Introducing… The Build

Ready for some hardcore wrenchin’? Neither are we. But we—and you—will get there.

byBenjamin Preston| UPDATED Jan 4, 2017 10:36 PM
Introducing… The Build

Ever wanted to take a clapped-out old car, fix it up and do something awesome with it? Introducing The Build, the most ambitious and misguided piece of greasemonkey journalism of the Internet Age. It's a series that—in words, pictures and video—will take you on just such a journey, from the search and purchase of a suitable project car, through the tribulations and busted knuckles of the wrench-turning process. Then, there’s some awesomeness waiting at the end of the tunnel.

What will The Build, er, build?

Glad you asked. Our first project is a 1988 Toyota Land Cruiser, known among off-road cognoscenti by its internal code, FJ62.

Why a Land Cruiser?

It's beautiful and it can take you almost anywhere in the world that you’d care to go. Part truck, part station wagon, part farming implement, these indomitable proto-SUVs are known for conquering some of the burliest terrain motorized vehicles have ever traversed.

That sounds cool. Kind of.

Wait! There’s another reason why we’re starting with a Land Cruiser. From our base of operations in Brooklyn, we’ve watched this dignified vehicle’s appropriation by Madison Avenue, which has debased it repeatedly. FJs have become totems for advertisers, conferring authenticity on otherwise dull goods and services. Have you seen this? Or this? Or this? Our car choice is as much about reclamation as it is about celebration.

O.K. That's kind of funny.

Yeah, and we will ply our FJ62 on the mean streets of Brooklyn.

That’s not enough of a challenge. No one needs an SUV in New York.

Have you ever driven here? The pockmarked "streets," some of which sooner resembling miles-long rows of unmade beds, are some of the worst in the country. Our road infrastructure is a moonscape populated by aggro box-truck drivers. And, every winter, new potholes yawn before white-knuckled motorists trying to avoid breaking wheels and bending suspension parts. Then there are the cobble stones. And the sinkholes. And the other drivers, motorcyclists, bicyclists, skateboarders, Segway riders and rats trying to avoid the same obstacles. This place is nuts.

But you’ll take it outside New York, right? You know that there’s a world outside New York, right?

Of course. Land Cruisers are stout to begin with and, when we're done with ours, it will be able to handle the worst the Big Apple can throw at it, and then some. It will also take us to the remotest corners of the wilderness to do the blissful, adventuresome weekend activities—hiking, skiing, surfing, kayaking—that keep us sane as we battle daily life in a city that never sleeps.

Then, our mighty Cruiser will be given away.

Wait, you’re going to build a badass rig and then just give it away?!

Yes. More on that in a later installment.

Now I’m interested. Have you found a fixer-upper FJ yet?

Finding a used car is straightforward. You look on Craigslist, eBay and maybe the local classifieds. But the FJ62 isn't your typical used car. For reasons outlined above, it is highly sought-after; if you're not careful, you could end up overpaying for one. A guy in my neighborhood is waiting for the sucker—sorry, the "right buyer"—to take his built-up FJ62 for nearly $20,000. It may be a while before anyone bites, but I heard from a neighbor that the lady selling hers for eight grand succeeded.

That’s not an answer...

Sorry. I digress. My search began and ended on Craigslist. The listings I found on eBay all seemed to have been made by people who "knew what they had"—i.e., way overpriced. There was one suitable candidate on AutoTrader, but the seller didn’t returned my numerous calls. So I started by searching Craigslist sites by region. You can click a little box that says "search nearby areas," and cast a wide net. It's a tedious method, but a thorough one.

That's how I came across Bob.

Bob, an Arizonan, had what looked to be a nice, rust-free 1986 Toyota FJ60 for sale. He was asking $2,500. That, to my thinking, was a screamin' deal. So I called Bob, who sounded like a nice, honest older guy—my favorite kind of seller. He sounded interested in letting me fly out, take a look and maybe buy it and drive it back to New York. But there was another guy who had called first, and Bob expressed concern that he may have underpriced it. After a few days, I got word back from Bob: The other guy had offered him significantly more money over asking, and that was that.

Thanks, Bob.

Then I found a bench seat-equipped 1973 FJ55 located on a ranch near Abilene, Texas. The rancher selling it sounded doubtful the truck would make it even to Dallas, four hours away. I was determined to fly out, hop a Greyhound and round up that li'l doggie. It was not to be. I got swooped by a dude from Arkansas.

After a few more days of searching, I found two other likely candidates: An FJ60 in Nevada City, Calif., where I have a friend who's a, uh, "farmer,” and willing to check it out for me. But the prospect of driving a proto-SUV in unknown repair from the West Coast to Brooklyn didn't inspire much confidence.

Sigh. Will I read about a purchase in the next two paragraphs?  

Patience. There other potentially promising truck was near York, Pennsylvania. It looked surprisingly clean on Craigslist, with no egregious levels of rust.That's how I ended up in Pennsylvania Dutch country hanging with The Grateful Dad, a guy who works at a huge hardware store during the week and pedals handmade tie-dyes at local jam-band festivals on the weekends. He was on his way to a show when I came to check out the truck, and was so stoked that I had long hair that he gave me an $800 discount. It pays to not be a square. Man.

Anyway, after showing me a tapestry he called "The Melter” (which he confided was conceived under the influence of mind-bending substances), we shook hands: I handed him an envelope filled with 30 crisp hundos for the title and keys.

Well, key, because he couldn't find the copy. But the Grateful Dad even let me leave the FJ parked in front of his house for two weeks until I could come back and retrieve it. Indeed, the Cruiser needed a high-class entry to New York, with proper photographic documentation.

The Build is building. Stay tuned for Part II: The Retrieval.

Patrick Daly