The Toyota Retro Cruiser concept made a big splash when it debuted in 1999. It looked like an FJ40 from the outside, but the running gear underneath came from the most advanced Land Cruiser at the time, the J100. Not only was the Retro Cruiser was fully functional, which is rare for a concept, but Toyota let journalists beat on it in off-road testing. It was then put away for a quarter century. For SEMA this year, Toyota brought it out of retirement and restored it to its former glory.
The Retro Cruiser was the brain child of Rod Millen, the same racing and engineering whiz behind the record setting Pikes Peak Celica and Tacoma race truck. Millen also built a series of one-off show cars for Toyota, including the 1998 Lexus Street Rod, a ’32 Ford powered by a VVT-i 1UZ V8. Back when tuners were still largely grassroots and hot rods were still considered the primary form of custom car, the Lexus got quite a bit of attention in the Big Four magazines.
Catapulting off that success, Millen followed up with the Retro Cruiser, which debuted in February 1999 at the Chicago Auto Show. It started life as a 1967 FJ45, but it wasn’t as simple as just stretching that body over J100 Land Cruiser mechanicals. The FJ45 was sliced down the middle lengthwise so six inches of bodywork could be added to account for the J100’s wider track.
However, while a CAD system helped fabricate a six-inch-wider fiberglass roof, it wouldn’t have looked right to stretch the front out by the same distance. The J40 grille and hood were only widened by three inches in order to keep their classic proportions. The difference was made up by expanding the fenders. At the rear, two tailgates were welded together to create the full-width door, and the FJ45 body had to be elongated by 10 inches as well.
The V8 was also moved rearward by about eight inches in order to accommodate accessories like air conditioning. That means custom front and rear driveshafts had to be fabbed, and a new dashboard designed. Millen also added custom control arms, rear coilovers, and remote reservoir Bilstein shocks at the front, increasing wheel travel by 30 percent at all four corners.
Compared to the J100, the Retro Cruiser improved ground clearance by 2.45 inches for a total of 11.25. Shorter overhangs front and rear raised the approach, breakover, and departure angles to 48, 28, and 32 degrees respectively (compared to the 31, 24, and 24 degrees of a stock J100).
In the process Millen also installed a roll cage for chassis stiffness and a locking center diff operated by a switch on the dash, just like the stock rear locker. But just in case you still get stuck, hidden winches capable of pulling 9,000 pounds are located at both ends, there’s GPS and a satellite phone, and reserve drinking water is held in an on-board 10-gallon tank.
As Millen told Autoweek, the Retro Cruiser probably cost about $350,000 to build after adding up the donor cars and the labor. But Toyota had no hesitation pimping it out to magazines, many of which actually took it off roading. Like many concepts, it essentially disappeared from public view after that.
Because Toyota introduced a new Land Cruiser this year it decided to drag the Retro Cruiser out of whatever warehouse it had been hiding in. It needed the typical maintenance, but also the replacement of rotted hoses, repair of leaking shocks, and paint correction.
It’s rare for a concept to get a second life, but the Retro Cruiser is cool enough to warrant one. Funnily enough, it was already doing the retro thing in 1999, but that was 25 years ago. The concept itself is now old enough to qualify for historic plates and classic car insurance. Back when it was unveiled there were demands that Toyota actually build Retro Cruiser. A quarter-century later, it has not aged one bit. Given today’s SUV-happy climate, this is a concept that could have been built today. And if Toyota did put a similar truck into production based on the J300 chassis, they’d sell like hotcakes.
Images courtesy of Toyota.