I’ve never really been a “car guy”. My step dad tried to teach me mechanical principles but in retrospect I realize he wasn’t really a “car guy” either. I learned to change my oil, swap air filters, and keep the tires full. These are important tasks, but it’s a far cry from having a well worn impact gun and wobble sockets.
I was going to buy a new Jeep Wrangler: I actually drive off road a lot and who doesn’t love a new car. Fortunately while on a backpacking trip my friend talked me out of it and dropped some science on me:
Look at Africa. Look at the Australian Outback. Shit man, look at ISIS. Know what they all drive? Toyotas, and the Land Cruiser in particular if they can get their hands on one. Go to Africa and see if you spot any Jeeps: you’ll be looking for a long time.
So instead of buying a ~$30,000 Jeep with the associated payments, taxes, and cranked insurance in 2015 I found myself a 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser down at the border.
It was listed for $3,900 but with a leaky valve gasket and bald tires I got him down to $3,000 cash. When I went to register it the dealer had put a sticker over the “EXPORT ONLY” stamp, meaning it wasn’t supposed to be sold in the United States. My would-be truck was caught up in some international crime syndicate. An honestly dumbfounded look on my face at the DMV convinced the agent I wasn’t a part of it, and the registration was done.
I had done a bit of homework and learned that the FZJ-80 was one of the preferred Land Cruisers. Early enough that it still had tank-like construction (solid axles, body-on-frame construction, etc) but new enough that you’re not futzing with a carburetor or pulling a choke knob. Don’t get me wrong: nearly all Land Cruisers pre-1997 are dope whips with their respective pluses and minuses: go figure I’m in love with mine.
And basically for $3,000 (base) + $1,000 (tires) + $1,000 in various mechanical fixes I had a truck that could keep up with the bulk of true offroad vehicles. And I was pretty happy with that: no need to do any fancy upgrades, no need to get bigger tires, no need for a bro-dozer off road “rig”.
But then we moved to Mammoth and winter happened.
This winter I saw:
- People losing traction and going into snow banks.
- Big powerful 4×4’s stuck in snow ditches.
- Tires spinning around all over.
- Folks putting chains on in horrible conditions.
And through it all, I drove around in comfort. To be sure, much of snow and ice driving is about your skills. I got high centered myself trying to drive (like an idiot) through thigh deep snow. There is a reason snow cats exist, and it’s similar to why you’d take a snowmobile out and not a motorcycle: once the snow gets deep enough it’s simply not passable by a wheeled vehicle.
But in general, minus a lifted version of my own truck with more ground clearance, my Land Cruiser was a top performer here in the Eastern Sierra.
In the late fall, terror left my heart stricken: there was a leak coming down the tire of my trusty vehicle. A little bit of research led me to the problem: a broken seal in the inner axle area and a tougher-than-most-humans-will-ever-do repair job. I considered taking it to a mechanic but hardcore Land Cruiser fanatics shouted their disapproval.
As I’ve come to understand it, barring full engine rebuilds nearly all other jobs can be handled in your driveway. Indeed, many can be handled out in the middle of nowhere provided you were wise enough to pack tools and spare parts (affectionately known as “trail parts”).
I knew I could hobble along through the winter, filling up fluids and grease all the while making a huge stink in my driveway from differential fluid constantly pouring out. I acquired the tools I would need. I acquired the rebuild kit. I watched the youtube videos. I found the factory service manual on Ebay. I waited, silently sending mental vibes to my truck, “You’re getting me through this winter so well. Come spring, I’m going to take care of you. I promise.”
And so I completed my first knuckle/inner-axle rebuild. A job so intense that full grown men walked by me and commented, “Jesus… I hope you know what you’re doing.” I learned the value of my impact gun. I learned about impact swivel sockets. Aerokroil. Brass drifts. I even pounded a race in upside down and couldn’t get it out. No problem, said the Internet: use your dremel to cut some notches into it for more purchase.
I don’t think it’s masochism to say that I enjoy a challenge. Living and sailing on our boat I really enjoyed having problems thrown at me that were above my paygrade. I screwed some of them up, many I didn’t, and where I made mistakes I’ve tried to learn so I don’t ass-it-up again. I think any tradesman who’s being honest can point to stupid things they did when the learning curve was steep: it’s no big thing to make mistakes predicated that they make you better in the long run.
And so, dear reader, this has been my little tale of a boy and his truck. It’s a tale that will be told for decades and possibly centuries to come and no doubt some guy was tricking out his horse and carriage two hundred years ago.
No matter how much money I pour into this Land Cruiser, I’ll still stay under the stock price of a baseline Wrangler and my mechanical skills are coming along for the ride.
And now I must go to pick up my kids from school. It’s snowing out with low visibility on my rural busted up road, but Land Cruiser don’t give a f.
Post Script: A reader sent me this, and to correct the record you can find Jeeps in Africa:
I just wanted to point out the following blog, about a Wrangler currently making its way around Africa: