themselves what it was capable of, and as the Toyota brand continued to grow in prominence, building on a reputation for quality and astounding reliability, the Land Cruiser eventually turned the tables. Today, it is the Toyota Land Cruiser, in all its many forms, that has taken over that ubiquity in the most remote reaches of the globe, and its image is as rugged and authentic as any Jeep or Land Rover, any day of the week.
The FJ40 stayed in production all the way through to 1984, so when Toyota finally went to redesign it, a great deal was at stake. The writing was on the wall for larger, more road-oriented 4x4's. The "SUV" era was beginning, and vehicles like the Jeep Cherokee and Grand Wagoneer were moving in that direction. Indeed, Toyota had introduced its own, larger, 60-series in 1980, with more traditional "station wagon" styling as a hedge against that end of the market, and although it was a fantastically capable off roader in its own right, it wasn't a true successor to the 40-series.
Enter the 70-series.
The goal of the 70-series was, simply stated, to remake the legend. Update and re-engineer anything that could be updated or re-engineered and leave everything else alone. With the popular 60-series selling like relative hotcakes and satisfying the road-oriented buyers, the 70-series could be more focused, and it was designed from the off as the toughest, most capable off-roading machine Toyota was able to put into production.
The result, when unveiled to the market, was the 70-series, and the fact that it is still being built today, after more than thirty years, is a testament to its appeal. It is shame in many ways that none of those production years saw the 70-series offered for sale in the USA, so its following in the states is a cult one, but worldwide, the 70-series is the new legend. Sharing the immensely robust underpinnings of the iconic 40-series, but with updates everywhere and dramatic improvements to driver comfort and modernity, the 70-series has been called "the ultimate expedition vehicle platform," and is still used by NGO's, aid organizations, overlanders and explorers of all types. It is a vehicle built to tackle any adventure you can throw at it.
For me, the only adventure I was interested in was getting the hell out of Villanueva del Arzobispo.
The Velvet Hammer
At this point I am quite used to driving old vehicles around Europe, and as much as I love it, there is always a feeling of unknown inherent in the enterprise. Often piloting vehicles which are thirty, forty or even fifty years old around the back roads and mountains of Spain is a hoot, but particularly for the first 100 kilometers or so, I am generally making sure the vehicle is sound and will get me home okay. My eyes are scanning the gauges, my ears constantly tuned to pick up any unusual noise... I am on high alert on these trips. Particularly when I begin the journey.
This Toyota was different. The cockpit looks like any 1990's Toyota cockpit, with clear gauges and outstanding outward visibility. Everything in the truck was working perfectly. Quite literally everything. Every switch, every light, every gauge. The safety belts were modern and felt snug. The climate control and wipers worked like new, and in less than 10 kms, I felt my whole body relax. There was clearly nothing to be concerned about.
On the smallish N-322 heading northeast out of Villanueva del Arzobispo, the BJ73 was comfortable, composed and quiet. The 2.5L VM turbodiesel (also used in the Range Rover Turbo D model of the same era) feels downright potent in this application. Much more so than it does in a comparable Range Rover which is saddled with almost 1000 more pounds to lug around. Famous for its refinement and efficiency, the VM is rarely recognized for its fat swell of torque that builds through the midrange when on boost, and I am firmly convinced that this Toyota would easily outrun my 3.5L V8 petrol powered Range Rover. It reaches modern highway speeds with ease and pulling up steep mountain grades at more than 110 km/h requires no downshifting - just dip your toe into the throttle and feel the boost pull you up. No muss, no fuss. Everything feels very... "Toyota-like." Controls are light and direct, it tracks straight as an arrow when cruising, and the power steering is precise enough to guide with a just a finger or two. Even with the aggressive desert track tires on this one, highway speeds are a quiet affair, and conversations on the phone or with passengers are a breeze.
And yet, it doesn't feel weak-kneed in any way. It definitely feels like a truck. With that massive frame underneath and all those beefy underpinnings bolted to such a short wheelbase, it feels comprehensively planted and "bottom heavy" underway. I can't imagine what it would take to roll one over, no matter what the angle, because it doesn't feel possible. As if giant magnets were pulling it into the earth or something. It's pretty awesome, in the original sense of the word, and you are subconsciously aware of that frame underneath there always, protecting you.
Ok. Time to explore.
I broke off through the Sierra Cazorla National Park, a breathtaking mountain area west of Murcia, and began winding my way through the serpentine two-lanes that cross the park. Some 50 kms along the route, I saw a dirt fire road disappearing up a hillside, and I stopped, engaged 4WD, and turned onto it.
At first, the path was normal. Packed dirt with a scattering of small stones, but as I continued up, it got progressively steeper and more rutted. Larger rocks appeared in the trail, and at times fallen trees - thankfully rather small ones - were lying across the route. As I got higher and higher, the "road," such as it had been, essentially disappeared, and I was on little more than a game trail. The going was slow, but inexorable, and I didn't encounter anything the Land Cruiser couldn't shrug off. It drove right over trees. Through shockingly deep washouts. It handled what amounted to small-scale rock crawling with no stress. Incredibly tight, narrow switchbacks, which would have been a serious problem in a Land Rover 109 or 60-series Land Cruiser, were nothing for the shortish BJ73, which navigated them with ease. It's an astounding off road vehicle this little Land Cruiser is, and gives you enormous respect for what a car company can do when they set about to make a vehicle with a fairly single-minded sense of purpose. Forget about getting groceries! This thing was built for the rough stuff!
Eventually I came out onto the peak of one of the Sierra Cazorla mountains, and I stopped. As far as the eye could see, mountains just stacked up behind one another into the distance, and I was high enough that puffy clouds looked close enough overhead to reach out and touch. I don't think I have seen a prettier vista in all of Spain. I sat on a rock, drank some water, and thought about the Land Cruiser. Being up there felt unique. It felt special. But getting there hadn't really required anything special at all, other than the vehicle I was driving and the will to drive it. I was wearing penny loafers and jeans, for crying out loud. I didn't have a winch or extraction ladders or specialty suspension components or any of that heavy-duty stuff you see in the catalogs. I just drove all the way to the top of a remote mountain for no real reason other than I could. And this is really what the Toyota Land Cruiser is for. Sure, it can get groceries all day just fine, but this is really what it was built for. Getting here. Seeing this. And if you have the will to get here and see this, the BJ73 will make it happen. You don't really need anything else.
It doesn't get much better than that.
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