Icon Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser Takes a Rocky Mountain Road Trip


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We’re bouncing straight for the edge of a cliff. My wife, Heather, is in the shotgun seat, her right foot reflexively reaching out to press her own phantom brake pedal as blue sky fills the windshield. Adrenaline, about 10 Red Bulls’ worth, courses into my system as I lean on the brakes and wrestle the steering wheel to the right, until the passenger-side mirror is nearly grazing the sheer rock wall that defines one side of the trail. Better to hug the cliff, because the other side of the trail is defined by abrupt, airy nothingness. I downshift a gear in low range and manage to negotiate the vertigo-inducing switchbacks of Tomboy Road as we make our way from 13,114-foot Imogene Pass down to 8750-foot Telluride. Locals characterize Tomboy as an intermediate trail, but, of course, that presumes you don’t fall off it.

Ezra Dyer|Car and Driver

If you’ve got five days to spend in a single state, and you want to experience the best roads, the best views, and the most charismatic towns, plot a route through the Colorado Rockies from Durango up to Boulder. You’ll find 14,000-foot mountain peaks littered with postcard vistas and draped with the alpine roads you dream about during your daily commute. I enlist Heather to help an adventure that takes in some legendary towns: Telluride, Crested Butte, Aspen. In these places you can escape civilization—and still find a place to eat a nice steak if you roll in at 9 p.m.

I have a good idea where I’m going, because a few days earlier I drove from Telluride to Lake City—50 miles, more or less—almost entirely off-road, in a Hummer H3T Alpha. With less than 200 miles to cover on any single day, there should be plenty of time for hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and off-roading. That last activity helps dictate the choice of vehicle for this endeavor. What I want is a cross between a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and a Toyota Prius, but no new vehicle comes close to combining that degree of off-road acumen and fuel-miser efficiency. There is another option, though: revising the past.


Anyone who’s driven a classic Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser would praise its utilitarian, go-anywhere talents, but in terms of livability, an old FJ is a Massey Ferguson tractor crossed with an Iron Maiden. TLC, a small company based in North Carolina, specializes in reimagining the FJ as the Icon—essentially an original FJ40 that’s been stripped down to its bare frame and rebuilt with modern amenities and cool details like handcrafted, engraved and enameled stainless-steel dash knobs. A new drivetrain is part of the package, and TLC now offers a four-cylinder turbodiesel that allows the Icon to average between 22 and 28 mpg. Not bad for a vehicle equipped with 33-inch tires, locking differentials, and a hefty winch bumper. The diesel also runs on biofuel, should we happen to come across any of Willie Nelson’s filling stations.

toyota land cruiser drive 2009

Ezra Dyer

This particular Icon diesel is loaded with toys: heated seats, a thumping stereo, and a Power Tank CO2 reservoir for airing up the tires. Despite the vehicle’s amenities and six-figure price, the driving experience is still retro. Wind, road and engine noise barge in through the soft-top, the five-speed shifter has longer throws than an Olympic javelin competition, and the steering is disarmingly slow on these serpentine roads. And yet the squeaks, rattles and groans of an old vehicle, the telltale complaints of calcified bushings and rotten seals, are entirely absent. It may be retro, but it’s definitely not old.

There’s something gratifying about the solid, tactile sensation of manually locking the front hubs on an old-school 4×4.

I’m keen to try the Icon in its true element: off-road. Telluride begins to lure off-roaders as soon as the snow melts and the high trails outside town become passable. We drive to the Imogene Pass trailhead (barely a quarter-mile off the main drag), and I yank the e-brake and jump out. There’s something gratifying about the solid, tactile sensation of manually locking the front hubs on an old-school 4×4. I engage the front axle with the stubby transfer case lever on the floor, and we’re off. Heather offers a hand at airing down the tires to improve traction in the rough. But I decide we should skip this procedure because I don’t expect to encounter any terrain that will challenge our Icon. This, it turns out, is a rookie mistake, because I quickly learn that you don’t just air down your tires for better off-road capability. You also do it for comfort. Especially if your passenger is unenthusiastic about the kidney-shaking cocktail of solid axles, leaf springs and rocky trails.

Heather gets some respite from the constant jostling when she gets out to spot me as I attempt to climb a challenging rock shelf. There’s an easier route around, but what’s the fun in that? I gear down into low range, engage the ARB locking diffs and successfully claw my way up. After about an hour, we’re at Imogene Pass. Besides a bullet-riddled mailbox at its summit, Imogene offers spectacular views of the surrounding peaks, which are littered with mining operations that were abandoned back when off-roading was an unavoidable condition of travel rather than an amusing diversion. We don’t spend much time there, however, since we’d unzipped the windows from the soft-top back in balmy Telluride, where the temperature was at least 25 degrees warmer than it is up here.

toyota land cruiser drive 2009

The capable Icon makes short work of Imogene Pass.

Ezra Dyer

After a hearty breakfast in Crested Butte, Heather eyes the grumbling orange truck outside the diner and asks, “Why’d you leave it running?” I produce the ignition key from my pocket and explain that there really wasn’t much choice. The ignition switch is shorted out. See, production Icons get break-in mileage to expose any kinks or faulty parts, but on this brand-new example, we’re performing the shakedown in the field, as it were. And we’ve got a kink on our hands. Since I’m not sure whether the switch will still crank the starter, I make a game-time decision: We’re not shutting this thing down till we get to Aspen. And thus, our stroll around a pristine mountain lake is accompanied by the persistent growl of the idling Icon. The hills are alive with the sound of compression ignition.

As I fill up at a local gas station, I ask the attendant about a trail someone mentioned that connects Crested Butte and Aspen. “Oh yeah, the Schofield Pass,” he says. “That trail is mega-gnar.” Then, deciding he might’ve under-gnarred his original estimate, he adds, “Mega-mega gnar.” He eyes the Icon sitting at the pumps. “That thing would make it, but if you put a wheel wrong, you fall 40 feet into the river.” I ask if there is perhaps a kinder alternative for this $122,000 truck that does not belong to me, a trail rated single-gnar or less, and he recommends another unpaved way called the Kebler Pass. The Kebler Pass is more like a dirt road than a trail, and I air down the Icon’s tires to take the edge off the stutter bumps. This smooths out the ride nicely, and I make a conscious decision to avoid telling Heather that we could have had a much nicer drive up Imogene Pass if I’d thought of this sooner. The aspen forest makes for a beautiful backdrop, and the woods are teeming with life–including, oddly, cows. Heather notes that cows are normal and trees are normal, but put some cows among the trees and suddenly you’ve got a strange and exotic tableau.

two yellow labs in the back of an fj80 land cruiser

Fellow Land Cruiser travelers.

Car and Driver

A few hours later we’re in Aspen, and I pull into the parking lot of the Gant Hotel, press my right foot on the brake and pop the clutch with my left. The motor stalls, choking itself into silence for the first time in the past 7 hours. Now comes the real moment of truth: I turn the key to see if it’ll start up again. The starter spins, the motor roars to life, and we’re in business. After shutting down again, I disconnect the battery to keep the accessories from killing it overnight, but we have a viable strategy for continuing our trip. This is the benefit of older designs–things may go wrong, but it’s a lot easier to devise work-arounds than it is in new cars. There are no OBD II trouble codes, no electronic security systems to go haywire. Bad ignition switch? Stall it out.

Damage Waivers

As we walk around Aspen, I notice a poster advertising performers at a subterranean bar. “Hey, look,” I say, “Ice Cube played at this place!” It seems unlikely that Ice Cube, of N.W.A. fame and Friday movie stardom, would’ve played a little bar in Aspen, but there it is. “Look at the date,” Heather says. “He didn’t play there already, he’s playing there tonight!” And that’s how we ended up witnessing Ice Cube performing “Straight Outta Compton” live in Aspen. That’s the kind of thing that could make for a good story later. Just like when you try to go mountain biking and your bike falls off the car rack at 50 mph.

toyota land cruiser drive 2009

Ezra Dyer

About that: I thought everything was properly ratcheted down when we set off toward Woody Creek. The woman at the bike place told me that the late gonzo legend Hunter S. Thompson used to live near the trail, so I wanted to check it out, even if Thompson probably would’ve pistol-whipped me for wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle. He would have fully approved, however, of the carnage. As I hit an expansion joint on the highway, my bike bounces off the rack and begins a death cartwheel down the highway. Did I sign up for the damage waiver? I hope I signed up for the damage waiver.

When I return the bike, the shaggy dude at the counter buys my explanation for the large chunk of foam missing from the seat. “I took a digger,” I say, gesturing to the road rash on the seat. “You sure did!” he agrees, and I depart before he can ponder how I trashed the seat without suffering so much as a scrape myself.

Alpine Angler

Back in the Icon, we climb out of town on Route 82, headed toward Independence Pass on the Continental Divide. The blacktop is smooth and mostly free of plow scars. Up here at 12,000 feet, on one of the highest paved roads in North America, they don’t even bother to plow in winter–they just close the road and wait till spring. Once the 10-mile route thaws, it’s a popular climb for road bikers touring the Sawatch Range.

The Icon’s turbocharger is whistling, and I’m spinning the steering wheel like Mix Master Mike on the turntables, but as I pass a parade of Porsches going the other way, it’s hard not to wish that I had a sports car right now. At the top, the Icon’s riotous idle is suddenly drowned out by an otherworldly shriek. Over the ridge, making excellent time, comes a red Ferrari Enzo, one of only a few hundred or so on the planet. Judging by the smile plastered on the face of the lucky guy behind the wheel, we should all aspire to drive a red Enzo over Independence Pass before we die.

Soon, we’re on Interstate 70 for the first time on the trip. I want to reach Boulder in time to set up a fishing trip tomorrow. So we forgo lunch in favor of that traveler’s staple, jerky (with a side order of surprisingly good convenience-store tamales), and head down I-70 as fast as the Icon can carry us.

My seat-of-the-pants approach to scheduling means that no guides are available. But I don’t even need to drive that far to find my own solitary place to fish. Barely 20 minutes after I leave the Kinsley Outfitters Orvis shop in Boulder I drop anchor. I inspect the fancifully named flies I bought and ponder which one to deploy for some epic trout slaying. I contemplate the Chernobyl Ant and the Elk Wing Caddis, but decide to try the Stimulator first.

I’m more of a shameless bait caster than a fly fisherman; still, I try to dance the fly on the water, because that seems like what a fly would do, right? But the water is only up to my shins, and I fail to see how there could be fish here. They’d have to be two-dimensional, and I’m pretty sure flounder are not indigenous to the Rockies. I’m ready to give up and try a new spot, but suddenly the fly is tugged underwater, and the slack goes out of the line. The fishing in Boulder Creek really must be pretty good, because I caught a fish. I let it go—so there’s no evidence to contradict the hyperbole I conjure to describe my catch back at the hotel bar in Boulder. It was a creature of the deep, five rows of teeth, license plates in its belly.

The next morning brings the road-trip bummer: the realization that we’re done driving to new places looking for new adventures. No more random Ice Cube concerts, unexpected fly-fishing mastery, or rural Enzo sightings. No more challenges like the bike tumbling down the highway or the shorted ignition followed by the exhilaration of a successful fix. And, I’m sad to say, no more Icon.

While I initially missed the refinement of a modern car, over the course of the trip the FJ endeared itself. It took us from Durango to Boulder, up Imogene Pass, through the Crested Butte aspens, and past the woodland bovines, its center console shut tight enough to prevent the smell of the ever-present beef jerky from permeating the interior. Besides all its crafty details, the Icon has the FJ40 charisma, an authenticity that only comes with a genuine four-decade pedigree.

Headshot of Ezra Dyer

Senior Editor

Ezra Dyer is a Car and Driver senior editor and columnist. He’s now based in North Carolina but still remembers how to turn right. He owns a 2009 GEM e4 and once drove 206 mph. Those facts are mutually exclusive.

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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