The Cruiser – How We Got It, Part 1

 

Let me state that sourcing a car was the LEAST stressful part of the whole “getting going” process – but also one of the few that could actively either endanger us or gravely inconvenience us in ways other than financial.  It’s vital to have safety and reliability in a car that you’ll rely on extensively for a year, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have not gone deep on car stuff in the past. (Audi = Car-as-a-Service)

So this would be the first of my (many!) learning opportunities in organizing this trip – how much stuff can I do with this car on my own or with Melanie’s help? How much of my apprehension about car modification is rational, or how much of it is just to do with lack of good tools and know-how?

All these questions will, at some point, be confirmed by my success/failure in modification (to be chronicled as it happens!), but I’ve stated for the record:

  1. I can and will modify car electrical systems.
  2. I can do some basic maintenance and experimentation.
  3. I can learn to do things I don’t know how to do partially because there are a lot of places on the internet and elsewhere to learn.
  4. I am not going to be performing any serious mechanical modification or maintenance for this trip.

Having stated those for the record, and having chosen the Land Cruiser FZJ80 as the target vehicle, it was time to find an example that wouldn’t break the bank and that looked like it had been well kept – that would keep us safe without me having to pay someone astonishing amounts of money to fix right off the bat.

The initial plan, as always: search the internet.  The first, highest profile result was a fellow on eBay, Adam, who takes maybe the best car sales pictures ever – and also has the highest prices for used Land Cruisers ever.

Being that he is located outside Philadelphia, I hatched a plan for Melanie and I to start our trip there by buying a car, then drive to MN for a family event, all at the end of January.  Philadelphia is a great place to crash for us because of our friends A&S and their charming family (and well-located, huge house).  I was confident that we could come away from that with a drivable car and was looking forward to a stopover in Cincinnati so I could make fun of their local Spag Bol (improbably called “chili?”).

The biggest problem with this plan was that Adam’s [not his real name] prices were 3+ times book value for the FZJ80s, and at least 1.5x what you’d ideally like to pay for a well kept example.  Plus, if you looked closely, they weren’t always really great examples!  “Hey, nice picture…of that broken fan housing!”  “Wow, that duct tape on the air intake hose sure comes across really clear!”  “I can almost tell what size blade the previous owner used to saw the dashboard to install his shitty aftermarket car stereo!”

So I called Adam up.  And, much to my surprise, basically he sketched me out!  One, by demanding a deposit to pull his cars out of storage and detail them for me to look at in person.  “I usually just sell on the internet,” he said.  Two, by not disclosing what his company name was so I could check BBB online. (He claimed he had 17 employees!  I wonder how many of them are real live human beings.)  Three, by having the CarFax included for all the vehicles that were “clean” but not for the one that might have been in a major accident.  (Always, always get both a CarFax and an AutoCheck account by the way – more on this later.)

Most importantly, fourth: by starting the conversation saying, “I am not going to drop prices more than a grand or two.”  Superb, so you’ve got great car porn and feedback on the ‘bay, but basically other than that I have to trust you, and pay you through the nose?  Fair enough, it’s your business, Adam, but you turned a wannabe-captive customer into a comparison shopper in one short call.

Good that I got turned around, too.  Turns out eBay, as usual, has the highest prices for anything that isn’t currently mass-manufactured.  That means – collectible 20+ year old records and CDs?  Biggest market, highest prices.  Survivor 20+ year old Land Cruisers?  Same deal.  Great if you’re a seller!  Not so nice for a buyer.

My next move was to start looking at other sites.  AutoTrader, Cars.com, Uncle Larry’s Sweet Used Car Deals Dot Net, Craigslist.  There were a few potential goers.  A dealer in Texas with suspiciously low prices but decent looking cars.  A couple nicely-modified examples in Arizona and Colorado – but not the modifications I was particularly looking for.  The prices were trending in the right direction, though, and eventually one or the other of the sites rustled up a lead: a 1994 Land Cruiser in the sunny state of California.

California cars, for those of you not in the know, are prized due to California’s mild climate and road salt-free winters (never mind that the whole southern half of the US is to some extent this way – everyone thinks California).  For a change, though, the pricing was a lot less than the typical online listing – and the dealer looked like a specialist in more “classic” cars than, say, 1994 Land Cruisers.  Both good signs!

Before I continue on the purchase story, a bit about the specific model years of the FJ80/FZJ80 Land Cruisers.  They were on sale in the US from 1991 to 1997 (in Venezuela until 2008!), and sold in the region of two million examples worldwide.  The first two US years for the 80 series, 1991 and 1992, were transition years – with an older engine design that was probably a bit underpowered (and, crucially, the 91-92 models were not easily modifiable to include a second battery in the engine bay – more on this later).

Starting in 1993, the 1FZ-FE engine replaced the prior engine, and this body type and engine were what I had settled on – easy to install a second battery, and only a few known issues with the 1FZ-FE.  There are a few functional differences between the 1993-1994 models and the 1995-1997 models, but most of the differences are purely cosmetic.

Up for consideration as well, in 1996-7, Lexus sold a slightly facelifted FZJ80 as the LX450 – more noise dampening, softer ride, “premium” sound system and leather – but same bones and engine.  (Oh yeah, can’t forget, also a gold fancy Lexurious logo…BFD.)

Generally I was concentrating on the following criteria, pro and con, with thanks to Slee Offroad for their “newbie” list:

  1. We don’t want to sweat to death from leather seats if we can help it – we are going to some hot, humid climates.  I only ever saw 1994 trucks with fabric seats.
  2. Similarly, we don’t want a white car, but if we could avoid dark colors, that might help a tiny bit with the temperature in the car.
  3. I like the extra security of the Lexus laser cut keys but would not enjoy the increased attention the logo would bring – or the higher prices for the same parts!
  4. 1993-1994 involve one more step/modification for installing the second battery, and don’t have airbags.
  5. The radiator from 1995 onwards was a lighter weight model and probably not as efficient (again: hot climates).
  6. Transmission in 1993-4 was allegedly also used in huge passenger busses – reliable and bulletproof.
  7. Front brakes wear more slowly on the 1997s.

Of the model years, I can say that I don’t think I ever saw a 1993 for sale anywhere.  There were a few 1994s, not many 1995s, and quite a few 1996-7s (including LX450s).  That could be random distribution at work, not sure – but even though I recall reading that plenty of units moved in 1993 and 1995, there just weren’t that many for sale in Autumn of 2015.  Honestly, I’d have been happy with any of 1993-97.  Assuming I could eventually find a replacement pair of front fabric seats or a cheap re-upholsterer, maybe a slight preference to 1994 (radiator/transmission) or 1997 (brakes).

Back to the story of the purchase now, I promise!

On short notice in mid-October, I had planned a weeklong trip to the US in late October/early November to get some of the stuff we had initially thought we’d do in January out of the way sooner – specifically I needed to renew and change states for my US drivers license – and I wanted to spend some time in Philly with A&S (&co) and go see Adam’s cars.  (Managing to get the travel for $700 round trip was also a plus.)

Or at least that was the initial plan.  By the time I got to Minnesota, I had elected to call the dealer in California and start the process of investigating their 1994 FZJ80.  Early interactions were very positive (after a false start where they sent some rusty-looking pictures of the undercarriage of a 1984 Land Cruiser), and the dealer was very good at customer service, even for a random caller “from Minnesota.”  He’d even already dropped the price by a grand by the time I called – I’m sure he smacked his forehead about that.

Remember that I mentioned this dealer specializes in classics and expensive used imports?  (My particular favorite on his lot currently being an ’86 El Camino…thought about doing our trip in that!)  This was the cheapest car on his lot, and when I asked him why he bothered with it, he said he used to own an FZJ80 and quite liked them.  I mean, I’m sure he made money on it, but it’d have been quite easy for him to wholesale it to someone like Adam in Philly if he’d not been convinced.  In other words, the monetary gain was definitely not outweighed by the risk to his reputation if the car was a dud.

Of course, there was a snag.  He’d included the AutoCheck which was clean – being a paranoid sort, I went and got the CarFax too.  Oddly they were in disagreement, the CarFax indicating some kind of accident.  This, I thought, was really the first opportunity for the dealer to throw up on his shoes.  When he offered to call the guy who’d sold him the car and get the scoop, I was surprised – an actual human response to a customer question!

Now, of course, he could have made the whole story up, but the report back was that the seller confirmed that it was a fender bender, and that he’d had no repairs done – there is a small dent in the rear bumper as a memento.  It was a small car that rear ended it, and I’m sure the front end of said small car was mangled – but the FZJ80 is made of stronger stuff.

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The negotiation (unlike this blog entry!) was mercifully brief.  I got an additional five hundred off and a commitment that they were going to change the radiator which they said was leaking.  We don’t have airbags, but we do have intact fabric seats, and a “desert silver” color that is both stylish and slightly less oven-like than black or dark green.  We could have spent a LOT more, and we’re happy that (so far!) we are relatively close to our initial thought on cost.

Other than the leather issue, which was a real potential comfort concern, during the car purchase process I found I was most concentrating on “does this truck look like it was beat up, rusted, or had been driven by massive idiots (incl/esp teenagers).  Without going to the dealer and taking the car to a mechanic for a day, or spotting specific visual evidence (duct tape!!) of problems, there isn’t much more you can do other than trust the dealer.  It’s a risk, to be sure, although thanks to the distance of sale the dealer has a potential national (international?) reputational risk if he’s sold me a problem vehicle.

At this point I am a satisfied customer, and I believe I’ve done what I can remotely – and I hope that feeling won’t change as I start to dig into the car a bit more and we get going.  Either way, this also marks the start of a really interesting journey down the path of being not a total car idiot – not to mention the physical embodiment of committing to the Pan-Am trip.

The next adventure: car delivery.  More on that in the next post!

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