Land Cruiser

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.

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The Troopy camper, continued

A light-hearted comment from a reader regarding my use of the term “affordable” in the last post about our Land Cruiser Troopy led me to preface this one with a bit of background.

A decade ago Roseann and I had the idea to take the money we would have spent on, say, a new 4Runner, and instead refurbish a classic expedition vehicle—in that case a 1984 FJ60 Land Cruiser—with a modern turbodiesel engine and five-speed transmission, Old Man Emu suspension, and ARB diff locks. The result, after we re-engineered some egregious flaws in the original engine/transmission swap hack job done by a prestigious California company, was remarkable: a comfortable, capable FJ60 that had 40 percent more power than stock yet exceeded 25mpg on the highway. And since we had started with a straight and rust-free but tired FJ60 puchased for just $5,000, the total cost actually came in well under the sticker of a new 4Runner. And as you can imagine got a lot more attention.

There are some obvious downsides to this concept. First, no matter how much refurbishing you do (short of a mega-dollar frame-off restoration), you’re still dealing with an old vehicle capable of concealing potential problem areas despite a thorough pre-purchase inspection—and you won’t have a 50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty to fall back on. (On the other hand you’ll be dealing with a simpler vehicle with fewer advanced systems to fail . . .) Second, no bank is going to loan you funds sufficient to purchase a new 4Runner once you admit you’re actually planning to spend it on a 25-year-old Land Cruiser. You’ll have to have the money in hand, or figure out alternative financing (or plan on a gradual refurbishment process). Finally, securing full-coverage insurance for a vehicle you insist is worth five times its Blue Book value will be challenging. You’ll need to investigate classic-vehicle specialists. Nevertheless, we were delighted with the turbodiesel FJ60, and eager to try the same approach again. 

This time around our goal was more ambitious. We wanted to start with the vehicle we both feel is, all things considered, the best expedition machine on the planet, the Toyota Land Cruiser 70-Series Troop Carrier, or Troopy, powered by the company’s durable and efficient 1HZ overhead-cam diesel engine. With an excellent example secured for about $16,800 U.S. (see here), we were on our way. Next, we wanted to convert it to an efficient, self-contained camper which we could live out of comfortably for weeks or months on end if desired. This could easily have been accomplished by grafting on an oversized shell over the rear chassis, but neither of us wanted to do more than fractionally alter original lines of the vehicle, or risk the potential structural, handling, and GVWR issues of inflated non-stock bodywork—and doing so would have quickly blown through the target budget. So we limited surgical modifications to the excellent Mulgo pop-top roof conversion from the Expedition Centre in Sydney, which with a barely noticeable raising of the roofline gave us both full standing headroom and a full-size drop-down bed. Further initial modifications addressed fluid storage and outdoor shade (read here).

Next, Roseann sketched plans on her iPad Pro for interior cabinetry, using the experience gained with ownership of two Four Wheel Campers and several iterations of more basic camp setups. This was the most critical part of our modifications: Roseann likes to cook no matter where she is on the planet, so a well-stocked galley was mandatory. And we like to have as much luggage and equipment as possible stored in closed lockers rather than simply strapped down and visible to passers by.

With some guidelines from Daniel at the Expedition Centre, who has overseen many such conversions, the layout included a bench on the passenger (left) side of the vehicle, to maintain rear-quarter visibility from the driver’s seat, and a galley and cabinet/drawer stack on the driver’s side, which, uniquely, included provisions for our Kanz Kitchen chuck box/stove so that it could be used in situ, or removed and set up on its legs outside, comprising along with the drop-down Front Runner tailgate table and Eezi-Awn Bat 270 awning an outdoor kitchen for fair-weather cooking.

Also specifed by Roseann were two flat roller drawers, each securing a Wolf Pack cargo box containing kitchen supplies and basic foodstuffs. With the Wolf Packs pulled out and stacked near the Kanz she would have a complete kitchen with an unobstructed view (one of her—very few—complaints about our Four Wheel Camper is that its fixed galley necessitates cooking inside even in nice weather). The only fixed interior kitchen item would be the sink, fed with a pressure pump from the chassis-mounted 90-liter water tank. When cooking outdoors, water is available via the ingenious Nemo Helio, an air-pressurized water delivery system for shower or galley, with a 2.9-gallon capacity. The National Luna Weekender fridge-freezer, locked down crosswise just inside the rear doors, would be accessible from either inside or outside with its hinges configured longitudinally.

Next, Daniel sent CAD images of the plans, done to exact dimensions, and with the details sorted, we sent the okay to start construction.

Critical last-minute tests of cabinet fit.

All this planning was done with measurements, drawings, and instinct, and organized from 6,000 miles away, so we had some apprehension until we saw the finished product installed. And one night’s use was enough to lay all doubts to rest. Cozy? Yes—but both of us could sit inside while one cooked if it was frightful outside and we wanted to be buttoned up. Storage space was simply massive—we were stunned at how much of our gear disappeared inside the side and front bench and cabinets. Total time to pitch camp, including raising the roof, deploying and staking down the awning, setting out the folding table that stores cunningly in a slot in the bench, and setting out our Kermit chairs, was under 10 minutes.

Is it without compromise? No. It’s still the back of a stock-bodied Land Cruiser Troopy, not the interior of a 25-foot Airstream. The comfortable dinette of our FWC is missing: Although two can eat inside sitting on the benches and sharing the slide-out table, there are no backrests, and the neck-height ledge running down both sides of the back above the windows—the support for the bed when it’s dropped—precludes leaning back very far anyway. With the bed deployed there is only a two-foot-wide standing/climbing-up space between the back of it and the back of the vehicle, just enough room for one person to dress or undress. But these are mere quibbles when you consider we’ve constructed a home away from home completely contained inside an expedition vehicle of towering strength, reliability, and capability.

This photo shows the wood front of the Kanz closed; it is dropped for cooking.

In terms of workmanship, the plywood cabinetry is of very good, void-free quality, but standard five-ply construction. Screw holes are filled, corners rounded, and shut lines uniform. In a perfect (and much more expensive) world I’d have had them made from multi-ply Baltic birch and had the drawers finger-jointed or dovetailed; however they look handsome as is and should be perfectly durable.

The Kanz on its legs plus Wolf Packs comprise a complete outdoor kitchen. Roseann is recognizable by the spotted headscarf and numerous bits of weaponry on her belt.

Systems management is dealt with in two locations. In the face of the cabinet under the sink are a level gauge for the water tank and a power meter for the batteries (as well as the rocker switch for the faucet, which is on-or-off and could be improved with a variable-pressure control). And behind the driver’s seat is a recessed compartment containing the charge controller for the solar panel, a fuse panel, the easily replaceable water pump, and the hard-mounted ARB Twin compressor. There is room left over for the air hose and chuck for the compressor, and a tire repair kit. 

Our best gauge for the success of a camp setup is that after several days out, when we take a break at a nice hotel to see a town and do laundry and shopping, we find ourselves missing the camp. That has definitely been the case with the Troopy after a tour of southern Australia and a loop through Tasmania. 

What’s next? We’ll be leaving the vehicle with Daniel again for some odds and ends: security bars for the windows, a center console yet to be designed, storage and ready access for our binoculars.

On a more major scale, the aftermarket rear springs, which were on the vehicle when we bought it, are not quite managing to hold up to the additional weight of our modifications. There’s a barely noticeable sag when fully laden with fuel and water, and neither of us can tolerate any sag. So we’ll be investigating options. I’d also like to have an ARB locker in the rear axle, since factory lockers were sadly not fitted to this particular Troopy. The brakes, despite being discs on all four corners, could use improvement. Other than that, there is very little we feel would actually enhance the vehicle.

How about the budget target? Going back to our 4Runner comparison, the current base list on a mid-range 4Runner, the TRD Off Road, is $37,335. We are just a touch above that now—including the vehicle, pop top conversion, solar panel, water tank, Kaymar rack, all the interior work, all the systems controls, and numerous odds and ends, we have spent $38,930. However, next I'll detail the addition of a pair of decidedly optional bits that will move us up closer to 4Runner Limited territory. (#recaro . . .)