From Beverly Hills to Burkina Faso, the Toyota Land Cruiser has seen it all.
Like the Jeep CJ, among other off-roaders, it traces its roots to the military yet it was made famous by generations of farmers and explorers around the world. Unlike the CJ, whose spirit live on in the modern-day Wrangler, the Land Cruiser has morphed into a genuine go-anywhere luxury car. Here’s how it all started:
Before the Land Cruiser (1950s)
Toyota took its first steps in the off-roader segment when it developed a Jeep-like prototype called BJ for the Japanese armed forces in the early 1950s. It built the first prototypes in 1951, and government officials put them through their paces on and off the road, but Mitsubishi’s entry was ultimately chosen. Instead of canning the project, Toyota transformed it into a civilian model aimed at farmers, off-roaders, and anyone in need of a rugged 4x4. Around 300 units were built.
The 20-Series (1955)
Toyota introduced the Land Cruiser nameplate in 1954, and it gave the model its first major overhaul the following year. Called 20-Series internally, the updated 4x4 featured a new-look design that was less military-like, and Toyota’s F-Type straight-six engine. Buyers had numerous configurations to choose from, including short- and long-wheelbase models, a soft top, a hard top and a van. Demand from overseas markets convinced Toyota to add a four-door estate variant to the line-up in 1959.
The Land Cruiser’s American debut (1958)
Executives identified the United States as a potentially huge market for the Land Cruiser in the 1950s, but Toyota didn’t establish its American sales division until 1958. It sold a single 4x4 there that year, an FJ25 (pictured) that now lives in a Utah museum. It also delivered 287 units of the Toyopet Crown.
The 40-Series (1960)
1960 brought a comprehensive evolution of the 20-Series called 40-Series that became the best-known Land Cruiser ever built. Often called FJ40, it was reportedly developed around the feedback that Toyota gathered from 20-Series owners in America. It was more comfortable thanks in part to a softer suspension system, it was better suited to freeway speeds, and its interior was a little more car-like.
Here again, a dizzying number of configurations were available, and private users outfitted the 40-Series for a wide selection of tasks ranging from safari machines to recovery trucks. Toyota made several improvements to the 40-Series and it ended domestic production in 1984. The FJ40 lived on in Brazil, where it was called Bandeirante and sometimes powered by Mercedes-Benz engines, until 2001.
The 50-Series (1967)
Toyota shifted the Land Cruiser towards the mainstream when it released the 50-Series in 1967. While it shared most of its running gear with the 40, it arrived as a four-door-only model with a fixed roof to compete against the Jeep Wagoneer, among other trucks positioned in the burgeoning SUV segment. It lost none of its smaller sibling’s off-road capacity, but it was primarily developed for buyers seeking a rugged, spacious family car to drive daily during the week and to take on adventures on the weekend.
Like the Wagoneer, the 50-Series was marketed as an alternative to the mammoth station wagons that then roamed American roads. It’s one of the models that helped launch the SUV craze, and one of the off-roaders that convinced Rover to develop the Range Rover (that arrived in 1970), which was more road-friendly than the Series 4x4s.
The 60-Series (1980)
Toyota could afford to keep the 40 around for years without changing its basic design because updates were scarce in the segment the model competed in. However, the more mainstream end of the market was quickly evolving; SUVs looked completely different in the late 1970s than in the late 1960s.
This gradual shift shaped the 60-Series variant of the Land Cruiser launched in 1980. Offered only with four doors, it played a significant role in defining the direction its successors followed for decades to come. It was far more comfortable than the 50, it was offered with a longer list of features (including air conditioning and heated front seats), and it later gained a turbodiesel six-cylinder in some markets.
The 70-Series (1984)
Called 70-Series, the 40’s successor finally appeared in 1984 with a completely overhauled exterior design that borrowed a handful of styling cues from the bigger 60. It was far more basic than its bigger sibling to cater to buyers who put a greater emphasis on off-road prowess than on comfort. No one expected it would beat the 40’s longevity record, but the 70 stunningly remains in production in 2021.
Dozens of variants have been built over the past 37 years, ranging from two-door off-roaders used by hunters to fire-fighting trucks, troop carriers, and campers. Some even ended up working in mines.
The 80-Series (1990)
Launched in 1990, the 80-Series is often considered the first Land Cruiser to plant its flag in the luxury segment. Bigger than the 60 it replaced, it gained a more aerodynamic design, better materials throughout the cabin and, in many variants, a full-time four-wheel-drive system. While basic models were available, notably to fleet buyers like the United Nations, most 80s built were highly optioned.
The first-generation Prado (1990)
Toyota filled the growing gap between the full-size Land Cruiser and the 70-Series when it introduced the first Prado in 1990. Called Land Cruiser II in some markets, it was related to the 70 but it was a lighter-duty model that aimed to strike a balance between all-terrain capability and on-road comfort.
The Lexus LX 450 (1996)
Ever-higher transaction prices proved demand for an even more luxurious Land Cruiser was strong, so Toyota’s Lexus division released its own version of the 80 called LX 450 on the American market in 1996. It took a well-trained eye to tell the two off-roaders apart: Lexus simply gave the LX brand-specific emblems, a posher interior with leather upholstery, and brand-specific paint options. In hindsight, the first LX was created as an afterthought, but its relative success paved the way for the next generations.
The second-generation Prado (1996)
Toyota rummaged through its global parts bin to develop the second-generation Prado released in 1996. Still positioned between the 70 and the full-size Land Cruiser, the Prado shared mechanical components with the Tacoma truck sold in the United States and the 4Runner available globally. It wasn’t offered in America; its main markets were Europe and Japan, where the standard Land Cruiser was often too big.
The 100-Series (1998)
Toyota pushed the Land Cruiser even further upmarket when it released the 100-Series for 1998. Still built with body-on-frame construction, it received the nameplate’s first V8 engine (though six-cylinders remained available in some markets) and it benefited from a better steering system that made it easier to drive. An independent front suspension entered the equation, too, and Toyota made a hydraulic suspension system called Active Height Control (AHC) available to improve comfort on and off the road.
The 105-Series (1998)
Not everyone was pleased with the updates made to the 100-Series, and some users argued the Land Cruiser had become too advanced for its own good. Toyota listened to its critics and released a stripped-down, heavy-duty version of the truck called 105-Series in 1998. Its development was relatively simple: engineers essentially dropped a 100-Series body on an 80-Series frame and called it a good job well done. Consequently, the 105 retained a part-time four-wheel-drive system and a solid front axle. Most 105s built were sold to fleets, like the United Nations, but the model was also popular in Australia.
The Lexus LX 470 (1998)
While the Lexus LX 450 was the product of automotive opportunism, the LX 470 was planned from the get-go. It stood out from the Land Cruiser with a brand-specific front end that featured four lights instead of two and a smaller grille, wall-to-wall wood and leather in the cabin, and a much longer list of standard and optional features. Like the Land Cruiser, it was powered by a 4.7-liter V8 engine.
The third-generation Prado (2002)
Toyota released the third-generation Land Cruiser Prado in 2002 with a fresh look penned in the design studio it operates near Nice, France. It was again available with two or four doors, and it remained primarily marketed at buyers in Europe and in Japan, but it spawned a Lexus-branded SUV for the first time. The GX 470 was neatly positioned between the full-size LX and the car-derived RX crossover.
The 200-Series (2007)
Toyota’s goal while developing the 200-Series was to keep the previous Land Cruiser’s off-road capacity while integrating additional tech and even more luxury features. Released in 2007, the 200 was available with a long list of electronics including Downhill Assist Control, Multi-Terrain Select, and Toyota’s Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which reduces body roll without compromising suspension travel.
The Lexus LX 570 (2007)
Lexus introduced its take on the 200-Series at the 2007 edition of the New York motor show. It was called LX 570, a nameplate that signalled its V8 had been upsized to 5.7 liters. While its proportions remained identical to the Land Cruiser’s, it wore a sharper exterior design specific to the Lexus brand.
The FJ Cruiser (2007)
Turning the Land Cruiser into a luxury chariot left Toyota without an alternative to the Jeep Wrangler. It made an unexpected return to this segment with the retro-styled FJ Cruiser launched for the 2007 model year. Visually, the FJ borrowed key styling cues like round headlights from the FJ40, but it was much closer to the 4Runner and its derivatives than to the Land Cruiser under the sheet metal. Compared to the Wrangler, its roof was fixed and it stood out with quirks like three wipers and rear half doors. Toyota removed the FJ from its American range in 2014, and it hasn’t replaced the model.
The fourth-generation Prado (2009)
Toyota’s fourth-generation Prado gained a series of updates that trickled down from the full-size Land Cruiser. It was fitted with more tech features, including cameras that helped drivers avoid obstacles off-road, and variants positioned near the top of the trim hierarchy offered luxury saloon-like comfort. Lexus assigned the GX 460 nameplate to its version of the Prado.
The 300-Series (2021)
The Land Cruiser’s first make-over in more than a decade is a major one. It’s built on a lighter platform that allows it to surf the downsizing wave sweeping across the industry by swapping its predecessor’s V8 for a twin-turbocharged V6. Toyota will make a 10-speed automatic transmission available in a bid to keep the SUV’s fuel economy in check. However, the 300 will not be sold in Europe, and the odds of seeing it in the United States are low; it was primarily developed for Australia and the Middle East. Lexus hasn’t unveiled its version of the 300 yet. The Land Cruiser name lives on - though how it negotiates the coming world of electrification will be an interesting question for it to answer.