Modernizing A Classic 4×4 Land Cruiser

Upgrading an Older 4×4 Vehicle While Maintaining Vintage Style

I distinctly remember complaining that I’d paid too much when I bought my 1973 classic 4×4 Land Cruiser FJ40 from a friend in 1978. True, it only had 23,000 miles on it and was in “as-new” condition. But still, couldn’t a buddy have accepted less than $3,500?

I know what you’re thinking—and you’re right: In vehicular terms, that purchase was an investment right up there with IPO Apple stock. More than 300,000 miles later, that FJ40 has yet to leave me stranded a single time, except as the result of a dead battery. It’s been used for exploration, guiding sea kayaking trips in Mexico and four-wheel-drive training (not to mention a first date with my wife). And it’s now insured for more than 10 times what I paid for it.

Legends Live Long Lives

There are other owners of early Land Cruisers, first-generation Broncos, Series Land Rovers, Jeep CJs and Scouts who were lucky to score them when they were just old 4x4s, along with an increasing number of passionate fans who were happy to shell out a lot more in recent years to fulfill their dreams of owning a legend.

“My classic 4×4 Land Cruiser was always a working vehicle; it wasn’t reserved for weekends or fishing trips, and it certainly never towed to trails. So, early on, I began to think about ways to overcome some of its daily-driver deficiencies.”

But, while our vehicles’ values have soared into the 21st century, their engineering remains firmly stuck in the mid-20th. My Land Cruiser came with four-wheel drum brakes, simple lap belts and no head restraints, a three-speed transmission with a non-synchro first gear, a points-style distributor and sealed-beam headlamps perfected in 1940. Fully adjustable air conditioning was available … via the window crank. Traction aids? None. Driving 65 mph on the freeway produced instant tinnitus. Other 4x4s of the same era share many (or all) of these traits.

Luckily for me and many other owners, the corollary to rising classic values is an increase in the number of companies offering parts and accessories to upgrade our classic vehicles.

Maintaining a Classic

In fact, Toyota recently announced it will resume manufacturing critical drivetrain and other components for early Land Cruisers. We’re in a “golden age” for those who want to keep their vintage 4×4 in crowd-gathering condition while increasing its comfort, safety and capability—yet (mandatory for me) not turning it into a Frankenstein monster with an LS crate engine and an automatic transmission.

A full front roll cage provides protection, anchoring for three-point belts, and mounting for radios, flashlight and switches.

My classic 4×4 Land Cruiser was always a working vehicle; it wasn’t reserved for weekends or fishing trips, and it certainly never towed to trails. So, early on, I began to think about ways to overcome some of its daily-driver deficiencies. Life as a wilderness guide and freelance writer, however, meant that most of those modifications came at a leisurely pace. It was only this year that was I able to dedicate a chunk of funds to tackle several major upgrades at once.

Safety First

The lack of safety features was an obvious shortcoming. Curiously, the 1973 FJ40 seats came with receptacles for head restraints but not the actual items, so I sourced a pair from a 1976 in a wrecking yard. Installing three-point harnesses proved a bit more challenging, because there were no factory mounts for those.

Head restraints and three-point seatbelts significantly enhance safety.

However, another safety modification I had planned was a roll bar (standard on later FJ40s). I bolted in a full front cage, which provided a secure mount for three-point, inertia-reel harnesses. At that point, I was much better protected from both rear and front impacts, not to mention—yikes!—a possible rollover.

Last, but not least, I installed a pair of larger and steadier Euro-spec factory Toyota door mirrors to better spot trouble coming before it arrives. (I still have no idea why Europe got better mirrors on its Land Cruisers.)

Euro-spec factory mirrors are a huge improvement on stock, U.S.-spec mirrors.

Upgrading Stopping Power

Next up were those drum brakes—also standard at the time on Broncos, Scouts, CJs and Land Rovers. Contrary to myth, drum brakes stop just fine; well, at least two or three times in a row and as long as they’re not wet. Towing a 21-foot sailboat to Mexico revealed significant fade issues, and after crossing a stream, the brakes were simply not there until frantic pumping dried them out.

Four-wheel disc brakes transform stopping power and fade resistance.

There are several ways to install front disc brakes on early FJ40s, including swapping in the entire front axle from a 1976 or later model. I chose a simple, bolt-on kit using Wilwood calipers and ventilated discs. The improvement was remarkable, so I thought that if two disc brakes were good, four could only be better. I found another kit to convert the rear to discs as well.

“Brake fade” is no longer in my FJ40’s vocabulary, although the system required an adjustable proportioning valve to prevent too-enthusiastic rear lockup. More recently, I replaced the stock brake booster with a dual-diaphragm unit from City Racer, which is a most strangely named, but excellent, supply source for classic 4×4 Land Cruisers.

Technology-Infused New Lighting

The need to still see when driving from dusk into the night is important when traveling (or otherwise). The 7-inch, sealed-beam headlamps were the next to go, replaced with excellent Cibié Z-Beam halogens. A pair of Cibié Super Oscar halogen driving lamps spectacularly augmented the headlamps for nighttime forays down the Arizona and Mexico open-range dirt roads, which are randomly crossed by cattle and deer.

Different angles of the lamps.

However, more recently, the revolution in LED lighting swayed me to make a major conversion. First, I installed a set of ARB’s superb Intensity 21 driving lamps; and, just last month, I installed a headlamp replacement, courtesy of the Gravity units from KC HiLites—a drop-in fit for any vehicle equipped with 7-inch round headlamps. The KC headlamps have none of the color-fringing or spotty pattern of earlier 7-inch LED conversions I’ve tried, and the Intensity driving lamps “bored” a huge hole of daylight down the trail when needed. (I’m also currently testing a set of ARB’s new Solis driving lamps, which are dimmable—a seemingly odd feature that is actually quite useful.)

In addition to superior illumination, the extremely low amp draw of LED lamps puts less stress on the Land Cruiser’s modest, 55-amp alternator. The KC headlamps draw fewer than four amps per pair, compared to more than 16 for the Hellas.

Keeping it Retro While Increasing Capability

In its day, the FJ40 was known as one of the most capable four-wheel-drive vehicles on the planet. But that was before the advent of compliant suspensions, locking differentials and traction-control systems. Today, a stock FJ40, on stiff factory springs and open diffs, is outclassed—at least in traction—by more than a few cute utility vehicles.

Personal style makes a vintage vehicle stand out in a crowd.

I installed an Old Man Emu Medium spring kit, which added 2 inches of ground clearance and hugely improved both compliance and comfort, complemented by OME Nitrocharger shocks. However, the real transformation came with an ARB rear locking differential, which increased available traction by a solid 50 percent and eliminated those embarrassing moments when diagonal tires spin futilely in the air at a spot a Wrangler Rubicon could just stroll through. A bonus was the ARB heavy-duty compressor activator that doubled for airing up tires.

Right Fit Rubber

Long experience with overlanding in Africa had convinced me that a 235/85R16 tire was the perfect size for my needs—but U.S. Land Cruisers only came with 15-inch wheels. For a time, I ran factory, 16-inch split rims with tubed tires, but the “romance” of those wore off quickly (because even a simple nail puncture requires a complete breakdown of the wheel).

City Racer 16×6 wheels take factory hubcaps and LT235/85R16 BFG All-Terrains.

Again, City Racer came to the rescue with Japanese-manufactured, 16×6, one-piece steel rims that take the factory hubcaps and have clearance for disc brakes. Now, my FJ40 on its BFG All-Terrains has the capability I want, as well as the perfect retro look.

Stepping up Self-Recovery

Of course, even with a locker, great suspension and good tires, there’s a chance of getting stuck—or needing to assist someone who is. In my mind, the only proper winch for an FJ40 is WARN’s mighty 8274.

“ … the real transformation came with an ARB rear locking differential, which increased available traction by a solid 50 percent … ”

The FJ40’s front end was factory configured for easy winch-mounting; I added a shorter, heavy-duty bumper and had a friend weld in a mount with a roller fairlead, exiting through the bumper to keep the winch as low as possible and not block airflow through the radiator (Man-A-Fre offers a similar unit that’s ready-made). The only change I made was to replace the steel cable with a safer and lighter Dyneema.

Additional Fuel Options

For accessing areas where I could exploit all this newfound capability, the classic 4×4 Land Cruiser’s stock fuel tank (sited under the passenger’s seat) is decently sized, at 18.5 U.S. gallons (the same-era Land Rover 88 held 12 gallons; the first-generation Bronco held 12.5)—but it was still marginal for long, no-resupply routes in Mexico.

The Stout Equipment rear rack carries a spare and two jerry cans—rattle- and vibration-free. (Look closely, and you’ll see a feature to be highlighted in part two of this feature.)

Man A Fre makes a replacement, 28-gallon saddle tank that wraps around under the driver’s seat. However, that was just a bit too much fuel to be sitting on. (As if, in a devastating accident, I’d be less toasted by an 18-gallon fireball than by a 28-gallon fireball.) A company in New Mexico called Stout Equipment (now sadly defunct) built a stout, swing-away rear rack for the spare tire, with a braced shelf that holds two NATO jerry cans. (The rack is so sturdy that, on a bet, I once jacked the entire rear end of the vehicle off the ground using the back side of the jerry can shelf.) A similar unit is available today from 4Plus Products.

More To Come for This Classic 4×4 Land Cruiser

So far, I’d significantly improved the FJ40’s safety, off-road and self-recovery capability, as well as its driving range. But, in the back of my mind were several more ambitious projects.

What if I could improve highway comfort and economy by reducing engine rpms—while, at the same time, lower the low-range gearing to enhance rock-crawling performance?

In addition, Arizona summers aren’t getting any cooler, and the windows-down-and-50-mph “AC” wasn’t cutting it.

Finally, I had a plan to enhance interior storage for my own and similar short-wheelbase classic vehicles while incorporating some convenience features for camping—an on-board water supply with tap, a bulk propane supply for cooking and, of course, a fridge. Would it all fit and leave enough room for spare socks?

I’d find out.



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