I knew that crossing the country in a vintage Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser would be an adventure. I owned one when I studied at Colorado College in the Seventies, which I routinely drove back and forth to my home in Michigan. But I was younger then. And so was the Land Cruiser.
I was captivated by a Hemmings Motor News ad last year, offering a 1970 Land Cruiser for sale in Denver. It had been in storage for more than ten years after reportedly returning from duty in South America with a member of the foreign service. After negotiating the price of $9,000 down to $8,200, it was apparent that some mechanical work was in order – whether I shipped it to Ann Arbor or drove it myself. My friend Mike Stiehl took it under his wing in Canon City, Colorado: clutch overhaul, brakes, electrical connections, even a bit of paint and body work to properly clean it up.
In May of this year the “Cruiser” was pronounced fit for service. With a deep-seated belief that road trips are good for the soul, I structured a round trip whereby I would deliver an Ann Arbor Mercedes 380SL to a Denver friend, then drop down to Canon City for the Land Cruiser.
There was a flurry of last minute preparation as Mike and I worked to finish replacing some weather stripping, make final adjustments to the timing and carburetion, and take a mountain test drive before giving it the silent nod of approval.
On a glorious Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend I set forth from Canon City on scenic Highway 115, headed for the Valley Highway on Colorado’s front-range — and points east. As much as I craved “blue highways”, I yielded to the call of Interstate 80 and its simple, determined path through the plains states.
Speeding on this trip was never a problem. I do, in fact, recall passing several vehicles during the course of my 1,350 mile trek. But I established 62 mph as the optimal speed for this in-line, 6-cylinder engine and its 3-speed, column shift. The ability of my right foot to maintain that speed was sometimes challenged as my speed sometimes fell to 57 mph – or rose to 65 going downhill. But, at that speed, the engine readily served notice it was outside its comfort zone.
A particularly ominous bank of black clouds greeted me as I approached North Platte, Nebraska that evening. I took the exit ramp, hoping to find a motel for the night and avoid the impending storm. Within minutes I was pummeled by a hail storm that drove most cars to the side of the road – conditions that surely must have put a smile on the face of some body shop owners in anticipation of new business. Fortunately for me, my FJ40 did not even flinch from the pelting, thanks to its composite-material roof and the military-gauge steel fenders.
After the storm had passed, I pulled into a nondescript family diner. After dinner, I retired for the night, readying myself for the next day’s long run across Nebraska.
Loaded and ready early on Memorial Day, I turn the key expectantly — and nothing happened. Dead battery. Fortunately, as a veteran owner of old cars, I have several memberships in my wallet, affording me road service. A tow truck arrives and connects his cables. He looks skeptically at the forlorn battery, then gives me a jump start — and directions to several shops that can sell me a replacement as I motor east on I-80.
Despite the holiday traffic, I make good progress on Memorial Day. That evening I cross the Mississippi River, preparing to enter Illinois on I-280 when, in the middle of the bridge, the engine simply dies. All the instrumentation was good, but I cannot get re-started, as I lose speed and search for a way to pull out of traffic. I coast into Illinois and roll to a stop 150 feet short of the end of the bridge. It’s dusk. I’m worried about the exposure of a dark green Land Cruiser barely at road’s edge. I get out and hand push the Land Cruiser ahead to a place that finally affords me refuge on the shoulder of the Interstate.
It was after midnight when the tow truck dropped the Land Cruiser in the lot at Hiland Toyota in Moline, Illinois and, shortly thereafter, me, across the street at the Residence Inn.
Early Tuesday morning assistant service manager Randy Duncalf looked quizzically at me as I described the odyssey the night before. But Donovan, the technician (born in 1980), said “I love working on this ‘old’ stuff.” A bit of improvisation and a few dollars later – repairs are completed and I am on the road again, bound for Michigan.
The “new” Land Cruiser is now berthed alongside my 1969 FJ40. Also a 1950 Chevrolet 3100 pickup, the 1963 Porsche 356B Cabriolet, a 1967 Ferrari 330GT and – well, you get the picture. Cars here in southeast Michigan are well-fed and cared for.
If you have your own road trip story that you would like to share with us please send it to PIngrassia@revsinstitute.org