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Gavin Green on the indestructible charm of the Land Cruiser
04 September 2012 09:00
Just back from Tanzania to watch the wildebeest migrate across the Serengeti and one of the highlights – along with the lounging lions, hyenas wandering into our camp, trumpeting elephants and stalking cheetah (not to mention numerous flights in little single-engine Cessnas from bush airstrips) – was our Toyota Land Cruiser safari vehicle.
The Land Cruiser is not really understood in Britain. It is too tough, too stark, to have successfully migrated from wilderness workhorse to Chelsea tractor. It just doesn’t have the manners of a Discovery 4, let alone the deportment of a Range Rover. Nor has it challenged the everyday Land Rover as favoured transport of our working farmers. But in its natural milieu – East Africa and Australia – it is a marvellous vehicle: tough, capable and endearingly dependable.
Land Cruiser and Land Rover: The two doyens
In Tanzania, the two most popular vehicles I saw to lug tourists on safari were the Land Cruiser and the Land Rover (Defender), the doyens of the 4x4 breed. I have spent many thousands of pleasurable (although not always comfortable) miles driving both – in Europe, Africa and Australia.
Our Tanzanian transport was a hardtop (with safari pop up roof) 70 series turbodiesel (an HJ75, for the Cruiser cognoscenti). Our driver and guide, George, said it was four years old. It was in fact nearer 24 years old, but while age may have withered its beauty and inflicted a few battle scars, it certainly had not dented its capability.
My Land Cruiser bond formed when I was 16
My fondness for the Land Cruiser can be traced back to happy boyhood experiences, as passions often are. In my case, it was driving a FJ40 two-door hardtop (beige with a white roof) almost 3000 miles through the Australian outback as a 16 year old, L-plates newly earned. The 40 series Land Cruiser remains one of my all-time favourite vehicles. It is also, without doubt, one of the toughest cars ever made. That’s why Aussie outdoorsmen still love them.
I drove the latest UK-spec Land Cruiser a few months ago in Britain. Successive Land Cruisers have got bigger, heavier and – to my eyes, anyway – uglier. They’ve lost that design simplicity that so distinguished the 40 series (a lesson that I hope Land Rover notes as it seeks to replace the Defender). They have not kept abreast of the Discovery – once upon a time, a rival – in mechanical refinement, cabin trim quality or on-road performance. The Discovery can live happily on the tarmac, while excelling in the rough. Land Cruisers – even the posher versions – always feel like dusty outdoor adventurers, out of place in town.
Yet its undisguised toughness is its charm. It is an antidote to ‘crossovers’ and ‘soft roaders’ and all the other confused crossbreeds born from urban man’s unlikely love affair with street-biased SUVs, which the mass- and German luxury-makers now launch with tiresome regularity and mostly dire results.
The Land Cruiser, like the Land Rover Defender, is a 4x4, pure and simple. There’s a lot to be said for such honest, unpretentious, single-minded cars.