The Holy Grail of FJ40 wheels and tires?

I’ve owned my FJ40 long enough to have gone through several generations of tire and wheel combinations. When I bought it it still had the factory steel 15 x 5.5-inch rims (with hubcaps), and absurdly skinny and short 215-series tires of a brand I do not recall, but which were genuinely tiny enough to hamper its performance on trails.

Santa Catalina Mountains, 1978

Santa Catalina Mountains, 1978

As soon as I could afford it I bought a set of then-de rigueur 15 x 8 white spoke steel wheels, and mounted larger Armstrong Norseman tires. Big improvement, although I could feel the increase in steering effort through the non-boosted box. At the same time I gave away those factory wheels and hubcaps—dumb move.

And there it stayed until the late 1980s, when I was starting to be aware of how things were done in other parts of the world. I became convinced that split-rim wheels were the absolute ultimate way to go—after all, you could break down a wheel and repair a tire anywhere, right? They were still standard equipment on Land Cruisers in Africa and Australia, right? So at some considerable expense I ordered a set of Toyota factory 16 x 5.5 split rims. When they arrived I was somewhat put off by their mass—they made the eight-inch steel white spokers seem light—but duly had mounted a set of LT 235/85 16 BFG All-Terrains. 

In short order two tire-shredding blowouts revealed that something was not right. It developed that the tire retailer had installed improper liners in the wheels. That was corrected, and despite shaken confidence I began employing the Land Cruiser as a support vehicle while leading sea kayaking trips from remote beaches in Mexico. And indeed it was true: I could break down a wheel and repair a puncture anywhere. Clients were impressed. Several times.

With a split-rim wheel and tubed tire, any puncture means completely breaking down the wheel to patch the tube. A nail hole that could be fixed in five minutes with a plug kit required 45 minutes of hard labor. The romance was wearing thin. By this time I was chalking up some experience in Africa with split-rim-equipped vehicles, and noticed a difference there. First—purely personal theorizing here—the economy of most African countries meant that random nails and screws lying on roads simply didn’t exist. They were too valuable. Also, the tires employed there are typically eight or ten-ply bias-belted 7.50 x 16 beasts that seem more or less immune to simple thorn punctures. I was experiencing fewer punctures on the back roads of developing-world countries—both in vehicles I drove and those in which I was driven while on assignment—than I was in the U.S. and Mexico.

African Firestone tire on a split rim.

African Firestone tire on a split rim.

By now I had replaced the three-speed transmission in the FJ40 with an H41, a four-speed with a low, 4.9:1 first gear. I thought that would allow me to install a slightly taller tire—and I was ready to dump the split rims and try alloy wheels. So on went a set of American Racing Outlaw II 16 x 7-inch wheels, and LT255/85 16 BFG Mud-Terrain tires. Given the two-inch OME lift on the vehicle, this was the outer limit of what would fit without clearance issues or ghastly body-cutting and cheesy riveted-on fender flares. Indeed at full left lock the left tire slightly contacted the steering box link. But otherwise the tires worked fine, and the combination stayed on for over a decade.

Still . . .

Two things began to nibble at my subconscious. First was the memory of those BFG All-Terrains in 235/85 16. So many things about the size seemed perfect. They were tall enough to noticeably benefit ground clearance, yet their narrow tread width made steering easy. Also, by this time the Land Cruiser had become something of a classic rather than just an old four-wheel-drive “jeep,” and I was kind of missing the whimsical look of those factory hubcaps. It would be easy to buy a replacement set of Toyota 15 x 5.5-inch wheels and hubcaps—but there was no tire size in BFG’s 15-inch lineup equivalent to the 235/85 16. For a while BFG sold a 9.5 x 33-inch All-Terrain that would have worked, but it was discontinued. Some owners (and, by now, professional restorers), were squeezing 31 x 10.5 All-Terrains on factory wheels, but those were not quite tall enough and not quite narrow enough to suit. (The size is also technically far too wide for a 5.5-inch wheel.)

What I needed was a 16 x 5.5-inch wheel with clips for the factory hubcaps—and out of the blue a few months ago my friend Tim Hüber sent me a link to exactly that, available from Japan. They were . . . expensive, eye-wateringly so. And would additionally need to be powder-coated a proper gray, adding even more expense. But it was exactly the Holy Grail for which I had been searching.

Ordered, delivered, powder-coated, mounted. And . . . indeed, perfect. The ideal all-around tire size for an FJ40, and the amusingly perfect retro pukka look, too. 

One genuine surprise: I assumed going to a steel wheel from an alloy—even with a smaller tire—would add significant unsprung weight. Not so. One alloy wheel and 255/85 16 Mud-Terrain tipped my hanging scale at 73.2 pounds. The steel wheel and 235/85 16 All-Terrain? Seventy four pounds even.

Never say never, but I predict this will be the final solution to the Land Cruiser’s footwear.

Left: 16 x 7 Alloy and 255/85 16 MT. Right: 16 x 5.5 steel and 235/85 16 AT. Same weight.

Left: 16 x 7 Alloy and 255/85 16 MT. Right: 16 x 5.5 steel and 235/85 16 AT. Same weight.