The Toyota Land Cruiser is one of the auto industry’s longest-lasting and many would say most widely respected brands in continuous production since the 1950s. It is Toyota’s longest-selling vehicle and a living piece of automotive history. The Land Cruiser helped Toyota gain credibility as a maker of tough, durable vehicles at a time when Japanese automakers needed to convince skeptical buyers. It was also one of the first vehicles Toyota imported to the United States, helping to establish the reputation that turned Toyota into one of the best-selling brands in the country.

The Land Cruiser is the only model in the Toyota lineup that has been available for every single model year since Toyota came to the United States in 1958. Every other Toyota model has come and gone.

Nothing has been in the market with that nameplate on every single year other than Land Cruisers.

Early versions of the Land Cruiser were known for their Spartan design and Off-Road capability, while later Iterations became popular as a high-end family hauler in the SUV-crazed 1990s. But in 2019, the Land Cruiser appears to be disappearing from the U. S., attracting just one-fifth of the buyers who bought it at the peak of its appeal. At least one report holds that Toyota will pull the Land Cruiser from the U. S. around 2023. Some in the industry even say it might be time for the Land Cruiser to go. Others say the vehicle could find success again in this SUV crazed market if Toyota strips it down and returns it to its rugged roots.

So what happened? Why? When trucks and SUVs are seeing unprecedented levels of popularity in the United States, is the Land Cruiser selling only a few thousand units? How did it go from being a pivotal pioneer in Toyota’s international strategy to an often overlooked product?

Land Cruiser’s History

Toyota’s truck heritage can be traced back to its earliest days as a company. Toyota Motor was founded in the late 1930s by a young businessman who wanted to diversify the fabric weaving equipment business he had inherited from his father as a way of protecting against the larger

troubles in the textile industry. Seeing the potential in the young but growing automotive industry,

Kiichiro Toyoda studied the major carmakers of his day, such as Ford and Chrysler, and had begun a serious effort to make cars. However, his plans were interrupted by Japan’s involvement in World War Two, and Toyota became a supplier of military vehicles for the Japanese war effort. After the war ended, Toyota made trucks and buses to help with Japan’s reconstruction.

But there was a turning point in the year 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea and Toyota received an order from the U. S. armed forces in Japan for four-wheel-drive trucks. Korea was really hot and heavy combat and the UN forces were losing a lot of vehicles over there. And to replenish them, they had to bring them all the way from the United States. And the Army was anxious to get some vehicles built closer to the front. And Japan is very close to Korea. So they presented these bid requests to the manufacturers and Toyota agreed. So they built a utility vehicle that was based on the army’s specifications.

And Toyota had also competed for a bid to supply trucks to the Japanese national police forces. But initially lost that to Mitsubishi, which offered a version of the legendary American Willys Jeep. But Toyota improved its own model, which became known as the Toyota Jeep BJ. The letters, BJ standing for B-series engine and the J standing for Jeep. Toyota demonstrated the vehicle’s capability by testing it on famed rugged journeys that had only ever been made on horseback, such as by following the route of a legendary samurai’s climb up Japan’s Mt. Otago and another climb up a section of Mount Fuji. Improvements Toyota had been making to its truck worked and the company won the police contract away from Mitsubishi.

In the meantime, Willies had trademarked the Jeep name, forcing Toyota to abandon it. So in 1954, Toyota chose a new name Landcruiser. That same year, it began exporting its Land Cruiser to other markets, first to Pakistan, then Saudi Arabia in 1955. In many cases, the Land Cruiser was the first vehicle Toyota exported to other countries, as was the case with several African nations such as Angola, Cameroon, and South Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

And Toyota called it the Land Cruiser strategy when entering other markets. It was essentially the vehicle that they would bring in ahead of those passenger vehicles and those other vehicles because they knew that there was that reputation associated with the Land Cruiser, that if they could bring that in and so that that the cars following behind it would also sell because they’re sitting there right there on the lot next to a Land Cruiser. Land Cruiser is made up nearly 40 percent of all vehicles exported from Japan in 1957.

Competitive SUV Market Space

Toyota began selling the Land Cruiser in the U. S. in 1958, that year it sold just one unit of the vehicle, along with 287 units of Toyota’s sedan — the Tokyopet Crown. Due to some difficulties Toyota had with the Crown, the Land Cruiser ended up being the only model the company sold in the U. S. from 1961 to 1965. The Land Cruiser would remain little changed for the next two decades from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s. But over time, Toyota did update the vehicle, steering its design toward a more premium product with a more plush feature-rich interior. It also grew bigger.

Many of the changes coincided with the first sport-utility vehicle craze in the 1990s when the SUV became the new preferred family car and luxury SUVs such as the Lincoln Navigator, the Cadillac Escalade and the Land Rover Range Rover were rocketing upward in popularity. That was a peak for Land Cruiser sales in the U. S.

Toyota sold 18,602 Land Cruisers in 1999, the largest number in records dating back to 1973.

But in 2001, sales fell to 7,591. About half of what they had been in the previous year. And they fell further from there. That same year, some trucks that could be considered close competitors suffered dips in sales, too. But in the years that followed, at least some of those rebounded. Land Rovers, Range Rover, for instance, is priced comparably to the Land Cruiser and sales of that vehicle climbed from 5,771 in 2001 to 8,549 in 2002, 12,086 in 2003, and 13,546 in 2004.

Both high fuel prices and a recession would put a damper on all new car sales in the later 2000s. But since the U. S. economy has recovered in the wake of the 2007 to 2009 financial crisis, Americans have run back to their sport, utilities, and pickup trucks and snapped up the increasingly popular crossover which blends elements of cars and trucks. Demand for high-end sport utility vehicles has grown along with the rest of the market. But Land Cruiser sales have not rebounded. Part of the reason for this is that the Land Cruiser has some steep competition.

Take the Range Rover. Sales of that vehicle grew from 7,800 in 2012 to slightly more than 19,000 in 2018. That is compared with little more than 3000 Land Cruisers sold in the same year. There is also competition from within Toyota’s own stable. Buyers who want the Toyota name can buy a much cheaper three-row SUV that isn’t meant to climb mountains. The automaker began marketing the similarly sized Toyota Sequoia in 2000, selling 9,925 that year. Sales skyrocketed to more than 70000 units by 2002. However, sales of that model also fell over time to just over 11000 in 2018. What we see with the Landcruiser is it’s becoming more and more of a niche because if you want a three-row large SUV, these have really become cars. So a vehicle like the Land Cruiser has a smaller and smaller following because people don’t need that capability. They don’t need to go up a Rubicon or something like that. Toyota also sells another model that is essentially a Land Cruiser with more premium features — the Lexus LX. That model sold an additional 4,753 in 2018.

Another reason the Land Cruiser might be struggling is simply that it has been more than a decade since Toyota updated it. With all the competition at the higher end of the market, automakers are under tremendous pressure to keep products fresh. Toyota also spends little, if any, money marketing the Land Cruiser in the US. This, combined with its high price and declining sales, has led some to argue that it is time to cut the Land Cruiser entirely from Toyota’s U. S. lineup and leave only its Lexus badged twin. At least one report has surfaced that Toyota will do exactly that in 2023. Toyota told CNBC it had no comment on plans for the Land Cruiser. But as it languishes in the U. S., the Land Cruiser name continues to thrive elsewhere, especially in parts of the world where people still need capable vehicles.

The Future of the Land Cruiser

The extent of the Land Cruiser being globally renown might seem surprising to Americans unfamiliar with the vehicle’s history. Toyota sold 319,200 Land Cruisers around the world in 2018. Its top five markets are Australia, China, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, in that order. Toyota sold 42,300 Land Cruisers in Australia alone in 2018. The brand is so strong in some parts of the world that customers in several countries can buy versions of the truck Americans never see. For example, in many parts of the world, it still sells the Land Cruiser 70 series Toyota began making in 1984. Though U. S. buyers can only purchase the latest Land Cruiser model. Toyota sells the rugged, functional, far lower priced 70s series alongside more current versions in several markets.

Of course, Toyota still does a strong business in trucks and sport utilities in the U. S. For example, the Toyota Tacoma is the top seller in the midsize pickup category. The 4Runner, a smaller Off-Road sport utility, still sells well in the U. S. Its sales have grown from 44,316 in 2011 to 139,694 in 2018. And Toyota has expanded its Toyota Racing Development sub-brand, which has built its reputation on making tough purpose-built high-performance off-road vehicles.

Land Cruiser loyalists say a stripped-down, more affordable Land Cruiser would be a hit in the U. S. Slightly more than a decade ago the company brought the FJ cruiser to market — a purpose-built sport utility with a boxy design that recalled elements of the early FJ Land Cruiser models. But the FJ cruiser was discontinued in the United States and most other countries around the world living on and only a select few markets. Americans who love the Land Cruiser legacy and what the truck did for off-roading may have to settle for another name while looking enviously at buyers elsewhere in the world where its name is still well-known and cherished.

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Pavlo Prannyk