There are a few things that are ubiquitous throughout the world, due to the perfect blend capability, affordability, and reliability. The AK47, jeans, and if you're talking cars, the Land Cruiser. For 67 years, the Land Cruiser has been a staple of off-road travel throughout the world. Their hard earned legacy for utter reliability and capability have earned the Toyota 4x4 a pedigree from Australia to the Arctic, and everywhere in between.
The HDJ81 Land Cruiser was, in it's day, the ultimate in both stock 4x4 capability and comfort. Notoriously overbuilt, there are endless examples of 80 Series Land Cruisers with 300,000 miles and beyond. Known for their reliability and their mechanical simplicity, the Cruiser became iconic in some of the world's most harsh environments; from the outback of Australia to the Arctic circle, the 80 series is a time-tested legend in Toyota's most well known and longest lived vehicle line.
As a testament, the 80 diesel series placed first and second in the Dakar rally, unmodified in 1996, and again in '98, cementing the HJ80's reputation as a tremendously reliable overland vehicle.
But why choose a vehicle that is between 21 and 28 years old? ...and what is it that makes the Land Cruiser, well, a Land Cruiser?
Construction and Expectations
The 80-series Land Cruiser boasts frame-on-body construction, a solid front axle, a simple and efficient powerplant and drive train, and a center locking differential (with the option of triple locks). We'll discuss what this means from a practical perspective.
We won't focus much on other people's wants, but here are the things we want from our vehicle (you may notice that this looks familiar):
- Capability (off-road and on)
- Commonality (availability of parts)
- End user repairability
- Fuel Efficiency and the ability to make our own
To this end, the 80-Series Cruiser - specifically the diesel-powered HJ - won. So let's look at those common traits, how they relate to our goals, and give a little history on what they mean:
- Frame on Body Construction: The benefit of this is that over extreme and uneven terrain, the frame can flex in response to torsion without warping the body. In collisions, Frame on Body allows the frame to absorb most of the impact, leaving the body serviceable. However, unibody designs have been show to be safer, and fewer unibody collisions resulted in fatalities. Unibody models also consume less fuel due to weight, so the frame-on-body is best suited for vehicles that will be spending time off-road or hauling. The frame construction itself is a fully boxed, super heavy duty frame meant to survive the harshest environments.
- Solid Front Axle: Hard core off-roaders will argue until they're blue in the face regarding Solid Front Axle's vs Independent Front Suspension (IFS), and a good comparison can be found here. No doubt, the Solid Axle cruiser can be a bit squirrelly on-road, but off road, it handles like a dream. As to the "swapability" and toughness, the Solid Front Axle wins, and as a recent swap of some doomed Birfields (the SFA version of CV Joint).
While the replacement took some time and tools, it was doable, and the mechanical simplicity was evident. Offroad, the solid front axle shows it's not all "RTI"; it flexes well in response to even wildly irregular terrain and maintains the articulation necessary to keep good traction. So for me, the Solid Front Axle checks the durability, reliability, capability, and end user repairability boxes. IFS can be great, and it's come a long way, but it's not something a layman can learn to work on without dedicating a lot of time and effort.
- Powerplant and Drivetrain: While the 3F series of gas engines are fine, there is just no comparing them to the diesels. The Diesel powerplant (in the 80 series, the 1HD-T and 1HD-TFE) are both more efficient, and offer up substantially more torque at lower RPMs than their gasoline powered brothers. In addition to being more economical, they give more performance with less effort.
- Differential Lock: A locking center differential can make a huge difference offroad, and reducing slippage. In a traditional AWD vehicle (all wheel drive) the majority of the energy generated by the engine is sent to the rear wheels, and the rest to the front; this means an AWD isn't sending an equal amount to all 4 wheels. Under normal circumstances, that's fine, but in tough terrain, it can be the difference between the vehicle gaining some purchase (and moving forward) or being stuck. Overland Bound did a great video on the topic which can be found here. The Diff-lock essentially pushes an equal amount of power to all the tires, increasing the odds that the vehicle will find some traction when not all the wheels are on the ground or able to get purchase.
A quick video primer on how a differential locks works can be found here.
- Mechanical/Electrical simplicity: Part of being end-user repairable is the lack of electronic warning systems. Instead of electric sensors and switches, the early 80-series cruisers (92 and earlier) used vacuum and analog switches, which are both long lasting and simple. The 1990 HDJ81VX has no onboard computer systems, which means that while it doesn't feature the latest and greatest in terms of technology (such as the CRAWL mode on newer Land Cruisers and Tacomas), there's less to go wrong and more control given to the driver.
- Off-road Performance: In addition to a lengthy pedigree as an off-road sports vehicle, the 80-series Land Cruiser has an impressive showing in some of the most harsh and technical environments on earth. From Africa to Australia, the Land Cruiser is ubiquitous and known for it's ability to perform. While not a purpose built rock crawler, the 80's bona fides off road mean that even in tough terrain, you'll be able to get where you need to go.
Anyone who speaks only to the strengths of their chosen platform is either ill informed, is irrationally loyal, or is selling you something. The 80-series isn't perfect, and we don't talk about things until we've broken them, so here are a few of the disadvantages of owning an older Diesel 80-series that we've found.
- Parts availability: There are not many Diesel Land Crusiers here. If you need engine parts, be ready to order from Australia, Japan, or Canada. That said, there are parts that interchange with the domestic FJ80, and apart from the wait and shipping charges, it's not hard to order parts from overseas markets.
- Cost: This is tied directly to parts availability. Not only is the Land Cruiser known for high quality, high price parts, but most of them aren't available in the U.S. Market. Expect to pay for repairs.
- Service: Toyota Dealerships won't touch it. Not only are there liability concerns, your VIN won't work with their computers, which causes an instant, irreversible mental shutdown... so forget maintaining a service record with an official dealership.
- Age: It should go without saying that while the 80-series is a great vehicle, 21-28 years is nearly three times the "trouble free" lifespan on a normal vehicle, and at the tail end of the 25 year philosophy of the Cruiser. Parts get worn and break, so if you *do* opt for a Land Cruiser, budget in repairs. At time of this writing, we've rebuilt the steering gearbox, Birfields (after failure), Shocks (one of which was completely shot), Brakes/calipers, some lights and hoses, tires. It will need gaskets and seals on the engine, and a new Load sensing proportioning valve. It'll be time to think about a new turbo system in the near future, and other parts will fail. Some people have a car payment, you'll have repair bills.
- Economy: Compared to newer diesels, the TLC's modest 17-18 miles per gallon isn't efficient. The petrol FJ's 10-12 is even less so.
- Acceleration and Braking: Anyone who owns an early 80-series Land Cruiser will tell you, they're not meant to be fast off the starting line, and the brakes were woefully undersized. This can be fixed pretty easily by swapping them for a large rotors/brakes, and calipers, but it's worth noting that stock, they're poorly matched to the vehicle.
You should be aware of these things if you consider the HJ. One of the reasons that I chose the HJ81 over a 70-series (arguably a more capable vehicle) is that the U.S. Market has the FJ80 - which do have many common parts. With all this said, owning a vehicle doesn't free you from payments. You just don't pay the bank, you pay the mechanic. If you keep up with your Cruiser and adapt to it's idiosyncrasies, however, you'll have a very capable vehicle that can tackle difficult terrain with ease... and for years to come.
Until you've seen the difference, it's hard to explain why the Land Cruiser is such a superior vehicle. When you ask people, you'll hear answers like "Well, I dunno... they're just way overbuilt", or "they just build them better."
The truth is, there are so many little nuances that it's hard to come up with a neat way to package them. The turn radius, the torque, the departure and approach angles, the stock articulation and "flex", and, for lack of a better word, the resilience of these vehicles is remarkable. Add in center diff locks, frame-on-body, and an overbuilt frame and powerplant and you've got something that'll get you where you want to go for years to come.
We try and be unbiased when reviewing things, but insofar as stock vehicles go, the Land Cruiser is widely considered to be one of the best "out of the box" wheelers there is. That's important to me because I'm not looking for a rock-crawler; my goal is to have a truck built around the ISG principle of being ready for emergencies by getting out for fun when times are good.
Is it Legal/Is it hard to drive on the wrong side?
Like almost everything I enjoy, one of the first questions people ask me about the HJ is "Is it legal?"
The answer is yes: the United States domestic market didn't get Diesel Toyotas due to something called the "Chicken Tax", which places insanely high tariffs on certain vehicle types. Additionally, diesel emission standards for Diesel imports are notoriously skewed against foreign auto manufacturers. Before importing, they had to pass EPA emissions, and Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), and most manufacturers realized pretty quick it was a way to cut competition out of the "Big 3's" stranglehold on the domestic truck market. However, after 25 years, the EPA exempts vehicles from the testing, and the JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) Toyotas easily pass the FMVSS.
As to driving on "the wrong side", it's only tough if you're going through a drive up bank or a drive-through, or when passing on narrow roads. Be prepared to hit your wipers when you go to signal for a lane change, though.
Why not a Tacoma or newer Land Cruiser?
This is a great question that I get from time to time. The answer is three parts, and it needs to be prefaced with:
This HJ80 isn't the best option for everyone. The 100/200 series are very functional, if you're not afraid of electronic systems, and don't mind a gas engine. The Tacoma is probably a better rounded rig, and for straight "rock-crawling", the Jeep is still one of the best choices as it offers tons of aftermarket support and domestic parts.
When it comes down to it, here are my distilled reasons:
- At present, no diesel is offered in the U.S. market. Diesel's are legendary for three things: Their relative efficiency, their torque, and their ability to burn unconventional fuels. As part of my overall plan, I want a vehicle that I can make fuel for. I can't improvise petrol, no matter how hard I try. The long-term reliability of these engines is exceptional, and a friend of mine makes diesel in his garage for the equivalent of about $0.70/gallon. This is a goal for a later article.
- Mechanical Simplicity and Durability: It's simple and even a lay person can learn some basics in terms of repairs and maintenance.The HJ80 was particularly appealing because it shares some common parts with the FJ80, which is available on the American market, unlike the 70-series (which is considered by many to be the "best" Land Cruiser).
- Exceptional off-road capability, with good aftermarket support.
There are some excellent competitors from a variety of manufacturers, and for most people, the best choice would probably *not* be a vehicle nearing 30 years old. Some of it will come down to "Do you want a bed or a cargo bay?" or "what size vehicle do I want?" With that said, the HJ is a great vehicle with a ton of potential, and that with a little love, will be on the road and trail for decades to come.
If you want to look into owning a JDM Land Cruiser, we strongly advise people to check with Steve Jackson of Land Cruisers Direct. We worked with 3 importers when we settled on an HJ, and of them, Steve was the only one who was transparent, helpful, and detail oriented about all the nuance of owning a JDM diesel.
Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this, be sure to watch for upcoming articles on the modifications and repair work we've done (and continue to do) to the ISG HDJ81VX.
Four Wheeler Network, "Frontend Feud"
 Toyota Motorsports, "Land Cruiser Gallery: Motor Sports", 1995-2018. Recovered from web: http://www.toyota-global.com/showroom/vehicle_heritage/landcruiser/gallery/dakar_rally_95-01.html, 7/30/2018