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Like a near-extinct racing thorough bred on a museum plinth or an ancient toy still in its box, surviving Toyota FJs and Jeep CJ-7s have largely outlived their original purpose and are no longer used as their makers intended.
Developed from basic and rugged military off-roaders, they have become some of the latest and perhaps most surprising of collectibles, happy in retirement on creaking swing chairs, watching on as Toyota Hiluxes and Mitsubishi L200s take on the hard graft of working the land around the world.
To many it may sit uncomfortably that the great-grandchild of a vehicle that did so much heavy lifting during the Second World War, the Willys Jeep, is now increasingly scared of a little rain. Not least snowflakes.
Yet here we are, at a time when every auction catalogue in America will have a pristine example of its Japanese rival standing out with a price in the many tens of thousands.
In the UK, such an appearance is less common but goes no less unnoticed, because there is a certain cool to the utilitarian Japanese machine that a common and mucky Land-Rover simply can’t muster.
Rarer still on these shores is the Jeep CJ-7. If you want one on your drive you’re going to be waiting a while for the classifieds to come up with the goods.
And best of luck finding one remotely close to stock. The upshot of tracking down either a CJ or FJ, if you get lucky, is an unexpected magnet for enthusiasts’ eyes and envy.
It should go without saying that the Jeep is the more famous of the two. After all, it is the Hoover and Sellotape of the automotive world, so synonymous that for the average punter on the street it is the byword for a whole category of vehicle.
The apparent lack of design is almost creationism for cars: it’s so fit for purpose from the first drawing that evolution simply cannot be deemed necessary.
Roll a WW2-era Willys next to this 1982 CJ-7 and you could make a case for it simply being one buyer ticking all the options boxes, another ticking none.
What only reinforces that notion is the CJ-7’s spot in the family’s Goldilocks zone when it launched in 1976: smaller than the outgoing long-wheelbase CJ-6, yet bigger than the relatively stunted CJ-5.
The latter was too small to house the automatic transmission craze sweeping the nation; not only would the CJ-7’s additional 10in accommodate the optional Hydramatic, it also allowed the space to pair it with the Quadra-Trac four-wheel-drive system.
This Jeep development sent power to whichever axle needed it most, and was much lauded in the country’s first automatic off-roader.
Here though, in the box-fresh bronze CJ-7 that is the fledgling star of the heritage fleet of Stellantis, stepfather of Chrysler, there’s no such luxury.
It is a back-to-basics four-speed manual, with just as many cylinders in the low, flat nose.
A third, if not half, as many pots than would ordinarily be expected in such a brawny American brute. Yet when the four-banger appeared there was a surprising acceptance.
The 258cu in straight-six had been the standard equipment, with an AMC 304cu in V8 option available, but in 1980 Pontiac provided the 151cu in (2.5-litre) ‘Iron Duke’ – in the CJ it took on the moniker ‘Hurricane’, in a nod to the two decades of Jeep four-pots from 1950-’70.
‘Shades of WW2!’ wrote Four Wheeler, in a theme repeated as 4 Wheel and Off Road asked readers to: ‘Remember, 4-cylinder Jeeps won World War II, so they will handle anything you throw at them.’
Taking over as the stock engine from its introduction, the CJ-7’s base price was $500 more than the still-soldiering-on CJ-5, at $6507, and from 1981 the V8 was largely moved into the domain of the home transplanters.
Which makes this four-pot even rarer today, because most have since undergone the surgery according to its finder, restorer and care-giver Darren Jones of Stellantis.
It was also during the 1980s that the Jeep really emerged from the undergrowth and the high mountain roads in favour of sea views.
Hollywood made almost a cliché out of garish CJs cruising four-up, roof and doors off, along the wide open plains of Malibu, and you were more likely to see one in some spring-break B-movie scene than in military drab.
Heaven knows what its grandfather must have thought – a personification Four Wheeler magazine took uncomfortably far in a first-person Jeep CJ-5 piece that transitioned from being there ‘when that one shell took out little Billy Joe’ to being ‘a sex symbol from the neon streets of Manhattan to the glitter of Sunset Strip’.
The Land Cruiser hasn’t quite crossed that bridge just yet, its heavy, flat steel panels and lack of silver-screen heritage perhaps holding back its cachet to keep it more in the realm of enthusiasts.
Like the Jeep its origins lay in the military, but it made a rather larger initial leap to the consumer market than its rival from across the Pacific.
Toyota’s failed bid to win the manufacturing contract for Korea-based Allied troops spawned the Land Cruiser in the early 1950s, and to this day it remains the firm’s longest-lived model.
Beneath its rudimentary body was effectively the Toyota Jeep BJ, which had been cobbled together in 1951 with an 85bhp 3.4-litre B-series ‘six’ to vie for that military work.
By scaling Mount Atago, a 924m summit in Kyoto and home to a Shinto temple, and later the treacherous climb to the sixth station on Mount Fuji, it stole Mitsubishi’s forces contract and production of the Model B-85 Jeep was ramped up.
By 1955, with ‘Jeep’ trademarked and the Land Cruiser name dreamt up the year before because it, well, cruised over any land, the shape was being perfected with the second-generation J20’s headlights placed within the shell, flanking the grille.
The B-series had developed an F-series variant, installed beneath the stubby but by then gently curving bonnet. The general aesthetic eased away from an overtly bolt-on caricature, with its wings more integrated.
It was the third-generation J40 that really opened up the world to the Land Cruiser, and the Land Cruiser to the world, in 1960.
While small in stature – more than 3in shorter in wheelbase than the later CJ-7 – it could master the off-road trails as well as any Jeep or Land Rover and regularly proved its mettle in the Outback, to where the Toyota had been imported back to the days of the B-85.
Changes remained barely perceptible throughout the 40’s near quarter of a century, though a four-pot diesel B-series joined the H-series diesel and F-series petrol ‘sixes’ – no patriotic period report Stateside could mention the latter without noting its resemblance to the Chevrolet unit. Old rivalries live long, after all.
All manner of combinations meant the J40 could fulfil any mission: long or short wheelbase, hard or soft top, pick-up or swing doors, or even the clumsy-looking FJ55 station wagon.
As with the Jeep it was more a case of honing, whittling and adding durability than returning to any sort of drawing board during the J40’s production span.
Neither has aged (they were arguably already dated) or gone out of fashion; they have just endured, which is a big part of the appeal.
There was nothing wrong with their matter-of-factness new or now. They are both vaguely from the 1970s and ’80s, little altered from the decade before, and that will get you through most inquiries.
That perception changes from the driver’s seat, though. There is a suitable simplicity in each that places their origins firmly pre-1980.
The round dials in the remanufactured painted dash of the Jeep are clear and distinctly labelled, with the headlamp dipper on a foot switch beside the transmission tunnel.
This six-cylinder FJ’s dash looks more Airfix model, with its plastic surround, and it’s not ashamed of its exposed screw heads.
Both would be easy enough to repair out in the bush, which is surely the point.
Entering the Jeep is not a simple task, though, and not one for the less nimble or the short. It requires a full leg-swing, maybe a run-up, definitely a grapple with something – anything – to pull yourself up over the body side and in; a Fosbury Flop would do the same job.
And there are no doors to hide behind while you recover your composure. The same goes for the back seats: pick your route over or under the rollbar and channel your inner Simone Biles.
Once settled into the retrimmed driver’s seat, the first task is to find the throttle: feeling around beside the brake pedal will come up with nothing but the bare floor.
Aim for the sidewall and there it is, across county lines and in a whole other state. Said fumbling doesn’t help accelerating out of corners, which is laboured as it is.
Everything is much more ‘normal’ and easier to acclimatise to in the Toyota, from swinging open the door, stepping up and in, to slipping behind the wheel.
Even hood-up it feels spacious and bright, the high ceiling making it as good a rival for the roofless Jeep as possible and the canvas-topped back end is full of light.
The double back doors fill the rear-view mirror more with pillar and spare wheel than road, but where this car prefers to go traffic is not a concern.
Today, though, it is. With both standing tall on chunky General Grabber tyres, wandering is less a tendency and more of an insistence, and steering at anything approaching sensible speeds is more an approximation than an outright command.
But both are slim in width and shouldn’t cause anyone else on the road much trouble, only you and your heart rate as you wobble the off-roader past within the white lines.
They’re cars that require familiarity, in which you get better at planning ahead, knowing what you are gravitating towards, and you can second-guess them more easily.
Luckily for other road users, the busyness in the cabin is masked from the outside and they both seem settled in these country-lane surroundings.
Pull away and the FJ gasps for air while the Jeep is more raucous.
As speed gathers – albeit not quickly – each crest and crack in the road has a knock-on effect to what the wagon wants to do, leading to three-way negotiations opening again between driver, steering and tyres to maintain your course.
But there is enough bite to keep it in check, and any alarm that the FJ’s speedometer needle is winding around the semi-elliptic speedo to 60 subsides when you remember it’s in kilometres and not miles per hour.
The Jeep feels much tighter, as you would expect from a car taking its post-rebuild bow.
Few outside of its keeper Jones, even, have driven this car since it emerged from restoration and he has done a fine job over the past nine years, dragging it from garden abandonment to its present show-worthy state.
The strong gearchange is crisp, the clutch bite high, where the long wand of the Toyota requires a good part of your attention.
If the Jeep’s lever navigates its gate intuitively, the FJ regularly loses its way – but has the torque to cover any blushes.
The sensation of buffeting makes the CJ a visceral experience not particularly suited to the UK, but rather rumbling around as the sun goes down behind some dusty North American mountain range.
The Toyota doesn’t have quite the versatility to be at ease on the beachfront, seaweed smoothie in its driver’s hand.
Yet that, curiously, is a large part of the appeal of this extensively restoredT oyota, a former long-term resident at Winchester Auto Barn.
With its external door hinges, rear-mounted spare and girder of a front bumper with a winch bracket, it isn’t trying to be anything else.
It knows where it’s going and nothing will get in its way, be it ditch, hill or rocky path. It looks more ready for an off-road life: prepared for anything the elements will throw at it.
It was forever thus, too, because an ownership survey in Pick-up, Van & 4WD magazine in 1979 found that more FJ owners ventured off the beaten track, and more often, than their Jeep, International Scout, Ford Bronco and Chevy Blazer contemporaries.
Buy one today on the back of its rising kudos, give it a life on Tarmac and you’ll have to suffer the compromises.
And I would, in a heartbeat. It has a charm, an unassuming ruggedness, that is just so appealing it would make you quickly forgive its anachronisms and idiosyncrasies.
Both are halcyon models for the genre, landmarks in their time.
What went before were not entirely suitablefor everyday use, more warzone than civvy street, and what fed out from around them was a sprawling range of filtered, watered-down and inflated comfort utility vehicles whose tentacles stretch as far as today’s high streets. Often, riding the coat-tails of the legend with questionable retro design cues.
It seems odd to suggest that the Land Cruiser is probably the less popular or more contrary choice, because it was Toyota’s biggest seller in America for a time and had hit the million mark worldwide by 1980.
But the Jeep feels more Matchbox toy made life-sized compared to the real-world FJ. And there ’s nothing worse than a toy that doesn’tg et used.
Images: Max Edleston
- Sold/number built 1976-’86/379,299
- Construction steel ladder chassis, steel panels
- Engine all-iron, ohv 2474cc ‘four’, Rochester Varajet II two-barrel carburettor
- Max power 87bhp @ 3800rpm
- Max torque 125lb ft @ 2600rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual or three-speed auto, transfer box, 4WD
- Suspension live axles, leaf springs, telescopic dampers
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
- Brakes discs front, drums rear
- Length 12ft 9in (3886mm)
- Width 5ft (1524mm)
- Height 5ft 7in (1702mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 10in (2375mm)
- Weight 2877lb (1305kg)
- 0-60mph 16 secs
- Top speed 75mph
- Mpg 21
- Price new £9372.35 (1982)
- Price now £15-30,000*
- Sold/number built 1960-’86/c1.1m
- Construction steel ladder chassis, steel panels
- Engine all-iron,ohv 4230cc ‘six’, twin-choke Aisan carburettor
- Max power 125bhp @ 3600rpm
- Max torque 200lb ft @ 1800rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, transfer box, 4WD
- Suspension live axle, leaf springs, telescopic dampers
- Steering worm and roller
- Brakes drums
- Length 12ft 7in (3840mm)
- Width 5ft 4½in (1665mm)
- Height 6ft 4½in (1940mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 6in (2285mm)
- Weight 3650lb (1655kg)
- 0-60mph 18.7 secs
- Top speed 84mph
- Mpg 16
- Price new £3215.16 (1976)
- Price now £15-30,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication