Story and photos by Kurt Gensheimer
Since 1981, The Rising Sun 4 Wheel Drive Club of Colorado has celebrated the legend of the Toyota 4×4, and every April they kick off their season of wheeling with Cruise Moab; a three day event in Moab, Utah, running some of the most scenic and treacherous off-road trails in the United States. Although most of the club members own Land Cruisers, a fair portion of the club also own pickups, 4runners and Tacomas. And within the last two years, there’s been enormous growth with the new FJ Cruiser, a 4×4 which combines the legend of the FJ-40 with the latest in off-road technology.
Cruise Moab is to the Toyota enthusiast as Easter Jeep Safari is to Jeepers. Toyota 4×4 fanatics come from all over the country and beyond. In fact, the “Iron Butt” award for longest distance traveled in a non-towed truck was a guy from British Columbia, Canada. Over 2,500 miles in his diesel-powered BJ60 wagon, with his infant son riding shotgun, and we won’t even mention the pain of $4.50 per gallon diesel fuel. There’s no denying it, these guys are dedicated.
This was my second Cruise Moab. Having driven over 1,000 miles one way last year from San Jose in my lifted and dented 1985 4Runner, the thoughts of 70 mile an hour top speeds with a tailwind on a downhill combined with exorbitant fuel costs relegated me to riding shotgun with a few firefighter buddies from Southern California. One of them, Rob Schell, has quite an impressive collection of Land Cruisers himself – an FJ-40, an FZJ-80 and an FJ-55 wagon which he’s turning into a buggy. This time around he chose to bring his FZJ-80, a model of Land Cruiser quickly gaining popularity with the four wheeler crowd due to its increasing age, declining purchase price, and incredible build platform consisting of coil sprung suspension, four wheel disc brakes, solid front and rear full-floating axles, electric locking differentials and luxurious accouterments. During the course of the week, Rob proved time and again that the FZJ-80 is no mall cruiser, it’s a bona-fide wheeler – provided you aren’t too afraid of a little body damage.
Our other buddy, Errol Poe, was in attendance as well, except for one contention – he had a Wrangler. Yep, he was “that guy”. Nobody likes being “that guy”, but when you show up to a Toyota event in a Jeep, you default, and become “that guy”.
So Rob, That Guy and I pulled into Slickrock Campground on the outskirts of Moab to be greeted by one of the greatest cross-sections of Land Cruisers any Toyota nut will ever get to see in one place. And what a cross-section it was – from the very first Land Cruiser, a bone stock FJ-25 from the late 1950′s all the way up to Christo Slee’s Ultimate Adventure 100 Series Land Cruiser with 39″ Krawlers and custom Diamond Axles.
In between those two extremes there were still an incredible collection of trucks which made my jaw slacken with jealousy. Safari Ltd out of Grand Junction, Colorado showed up with a rolltilla of oil burning Cruisers ranging from a late-model Australian-spec 4.5 liter diesel Cruiser pickup to a late 1970′s Troopie. Being a 4Runner fan myself, I was particularly drawn to Bill Morgan’s immaculate 1985 4Runner powered by a 3.4 liter V6 from a 3rd Generation 4Runner. Speaking of 3rd Gen 4Runners, I’d never seen one with the top cut off until Cruise Moab. The owner did an incredibly clean job, and the body was 100 percent dent free, which led me to wonder if this guy actually had the cojones to hack the top off a completely mint 4Runner. Surely it had to be rolled, I wondered, but I wasn’t so sure. Remember, these guys are dedicated.
Dedicated is an understatement when you look at Proffitt’s gargantuan Cruisers wheel stacked on top of one another. Rockwell Axles, four wheel steering and four link suspension – these are just the beginning of what goes into some of the most insanely modded Cruisers available. And five campsites down from Profitt’s were two Toyotas which wore the FJ badge – albeit it nearly 50 years apart in age. A completely bone stock, unmolested FJ-25 from the late 1950′s adorned in red paint sat right next to the Toyota Trail Teams tent and their collection of 2008 FJ Cruisers. It was no surprise that at the end of the weekend, the old FJ-25 was unanimously handed the “sickest rig” award.
But my most favorite truck of all had to be Gary Coberly-Waggoner’s short wheelbase FJ-45 pickup body on top of an FZJ-80 chassis – what he calls the FZJ-45 Pickup. Gary’s rig is the ultimate combination of light weight, incredible departure angles, flexy suspension, and indestructible drivetrain. And by looking at it in the campground, you’d think the only thing Gary did with this truck was wax it with a box of Huggies, but you’d be more mistaken than the proud new owner of a Hummer H2.
Gary not only wheels this gem, but wheels it hard. On Friday, Gary was the trail leader for Behind the Rocks, one of the few trails in Moab with a 4+ trail difficulty rating. Only one trail, Pritchett Canyon, at a 5 is listed as more difficult. (Of course, we’re not even going to mention Helldorado, because, quite frankly, if you’re attempting that trail you’re either certifiably insane, your truck is too mangled to be identified, you’ve got a rock buggy, or all of the above.) And when Gary was on Behind the Rocks, he did every obstacle – including going down White Knuckle Hill and back up again without being tugged or winched, a feat which could only be matched by Mark Bailey’s heavily modified 4Runner.
Gary’s previous project, a white FJ-62 with a 502 Mercruiser engine, was recently sold to an ambitious Cruiserhead from Oregon who drove all the way to Moab. If it weren’t for the guy from BC, he surely would have won the “Iron Butt” trophy. But his fate was better suited for a different award. On the Thursday run of Golden Spike, I had the pleasure to witness the beautiful FJ-62 walk over everything in it’s path, but later had the displeasure to find out that on the last obstacle of the day, the musclebound Cruiser flexed its 400+ horsepower a little too much and completely grenaded the rear CV driveshaft into oblivion, and as an added bonus, cracking the transfer case open. Needless to say, the truck wasn’t going anywhere. It was bad enough to earn him the biggest break of the weekend. A bittersweet decoration indeed.
Wheeling an FZJ-80
Now most of the hype around Toyota 4×4′s these days is confined to the new FJ Cruiser, with the Toyota Trail Teams traveling the country to different events, giving people ample seat time. There’s no doubt the FJ Cruiser is a capable truck, as evidenced by 100 percent stock FJ Cruisers being wheeled on all but the absolutely hardest Moab trails. But the FZJ-80 Land Cruiser, a Cruiser built between 1993 and 1997, is the truck that is getting the most attention with Cruiserheads wanting to build the most well-rounded, capable and roomy 4×4 for the money.
My only previous experience wheeling an FZJ-80 was when I borrowed my brother’s in an impromptu afternoon wheeling jaunt up in New Hampshire with my father-in-law. Long story short, we were completely unprepared, in a completely stock truck (although it had the electric lockers), and I was wheeling with the mentality of my 4Runner. We ended up stuck door deep in a mud bog, and an impromptu afternoon wheeling jaunt ended up being an impromptu overnight camping trip.
This time around, Rob’s FZJ, a 40th Anniversary model with all the trimmings, would be a far more satisfying experience. With custom bumpers, nerf bars by Hanna Quality, an Old Man Emu lift, and 35 inch Toyo Open Country MT’s, Rob’s Cruiser would not be denied any trail it set rubber on, with one exception. We headed out to Area BFE, home to trails like Helldorado, Minor Threat and Green Day, and short of Helldorado, the Cruiser came out unbroken, but not without some serious body damage. On Minor Threat, Rob laid the big Cruiser into a boulder the size of a Smart Car, mangling the rear quarter in a spine-tingling screech of sheetmetal. Thinking that the Cruiser was simply too big, and that shorter wheelbase trucks could make it through, That Guy attempted in his Wrangler, but also fell victim to the menacing rock.
But what impressed me most about the 80 was its ability to grab traction in all situations. The combination of its flexy suspension, locking differentials, Toyo tires and most importantly, it’s 5500 pound heft, made the Cruiser nearly unstoppable – that is until we hit White Knuckle Hill at the end of Behind the Rocks. Rob offered to let me drive down it in his Cruiser. I hesitated, briefly shaken by the last experience with my brother’s Cruiser, asked him if he was sure, and nervously accepted the offer. After watching Gary in his FZJ-45, my confidence was boosted, and I piloted the big Cruiser down the six foot high wall of jagged rock – but not without a few guys holding a tow strap from behind for insurance. Once down, Gary and Mark walked right back up. Although they were both in lighter trucks with more lift and 37-inch tires, Rob looked at me.
“Well? You gonna drive that thing up here, or what?” After Rob’s near death experience on White Knuckle Hill in his FJ-40 five years earlier, he was gun shy at taking the wheel. I hopped in the Cruiser and pointed it up. Straight up. I followed the line Gary and Christo pointed out, and before I knew it, I was nearly vertical, like a missile on a launch pad. All I could see out the front windshield was sky. Big, bright blue sky adorned with perfectly billowed cumulus clouds. If I craned my neck, I could see Christo smiling and Rob cringing.
“Give it some gas!” shouted Christo. I did. The Cruiser gripped, then slipped, gripped, then slipped again. The sound of tubular steel on rock is unnerving to the novice, but to a guy with a horribly dented truck, reassuring. I knew the difference in sound between sheetmetal and tubular steel. The body armor was doing its job.
I gave it some more gas, but the Cruiser’s sneakers weren’t big enough, and I didn’t want Rob’s truck to meet the same drivetrain disaster as the Mercruiser-powered FJ-62. Just as someone was pulling out the strap, signifying my surrender, the grandfather of Toyota rock crawling, Marlin Czajkowski emerged at my window with a camera.
“I gotta get a shot of this!” Marlin snapped a pic and shook my hand. “Good try kid! I love your Cruiser,” he said.
“It’s not mine.”
“Then whose is it?” he asked.
“That guy.” I pointed to Rob. Marlin looked at Rob and seemed confused.
“No, no. He’s not That Guy. That Guy owns a Jeep.”
Photographs used in the article are just a small sample taken during the 3-day event. Click on the link to view the entire photo album for Cruise Moab