My FJ60 or: How I Learned to Stop Fearing Breakdowns and Love the Car

American car culture is a big deal. How many movies, TV series, and car commercials try to tap this dream? Hundreds? Thousands? Take for example the current State Farm ad:

Now my goal here is not to discuss car culture (I am saving that for a future post), but to address first car experiences. How many of us had this as a first car experience (minus the car on blocks side of things, I hope that no one has been down that road)? Certainly not me.

Growing up, I lived on an honest-to-goodness ranch in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies south of Denver. We had horses to care for, irrigation work to do, hay to cut and buck, and all of the other various and sundry duties that come with agricultural life. In many ways, I was lucky that I was young because ranch life makes vineyard life look easy by comparison; and because I was young, I also had the benefit of being spared from some of the worst duties. And while that is nice for me, one of the biggest hardships wasn’t so much the never-ending work, but the location of our ranch. Being located so close to the mountains put some serious demands on our cars, including lots of snow. In fact, over the years we got so much snow that after 15 years of using a tractor as a snow plow to knock down the 6′-10′ snow drifts that seemed to show up every few days, my parents gave up and finally decided it was easier to actually move the entire driveway to a less drift-prone area of our property. Come to think of it, they actually had to buy more property further away to make this work- that is how much snow we had, it warranted a real estate transaction!

My earliest memories of cars are those that my parents drove; in particular, my dad’s late ’70s VW Rabbit (how a 6’10” man fit in that car is still a bit of a household debate) and my mom’s early ’80s VW Jetta; as well as the ranch truck, a 1978 Ford F-250. Now, as an adult with many, many years of driving in snow (as well as growing up in the foothills, six years as a ski racer and coach in the Northeast certainly was a snow driving crash course- pun not intended), I can’t imagine how they managed to make that fleet work in snow. I was young enough that I don’t really remember, but clearly the answer was “not too well”. Case in point, in 1985 (I was 3) my Dad went out and bought a brand new 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ60- and he went way out, exactly 1,142 miles to Beaman Toyota in Nashville to get it.

So, what is a 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ60?  First off, it is one of the finest off-road cars ever built. Don’t just take my word for it. Maybe it’s the fact that it survived years of backcountry exploration that my dad did in it when he as working as an exploration geologist in the Western U.S. or that this was the vehicle of choice for the UN or that the Land Cruiser (pick your model- FJ40, FJ60, FJ80, etc) is mentioned in list upon list of the Best Off-Road Cars ever made? No, the single biggest proof that this is a dynamite car for off-roading is the high volume of parts and availability of modifications still available for a 32 year-old car! That means that there are lots of these cars still out on the road and what better endorsement for a quality built car can you have than longevity?

Our Land Cruiser came in, and still sports (minus a few rust spots), the famous Toyota Tan, which came stock from the factory with the world’s tiniest mirrors (just look at them), FM/AM cassette deck, air conditioning, roll down windows, a nice inline 6 (the venerable 2F designed for forklifts, as I’m told), a 4-speed manual transmission, manual hubs, a low range 4WD, and not much else. The photo below was taken on the day in 1985 that we got the car; and I’m told that it looked nice and new like this for exactly one hour, because cute little 3 year-old me managed to rip off the headlight washer.

While it is cool that this car has been around for most of my life and has proven itself over and over, what really matters (at least to me) is that this was my first car. Of course, by the time I got the Land Cruiser it had been in the family for 13 years during which time it had lived on a ranch far from town and my dad, the exploration geologist, farmer, hunter, and budding viticulturist (pun very much intended), used it in all of his lines of work, so you can imagine that it didn’t really look like this when I got my mitts on it. I am proud to say that I was a contributor to the “weathered” look it had when I got it, as in learning to drive a manual with it when I was about 7, I managed to run over a tree. I mean, I thought that in reverse the pedals were reversed too, guess not.

Upon my getting the car when I turned 16 in 1998, it had more than 300,000 miles and was in “rough” shape. I used to drive to Colorado Springs often in those days as I was attending high school there and I remember getting 10-ish miles to the gallon and somewhere in the vicinity of 150 miles per quart of oil.  Yeah, that’s not so good. It was after a long drive with it (and my dad) back from college in New Hampshire and the subsequent “fixing” that took all summer by some shadetree mechanic who really just made things worse, that I decided to buy my second car. I loved that second car (1997 Toyota 4Runner with a 5-speed manual transmission that I had for 13 years) and could wax poetic for a dozen blog posts, but those five years I drove the Land Cruiser were something special and no car since or in the future will ever live up to it.

The Land Cruiser connected me to driving in a way that I imagine very few people ever get to experience. I can’t count the number of times that I had minor mechanical issues- be it that the car would not start because it was -20ºF in New Hampshire and the battery was 15-years old or the time the radiator cap popped off and I had to borrow rags from the Vail Fire Department to stuff in the radiator neck to make it to an auto parts store for a replacement. Running out of oil on the interstate? Been there. Adding oil every time you get gas? Yep. Wiring a stereo yourself when you are 15 1/2, check (not pretty, FYI). Driving over Vail Pass from Vail to Breckenridge every day for my first ski school job when I was 17?  Yep. Perhaps it was these unplanned stops that got me to appreciate the open road- you meet people you would never otherwise encounter, you learn how to make things work even if it isn’t the intended way. That car and I have been through a lot, and despite the minor problems, it has come through in a pinch more times than I care to count. Maybe it was that nostalgia that made me want to rebuild it. Perhaps it is the near legendary status as an off-road beast. I am not really that sure, but I do know that when the opportunity presented itself I jumped at the chance, and so did Jen, and she wasn’t just jumping at it because I was excited, she genuinely is excited too. There is something special about this car and this era of cars that is hard to let go of…

So we didn’t.