Off-Roading with Vintage and Modern Land Cruisers: Is Old Better than New?

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Can the old wagons keep up with the newer ones? Yota Tech hits the hills with a convoy of Land Cruisers to find out. 

One a sunny fall day, our convoy of classic to modern Land Cruisers rumbles through a small Idaho town on our way up to the nearby hills to play in the dirt. The off-roading goal is simple: Make it up the hill.

The hill is really a long dirt trail leading to the top of an overlook with several turns and one long straightaway climb which will test each of our vehicles in different ways. It isn’t, as they say, so easy a Civic could do it. The hill will show just how much patience we have and how different each 4WD and off-road system handles the terrain.

Off-Roading with Vintage Land Cruisers

The convoy consists of a no-frills 1973 FJ 55 followed by a rolling showcase of Land Cruiser design and engineering advancements with a 1988 FJ 62, 1993 FCJ 80, and a 2018 200 series. Each wagon has a different approach to off-roading and the equipment changes over the years really show how far we have come. We are led by Eric Vogt, a Land Cruiser enthusiast and restorer with decades of experience. He has assembled a collection of wagons to learn more about and play around with on the dirt trails.

Off-Roading with Vintage Land Cruisers

We start our education with the no-frills 1973 FJ55. It is a boxy four-door wagon which hit the market in 1968 and was unchanged until 1980 when it was discontinued. Complete with turn signals on the wheel wells, two-tone red/white paint job, steel bumper and a luggage rack on top; this straight-six powered F engine equipped wagon was a staple for outdoorsmen and off-road enthusiasts. It originally featured a three-speed column shifter, no power steering, drum brakes, and no A/C.

For off-road equipment, it has solid axles front and rear with a 4.10 rear axle ratio. The rear gear is a metric version of Ford’s 9-inch ring gear and adds to the stoutness of the wagon. The hubs are manually locking meaning the driver must get out and put the wagon into 4×4.

This is the vehicle that has our most concern getting up the hill.

Off-Roading with Vintage Land Cruisers

Next in line is a newly painted 1988 FJ 62. This is the first year of electric fuel injection, a push button 4×4 system via a vacuum button on the dash along, with a manual high/low shifter on the floor. It still features manually locking hubs.

Off-Roading with Vintage Land Cruisers

With Hot Wheels stickers flowing down the side, the modified 1993 FCJ 80 brings even more changes to the Land Cruiser with optional ABS system and a standard full-floating rear-end along with it. The differential changed to a high pinion mini-truck style, smaller ring gear, but it raises the truck up.  It is the first full-time AWD version complete with electric lockers which were rare with just seven percent of 1993 models having them. Also, the leaf springs got left behind with the prior generation and it came with coil springs all around.

“That was a huge game changer for people in the off-road crowd,” Vogt said. “Factory differential lockers equal instant traction.”

Off-Roading with Vintage Land Cruisers

Rounding out our convoy is a 2018 Land Cruiser 200 Series with a 5.7L V8 and all sorts of off-road equipment. It has a vastly improved A-TRAC system, and the new Crawl Control system which handles all the brakes and throttle input. After it is set, all you have to do is steer.

“Crawl Control is an amazing system and works really well especially for a vehicle of this size,” Vogt tells us. “As you can see from the beginning to the 200 series how much Land Cruisers have grown.”

The interior has every creature comfort you can imagine and it is basically a four-wheel drive, luxury car. Also, the A-TRAC system is no slouch and was first introduced in the 100 series complete with an independent front suspension which drove purists mad.

“IFS was a big deal,” Vogt said. “They started getting away from the locking differentials. The 1998, 1999 100 series models had a rear locking differential, nothing in the front.  In 2000 and on, they went to the A-TRAC system.”

The A-TRAC doesn’t lock the axles together like the electronic lockers do to maintain traction, but instead it applies the brake to each corner so you have power going to the tire that has the most traction.

Vogt said it is a “crazy” system, but it works really well in reality. Climbing up the hill, we can see this in action with tire slippage. As the tire slips the other tires seem like they magically gain more traction and torque dragging the slipped wheel with them.

Off-Roading with Vintage Land Cruisers

The 2018 Land Cruiser is the one we least worry about making to the top of the hill.

One big question raised during the day is about the newer off-road equipment and how it has made things easier. On paper, it seems like these advancements have made off-roading a lot simpler and easier. Vogt said it is more complex than that.

“That’s debatable,” Vogt said. “For me, the 80 Series is the pinnacle due to the coil spring suspension and solid axles, but it just depends on your situation. If you are playing in the rocks the 80 series would be the pinnacle. If you are in mud and snow the A-TRAC system can out drive you.”

Off-Roading with Vintage Land Cruisers

With the convoy lined up, we bring them up one by one putting each one into 4WD and engaging low gear. As with each generation, applying 4WD and 4LO is a different operation and it is plain as day how much easier doing this operation gets going through the model years. For example, the 2018 is a simple flick of the dials and push of the button, while the others require getting out, turning the hubs or fighting with the transfer case to engage.

As they climb to the top, it is also clear how much the larger engine and off-road equipment makes things easier. The no-frills 1973 is pushed to keep the speed up without slipping tires and is a bumpy, loud ride to the top. In contrast, you could have drunk a cup of tea while climbing with the 2018 model. It is a stark difference.

Off-Roading with Vintage Land Cruisers

Each wagon makes it to the top, one way or another, and each one shows off the well-earned legendary off-road reputation of the Land Cruiser. At the end of the day, the saying rings true, the Toyota Land Cruiser is the vehicle that can take you out there and also bring you back.

Check out the video and let us know which Land Cruiser is your off-roading choice!

Tim Esterdahl is a regular contributor to YotaTech and Ford Truck Enthusiasts. He produces the weekly podcast Pickup Truck Talk.

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