The biggest off-roader Toyota has ever built is also one of its most obscure models.
Often dismissed as nothing more than a ‘Japanese Hummer’, the BXD10 was developed from the ground up for the Japanese army and it shared absolutely nothing with its American counterpart. The Mega Cruiser-badged civilian model it spawned cost as much as Japan’s very best sports car during the 1990s so sales remained extremely low and it’s rarely seen in 2020, especially outside of its home country.
As the world turns its attention to Hummer, which is about to make an unexpected electrifying comeback, we’re taking a look at the story of the Toyota Mega Cruiser:
The BXD10’s roots
Toyota began making 4x4s well before it became a giant in the global automotive industry. The Jeep-like AK10 released in 1951 spawned the BJT (pictured) developed for the Japanese army but rejected in favour of a Mitsubishi. It quickly morphed into the original Land Cruiser which won over generations of drivers with its ability to conquer the most challenging terrains on the planet.
By the 1990s, off-roaders celebrated the Land Cruiser with a degree of enthusiasm only matched by Land Rover’s emblematic Defender.
Toyota started developing a high-mobility vehicle (HMV) for the Japanese army in the early 1990s. The government asked for a four-wheel drive model that could carry soldiers or haul heavy war equipment. It didn’t need to be bullet-proof but it had to be more capable off-road than an ordinary SUV, relatively affordable to build, faultlessly reliable and reasonably simple to repair. These guidelines were close to the ones AM General followed when it developed the Humvee so the resemblance was inevitable.
The Mega Cruiser concept
As development work continued, Toyota began thinking about making a tamer version of the BXD10 for government agencies and rescue workers who needed a no-nonsense, go-anywhere off-roader. It unveiled a concept called Mega Cruiser at the 1993 Tokyo motor show and tentatively announced it could make over 1000 examples annually. “If the car is popular at the show, maybe we’ll build it,” announced Toshio Nonaka, the Mega Cruiser’s project chief, during the event.
Parked so show-goers could get a good look at its four-wheel steering system, which was built with parts from the Land Cruiser, the Mega Cruiser turned heads in Tokyo but it wasn’t the only noteworthy model displayed by Toyota. Another one of the six concepts it unveiled in the Japanese capital that year was a humble-looking model called RAV4 that forever changed the SUV market when it reached production.
Toyota’s toughest SUV
Toyota cut no corners while developing the BXD10. Rather than making a Land Cruiser on steroids, it started from scratch to create an off-roader specifically tailored to the military’s needs. It dialled in 419mm of ground clearance by fitting front and rear portal axles and by tucking the entire drivetrain into the body, a layout which required using an unusually wide transmission tunnel. Testing was carried out in 1993 and 1994 and deliveries to bases across Japan started in 1995.
Function over form
The BXD10’s interior was an exercise in function-over-form design. The instrument cluster on the tall, flat dashboard consisted only of a speedometer, a fuel gauge and a temperature gauge plus an array of warning lights. The gear selector, the switches and the stalks looked like they came from a Camry.
The BXD10 by the numbers
In its basic configuration, the BXD10 stretched 4902mm long, 2134mm wide and 2235mm tall. It weighed 2636kg and it could carry 10 soldiers thanks to a pair of long bench seats installed over each of the rear wheel wells. The first models used a 4.1-litre turbodiesel four-cylinder rated at 153bhp and 280lb ft of torque.
The right hardware
The 4.1-litre engine provided the torque the BXD10 needed to crawl over rough terrain but it’s the rest of the drivetrain that allowed it to venture far off the beaten path. It offered full-time four-wheel drive, a two-speed transfer case with a centre differential lock, an on-board tyre inflation system for the rear wheels and, significantly, a four-wheel steering system that turned the rear wheels in the opposite direction as the front wheels by up to 12 degrees.
Its turning radius was consequently tighter than a 2020 Camry’s, which was nothing short of remarkable considering its mammoth dimensions.
Toyota made several different versions of the giant BXD10. Some were built to carry troops while others hauled bulky surface-to-air and multi-purpose guided missile launchers. The Japanese military also equipped the truck with satellite communication equipment, anti-aircraft radars and smoke generators. It could even be configured with a generator used to start airplane engines (pictured).
Meanwhile, across the pond
The BXD10 and the Humvee (pictured) looked a lot alike but the two vehicles didn’t share a single part. For context, the Humvee was 4572mm long, 2134mm wide and 1803mm tall. Its 6.2-litre diesel V8 developed 150bhp. It offered 406mm of ground clearance which put it about on par with the BXD10. It featured full-time four-wheel drive and portal axles, too, but it didn’t get four-wheel steering. Finally, its radiator was mounted nearly horizontally while the BXD10’s was installed vertically, like on a majority of civilian cars.
The Mega Cruiser
Toyota released a more road-friendly variant of the BXD10 called BXD20 in January 1996. More commonly known as the Mega Cruiser, it shared its underpinnings with the military-spec version but it wore a specific design characterized by a restyled front end that looked just like the 1993 concept. Its interior also gained much-needed creature comforts like power windows and cloth-upholstered seats.
There were several key visual differences between the BXD10 and the Mega Cruiser. The civilian model received rectangular headlights, a Toyota emblem proudly affixed to a restyled grille and full-width bumpers on both ends. It also got smoother body panels. It cost more to manufacture than the version Toyota delivered to the Japanese military but executives knew they would recoup their investment.
Here again, the Mega Cruiser shared no parts with the Hummer H1 in spite of an undeniable resemblance. It could notably carry six passengers while the H1 was a four-seater. The seating layout was unusual: The two front seats were mounted on either side of a transmission tunnel the size of the mountain range while the second row consisted of a two-person bench flanked by a pair of individual seats.
Users could carry up to 591kg in the 2083mm-wide cargo compartment. “Large” didn’t begin to describe it.
The Mega Cruiser, by the numbers
At launch, the Mega Cruiser used a 4.1-litre four-cylinder diesel engine turbocharged to 153bhp and 280lb ft of torque. It channelled its output to the four steerable wheels via a four-speed automatic transmission and the same portal axles as the BXD10. This layout gave it approach and departure angles of 49 and 45 degrees, respectively, and 16.5in of ground clearance. It put even the mighty Land Cruiser to shame, but rolling around Tokyo in a domesticated war machine came at a high cost.
Mega Cruiser, Century or NSX?
Toyota priced the Mega Cruiser at 9,620,000 yen, a sum which represents about £71,000 (US$$92,000) in 2020 money. To add context, motorists with nearly 10 million yen to spend on a Japanese car in the late 1990s could also choose Toyota’s V12-powered Century flagship (pictured) or the mid-engined Honda NSX. Registering a leviathan powered by a relatively big engine cost far more than running a kei car, too.
Pricing didn’t need to be competitive, because the Mega Cruiser had no direct rivals in Japan and the handful of motorists able and willing to spend NSX money on an off-roader weren’t the clients Toyota had in mind when it transformed the BXD10 into the BXD20. Product planners primarily envisioned the model as a tool that would be purchased by users who genuinely had a need for it.
“The Mega Cruiser can perform rescue and reconstruction work in circumstances where other such vehicles would have difficulties. The vehicle is also suitable for research and exploration work under harsh conditions,” the company wrote shortly after the model’s introduction.
The end of the Mega Cruiser
Mega Cruiser production numbers are a point of debate among historians. Some claim Toyota made 132 examples of the truck in the Gifu, Japan, factory that also manufactured the Dyna truck while others insist 149 is the correct number. What’s certain is that BXD20 production ended in August 2001 without a direct successor ready to take the torch. Toyota ultimately decided the niche wasn’t worth competing in; GM came to the same conclusion in 2006 when it retired the Hummer H1.
The end of the BXD10
The BXD10’s history is even more difficult to decode than the BXD20’s. Historians assume production ended in 2001, around the time the BXD20 retired, and most agree approximately 3000 units were made for the Japanese military. Some are still serving in the army but rough examples are getting scrapped and decommissioned models are increasingly ending up in the hands of overseas collectors.
3000 is low considering Humvee production is well into the six digits. There are several reasons for that. First, the BXD10 mostly served the military in Japan, where it participated in drills and was often used to carry people and weapons between bases, while thousands of Humvees went to war over the past three decades and were wrecked. Second, its production run was relatively short. AM General built the first Humvee in 1983 and still manufactures the model in 2020.
The mega Coaster
The reports claiming the Land Cruiser would receive the Mega Cruiser’s portal axles were false but Toyota found another use for them. In the 1990s, it made a four-wheel drive version of the ubiquitous Coaster van fitted with a modified version of the Mega Cruiser’s front running gear. Called BB58 internally, it was instantly recognizable because it sat higher than a standard model and its front wheels used a different bolt pattern than its rear wheels, a layout that required fitting two spares.
Most four-wheel drive Coasters rusted away in the snowy parts of northern Japan. The few good examples remaining in 2020 are highly prized by off-roaders as go-anywhere motorhomes.
The Mega Cruiser in 2020
The mighty Mega Cruiser still stands out as the biggest off-roader Toyota has ever made and it’s not going to lose this distinction anytime soon. It’s also one of the rarest which explains why many examples spend more time parked in a heated garage than exploring the great outdoors. Plan on setting aside at least £77,000 ($100,000) to secure one of the rare used examples that come up for sale. Model-specific parts are difficult to find, so don’t wreck it, but it’s a Toyota above all so it won’t break very often.
General Motors has confirmed it will resurrect the Hummer name on an electric GMC pickup due out in 2021 but there’s no indication Toyota is preparing to throw its hat back into the ring. The Land Cruiser (pictured) will remain at the top of its SUV hierarchy in the foreseeable future.
The current-generation model released in 2007 will be replaced by in the coming years and credible rumours claim the next Land Cruiser will abandon the V8 engine to adopt a hybrid powertrain built around a twin-turbocharged V6.