Before starting the FJ45, I pause. There is a lot riding on one simple twist of the key.
Am I about to discover I’ve made a very expensive mistake? Will I be sitting here in a few minutes with dread in my guts, trying to work out what the hell I’ve done? There are no guarantees. I’ve just bought a 1975 ute on the word of a mate and a mechanic, flown to Queensland to get it and now intend to drive it more than 1000km back home.
I give it a bit of choke and two pumps of the accelerator, hold my breath and turn the key. The Toyota fires up instantly, then warms into a smooth and quiet idle. A good start, but I’m not yet convinced. Away in first, second … thir… thir… where the hell is third?
There! And quickly to top before it has even reached 60km/h. By the time the speed hits 80, the engine sounds like it’s going to rattle itself to death and the transmission is screaming in agony.
It’s awful, as I knew it would be. The question is how awful, and whether it’s too awful.
I cannot deny that buying the old and iconic 4x4 is a nostalgia trip, but I’m under no illusions. I’ve been back to my past more than once, sometimes with bitter disappointment. The time that stands out most is when I revisited dad’s old farm in the 1990s. I’d learnt to drive there in an FJ40, but when I went back, all I encountered was a place that had changed and become unfriendly, so I vowed never to go back, to anything, ever again.
Despite that, last year I bought back dad’s old farm – yep, I broke the vow. It came about through a fluke of circumstances and has turned out to be, well, the best. Without any real intention on my part, my life has circled around to the place where so much of my character was formed, and in the process I’ve realised how strongly it set me on my path. A 40-series is an essential player in it all; it is written into this script. The meeting between myself and this ‘new’ FJ was fate.
Roller-coasting along the ridge road on the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, I push the old beast up to 100km/h, but only briefly. It’s not happy at that speed. 80km/h is more like it. As a 19-year-old, I’d driven the diesel Land Cruiser at 85 to 90km/h, but this petrol one and I are older now and we go that little bit slower.
The noise is incredible. Deafening. It’s not just the engine and transmission, it’s the windows rattling, the doors banging, the wind thumping, the cabin reverberating. Much later, I find the radio is sitting loose in the dash, bouncing on the heater box.
For all that, the drive is astonishing. The engine runs beautifully. The clutch is outstanding and, once I get used to finding third, the gearbox isn’t bad, either. The brakes work and the steering is only vaguely vague. The suspension’s as good as new, maybe better, and there’s no body roll to speak of. I couldn’t ask for better.
Call me masochistic, but as I roll out of the hills and brace myself for a stint on the motorway to Brisbane, I can’t wipe the smile off my face. I’m starting to think I’ve made the right call, and I reluctantly acknowledge the existence of an airy-fairy confidence based on nothing to do with the car’s mechanical state, but everything to do with serendipitous chance.
The Land Cruiser continues to impress as the miles roll by, even to the point where I discover the demister works like a charm when the mother of all thunderstorms tries to pulverise us just after sunset on the road to Warwick.
I feel genuine fear in the violence of it, and the only reason I don’t pull over is because I can’t see where to stop. The FJ forges on, even if only at 30km/h. It’s after eight and I lumber into Warwick, where the dash lights, tail-lights and right headlight fail. Not a great end to day one, though the motel owner’s enthusiasm for the very tidy-looking Toyota is encouraging. Yeah, she does look good. Even that hideous bullbar is growing on me.
Someone spent $13,000 on this ute over the past three years and it shows. The handbrake and odometer don’t work, and there’s a rust hole in the floor, but that’s about it.
I had watched the classifieds for almost two years, on and off, sometimes getting disheartened by the high prices and low quality of 40-series Land Cruisers. I’d almost resigned myself to accepting that I’d have to spend $10,000 or more for a registered, running and good Cruiser. Patience paid off. I got this for $5500. In spite of the blown lights, I feel like I’ve landed myself a bargain.
I wake with a jolt at first light, fresh from dreaming about last night’s laborious climb up the Gap on the way to Warwick. I jump up, pull back the curtains and see the Land Cruiser still parked outside. Would anyone really steal it?
It hasn’t left a drop of oil in the car park overnight. Like yesterday, she starts first go. I’ve got the windows down (dual-zone climate control, 1970s style), my left foot on the transmission hump and my right arm on the door. The Toyota sounds just as she did yesterday, a sign that things are holding up well. Lucky, because we’ve got a long way to go.
The oil needs topping up in Texas. The engine doesn’t seem to burn it, and there isn’t a real leak. Never mind, I’ll resolve this one in the coming weeks. The fuel needs topping up, too. The dead odometer won’t let me calculate the consumption, but I know it’s bad. Toyota’s 2F motor is infamous for that.
With the deafening mechanical noise now blocked out through my custom-made Earmold earplugs and music blaring, the Cruiser is different. I realise how smoothly she runs and squeeze her up to 100km/h for a while. Not bad! However, the thought of all the extra fuel I’m burning soon brings me back to 80.
My right hand taps the beat against the A-pillar as we glide south, the sun warm on my back through the big rear window. I’m consciously avoiding the main roads. Somewhere the surface turns to gravel and for the first time since 1987 I see dust in the mirrors of a 40-series Land Cruiser. Pretty cool.
Bingara brings the coolest nostalgia trip when I park outside Fay’s and opposite sits the art-deco Roxy Theatre. Next door, Pieter’s is a cool and cavernous cafe in true old-fashioned style, complete with dark wood panelling and real milkshakes in metal containers. There would’ve been more than one FJ45 parked outside in 1975.
The sun is setting when I turn onto the dirt road for the last run to the farm. I sincerely hope they never tar it. Some things are better left the way they are.
The FJ45 has taken me back to a slower, simpler and more relaxed mindset. It’s the same car from my memories, but we’re on a different road now. On this road, I don’t have the time to linger at 80km/h all the way, the inclination to do constant routine maintenance, nor the body to sit on awful 40-series seats all day.
But, just as I still go down to the old waterhole with an inner tube on a hot summer’s day, so too will I take the old Land Cruiser out for a run on the right day. I’ll give her a little choke, a couple of taps on the throttle and she’ll fire up first time. We’ll kick up dust till we hit the tar road and then trundle into town at 80 to pick up a load of hay or a few drums of fuel. It’ll be partly a nostalgia trip and partly my way of winding down.
I steer the old girl over the cattle grid and around the woolshed, past the water tanks and the FJ45 wreck-cum-garden ornament, and park her in the bay that’s waiting for her in the machinery shed.
My right hand flicks the key backwards and, as the engine falls silent, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d made the right choice. The smile on my face says it all.
MY WIFE looked at me dubiously when I announced the plan to fly to Queensland and drive more than 1000km home in a 40-year-old car. She didn’t think I’d make it. She almost thought right.
The alternator failed. It had probably been responsible for the various lights failing in Warwick (a fuse blew and the headlight’s low beam burned out).
Still, I made it home. I had the alternator rebuilt, replaced the battery because it had been damaged, and spent days chasing subsequent little electrical gremlins.
As I’d arrived in Gunnedah for a break before the last leg of the Cruiser’s journey home, I got a call from the missus, who has owned her beloved little hatchback since buying it new a few years ago.
“My car’s broken down and has to be towed,” she said. I tried not to laugh, honest.