FJ40

Cosmetics versus function . . . and safety

Screen Shot 2018-06-10 at 11.46.14 AM.png

This morning I was scanning the excellent Silodrome site, and found this BJ40 restored by Legacy Overland, one of the ever-growing crop of companies exploiting the skyrocketing values of classic 4x4s such as the Land Cruiser and Series Land Rovers.

Legacy is headquartered in Greenwich, Connecticut. They don't specify where their restorations are done, but from various photos it appears to me to be in some Latin American country, which would make sense given that competitors such as The FJ Company do theirs there, taking advantage of cheap and plentiful labor. However, I have no hard evidence of this, and in any case it's not the location of the workshop that matters, but the quality.

To that: This BJ40 is done up in fine style, with a matt black finish, nicely stitched leather upholstery (emblazoned with the company's crest), lots of shiny new bits, and a beautiful engine compartment showing off the four-cylinder diesel powerplant. It also boasts a few actual trail modifications, such as the Hi-Lift jack, BFG Mud-Terrains, and what appears to be Old Man Emu suspension.

However. Closer inspection reveals a couple of disturbing details. 

The front bumper is equipped with shackle mounts and D-rings for recovery. Generally speaking, D-rings are considered inferior to bow shackles for recovery, as the former are only suitable for straight-line pulls. More importantly here, blowing up one photo revealed the D-ring to be stamped with a working load limit (WLL) of one ton, or 2,000 pounds. This is drastically underspecced for a vehicle weighing close to twice that.

Undersized recovery points are alarming, as some poor rookie buyer might quite logically assume they are adequate for their intended (or implied) task. But take a close look at the suspension, and you'll note that all four anti-inversion shackles are installed backwards and upside down. That's more than alarming, as it calls into question every aspect of the assembly of this truck. If something as simple—and visible—as shackles are installed backwards, what horrors might be hidden in the engine or transmission? Roseann and I have been on the receiving end of such horrors, and fixing them when the company at fault has washed its hands of the situation and tacitly invited you to sue them can get very expensive.

Screen Shot 2018-06-10 at 12.00.51 PM.png

Of course the drivetrain of this Land Cruiser might very well be impeccably assembled, and the shackles and recovery points isolated issues. Then again, looking at another of the underside photos I'm wondering what the visible yellow nylon strap is holding up . . .

It's easy to put a cosmetic gloss on a classic vehicle and sell it for a lot of money (this one went for $87,360). But engineering a reliable and safe restoration takes much more skill. If you are contemplating a professionally refurbished classic 4x4 vehicle, do your homework on the company, and perform a very, very close inspection.

Update: On the advice of a commenter, I sent the company an email notifying them of the problems with this vehicle, and suggesting strongly that they contact the new owner and have them rectified.

I heard nothing back.

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.

Building a zero-hour F engine

If you’re only going to rebuild an engine every 20 years or so, you might as well do a thorough job. That’s been the guiding principle for both me and my master Toyota mechanic and friend Bill Lee, as he disassembled and inspected the six-cylinder F engine and transmission of my FJ40 (see this post for background). Actually it wouldn’t have mattered whether or not it was my guiding principle—Bill would have refused to do it any other way.

The engine had been showing distinct signs of power loss, although oil consumption was not unusual. Teardown revealed one certain cause: the camshaft was badly worn, and on a couple cylinders was clearly not producing much lift on the intake valves. Bill’s explanation for this was illuminating. Apparently on start-up of an F engine, the cam is the last part to receive oil from the pump. Generally this is no problem as residual oil provides plenty of lubrication—unless the vehicle is parked for long periods, in which case the oil will drain away from the cam lobes. The cam will then be without oil for the first 10 or 15 seconds after starting. And—surprise—for several years my FJ40 has seen long periods of idleness while we were traveling overseas, using the Tacoma and Four Wheel Camper for journeys in North America, and putting miles on various long-term review vehicles. Shame on me. (Bill suggested changing to an oil from Joe Gibbs Racing that displays cling properties superior to standard oils. And driving it more.)

Once Bill had the engine disassembled entirely, he called and we had a chat. The cylinders were in excellent condition, still within specs, even still showing factory cross-hatch honing marks. The pistons came right out, Bill reported—no wear ridge at all. 

However. The bores showed vertical scoring, and Bill and I were pretty sure where this originated, as I’d discovered a surgical-strike rodent intrusion in the air cleaner last year, the cleaner itself chewed through and remnants of comfortable rodent accommodations in the housing. I cleaned everything out, but it’s likely some debris had been sucked into the engine in the meantime. (Mystery: After the incident I put hardware cloth over the opening, but Bill found the air cleaner chewed again. Either one got in during the day or two before I installed the screen—likely—or I had the Harry Houdini of mice.) 

The consensus from the machine shop was that the scoring could not be completely honed out while keeping the bore stock, so we decided to bore the cylinders and install new pistons, Japanese-made units from ITM (Toyota pistons are no longer available for the F engine).

The main bearings were in good shape, but given the need for machine-shop work anyway we decided to turn the crank and install one size over bearings. Bill also suggested balancing the components—not a huge deal given the inherent primary balance and even firing order of an inline six-cylinder engine, but every bit helps. The machine shop matched the weight of all the connecting rods to the lightest one by judiciously grinding away material on the caps. (Hey! Less weight means more horsepower!)

Meanwhile, the head has been given a valve job, and equipped with new OEM valve guides and springs—which Bill had to source piece by piece from several dealers around the country. Factory parts such as these are becoming more and more rare. The replacement cam is an aftermarket item; however, it’s a brand Bill has used before with good results. The lifters as well are aftermarket Japanese manufacture. (The last few new OEM F cam/lifter sets sold for near $1,000; this set totalled about $400.)

What else? Bill wisely recommended replacing the oil pump, even though it was working fine. Toyota no longer makes the F oil pump, but the (improved) model from the 2F is still available—however, installing it requires a 2F oil pan as well, so that is in hand. New OEM timing gears will ensure precise cam timing.

Once everything is put back together (with a one-of-few-remaining factory gasket kit), we’ll have an essentially zero-hour engine. It should in fact be better nick than when I bought the vehicle from its original owner in 1978, with 24,000 miles on it.

The header was in good shape, and so ceramic-coated for re-installation.

Next up for attention will be the H41 transmission and transfer case.

Cummins-powered FJ40

As a general rule I’m not a big fan of non-factory-original engine swaps. I’ve seen the results of way too many back-yard hackers bolting Chevy 350s into FJ40s, and Ford 302s into Land Rover 109s. (Not to mention American V8s implanted in Jaguar sedans and even vilely stuffed up the rear of Porsche 911s.)

Even when it’s done well, the result in an FJ40 seems less a Chevy-powered Land Cruiser than a Toyota-bodied Blazer, at least in my book—especially when the engine is coupled to a Turbo Hydramatic auto transmission. Yeah, more power and better fuel economy, supposedly, but the fuel economy often turns out to be chimerical from what I’ve heard first-hand, and unless you want to tow a boat or something, 250 or 300 horsepower in a 90-inch wheelbase seems like overkill. The torque curve winds up in the wrong place. And the lopey firing order just sounds wrong compared to the smooth burble of an inline six. 

With diesel swaps my other-maker prejudice diminishes somewhat, since we’re now looking at potentially significant fuel savings, and a torque curve working in the same region (2,000 rpm) as the gasoline F or 2F. True, I’d still prefer a factory Toyota engine—a 1HZ or 13BT would be a tempting replacement in my 40. However, I’ve seen other options done well.

All this is leading up to the photo you see above. It’s a 1977 FJ40 belonging to Steve Sency of Durango, Colorado, who accomplished one of the most strikingly clean engine swaps I’ve ever seen. Steve sourced a Cummins 3.3BT four-cylinder diesel that had been powering a generator at a cell tower site, and coupled it with an Orion 4:1 transfer case and an NV4500 five-speed (manual) transmission. Notice the braided stainless hoses where a vacuum booster for the brakes would normally be. Since diesel engines do not produce the vacuum inherent in a gasoline engine (because the air intake tract is always wide open), Steve installed a Vickers hydraulic pump on the accessory port of the Cummins. The hydraulic boost system now services the brakes and the power steering. 

Steve reports up to 23 mpg at 60 mph (@2,000 rpm), which, given the roof tent, dual 12-gallon water tanks, and auxiliary fuel tank on the vehicle (not to mention the drag coefficient of the FJ40, roughly equivalent to that of a three-bedroom house), is pretty impressive.

Steve's wife, Linda, enjoying a perfect campsite.

Update: After several requests from readers, Steve sent a few more photos of the engine.

Even TLCs need TLC now and then

In 38 years, the 1973 FJ40 you see above has, with the exception of dead batteries, never once failed to start and run and get me where I wanted to go. The closest it came was just a couple of years ago, when crud in the carburetor meant I had to clean the float bowl before it would maintain an idle. And one time, in Mexico's backcountry, the combination of a dead battery and bad gas forced me to replace the fuel filter while the engine was running. Scant glitches in an almost unbelievable record of reliability. 

Still wearing most of its original paint, it also retains its original ring and pinion gears; until a couple of years ago it still had its original starter—a record of longevity I've never come across before. The front and rear side marker lamps? Original Toyota factory bulbs, all four of them, still burning 43 years after they were plugged in on the assembly line. Weird.

Now on its second F engine, in the last couple of years I noticed a significant loss in power, and inspection revealed low compression in one cylinder. At the same time, the H41 transmission and transfer case have been getting louder and louder with wear, also betrayed by significant slop when lifting off the throttle. So it's time for a bit of refurbishment, care of our master Toyota mechanic Bill Lee, formerly of Tucson but who infuriatingly keeps moving farther away from us, now 500 miles off in Farmington, New Mexico. Recently he called and said he had another FJ40 being trucked to him from southern Arizona, so we added ours to the shipment.

Bill is planning to install new piston rings and a new cam, do a valve job, and go through the transmission and transfer case. Anything else he notices he'll take care of as well. It will be a new lease on life for a loyal machine. 

I know what you're wondering: I paid $3,500 for this Land Cruiser in 1978 when I purchased it from the original owner. Since it's now worth several times that despite 300,000-plus miles of use, it's safe to say it was a good investment, no?

Early days. Three Feathers in Redington Pass

Leading sea kayak tours in Mexico