WAGONS SMALL

OL' NUMBER ONE

The first Thiess LandCruiser that started the whole Toyota thing.

This Land Cruiser FJ25 was the very first Toyota 4WD purchased by Leslie Thiess. Enthusiasts refer to this model as the great grandfather of Toyota’s 70 Series, reckons Jim Gibson. 

The original FJ25 is the antecedent of Australia’s most successful 4WD range. Toyota has sold more than 400,000 LandCruisers in Australia since the featured old girl arrived here in 1959. (The nomenclature was changed from ‘Land Cruiser’ to ‘LandCruiser’ in the 1970s.)

Leslie Thiess wanted to try out the Japanese brand on the largest engineering project ever undertaken in this country: the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme.

In the late 1950s, an early Land Cruiser working at his Tumut Ponds site on the Snowy Mountains Scheme impressed Leslie Thiess (later Sir Leslie), the head of Thiess Constructions. His company had won an $18m contact to build a 14.4-km tunnel from Tumut Ponds Dam for the Snowy Mountains Authority.

When next in Japan, he made a point of meeting with Toyota president Eiji Toyoda (Toyoda is the family spelling) and eventually secured the Australian import rights. He initially purchased 13 vehicles, to work on the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

In Toyota Australia’s book, The Long Run, one of Thiess (Sales) Pty Ltd executives, the late Alex McArthur said:

“We had problems with the vehicles we put into the Snowy Mountains fleet, mostly front axle and gearbox troubles, because the conditions were very hard and difficult.

“We had Land Rovers, Willys and Austin Champs and they all broke too.

“If anyone could break a vehicle, it would be a Thiess construction crew.

“But the difference was that, when we had trouble, the Japanese immediately came out.

“They didn’t hesitate, dispatching engineers who lived with us on site until the problems were rectified.

“They’d fly out parts and send broken pieces back to Japan for analysis, to rectify the problem at the source.”

Another interesting quote from Toyota’s book is from one of the first dealers appointed by Thiess (Sales) Pty Ltd in Rockhampton – principal George Jamieson recalled:

“On a wet and dreary 20 June 1959, a sales rep from Thiess (Sales) drove into our car sales lot with a Land Cruiser he intended to display at the Rockhampton Agricultural Show, but he didn’t have a stand.

“So, he put the vehicle on our stand and I sold it the same day.

“When the buyer went to his bank to arrange finance, the manager asked him how to spell Toyota!”

These early Land Cruisers soon gained a reputation for reliability and toughness, so with that DNA they shortly became the preferred choice for commercial work in difficult terrain.

 

Getting started

A prototype Land Cruiser, coded BJ, was developed by Toyota in 1950. It was designed to compete with the Willys Overland Jeep and was marketed to the military, civil authorities and the general public as an all-purpose off-road vehicle.

Japanese manufacturers had a reputation for copying designs, and had borrowed the Jeep’s styling, but that was about all. It proved to be anything but a copy.

Toyota’s test driver Ichiro Taira drove the BJ up to the sixth station, some 1500 metres high on Mt Fuji: a feat that no other motor vehicle had achieved at that time. It established the little 4x4 as a most capable rough terrain vehicle; a reputation LandCruiser still boasts today.

Inspired by the legendary climb of samurai warrior Heikuro Magaki, who rode his horse up the 40-degree incline of the 86 steps at the Shinto shrine on top of Mount Atago in 1634, test driver Taira easily ascended a similar steep-step incline at a temple in Okazaki city.

The BJ’s power came from a 3.8-litre, in-line six-cylinder OHV petrol engine, developing 78kW (105hp) and was not dissimilar to the 225 cubic-inch Chevrolet engine of the day.

The English four-wheel-drive competitor Land Rover prompted Toyota’s managing director Hanji Umehara to find an anglicised name for the BJ, so the ‘Land Cruiser’ was born.

When the BJ’s successor, the FJ model, came to Australia it had a 3.9-litre petrol engine and a four-speed manual transmission driving the rear wheels.

An additional lever allowed front-wheel drive to be engaged as needed.

First gear in the transmission was an ultra-low crawler ratio and there was no High/low transfer box. It wasn’t until 1960 that Toyota upgraded to a three-speed main box, with a dual-range transfer case.

Compared with the BJ the FJ had driving comfort in mind, with more interior space. The steering wheel was moved closer to the outside.

The dashboard included a half-moon-shaped speedometer, plus generator charge and oil pressure warning lights, water temperature and fuel gauges. It was the same size and shape as the glove compartment and could easily be swapped from right- to left-hand-drive.

There were major changes in the chassis frame that created a basic design that remained unchanged for 29 years, through the transition to the 40-Series.

 

In retirement

Ol’ Number One’s history is sketchy in the years up to its rediscovery in 1972, but it was obvious by its condition that it had worked hard. Thiess Toyota Pty Ltd (predecessor of Toyota Australia) undertook a restoration program.

When OTA checked out the FJ25 it resided at Toyota Australia’s then headquarters in the Sydney suburb of Taren Point. Its then custodian, John Wood, was a long-term Toyota employee and the only person authorised to drive the old girl. He ferried it around the country on the back of a truck to various Toyota and dealer functions.

It was also the star of the celebrations at the Snowy River Hydro-Electric Scheme’s 50th anniversary.

One of its special duties was to pull Santa’s sleigh at the Toyota employee’s children’s Christmas party!

As you can see from one of the photos in this article, its petrol tank is directly under the driver’s seat. John Wood told us of a media function where a journalist riding in the FJ25 took out a cigarette and was about to light it, when John suggested he have a good look at what they were sitting on.

“Unless you want to go up instead of forward, don’t light it! “ John Wood said.

‘Oh what a feeling’ this old Toyota 4WD FJ25 should give Toyota Australia executives today. It is without doubt the start of the company’s success in the Australian automotive sales arena.

Toyota has been the clear market leader in the 4WD sector of the Australian market for more than 30 years and still sells more than 50 percent of its LandCruisers into the construction, mining and farming industries.

 

1958 Toyota FJ25 4x4

Engine: 3.9-litre in-line six-cylinder

Valve train: Pushrod overhead valve

Induction: Single downdraught carburettor

Transmission: Four-speed non-synchromesh manual

Power: 78kW (105hp)

Weight: 1574kg


 


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