Building an ISG Rig 2: The Land Cruiser

The 80-series Land Cruiser is riding a wave of well-deserved popularity right now. If you've ever considered what it'd take to rebuild one, we've got answers.

September 18, 2020


The Land Cruiser has always had a loyal following, and Toyota's dubious legacy of being the "conflict zone" vehicle of choice has revitalized interest as war stories, media, and it's off-road prowess have solidified it's place in history as one of the best stock off-road vehicles available. As the Land Cruiser's shadow has grown, the costs have soared. As little as 5 years ago, you could get a decent condition triple-locked FZJ80 for 6 or 7 grand. Now, those same vehicles are commanding 5 digits, as people floored with Joe Rogan's ICON build, or cheering on 'Fear the Walking Dead', or 'Terminator: Dark Fate' use of 80 series Cruiser has catapulted them into popularity, especially, it seems, for the Apocalypse.

My own story of Land Cruiser love started nearly a decade ago in Afghanistan, where the only wheeled vehicle I travelled in was a Cruiser. I remember riding alongside my future wife thinking "this is a weird, cool life, and I dig this ride."

Since, we built a HDJ81 (1990 Diesel cruiser) and picked up a reasonably inexpensive, non-locked FZJ80 last winter, plucking it out of a deep state of neglect as a "mechanic's special".

Working with a budget of +/- $5000, we set in on trying to revitalize the thing, as much for nostalgia as the desire to recreate the Afghanistan-proof cruiser I remembered. As a novice shade-tree mechanic, I'd soon learn that my ability to assess the condition of the vehicle wasn't as good as I thought, and that budgets were, like laws, meant to be broken.

So, here's the story of how we took an oil-soaked, 1996 FZJ with over 263,000 miles from a smoking, broken mess, to a clean running, boringly reliable Cruiser worthy of its reputation.


As the title suggests, our build started as a poorly maintained Toyota FZJ80 Land Cruiser. One of the main selling points is that in terms of chassis, exterior, and interior parts, it was common with our other vehicle, which is a Diesel HDJ81 Land Cruiser. So, outside the engine and transmission, there's a lot of crossover.

They're known for being very well made, with Toyota's promise of 25 years of trouble free service (if you do your part and maintain it), and they're over-engineered, solidly constructed, and are well known for being one of the most capable 'stock' off-road vehicles made. The 80 series is widely considered to be the last "true" Land Cruiser, though that's not true, they are the apex of simple systems combined with a design emphasis of off-road capability... in the US Market.

For an excellent guide to buying an 80-series Land Cruiser, check out Slee's "What to Look for" article. If you aren't qualified to check for the things on the list, find a friend who is, buy them lunch and a brew, and bring them along. You *really* want to know what you're getting in to, and a solid inspection beforehand is crucial.

As you can probably tell, there's nothing flash about this Cruiser. It's not a 'build'... and I've affectionately nicknamed it the "Bland Cruiser", because it looks pretty much like every other white 80-series out there. Part of our broader philosophy with vehicles is "mechanical soundness first". Don't be the guy who dumps tons of money into accessories and ends up with a broken down ride for sale on Craigslist.

Some Technical details

If you want to read about the build without the technical details, feel free to skip this part, but if not, we'll discuss some of the details of the project.

The 80-series Land Cruiser came to America in 1991 with a straight 6 cylinder 3F-E Engine. Overseas markets began getting the 80 in 1990 with the option of the 3FE, the 1HZ (non-turbo Diesel) and the 1HD-T (turbo diesel) engines, and apart from power plant, all were very well thought of for their durability and capability off-road. In 1993, the 1FZ engine took the place of the older 3F series, which had fallen out of favor due to it's sluggishness on-road.

While the 1FZ-FE (US Market gas engine used in the 80 series) carried the tradition of cast block and head, making it incredibly tough and durable, it featured an exhaustingly complex layout and design when compared to the older 1H and 2/3F series engines of it's predecessors, but lacks the computer-laden gadgetry endemic in modern vehicles.

Now made as much with emissions and on-road travel in mind as off-road, the 1FZ-FE gained some power and torque, but the US domestic market required the use of a EGR or "Exhaust Gas Recirculation" device. This device essentially takes gas left over from the combustion process and circulates it back through the engine and exhaust. The end goal is to take a portion of the CO2 produced in a combustion engine and combine it with Nitrous Oxide at high temperatures to which, in theory, reintroduces exhaust gasses with unburnt combustable fuel into the engine for greater efficiency.

In reality, those devices tend to malfunction, introducing too much exhaust gas and not enough cooling Nitrogen, which means they create excessive heat.

On the 1FZ-FE, this heat is concentrated near the rear of the engine, around cylinder 6. While anecdotal, 1FZ-FE vehicles have notorious head gasket failures around cylinder 6 when the EGR has been allowed to malfunction over time.

Combine that with brittle gaskets and dry rotted hoses, and many of these rigs get parted out, abandon, or are driven until they experience a catastrophic failure.

Enter our 1FZ-FE... with all of these problems.

What's it gunna take?

We picked up an unlocked (for more information on lockers, please check our "Off Road Expeditions" or "Mythbusting: Bug out Vehicle" articles) for an 'ok' price, knowing it was going to need some work. As we started making some progress, it became clear that what it needed was an overhaul. The head gasket failed - predictably at the number 6 cylinder, and after making some good friends in the local area who work in mechanics and machining, we got the rig pulled apart, had the head and pistons inspected and machined, and had the valves lapped and shimmed.

Moments before realizing eye protection is smart.

It's very easy to start a project and succumb to the influence of "well, while you're in there..." and in our view, this is probably a very smart way to approach the problem.

The 1FZ-FE isn't an easy engine to disassemble by the standards of older Land Cruisers, and in order to do the head gasket, you'll need to pull the hood and damn near everything under it. In the FSM, on a perfectly clean rig, this is fine. On one that has had the three common leaks which have been ignored for years; the distributor O-Ring, valve Cover Gasket, and Oil pump cover, it's substantially more work. Everything is caked with oil, hard to access, and carries the added fun of oil dropping into your eyes and face anytime you're under the thing.

The 1FZ-FE is driven by timing chain, which is notoriously tough, but at almost 270,000 miles, "while you're in there" struck, and we figured that it'd be a good time to swap that as well. LCE Performance supplied the timing chain assembly, the only non-OEM engine parts that we used apart from Gates belts. The Engine Valve Grind kit provided most of the new gaskets, though after looking through the vehicle, we included an engine oil cooler cover, oil sender gauge, and a new water pump. Together, the parts cost around $700.

Once the head was off, we took it to Internal Combustion Machine for a resurfacing, valve shim work, and and cam bearings. The head was in good shape, and the work added another $500.

All of this adds up to a what is a block shy of an entire engine rebuild. And now that we're at the end, the vast majority of this wasn't planned for, it was revealed as yet another obstacle that continued adding to the complexity of the project.

In the end, it's an opportunity to ensure that every gasket, o-ring, and hose on the vehicle is fresh. Given that it took almost 25 years to wear down to this degree, and given that we used high-quality OEM parts wherever possible, the hope is that the vehicle outlasts our supply of cheap oil. Hell, maybe some ragtag group of zombie apocalypse survivors will have to hot-wire it long after I'm a zombie.

PRO TIP: Get a box of sandwich bags and a sharpie. When you take a component apart, deposit all the bolts, nuts, washers, and gaskets into the bag, if possible, then label it. It might seem like extra work, but compared to digging for lost bolts, it'll be nothing.

A lot of extra work was created by two things, both well within control:

  1. Know what parts you'll need, so you don't have long periods of downtime waiting for parts. This totally resets your work flow, and makes it hard to remember where you left off.
  2. Store bolts, washers, nuts, screws etc in plastic bags you can keep with their parts. Label those bags, and keep them together with the components they go to.

Part 4: Doing the work

Taking care of her girl.

If you're smart, get an engine hoist and stand, and pull the engine. Doing the work in situ is possible, but we found that every little thing was a struggle doing it this way. This may be different with other makes and models of vehicles, so check up in the planning phase. Read what's worked for other people, and what's made life harder.

The 1FZ-FE isn't a user friendly motor to work on, though it's not awful either.

The wiring harness goes on for days and requires you getting your hands way up in the blind spots. Like all EGR equipped 1FZ-FE Land Cruisers, the wiring near the EGR get's crispy and we ended up using butt connectors to splice about 10 wires, before wrapping them in heat shrink and re-looming the wiring. The timing chain cover requires dropping the oil pans, which if you do it on the rig, means you'll need to take off tie rod ends, and all that oil is going to come down like rain. The tie-rod ends were right up there with the front crankshaft pulley bolt for the toughest parts of the project. Busting them free from the tie-rod was a straight up 'mongo' approach, using about a gallon of PB blaster, wrenches and a vice, we finally got them loose.

The crankshaft pulley bolt is such a sticking point that OTRAMM has actually developed a tool specifically to get it loose... *and* tightened back on to spec. While it costs $80, it ended up being the only way we could safely get the crankshaft pulley bolt free, and then tightened back on. You'll hear some people say you don't need it to spec, which is a whopping 304 foot pounds, but you do.

Not only is the risk of the crankshaft pulley walking off a catastrophic prospect, the oil pump requires proper torque to operate correctly. The 1FZ was on so tight we couldn't even get it off with the OTRAMM tool, and were fortunate enough to have a steel company across the street. They sold us some 1/2" bar stock, which we welded and braced against the chassis, and the thing came off and went back on smooth as butter. Total additional cost? $7.51.

Throughout the project, the most difficult part was the waiting. It seemed like every day there was some small washer or hose that needed to be replaced that I hadn't thought of beforehand. That mean ordering it and waiting, because not many places keep parts for 23 year old vehicles on hand. There are shops that specialize in outfitting Cruiser engine restorations. In the future, that's the route I'll go.

Pay once, up front, from someone who knows the cruiser, and have all the parts right there when you need them once the project is rolling.

Not only does this cut down on the waiting and subsequent frustration, but it really helps to not have to break your work stride and have to come back later wondering where you left off and which bolts go to what.


Before (left) and after (right). It's amazing what some new parts, a parts washer, and a little effort can do.

With all this work, it's impossible to realistically commit to a rebuild like this without a few things; mechanical aptitude, some time, some good friends who'll laugh at you and double check your work, and a budget.

With the initial investment of $3500, we wanted to stay around $1500 for the rebuild. Did we hit the mark?

Yeah... nah... not even.

The parts list alone might get you close, but once you figure in fresh fluids for the engine, coolant, transmission, and differentials, you're going to add a couple hundred dollars.

Same for optional work, which we could absolutely never recommend someone do, like deleting the EGR. Even if there were good reasons to do it, such as removing a major heat source that's empirically responsible for the #6 head gasket failures, or toasting the wiring harness, the EPA says no, so definitely don't check out Huddexpo or Wit's End to find ways around the EGR. If you did, you'd probably be shocked by the price anyway, which all in adds about another $150, plus some silicone vacuum caps you'd hypothetically need.

The head will cost you $500 and up - depending on how much work the valves need, and how difficult they are to shim, this could *easily* crack the $1000 mark. Worse, a good machinist will probably need a couple months before he can get to your project, so try and plan ahead. It may even be wise to get a used head, and have that machined while you pull the old one.

So while we broke our target, it wasn't by all that much. In parts, we got close - but that didn't account for things like new tires, which were about $600, an alignment, which tacked on another $100, and some other odds and ends, like an OEM radiator cap, fuel injector cleaner and the like.

So all in? 

The rebuild cost about $1640, tires and alignment were almost $700, and the machining was $500. That's about $2840 in repairs, which I'd round to $3000... if I were budgeting for a new project, I'd make it $4000, and likely wouldn't need it all. With the base price of the vehicle being $3500, that means we're in it $6340.

Anyone who knows Land Cruisers will tell you a couple things: That's not a bad price, and...

If you took it to someone else for all the work, you'd likely be looking at a repair bill of about $15,000.

That's a mixed blessing. If you can do the work, you'll likely be able to find a solid 80-series in need of some love for a reasonable price as people tend to hear that price and run to Facebook Marketplace to list the thing as fast as they can with "ran when parked".

If you've just got the money, that's fine too, but it also means that a lot of people are priced out of a solid 80-series, which kind of sucks.

Conclusion "Why would anyone rebuild something that old?"

At one point in the project, a guy came in, looked at the Cruiser and asked "Why would anyone waste their time on something like that?

Putting it all back together was nerve wracking. Double check everything... fluids, torque specs, hoses, and don't get ahead of yourself (like I do).

If you have to ask, you probably won't get it and everyone will just leave frustrated with each other.

There was a certain design mentality that ended in the early 2000's (if not a little before) that emphasized capability over luxury in the SUV's of the age. Now, an SUV really isn't much more than a giant minivan, with a few exceptions. You can either appreciate this because you use your vehicle, or, it's a pointless artifact of by-gone days that doesn't fit your scheduled planned obsolescence. Older vehicles have personality, and the mid to late 90's saw the apex of capability and comfort cross before permanently diverging. A rig from this era didn't have 85 ECUs, didn't need angry eyes, and wasn't designed for the "lightbars before lockers" crowd so many rigs today seem to be set up for.


Because there really aren't all that many remote places anymore.

'Off road' to most people means driving a dusty forest service road, not trying to win the Camel Trophy or Dakar Rally. While not everyone wants to get hard core with their rig, myself included, I do want it to be a seamless blend of road manners and off-road capability, because as we've discussed before, there's something great about being able to get off the trail and back again. So, here's the advice I'd give to someone looking to buy an 80-series right now.

If you don't plan on doing the work or paying to get one that's been fully gone through... don't.

Pretty much every 80 is going to have gaskets and seals that are worn and leaking from the head up, which means you're going to need to pull the thing apart and replace everything along the way. Valve cover, plug gaskets, oil pump gasket, and oil sender leaks will probably need to be fixed. They'll probably be brittle as glass and baked on, too.

You're probably going to want to replace the T-chain (or belt if you get an HDJ), as well as the oil cooler, water pump, and little things like oil sender.

Once it's going back together, you'll probably want new plugs, wires, and a new distributor rotor/cap. It's probably going to need new brakes, tie-rod ends, bushings, and you'll want to baseline the differentials, transmission, and oil and unless someone took great care of it, the knuckles will probably need service too.

The 80 will reward you with boring reliability if you take care of it... but they're getting long in the tooth and the vehicle is going to suffer from it's own popularity; with more people wanting them because they're cool, the law of averages says that not all of them are going to take care of them.

The good news is putting one back together isn't that costly if you can do the work yourself. Mostly it's just time. You can get pretty much everything you need to restore it under the hood for +/- $3000 and about 60-75 solid hours of work.

Further, as the 80-series Land Cruiser's popularity continues, and the supplies slowly dwindle, the value of a well kept, capable 80 is only going to go up. While, sadly, this means you probably won't see as many doing what they're meant to do, it's nice to know they're still capable of tackling the challenge if you ever did have to use your rig in an emergency.

Whatever you want out of your vehicle, though, there's something immensely satisfying about the process of taking a vehicle that was made to give more than 2 decades of faithful service, revitalize it with your own hands, and then take it out for adventures.

...and if the trail gets tough, you know your vehicle inside and out.



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