At Cruiser Gear Co., we think it’s important to know our roots. So we’re kicking off a Cruiser evolution educational series.
The Land Cruiser as we know it has roots than run deep — we’re talking 70+ years deep, Korean War-deep.
It probably won’t surprise anyone that the Land Cruiser predecessor was designed and produced as a military vehicle.
Let’s dive in.
Increased demand for all-terrain vehicles
June 25, 1950 marked the beginning of the Korean War. The United States military was occupying Japan at that time in light of post-WWII arrangements and using Jeeps as their vehicle of choice. The Willys Company-made Jeep had been invaluable for the United States and Allies during World War II and was seen as the symbol of the 4X4.
More vehicles were needed with the start of the new war. The U.S. Army needed more AWD vehicles as they prepared to move into the Korean peninsula and throughout Asia, and Japan’s self-defense forces, known then as the National Police Reserve Forces, needed to procure its own vehicles after depending on the U.S. military for equipment for so many years.
So the Toyota Motor Corporation (which had been producing vehicles since 1936) began designing an off-roader that could compete with the Jeep.
Jeep vs. “Jeep”
By January of 1951, Toyota was ready with its first prototype. With 75 HP and plenty of low-speed torque, it was a B-type 3.4-liter inline six-cylinder engine with a Jeep-inspired body, aptly named — the Toyota Jeep BJ.
If that name sounds like a copyright infringement, you’re not wrong. But more on that later.
It was time for this Land Cruiser predecessor to start breaking records. From the very beginning, its capability and durability would prove impressive.
During a test run in July of 1951, Toyota test driver Ichiro Taira drove the Jeep BJ all the way up to the No. 6 checkpoint (out of 10) on the trail of the 12,388-foot-high Mt. Fuji, higher than any land vehicle had ever climbed before.
The Jeep BJ prototype was high up in the running for use by the Japanese National Police Reserve Force, facilitated by the U.S. military. But they ended up procuring a licensed production version of the Willys Jeep, named the Mitsubishi Jeep, because of its extensive track record (despite its inferiority to the Jeep BJ’s large-displacement engine).
Validation and production
However, disappointment gave way to new opportunities. Toyota received orders for its Jeep from utility companies and forestry and agricultural agencies and was chosen for a subsequent contract as the official patrol car for Japan’s National Police Agency.
After two years of negotiations on price, specs, and adopting the initial prototype, large-scale volume production of the Jeep BJ began in August 1953.
The Jeep BJ is seen as the first generation Land Cruiser, though it didn’t bear that name at the time.
But in June 1954, responding to trademark violation claims by the Willys Company that produced the original Jeep, Toyota changed the vehicle name to the Land Cruiser. The name was suggested by Toyota’s Director of Technology Hanji Umehara, who observed that the vehicle could cruise easily over even the roughest of terrains.
In November 1955, production began for the second generation of Land Cruisers, called the 20 Series. The 20 series was strategically redesigned for civilian use and exported overseas in large quantities.
A dream, fulfilled — and just getting started
A new era for Toyota had begun.
Because even though it wasn’t initially selected for military procurement, the fact is that Toyota’s Jeep outperformed competing vehicles and was acknowledged as superior by the U.S. military.
This series of events gave Toyota the confidence to expand into the American market, fulfilling Kiichiro Toyoda’s dream of producing an automobile that could gain acceptance throughout the world.
“Acceptance” is, of course, a huge understatement. No other vehicle has been so deserving of obsessive celebration as the Land Cruiser.
Well done, Toyoda.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series, where we’ll discuss the 20 Series, Toyota’s Land Cruiser Strategy for U.S. markets, and the transition to the 40 Series and beyond.
Land Cruiser Heritage Museum website and displays
Donut Media’s Toyota Land Cruiser overview